The struggle to save two forests, both in urban areas of the former Soviet Union, illustrate what propels Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion of democratic Ukraine by autocratic Russia illustrates what the linguist Noam Chomsky also saw in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.
Forest conservation has deep historic roots in Russian history. It originated with Czar Peter the Great’s 1698 learning expedition to Western Europe. He stayed in the London home of one of England’s leading foresters, John Evelyn. Peter damaged the house, but Evelyn took comfort from later evidence that apparently somebody in the Czar’s entourage had read his book about forest conservation, Sylvia.
The two urban forests symbolize the contrasts in freedom’s evolution in Russia and Ukraine. Both were protected by a strong measure of forest conservation imposed in 1943 by Joseph Stalin’s decree. This protected all forests in the European part of Soviet Union from logging and urban development. But the attempts to protect these two woodlands in Kiev and in a Moscow suburb have had very different fates.
Stalin’s forest protection reform became necessary because the creation of the Soviet Union had caused two centuries of forest conservation to be abandoned, with disastrous consequences. There were dust bowls and widespread famine. In European Russia, forests became protected along with urban planning and Green Belts, confirming Evelyn’s claim that such measures combat air pollution.
Soviet-era forest conservation laws remained in place and effective until Putin captured power. By then, such regulations had even been reinforced by both Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s reforms. During the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, new laws such as environmental assessments were introduced, an active environmentally concerned civil society emerged, and Yabloko (the Apple Party) championed environmental issues in the Duma.
But over a half century of forest conservation was undermined by dramatic cuts to the Russian Forest Service, which was moved to the Department of Agriculture in 2006. Public protests erupted, unprecedented during Putin’s rule, except for demonstrations against election fraud and Russian participation in foreign wars.
Disputes over forest conservation became a lightning rod for consolidating Putin’s personal dictatorship between 2007 and 2011. His personal dictatorship hardened when a young university-educated mother, Yevgenia Khirikova, while leading her two children on a hike, saw ominous red paint sprayed on the trees of her beloved Khimki Forest. This area, she and her husband believed, was a protected part of Moscow’s Green Belt. It provides in an urban setting habitat for wild boar and elk. She soon discovered however, that the park was about to become slashed for the new St. Petersburg to Moscow expressway.
When she became aware of the threat to her beloved 1,000-hectare oak woodlands, Khirikova launched an advocacy group, The Friends of the Khimki Forest. For five years it was the most powerful opposition force in Russia, camping on-site and maintaining blockades, but they were finally crushed by police force. Their protests united diverse strands of Russia’s usually nominal opposition to Putin, including the liberal Yabloko and the Communist Party. Communists and other traditional Marxists opposed the expressway as a private-public partnership, backed by two large French corporations, Vinci and Eurovia. The French corporations established offshore shell companies in Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, linked to a Putin-friendly oligarch, Arkady Rotenberg.
Putin ploughed the expressway through the Khimki Forest over the protests of activists
The expressway would cut the urban forest in half. Although diverse and powerful elements in Russian politics sought an alternative route, Putin beat them all back. His own party in the Duma supported the protection of the forest from the expressway, and the then-president of Russia, Dimitry Medvedev, also endorsed the protection with a decree. Yet all this came to nothing, for Putin ploughed the expressway through the Khimki Forest over the protests of political activists, artists, and musicians. Symbolically, 20,000 people gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest, but strained to hear the music, as electronic speakers were shut off by authorities.
Putin’s supporters used extreme brutality to terrorize protectors of the Khimki Forest. Protestors in the campground were attacked and beaten with iron bars by men in Ku Klux Klan-style white robes and hoods. Two Russian journalists, Mikhail Beketov and Constain Fetisov, were brutally beaten in acts of attempted murder. No charges were ever laid in connection with these attacks. Beketov, who had earlier had his car burned and dog killed, was charged with libel by the Mayor of Khimki and lost in a trial in which he could not speak. In 2012 Beketov died of cardiac arrest from wounds associated with the attempt on his life.
The road was ploughed through the heart of Khimki forest in 2011, but the friends of the woodland continued to work on related causes, such as curbing illegal logging. The scale of the expressway through the Khimki Park was reduced and four persons elected to the Khimki council who were committed to its protection.
The Friends of the Khimki Forest continued functioning until 2015, when its founder, Yevgenia Khirikova, fled to Estonia. From exile however, she continued to support grass-root campaigns to protect Russian forests. One involved a successful four-year struggle involving at one phase an occupation to save Tortyanka Park in Moscow from a church construction project, and a forest in the town of Karelia from becoming a quarry.
In contrast to Russia, those who struggled to save Protasiv Yar in Ukraine triumphed
While Khirikova’s defeated attempt to save the Khimki Forest revealed Putin’s personal dictatorship, the success of a similar campaign in Kiev led by Roman Ratushny illustrates the strength of Ukrainian democracy, where the power of any leader is restricted by the rule of law. The forested ravine through central Kiev known as Protasiv Yar is, like the Khimki Forest, a consequence of mature Soviet-era efforts in forest conservation. It too was threatened by the machinations of the rich and powerful. The Kiev municipality illegally sold a permit allowing the construction of shops, offices, and a 40-story tower. As with Khimki protestors who used music such as pipes and fiddles to great effect, the Kiev protesters were initially roughed up by police and harassed in the courts.
In contrast to Khimki however, those who struggled to save Protasiv Yar triumphed. In his early twenties, Ratushny, who had help bring democracy to Ukraine through his role at only 16 in the Maidan protests, championed the woodland in two years of court battles. This resulted in its being declared a green zone which could not be built on.
Even a brutal dictator like Stalin eventually accepted forest conservation
Ratushny recently died in battle in the Ukrainian army at the age of 24 in eastern Ukraine near Izyum. His successful use of nonviolent tools to fight corruption and power in the defense of a threatened urban forest reveals the Ukraine war as a tragic invasion of a democratic state by a personalized dictatorship. This view is now shared by Estonian Russians, a substantial minority of the population.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, few ethnic Russians could accept the warnings from Khirikova about Putin. Nineteen thousand Russian citizens fled to Estonia but their warnings were ignored. Estonia’s Center Party retained their faith in Putin until Ukraine was invaded. This was especially the case with supporters of Estonia’s Center Party, which in the last election received 16 percent of the votes. It had a formal co-operation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party. However, after the invasion of Ukraine, the Center Party ended this agreement and formally condemned the invasion as Putin’s personal war of aggression.
Even a brutal dictator like Stalin eventually accepted forest conservation; this offers hope for mobilizing ethnic Russians against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. During the Soviet era the freest people tended to be defenders of forest and nature. Contrasting the fates of urban forests in Russia and Ukraine will motivate the democratic and peace forces to oppose Putin’s personal rule.[*]
John Bacher is an environmentalist in St. Catharines, Ontario.
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