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How war has upended life for climate activists in Russia

Raising climate awareness under an authoritarian government is lonely and dangerous. But Arshak Makichyan, a young activist from Russia, deeply believed in it.

For years, he spent days standing alone in the public squares of Moscow holding up signs to protest climate inaction, spoke at conferences and built a following on social media. He was detained by the police several times.

It was all worth it, he thought. Until the war erupted.

“Protesting this war is more important than climate activism,” he told me on a video call from his apartment in Moscow, just before he left the country.

The war, he said, has made it impossible to envision a future, with parts of Ukraine already leveled by Russian artillery. Thousands are estimated to have died so far, and four million have fled the country.

We’ve talked in this newsletter about how the war in Ukraine has upended policies meant to fight global warming and, at the same time, made oil companies almost giddy with new optimism. But Makichyan’s experience highlights another effect of the Russian invasion: It has muffled the global conversation on environmental issues.

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Makichyan scribbled “I’m against the war” on dozens of climate stickers he had, unable to find a shop that would print anything with the word “war” on it. Like many of his fellow climate activists, he joined the thousands demonstrating for peace.

He and his wife, Apollinaria Oleinikova, were detained by the police for five hours for protesting the war. His job as a social media manager ceased to exist as websites were blocked. His friends had their apartment raided by the police and all their electronic devices seized.

“It’s kind of difficult to be afraid all the time that someone might knock down your door,” he said.

By mid-March, he and Oleinikova were on a bus, crossing the border into Belarus, then moving on to Poland, and finally arriving in Germany. He was there when President Vladimir V. Putin called pro-Western Russians “scum and traitors.” They do not intend to leave Russia permanently, but they are unsure when they will return.

Makichyan got started as a climate activist in 2018 when he was a 24-year-old violin student at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He was browsing websites in English, looking for ways to improve his language skills, when he came across a Tweet from Greenpeace International about Greta Thunberg. It described her Friday school strikes in Sweden to draw attention to the climate crisis.

That prompted him to learn more about climate issues and consider joining the global Fridays for Future movement that Thunberg had inspired. At first, he was scared that “someone would break my arm or something” if he ever attended a protest. But he also realized he was angry about the state of the world’s environment and shocked that no one around him was talking about it.

“You see people doing nothing when there are terrible things happening,” he said, “and you want to be different.”

To demonstrate with fellow activists in Russia, he needed authorization, which he was repeatedly refused. But the law, Makichyan noticed, allowed for individuals to protest alone. And so, he did.

Sometimes he would last only a few minutes before the police stopped him. Still, he felt his message was getting through because he drew support both on the street and online. He became known as the “lone picketer” and the “solo protester.”

He was able to protest for more than 40 weeks straight until he was arrested in December 2019 for organizing a three-person picket without authorization. Activists protested his arrest at Russian embassies around the world.

Life for activists in Russia would only continue to get tougher. In 2021, the government approved a law that labeled anyone receiving financial support from abroad and publishing online a foreign agent.

As the situation grew more tense, he and Oleinikova decided to get married, so they would have the right see each other in detention if one of them was arrested. The wedding happened on the day the war in Ukraine started, in February.

Makichyan said he was frustrated that many countries keep buying the fossil fuels that feed what he sees as Russia’s system of oppression. But, sitting safely in Germany as people in his country suffer makes him feel guilty.

“One day, we think returning to Russia and being in prison feels like the right thing to do,” he wrote to me on Telegram. The next, “you think it’s impossible and stupid to return.”

He struggles to imagine life away from Russia, in Europe, where being an activist is a wildly different endeavor and stakes aren’t nearly as high. “Activism is everything I have,” he said. “Russia is my place.”

The expedition that found Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance reminded us of the explorer’s riveting story. It was also a lesson in how technology is transforming our encounters with the past, and how climate change is reshaping our world. Once, the ice that covered the Weddell Sea made underwater exploration impractical, but in recent months the thickness of that ice has been at some of the lowest levels ever recorded. The discovery of Endurance was aided by climate change.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

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