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Russian students picket for climate action at Yauzskiye Vorota Square in Moscow. July 12, 2019

Moscow student climate protesters receive permission for small but unprecedented mass action on July 19

Source: Meduza
Russian students picket for climate action at Yauzskiye Vorota Square in Moscow. July 12, 2019
Russian students picket for climate action at Yauzskiye Vorota Square in Moscow. July 12, 2019
Arshak Makichyan

Around the globe, the school climate strike movement founded by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg has inspired hundreds of thousands of children to take to the streets, skipping school on Fridays to demand action on the climate crisis. In Russia, however, the very principle of the movement seems nearly impossible to achieve: anyone in Russia who protests as part of a group without government permission risks arrest, and individuals under 18 may not legally protest without official approval at all. That means Russia’s branch of the global Fridays for Future movement has involved smaller numbers of older students. However, that reality is set to shift on July 19.

After months of repeated negotiations with local authorities, the Moscow branch of Fridays for Future has received permission for a 50-person picket at Yauzskiye Vorota Square in the city center. It’s a small number — ongoing protests to allow independent candidates in the Moscow City Duma race have drawn thousands of people — but it is a far cry from where the student protesters began just four months ago, especially given the forbidding political climate.

For Arshak Makichyan, who leads the Moscow movement, the significance of the upcoming action lies largely in that difference and the persistence that caused it. “We have to show that activism works everywhere,” he told Meduza. While the Russian branch of Fridays for Future joined a global school strike on May 24 with state-sanctioned pickets in more than 10 cities, and Moscow students have held strikes for small groups or at a distance from the city center, this is the first time a mass student picket for climate action will be held anywhere close to the Kremlin. Nonetheless, Makichyan noted, “it is very important for [the climate] movement in Russia to grow very quickly” if the group hopes to effect policy change. He said the students have so far set their sights on applying pressure, however slight, to the UN’s Climate Summit in September.

Young Russians protest for climate action. July 13, 2019

Makichyan also argued that the July 19 action may be a direct source of hope and not just a sign of it. “It was important to me that schoolchildren will now have an opportunity to participate in the action as well […] I think it must be terrible to feel that your future is being taken away, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he explained.

That future is indeed grim: Russia’s own Environmental Ministry warned last year that disastrous environmental events are already taking lives in the country at an escalating rate, and local scientists explicitly tied recent flooding in the Irkutsk region to the global climate crisis as floodwaters displaced tens of thousands of people. However, the Russian climate strikers’ optimism may also be warranted. Climate scientists have indicated both in international reports and published papers that immediate policy action could limit the scope of the climate catastrophe set to take place within the protesters’ lifetimes.

“We don’t intend to surrender. We have no choice but to fight to the end. And we’ll have fun while we’re at it because fighting for something that’s right is the best way out of depression,” Makichyan concluded.

Hilah Kohen