Alexey sits on a couch at a friend’s rented apartment in St Petersburg, making a sign that says “Renew the protest energy” as he prepares for another Fridays For Future digital strike. The 21-year-old student has been engaged in climate activism ever since it has reached Russia - through the speeches of Greta Thunberg and mass climate protests which swept first across Europe and then the rest of the world. While most countries are slowly waking up to the alarming signs of climate crisis, which is already claiming thousands of people’s lives every year and threatens to destroy habitats of other species, Russia keeps pursuing its own course to protect revenues from oil and gas that today make up about 40% of the country’s budget.
Neither Russia’s most recent low-carbon development plan, nor its late and reluctant commitment to the Paris agreement, nor limited investment in renewables and research and development suggest that the country is anywhere close to becoming an equal partner in the joint effort to battle climate change and its impacts.
Conversely, now, in the context of amendments to Russia’s Constitution unfolding in the midst of the pandemic, international laws might soon officially fade on Russia’s territory: apart from giving Vladimir Putin the right to run for another two six-year presidential terms and granting him the right to fire judges from Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the new Constitution prioritises Russian law over international obligations, including decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. Hence the constitutional changes make the Kremlin the main legal authority in Russia, granting him the legitimacy to snub international agreements.
For young climate activists like Alexey, the lesson is clear: Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian president who has been in power for all of their lives, has never been all too concerned about their safe and sustainable future. In fact, in their view, Putin’s rule has failed to move Russia away from its dependency on hydrocarbons. According to the president’s grandiose economic vision, fossil fuels must remain the only reliable source of economic prosperity and political stability for Russian citizens, overlooking financial crises, western sanctions, and structural changes in energy markets across the world. And while Russia’s climate is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet, climate-related risks still remain something insignificant for powerful men in Moscow.
The Kremlin-loyal media keeps fostering these curious beliefs in Russia’s oil- and gas-fuelled might by producing relevant talk-shows, humorous sketches, and articles that duly avoid any mention of climate change, while smoke from Siberian wildfires is observable from space.
For the new breed of ecological activists this means not only having to deal with actual catastrophes, but also fighting disinformation and propaganda that threaten to grow into a full-scale information war. Still, young people all over the globe are willing to organise digital and non-digital protest actions to keep raising awareness about the climate crisis together - apparently, the only way today to keep this topic visible for the world’s media and policy-makers.
Young activism’s battle for recognition
Alexey’s activism does not end with digital strikes. He writes his own blog, Taste the Waste, which has several hundreds of subscribers on Telegram – a Russian messaging platform that was partially banned in the country as part of the Kremlin's larger efforts to control the Internet. He also takes part in organising ecological protests and connects Fridays For Future activists with other ecological organisations and activists in St Petersburg and Leningrad region – just a small territory that has enough space for rampant corruption and numerous environmental violations.
A 1,000 kilometres away from St Petersburg, in a small Russian enclave tucked between Poland and Lithuania, Kristina, 20, strikes for Kaliningrad city parks. She is one of the people who creates content for Fridays For Future Russia social media pages, and spends hours organising images and writing posts. In her hometown, Kristina says, uncontrolled construction projects and air pollution are the main problems. “People don’t seem to understand that if the sea level rises, we will lose some coastal areas and Curonian Spit National Park,” she adds, referring to the 100 kilometre dune spit that cuts through the lower corner of the Baltic Sea.
In Arkhangelsk, Asya Fomina, 16, can hardly find the time between organising lectures about the dangers of nuclear energy, writing a feminist blog and launching petitions: “There are plenty of climate sceptics in Russia, but these people are just lacking the knowledge about climate crisis. For example, they don’t tell us about it in schools. But we have to keep working to reach more people, we have to be looking for the ways to inform them.”
Today, you can find young people like this in every region of Russia. They follow Greta Thunberg on Twitter, translate and share scientific articles, write blogs, strike every Friday, and look for the ways to engage more. But their story is somewhat upsetting. While their small numbers are overlooked by the media, climate activists struggle with the realities of contemporary Russian society, unused to unpunished expressions of civic concerns.
This could be a misfortunate story of a free movement lost in a state’s propaganda, but experts and journalists who believe that a “circular economy” and renewables are possible even in Russia, keep fighting on their own for collective environmental safety. Russia’s Forbes magazine, preoccupied with fuel tycoons and industrial magnates a decade ago, has included Arshak Makichyan, the country’s most well-known climate activist, in its “30 Under 30” nominees list.
The nomination is, surely, a better-fitting acknowledgment of his impact than the six-day jail sentence which Makichyan received last December for climate protest, but it is unclear if it is going to help him in his ongoing struggle.
Apart from protests, young climate activists organise festivals all across the country, give lectures and engage in deep conversations to help each other deal with the generational gap, hostile institutions and public misunderstanding. After all, children in Russia are unlikely to learn about climate change from their teachers or parents. There is just one elephant in the room: politics. Sharing one’s knowledge and discussing the importance of science is inspiring, but in Russia politics is often perceived as a source of anxiety and something inextricably linked with jail. “Just not everybody is ready to talk about it,” says Alexey, who knows the difficulties of organising a mass protest action in Russia.
Of course, the movement as a joint action calling for measures to address the climate crisis cannot be apolitical. When it comes to the necessity of reducing anthropogenic impact on the environment, Fridays For Future do not keep silent. With no Green Party on Russia’s political horizon and a powerful lobby of industrialists and entrepreneurs and fossil fuel giants as their ideological opponents, Russian ecological activists have limited opportunities for action. Piickets remain the most effective way to grab media attention, but young Fridays For Future activists initiate petitions and, together with other environmental organisations, issue letters to the government, their local authorities and the Kremlin. Doubting that their initiatives will find support overnight in Russia’s stable and secure system, activists resort to queer and cheerful digital actions to make ecological activism popular.
It’s hard to judge how successful this new environmental activism can be in a country so dependent on natural resources exports, but scientists’ concerns are slowly reaching Russia’s general public. According to one recent survey in Russia, about 48% of those surveyed believe that environmental pollution is the biggest threat that humanity faces in the 21st century. This leaves room for a broader debate about the positive impact of scientific development and the necessity of Russia and other fossil fuel revenue-dependent countries to adapt to modern global trends.
Sadly, these hopes are weak if placed in current political discourse. It is a relief to know there are people in Russia who are as concerned about this global problem as people in other countries are. But as long as fossil fuels remain the country’s principal economic and political tool, it will take more time, more human resources, more industrial and environmental disasters to happen for the country to accept the necessity of following a greener path.
For Fridays For Future and other environmental movements and organisations in Russia, this means a lot of hard work in conditions when freedoms and transparency are, unfortunately, completely disappearing, and when children and youth have to fight for their freedom to strike for climate while fighting with disinformation first. For the young activists, science and education thus become truly the only weapon against the darkness, until the topic of climate crisis and anthropogenic impact on the environment remains concealed from general public, lost in state propaganda, narrated by those, who see fossil fuels as a stable source of profit and never-ending political power.