On one of their daily walks through Khimki forest in the summer of 2007, Yevgenia Chirikova and her husband, Mikhail, noticed something unusual. Nearly all of the trees were marked with small red Xs.
After some research on the Internet, the couple learned that, unbeknownst to most nearby residents, the forest had been sold and a construction company planned to knock down large swaths of it to build a new highway.
Chirikova says she had always believed that the forest was federal land, protected by law against any development. It was then that Chirikova understood that she had to act -- and act quickly -- if she wanted to save the forest, which adjoins the northwest Moscow suburb where she lives with her family.
“I knew it couldn’t be legal," she recalls. "It is [part of] Moscow's green defense belt.”
With short blonde hair and a penchant for brightly colored tank tops, Chirikova hardly looks the part of a political activist.
Defenders of the Khimki forest set up camp in the woods earlier this month.
But in recent weeks, this petite 33-year old former Moscow businesswoman and mother of two has become the public face of a growing grassroots movement to save the Khimki forest. Her newfound activism has put her in opposition to powerful commercial and political interests, won her admirers among environmentalists, and placed her in a white-hot media spotlight.
Chirikova's unlikely three-year quest to save the Khimki forest came to a head a few weeks ago when she and scores of other activists set up camp in the forest in a last-ditch effort to save it from destruction.
They have managed, for the time being, to prevent further felling. But they have also paid a price -- suffering an attack by an unidentified group of masked men and being detained repeatedly by police. Most recently, police rounded up Chirikova, her husband, and 14 other activists
after a mass protest in the forest on July 28.New Wave Of Activism
Chirikova is emblematic of a new wave of civic activists in Russia -- ordinary people motivated by everyday bread-and-butter concerns who are increasingly finding their voices as engaged -- and sometimes enraged -- citizens.
Khimki activists walk among a swath of felled trees.
From automobile owners in Vladivostok taking to the streets to protest import tariffs to teachers and students in Ulyanovsk staging a hunger strike over school closures, the last several years have witnessed a whole new class of Russians becoming more socially and politically aware.
“[This new Russian] is a person who is not just living in Russia but is a real citizen, not just a person who looks after his own well-being, his health," says Olga Blatova, a lawyer for Greenpeace who has worked closely with Chirikova. "First, it is a person who is active. And second, it is a person who looks at things critically. They look at what the government has given them and think, 'How does this affect me?'"
Until a few years ago, Chirikova was indistinguishable from the multitude of upwardly mobile Muscovites pursuing wealth, prestige, and prosperity. She has two degrees -- in business and engineering -- and previously worked as the deputy director for a financial company.
In 1998, she and her husband decided to trade in their comfortable urban lives in the capital for the relative calm of Khimki. Chirikova, pregnant with her first daughter, loved the fresh air and calming walks through the pristine forest. Part of Moscow’s dwindling green belt, the 150-hectare Khimki forest was intended to be a preserve for local wildlife and to act as buffer against the pollution radiating from the capital.
But in 2004, the Transportation Ministry announced plans to build a new highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in an effort to ease congestion between Russia's two main metropolises.
The logical route, environmentalists say, would have followed a railway line that has connected the cities since the early 20th century. Instead, the route approved by Khimki Mayor Viktor Shelchenko in 2006 made a looped detour through the forest to bring it closer to Moscow’s busy Sheremetyevo airport.
Chirikova laughs, calling the route illogical.
"As an engineer who works at an engineering firm, I understand that it was a completely bizarre decision in our modern age to build a highway meandering through a forest, with strange turns and entrance ramps that would not allow cars to gain speed," Chirikova says. "And so it was totally obvious that it was simply a backroom deal to begin [property] development in our oak forest."Matters Into Her Own Hands
In her efforts to save the forest, Chirikova initially tried to get Greenpeace to take up the cause. But she says the chapter of the environmental group based in Moscow told her it was stretched too thin and could only offer moral support and legal advice.
Chirikova and fellow activist Sergei Udaltsov took their protest directly to federal government offices in Moscow.
So Chirikova decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2007, she took to the streets of Khimki -- pushing a baby carriage with one hand and carrying a stack of homemade leaflets in the other. She plastered the town with flyers warning of the threat to the forest, giving her phone number for concerned residents to call.
Khimki residents responded in unexpectedly large numbers.
Soon, Chirikva says, she had enough supporters to form an environmental advocacy group called Ecodefense. Chirikova’s living room became the group's headquarters.
Since then, members have done anything and everything they can think of to attract attention to their campaign. They've staged protests, held roundtables, sent letters to President Dmitry Medvedev, and appealed to the courts.
This past spring, Ecodefense wrote letters to international organizations explaining the environmental repercussions of the highway’s construction. It wasn't long before their effort bore fruit. The international organization BankWatch, for example, has since appealed to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development not to invest in a project “that is unsafe on both a sociological and ecological level.” A Dangerous Game
This month, however, the situation became more urgent as members of Ecodefense discovered that the clearing of the forest had started in earnest. The activists decided to camp out among the trees to prevent any further destruction.
A Khimki activist is attacked on July 26.
After about a week, Moscow police briefly detained the ecologists and destroyed their campsite. Since then, several police officers have been guarding the forest around the clock. The French company Vinci Concession, which was contracted to lay the first 43 kilometers of the highway, has removed its construction equipment from the forest.
Chirikova is not blind to the dangers of protesting.
Mikhail Beketov, editor of the local newspaper “Khiminskaya Pravda,” regularly wrote articles denouncing local authorities’ approval of the project. He was beaten at his home in 2008 and suffered severe brain damage. Chirikova says an unidentified motorist attempted to run her down, but she escaped unharmed.
Nevertheless, Chirikova has maintained her resolve and shows few signs of fatigue or fear. She says she draws inspiration from Soviet-era dissident writers like the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
“Sometimes I read 'The Gulag Archipelago' when I am feeling particularly down. I read and think how easy we have it. I really admire Solzhenitsyn," she says. "You know, this person, he had already tried to change the regime, and he sat in prison. He was sick. He was weak and sometimes wasn’t even able to write. And despite this he wrote a book that crossed the world. He found the strength in himself to do it.
"And you know, today we have the opportunity to be politically active. And in comparison with Solzhenitsyn, we are free, we have the Internet, cell phones. You know, we are so happy-go-lucky.”
Chirikova says she hopes her generation, increasingly disillusioned and frustrated, will provide the civic engagement necessary to bring change to Russia -- one issue at a time.
For now, Chirikova says she is only fighting to defend her forest. But she thinks protests like hers are a warning bell for the government.
“I think these kind of [activists] are going to increase. I think the government is doomed," she says. "I look at this whole process of [all these activists] joining together. And even more so, your average person is ashamed to watch [state-owned] Channel One because it is for idiots, because it is not news.
"And these civic groups are growing and joining together. And I thank our bureaucrats’ insatiable appetite for this growth in social activity.”
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report