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The Russian Bear Is Spooked By Greta The Eco-Activist

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg found herself thrust into the global spotlight after electrifying the UN General Assembly in New York, where she denounced world leaders for failing to tackle climate change in a speech on September 23.

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words," she excoriated the gathering of visibly uneasy diplomats.

Her blistering address left few indifferent. The 16-year-old Swede was either lionized or pilloried by media, politicians, and the public the world over.

Inspired by Thunberg's solitary weekly protest outside the Swedish parliament a year ago, millions of people have poured onto the streets around the globe to demand governments take emergency action on climate change.

"Recognizing that her generation will bear the brunt of climate change, she's unafraid to push for real action," tweeted former U.S. President Barack Obama.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump mocked Thunberg and Canadian lawmaker Maxime Bernier called her alarmist and mentally unstable, criticisms echoed by others, including some media, mostly of a conservative bent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was the latest global leader to join the chorus of those condemning Thunberg, telling an energy forum in Moscow on October 2 that he did not share the excitement about her UN speech.

"No one has explained to Greta that the modern world is complex and different and...people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden," Putin said.

Putin also took issue not only with Thunberg's speech, but Thunberg herself, offering up his unique brand of counselling.

She's "a kind girl and very sincere," but adults need to "shield [teenagers] from extreme emotions that could destroy a personality."

Kremlin-friendly or controlled media have also found little to like about Thunberg or her speech.

"Mentally ill girl promised humankind 'mass extinction,'" was the headline of Komsomolskaya Pravda's article on Thunberg after her speech.

"Greta Thunberg, a sick girl who is as stupid as she is naive, is the prophet of the new totalitarian wave, which is something like radical Islam for the post-Christian West," is the way pro-Kremlin commentator Mikhail Leontiev expressed it during his commentary on the September 28 Vremya newscast on state-run Channel One.

The government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta spread a fake news report that Swedish social services had suspected Thunberg's parents of child abuse and that social workers were worried about the state of the 16-year-old during her UN appearance.

Although the ad hominem attacks around the world have been cruel, what has set Russian media coverage apart from the rest of the global indignant choir is its fixation on ferreting out an alleged grand conspiracy behind Thunberg and her activism, notes the EU East StratCom Task Force.

"Greta is a target because she is the face of a global grassroots movement -- a genuine popular protest, the possibility of which the pro-Kremlin media simply cannot accept. Doing that would expose just how viciously Russian citizens are denied the right to peaceful protest," it said in its latest Disinformation Review.

Russian media have also raised the theory that Thunberg is being used as part of an anti-Russian campaign.

Dmitry Belyakov, commenting on September 26 to the Belarusian branch of the Russia's Sputnik news agency, said the ideas expounded by Thunberg will result in "green blows" being directed at Russia and China, limiting somehow Russia's use of its rich natural resources.

Thunberg and her "eco-cultist" cohorts all sing from the "same hymn sheet," sowing fear with big business waiting in the wings to ultimately make a "killing off it," was the spin played by RT, the Russian state-funded English-language television channel, in a September 26 report.

Sticking with the conspiracy theme and adding an anti-Semitic undertone, Argumenty i fakty, a popular tabloid, claimed Thunberg's activities are funded and supported by George Soros's Open Society Foundations and that the emissions-free yacht that sailed Thunberg to New York was "built under the order of one of the representatives of the Rothschild clan."

A screenshot of the Argumenty i fakty webpage displaying the article about Greta Thunberg.
A screenshot of the Argumenty i fakty webpage displaying the article about Greta Thunberg.

Allegations of ties to George Soros and the Rothschilds are repeated themes in Russian disinformation campaigns, notes Polygraph, a fact-checking project of Voice Of America.

The skepticism and hostility directed at Thunberg by media, politicians, and others in Russia has deep roots, argues Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based Russian sports writer who also comments on Russian society and other issues.

"Russians typically don't believe any passionate advocacy is sincere, period," he wrote on Twitter. "This deep-seated cynicism comes from living in a country ruled by crooks and sociopaths throughout its entire history. They tend to assume anyone advocating for anything is after money or power."

While much of Russia's political elite dismissed or disparaged Thunberg and her message, one member of the State Duma came forward to invite her to speak before the Russian parliament.

In a letter to the Swedish climate activist, Vasily Vlasov, a deputy of the State Duma from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, told the teenager that young people across the country will not let themselves be "condemned to extinction," and asked her to come speak on the "vital issues" facing the planet.

However, other Duma members scrambled to quash the idea. The Russian state news agency TASS noted on October 1 that Vlasov did not have the authority to invite her to speak at the Duma.

The chairman of the Duma's Committee on Ecology and Environment Protection, Vladimir Burmatov, told TASS. "It is vital to take different opinions into consideration, live in the agenda of the whole world, and we shouldn't stray away from it. However, our national interests are a priority and the State Duma, as parliament, should be based on precisely that."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.