Moscow’s lone climate protester: ‘We need to talk about it now’

Arshak Makichyan raises awareness with a demonstration featuring just himself and a cardboard sign in Pushkin Square.

Moscow climate story
Arshak Makichyan holds a sign reading 'Our mass media is silent about global warming, but we are the ones who will suffer' [Jonathan Brown/Al Jazeera]

Moscow, Russia – Most people strolling through Pushkin Square in central Moscow on any given Friday probably don’t notice the protest in front of them.

The entire demonstration consists of Arshak Makichyan and his cardboard placard warning against the looming dangers of climate change.

Through heavy downpours and sweltering afternoons, Makichyan hasn’t missed a Friday in three months, winning him the nickname of Moscow’s lone climate protester. 

“It’s very hard to change things here,” Makichyan, 24, told Al Jazeera. 

Many people in Russia lived through the days of the Soviet Union and remember the nuclear arms race, he says. 

“They think: ‘What can a bit of plastic do?'”

Unlike the noisy climate demonstrations that have swept European capitals, environmental activists such as Makichyan have been met with apathy at best or pressure from the authorities at worst.

Russia's domestic emissions targets are less than ambitious and have been rated as critically insufficient by the Climate Action Tracker.

by Ellie Martus, research fellow at Warwick University

Russia’s commitment to international climate accords shows a mixed record. 

In 2004, Moscow ratified the Kyoto Protocol. But it opted out of the second commitment period beginning 2012. Of the planet’s top five emitters of fossil fuels, Russia is the only one that has not ratified the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments on climate change have also sent mixed signals. In 2015, he said the quality of life for the population of the planet “depends on solving the climate problem.” 

Two years later, however, he said humans were not responsible for rising temperatures.

While tourists and Muscovites passing through Pushkin Square are slow to notice Makichyan, the police are more attentive.

The violin student, originally from Armenia, says uniformed officers have approached him twice in recent weeks during his pickets, inspecting his documents and, he alleges, accusing him of being paid by activists or political opposition groups to stand in the square.

“Of course I’m afraid,” he told Al Jazeera. “But I believe what I’m doing is important. I don’t have a choice.”

Moscow climate story
Police question Polina Gradovskaya, a protester whose sign reads ‘Our planet is dying and we’re not talking about it’ [Courtesy: Twitter

Outside Moscow, regional authorities have allegedly pressured young Russians raising awareness against rising temperatures. 

In Yaroslavl, a city north of Moscow on the Volga river, Alyona Uvarova claims local officials contacted her teachers to warn them she was inciting other students to join illegal protests.

“My headteacher advised me to stay silent for a couple of months,” Uvarova, 18, told Al Jazeera. “She said that any activity can put me in real danger with the government.”

The students are also struggling to persuade their peers that climate change is a pertinent issue. 

A recent global youth survey by Deloitte found that climate change was a top concern in many countries, but not in Russia.

By the time of publishing, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Buoyed by support

While Russia’s young climate protesters aren’t winning support from authorities or passersby, they are buoyed by messages of support.

Makichyan said he was especially happy to see Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has spearheaded global climate strike protests, tweeting about his Friday pickets. 

He said he also gets messages from young Russians who ask to join him. 

A law in Russia banning unsanctioned protests of more than one person means he has to turn them down.

In May, students in at least five cities sought permission from local authorities to join the Fridays For Future strike on May 24, which was held across more than 100 locations worldwide and saw thousands of students refuse to attend school. 

While a handful of students turned out in places like Kirov – in central Russia – and Yaroslavl, authorities in Moscow denied requests for a climate protest in the capital, according to Makichyan.

A survey published in March by the Higher School of Economics found that 94 percent of Russians are worried about environmental pollution. Many in the poll cited the Kremlin’s apparent failure to solve a waste disposal crisis and overflowing Soviet-era landfills.

Residents of Volokolamsk, a town outside Moscow, bore the brunt last March. Dozens were hospitalised after noxious fumes from a dump nearby caused nausea and skin irritation. 

Protests in the aftermath saw Yevgeny Gavrilov, the district head, dismissed.

The Kremlin’s solution to the problem – sending rubbish from Moscow to distant storage facilities and landfills in other regions – only sparked more protests in places as far-flung as Arkhangelsk in the Arctic circle.

However, Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, is quick to draw a distinction between the rubbish protests and Makichyan’s climate pickets.

“Urban environmental safety is a different issue [from climate change],” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s very concrete, not some future threat. It’s dumps, air pollution, water. Climate change is not on the radar of public consciousness.”

On the policy front, there has been some progress, says Ellie Martus, a research fellow at Warwick University focussing on environmental politics in the former Soviet Union.

Martus pointed to new legislation on reducing gas flaring as an example, as well as the government saying it will ratify the Paris Agreement as examples.

The government does acknowledge the negative impact of a changing climate and is working on a national adaptation plan, Martus said. 

“But Russia’s domestic emissions targets are less than ambitious and have been rated as critically insufficient by the Climate Action Tracker.” 

Back in Pushkin Square, Makichyan is adamant that more needs to be done – and soon.

“Our next presidential elections will be in 2024 and if we begin to speak about climate change then, it will be too late,” he said. “We need to talk about it now.”

Source: Al Jazeera