Why Moscow's Climate Strike Turnout Was Devastatingly Small

A protestor holds the sign “When I grow up, I want to be like Greta.” September 20, 2019 in Central Moscow.
Photo: Konstantin Fomin

As Earther reported from New York, 4 million people in 150 countries turned out for a gigantic global climate strike, a resounding demand to world leaders to act on climate change. Not so much in Russia.

While Berlin, London, and Melbourne reported drawing around 100,000 participants each, Greenpeace Russia tweeted photos of only sparse gatherings in cities across Russia. In Moscow, a small group of activists took turns holding signs one at a time, due to Russia’s restrictive laws on public protest.

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Friday’s global strike was the latest in a series of youth-led actions, galvanized in no small part by 16-year-old Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg. A lesser-known activist, 25-year-old Muscovite Arshak Makichyan, inspired by Thunberg, has been picketing in Moscow alone every Friday for 28 weeks.

“For me, it was very important to do something, and [doing it alone] was the only way,” he told Earther.

Arshak Makichyan takes his turn in a single-person picket in Central Moscow on September 20, 2019.
Photo: Konstantin Fomin
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Over the years, the Russian government has craftily thought up numerous methods of banning protests, but there’s a workaround: silent picketers are allowed to protest solo without a permit (though authorities, too, have found workarounds). Makichyan said he applied for a Climate Strike permit but was refused. He said that around 30 or 40 people arrived to join him for the Climate Strike picket on Friday, each waiting their turn to hold a sign.

Friday’s action comes weeks after a recent series of unsanctioned and sanctioned opposition protests in which at least 2,000 protesters and their leaders were detained.

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In March, Makichyan estimated that around 50 people joined him for a sanctioned climate strike in Sokolniki Park, which he described as “so quiet... you might as well protest in a forest.” Globally, more than 1.5 million young adults turned out. He claims that authorities canceled their May climate strike due to a permit “technicality.” Young adults turned out at roughly 1,600 protests in 125 countries.

Photographer Konstantin Fomin told Earther that a protest of waste management practices will be taking place at the park on Saturday.

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Speaking to the Moscow Times in April while holding a sign reading “the media is silent about global warming, and we are the ones that will suffer,” Makichyan said that “most of the population [in Russia] doesn’t really understand what global warming is.” In 2018, the European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found that Russia was the world’s fourth top carbon dioxide emitter.

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“Authorities very often reject [protest] applications on spurious grounds,” Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Regional researcher on Russia, told Earther. “They say there is another protest on the same day at the same time, which could be legitimate. But very often, it’s suspected that these protests are fake or by pro-government groups. And then often the allocated places for protests are very far from the city or in a park at 7 p.m. where people can’t really see what the protest is about.”

Climate groups organizing protests can also be suppressed by various mechanisms, Prilutskaya noted. Any NGO which accepts funding as low as a single dollar from outside of Russia must label itself a “foreign agent,” the negative connotation of which makes lawmakers reluctant to work with them.

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One such “foreign agent,” the co-founder of the Russian environmental activist group Ecodefense, Alexandra Korolewa, has recently fled to Germany where she has applied for political asylum. Refusing to pay fines for not labeling the organization “correctly,” she reportedly faces a potential two-year prison sentence. (At the time of writing, Earther has not yet heard back on a request for comment.) Human Rights Watch has called 2019 a “bleak year” for human rights in Russia, with crackdowns on social media and “fake news” legislation censoring online criticism of authority.

“On the plus side,” Prilutskaya said, “I think it’s really encouraging to see that there’s more and more laypeople who, until probably a year ago, didn’t even want to get into the details of what’s going on with the local rubbish dump or coal mine,” in the Arkhangelsk and Kemerovo regions, respectively. “When pressure inside Russia grows, with mass activism, then some changes are possible. They may be minute and slow, but they’re possible.”

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About the author

Whitney Kimball

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo