“I just had to take a stand”

an interview with Arshak Makichyan

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

Mr Makichyan, you founded the Moscow branch of the climate protest organization Fridays For Future. How long have you been protesting for?

On Friday September 6, I held my 26th strike.

You are a violinist by trade. How did you get into climate activism?

Last Autumn I read lots about Greta Thunberg on social media. I was impressed by the countless people who followed her lead – and it got me thinking. I asked myself: Why is nothing happening here in Russia? Around the world school pupils are taking to the streets and here the issue’s not even being reported on. In February I had a moment of realisation. It occurred to me: By not getting involved, I too was to blame for the climate catastrophe. I just had to take a stand.

In one newspaper you were described as “Moscow’s lone #climatechange protester”. Why do you strike on your own?

In Russia its harder to take to the streets than, for example, in Sweden. As soon as more than one person decides to protest, you need an official authorization. That is very complicated and bureaucratic and also a bit arbitrary: In recent months all my applications were turned down. But I found out that it is not illegal to protest alone. So every Friday I take my poster and head to Pushkin Square.

What’s on your poster?

I’ve got various. My first poster read: “For the Paris Agreement: Against Climate Genocide”. But that didn’t work out too well. I realised that many passersby didn’t even know what the Paris Agreement was. So now I try and stick to more universal slogans like “Global warming triggers famine and death” or “Climate Crisis”.

And how do people respond?

Very differently! Some people tell me that my protests are great but others shout at me and call me an American spy. Of course, many more people just walk past me and aren’t interested.

Is the environment a talking point at all in Russia?

Right now there are many protests in Russia. Rubbish, for example, is a massive issue: Most waste is simply burnt or dumped in huge land-fill sites. Many people are protesting because they don’t want the rubbish to pile up by their front door. It stinks. Also in Irkutsk, Siberia, there are demonstrations. In the spring there were weeks of forest fires, followed by one of the worst floods in Russian history. People called for emergency aid, and that is, of course, important. But most people don’t understand that the raging fires and floods were just symptoms of the real problem, which is climate change. With our system of rubbish disposal, we are simply speeding up climate change.

What are the biggest environmental challenges in Russia right now?

Russia is a country of oil. New huge infrastructure projects are being built in the Arctic to exploit new oil reserves. We need to switch to renewable energy, but unfortunately the exact opposite of that is happening. Oil companies belong to the Russian government, which follows its interests. But the biggest problem is that most Russians simply don’t know what climate change is. The media don’t report on it, schools don’t explain the situation to their students and even President Putin says in his speeches that wind turbines kill birds and therefore are more damaging to the environment than oil. It is laughable.

Did the Russian authorities react to your protests?

I was really nervous during the first six weeks, but nothing happened. I think the authorities probably thought I was mad to stand on my own with my posters on a public spot. Then the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times published an interview with me. Straight away the police turned up at my next protest and asked me lots of questions: How much I get paid for protesting, who is behind it – and so on. They also took a photo of my passport and said that they needed to decide what to do about me. I think they wanted to intimidate me. But at the end of the day it is legal to strike on your own. Recently police sometimes observe me from a distance.

What motivates you to keep going?

Young people under 18 years old aren’t allowed to demonstrate in Russia on their own. But, of course, they do want to express their opinions. It is their future after all. That makes me passionate about trying to organise a big strike here, with official permission. On social media I called on other people who are above 18 to start doing solo strikes too. So now I don’t feel like a lone protester, there are lots of us. You can also see that in my flash mob.

Your flash mob?

In May I triggered a spontaneous digital protest. On Twitter I called on people to post a picture of themselves with a protest poster to the hashtag #LetRussiaStrikeForClimate. Through the flash mob I wanted to draw attention to how hard it is to demonstrate in Russia. At the end of the day, we all live on the same planet and are all affected by the climate crisis. People from Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Ukraine and everywhere else have taken part – even Greta Thunberg.

What are your hopes for the future?

We need to - once and for all - stop pushing our money into the oil industry and instead concentrate on the renewable sector. Rubbish needs to be recycled. Single-use plastic needs to be banned. My big dream is that our numbers will grow. To change anything we need more than just a few activists. Everyone needs to change their daily habits. For that reason I really hope that the Russian media starts reporting on climate change and that it gets taught in the classrooms. After all, it’s about all of our lives, our futures.

Interview by Gundula Haage

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