Youth in Action
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Russian climate activists find strength in numbers

Arshak Makichyan, 25, and Asya Fomina, 16, are Russian climate activists from Moscow and the northern city of Arkhangelsk, respectively. Operating under a regime where unapproved protests by more than one person are illegal—as are protests of any kind by youth under 18—isn’t easy. But they are powered by the strength of their convictions and the bonds they have formed.

In their own words, they told The Circle what being a climate activist is like in Russia—and what motivates them to persist in a place where dissent is routinely silenced and activists have faced prison terms.

We want to tell you about climate strikes in our country. Why are two young activists from completely different regions writing an article together? Because the climate crisis unites us. Only together can we find solutions to this global emergency.

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Arshak Makichyan

For most of my life—until last year—I had always hoped to leave Moscow and move to a nicer place, a warmer place. Now I spend a lot of time on the streets of my city because I’m striking. In fact, I have been striking every Friday for more than a year.

I’ve changed a lot: I’m not afraid of winter anymore. And I’m going to continue my strikes because I believe activism works everywhere, even in Russia. It’s about survival and our future.

My coldest strike to date has been in Arkhangelsk, a city in northern Russia where the government was planning to build a huge dump for garbage from Moscow. I went there to attend workshops about climate debates, and spent the 47th week of my climate protests in –24 C° temperatures. People in Arkhangelsk had started a local protest about the dump, but it soon became the biggest environmental protest in Russia. When I was there, we couldn’t organize a mass protest because we didn’t have authorisation from the government, so we set up a queue and took turns doing solo protests.

That is where I met Asya Fomina. I found the people in Arkhangelsk friendly and the northern scenery beautiful, but Asya told me that the snow hides a lot of dirt, and that the spring melt would uncover a lot of garbage and abandoned houses.

But seasonal snow is not the only thing that is melting. Scientists tell us that permafrost across the North is thawing due to rising temperatures, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. I live in the richest city in Russia and it’s our responsibility to do something to stop this. It’s our garbage, our emissions and our problem.

I don’t know everything about myself yet. My life has changed a lot since I became an activist, and it’s still changing. But what I know for sure is that I have a lot of like-minded friends, and together we can make a difference.

Chocolate, the dog, takes part in a Fridays for Future protest in March 2020 with his owner and other young Russian activists.

Chocolate, the dog, takes part in a Fridays for Future protest in March 2020 with his owner and other young Russian activists.

©Arshak Makichyan
© Asya Fomina
Asya Fomina

I’ve admired nature all my life. I don’t understand why people are destroying our planet.

I’ve seen a lot of illegal deforestation in Russia, and I believe we must intervene and stop it somehow. That’s why I started participating in a Russian environmental movement known as “42” (a reference to the Russian constitution’s section 42, which covers violations of environmental legislation). After I became involved, I realized there were many like-minded people in the movement. I found out that I was not the only one worried about climate change.

Today, activism is my life. Social, climate, environmental, political—it’s all connected. I’ve decided to leave a prestigious school and study at home so I can spend more time fighting for change.

I’ve sacrificed my school and my friendships with classmates, among other things, but I don’t regret it. I know that activism unites the most wonderful and free people.

The climate crisis is a pressing issue for the Arkhangelsk region, where I live. Yes, there is the garbage issue—but that’s just one problem. As a northern city, we are also on the front lines of the climate crisis. Arkhangelsk is on the coast of the White Sea, where many small villages are now coping with flooding. Our town suffers every summer from strong winds and storms. Animals are losing their habitats and being forced to migrate.

Yet people still don’t care about climate change.

So many people have said to me, “It’s not important. Why do you talk about it all the time? People can’t influence that much.” But I don’t believe that we have no influence.

I can’t strike every Friday, like Arshak or other climate activists, because I’m only 16, so it’s illegal. In Russia, we have strange regulations about protests. So I’m taking another approach: I organize lectures and talk to people about the climate crisis. Still, sometimes I take the risk and engage in a solo strike. Because as young people, it’s about our future. I can’t just stand by and watch nature be destroyed.

What’s great is that I’m not alone.

I’ve discovered that activism brings people together. We realize the only way to solve the climate crisis is by uniting—not only behind the science, but behind the friendship. Because when it comes to the global climate, there are no cities or countries. It is a borderless crisis. It is the biggest crisis the world has ever faced.