Raising climate awareness under an authoritarian government is lonely and dangerous. But Arshak Makichyan, a young Russian activist, believed in it deeply.
For years, he spent days alone in Moscow’s public squares holding up signs protesting climate inaction, speaking at conferences and building a following on social media. He was arrested several times by the police.
It was all worth it, he thought. Until war breaks out.
“Protesting against this war is more important than climate activism,” he told me in a video call from his apartment in Moscow, just before leaving the country.
The war, he said, made it impossible to envision a future, with parts of Ukraine already flattened by Russian artillery. It is estimated that thousands of people have died so far and four million have fled the country.
We’ve talked in this newsletter about how the war in Ukraine has upended policies intended to combat global warming and, at the same time, made oil companies almost giddy with a newfound optimism. But Makichyan’s experience highlights another effect of the Russian invasion: it stifled global conversation on environmental issues.
As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Makichyan scrawled “I am against war” on dozens of weather stickers he had, unable to find a store that would print anything with the word “war” on them. Like many of his fellow climate activists, he joined the thousands of peace protesters.
He and his wife, Apollinaria Oleinikova, were detained by police for five hours for protesting against the war. His job as a social media manager ceased to exist as websites were blocked. His friends saw their apartment raided by the police and all their electronic devices seized.
“It’s kind of hard to be scared all the time that someone might break down your door,” he said.
In mid-March, he and Oleinikova were on a bus, crossing the border with Belarus, then heading to Poland and finally arriving in Germany. He was there when President Vladimir V. Putin called pro-Western Russians “scum and traitors.” They do not intend to leave Russia permanently, but they do not know when they will return.
Makichyan began as a climate activist in 2018 when he was a 24-year-old violin student at the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory. He was browsing English websites, looking for ways to improve his language skills, when he came across a Tweet from Greenpeace International about Greta Thunberg. He described his Friday school strikes in Sweden to draw attention to the climate crisis.
It inspired him to learn more about climate issues and consider joining the global Fridays for Future movement that Thunberg had inspired. At first he was afraid that “someone would break my arm or something” if he attended a protest. But he also realized he was angry at the state of the global environment and shocked that no one around him was talking about it.
“You see people doing nothing when terrible things are happening,” he said, “and you want to be different.”
To demonstrate with other activists in Russia, he needed permission, which he was repeatedly refused. But the law, Makichyan noted, allowed individuals to protest alone. And so, he did.
Sometimes he only lasted a few minutes before the police arrested him. Still, he felt his message was getting through because he was attracting support both on the streets and online. He became known as the “lone picketer” and the “lone protester”.
He was able to protest for more than 40 weeks in a row until his arrest in December 2019 for organizing a three-person picket without permission. Activists protested his arrest at Russian embassies around the world.
Life for activists in Russia would only become more complicated. In 2021, the government approved a law that qualified anyone receiving financial support from abroad and posting a foreign agent online.
As the situation became more tense, he and Oleinikova decided to marry, so that they would have the right to see each other in detention if either of them were arrested. The wedding took place the day the war in Ukraine started, in February.
Makichyan said he was frustrated that many countries continue to buy the fossil fuels that fuel what he sees as Russia’s system of oppression. But, sitting safely in Germany while the people of his country suffer, he feels guilty.
“One day we think going back to Russia and being in jail seems like the right thing to do,” he wrote to me on Telegram. The next, “you think it’s impossible and stupid to come back.”
He finds it hard to imagine life away from Russia, in Europe, where being an activist is a very different undertaking and where the stakes are not as high. “Activism is all I have,” he said. “Russia is my place.”
Before leaving: an astonishing and disturbing discovery
The expedition that found Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance reminded us of the explorer’s captivating story. It was also a lesson in how technology is transforming our encounters with the past and how climate change is reshaping our world. In the past, the ice that covered the Weddell Sea made underwater exploration impossible, but in recent months the thickness of this ice has reached some of the lowest levels on record. The discovery of Endurance was favored by climate change.
Thanks for reading. We will be back on Tuesday.
Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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