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Arshak Makichyan is a Russian climate activist and Greta Thunberg ally. On the day the war began, Makichyan was getting married to fellow activist Polina Oleinikova; their wedding turned into a public statement against the war (Makichyan’s shirt had the words “Fuck the War” written on it) and the couple later left Russia. In May, Makichyan learned that the Russian authorities wanted to revoke his citizenship. He's currently in Europe, where he continues to fight for a more sustainable planet and for Ukrainian sovereignty — but with a visa expiration date looming, his future is uncertain.
Unlike many European countries, Russia doesn’t have much of a modern environmental movement to speak of. This may be due to the dubious idea that Russia stands to gain more than it will lose from climate change, or perhaps it’s a result of the Russian authorities’ hostility towards protest in general; most likely, it’s a combination of the two. The climate activism it does have is largely thanks to the work of one person: 28-year-old Arshak Makichyan, who was born in Armenia and moved to Russia with his parents to escape the First Nagorno-Karabakh War when he was a year old.
Makichyan organized the Russian chapter of Fridays for Future, an international movement in support of government action against climate change, in 2019. Before long, protests were being held weekly in 5-7 Russian cities, with participants calling the country’s leaders to account and stressing the life-or-death nature of the issue.
“We started referring to climate change as a climate crisis,” Makichyan told Meduza. “We started connecting the dots between climate change, forest fires, and the increase in natural disasters.” Like in many countries, the protests consisted primarily of young people. “Many activists have gotten kicked out of their universities. And if people are willing to risk their freedom for the sake of an issue like that, you know it’s an important issue,” he said.
It’s impossible to talk about youth activism against climate change without mentioning Greta Thunberg, the founder of Fridays for Future, and Thunberg is indeed one of Makichyan’s biggest influences. In fact, she served as Makichyan’s introduction to the topic of climate change — an alarming indicator of Russian people’s awareness of the problem’s extent.
“They don’t talk about the climate at all in our schools, nor at the conservatory [I attended],” Makichyan said. “I happened to read something about Greta, became interested in the topic, and tried to gain an understanding. I realized it’s a very important issue, and I started to go out to protest every Friday, just like her.”
Thunberg took notice. After she reached out to Makichyan to express her support, he felt he was “part of a community,” even as Moscow’s often lone protester. He remains an admirer of hers and is impressed by both her awareness of her privilege in Sweden — ”a relatively rich country” — and the way she speaks out against human rights abuses in other countries, such as the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, for whom Thunberg has expressed support.
Makichyan and Thunberg have even collaborated a few times, sharing a stage at the UN climate conferences COP25 and COP26.
“I see her as a friend, though we don’t talk so much or see each other very often,” he told Meduza.
A statement wedding
Despite optimistic early days, the Russian authorities’ pandemic-era crackdown threw a wrench in Makichyan’s activism.
“[Initially,] I’d go as far as to say it was fun, despite the fear,” he said. “But what happened in Russia during the pandemic? They started arresting people for even single-person protests. Then the repressions began: they banned everything and declared people ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations.’ Many of my friends left Russia a year or two ago. Activism became depressing.”
In the summer of 2021, at a protest in support of Pussy Riot, Makichyan met the activist Polina Oleinikova. Their main interests differed slightly — Oleinikova was more into opposition politics while Makichyan focused more on environmental and human rights issues — but they hit it off and quickly found ways to collaborate.
In January 2022, Oleinikova, who had at that point had multiple administrative cases filed against her by the authorities, was detained at a rally after she hung up signs detailing instances of political repression on government buildings.
“They released her with a fine, but a day later, the police started trying to break into her home,” said Makichyan. “They totally besieged it — they decided to sit outside until Polina came out. But that night, I helped her escape from the building.”
Soon after, the two decided to get married.
“We wanted to do it for our own security — so that if criminal charges were brought against us, we could still see each other while in prison,” he said.
By pure coincidence, their wedding took place on February 24, the day Russian launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“It became something more like a political statement, because I wrote ‘Fuck the War’ on my shirt, and Polina wore a blue dress with yellow flowers,” said Makichyan. Just a few weeks later, the couple fled the country.
An unprecedented retaliation
On the day Makichyan spoke to Meduza, he was on a train from Lyon, France, to Paris. Most of his time, though, has been spent in Germany, where he managed to get a visa.
“My wife and I left Russia around March 20,” he told Meduza. “After the war started, we started going to protests in Moscow practically every weekend. The first few weekends, there were massive rallies. But about a week before our departure, we went back out and didn’t find much of a crowd at all. The police had arrested practically everyone.”
Their initial decision to leave was less about survival than strategy.
“With the 15,000 arrests, the awful repressions, and the new laws against ‘discrediting’ the army, we needed to find a new approach,” Makichyan said. “We decided to take some time to figure out what to do next. And we also just wanted to breathe some fresh air.”
Makichyan and Oleinikova were initially planning to return to Russia eventually. In late May, however, the Russian authorities found a way to complicate their lives even further.
“I logged into [Russia’s government portal] Gosuslugi,” Makichyan told Meduza. “I had a message that said there was some kind of case against me. I looked and saw it was a civil one. I asked some friends to go to the court and find out the details. Ultimately, they sent me a legal claim, and I read it on my way home from the store. I read it and realized they wanted to revoke my citizenship.”
The grounds for the state’s unprecedented move are hazy; all Makichyan has managed to learn is that some “false statements” were allegedly made to the government about him in 2004. But he has no idea what this could be referring to.
It’s true to Makichyan wasn’t born in Russia — he was born in Armenia — but he has lived his entire life there, graduated from high school there, and studied at a Russian conservatory. He’s also married to a Russian.
The legal claim doesn’t specifically mention any anti-war rallies or climate protests, despite the fact that Makichyan has previous misdemeanors on record for protesting. This has led him to believe it has more to do with the fact that he’s not ethnically Russian, because it would be easy for the authorities to prosecute him for his political activity.
“I don’t know why they’ve chosen this route,” he said. “Maybe they want to scare all Russian citizens who aren’t ethnically Russian and I’m their poster boy. Evidently, they’ve decided they need some new tools.”
If the state does decide to make an example out of Makichyan, he believes it could be a good thing.
“I hope it helps wake up the millions of ‘non-[ethnically]-Russian Russians who don’t think politics concerns them,” he said. “Since the case is political, the lawsuit isn’t just about the revocation of my citizenship. It’s a lawsuit against Russia’s entire non-Russian population.”
Keeping up the fight
Makichyan doesn’t think he’ll be able to return to Russia anytime soon. “Returning just so they can deport me as a person without citizenship would not be ideal,” he said. But even if he and Oleinikova remain in Europe, the future is unclear: their visas expire on June 20.
In the meantime, they’ve continued their activism.
“I’ve been speaking out quite a bit in Europe, calling for an embargo on fossil fuels,” Makichyan said. “I’ve held rallies in Germany. Since I’ve been a part of the international Fridays for Future movement since the very beginning, they know me fairly well.”
In a dark way, Germany’s fossil fuel imports from Russia are the perfect combination of Oleinikova and Makichyan’s respective issues: politics and the environment. Makichyan has organized a number of rallies calling for a European embargo on fossil fuels, and tried to set up a meeting between German politicians and Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian activists, but to little avail.
“Initially, someone agreed to it, but the meeting never happened,” he told Meduza. “Which is strange, because Germany is still financing the Russian regime. It’s been doing that for decades by buying fossil fuels. They pay lip service to Ukraine, but if you look at their actions, they continue supporting Putin and talking about economic risks.”
In the long term, though, Makichyan is cautiously optimistic about the future. While the hope he initially had when the war began — ”that somebody would kill Putin” — hasn’t come to pass, he sees the country’s domestic opposition becoming savvier, and he doesn’t believe the current regime will survive the war.
“A guerrilla movement is appearing in Russia right now,” he said. “There are all kinds of anti-war movements. There’s the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. People who never used to get involved in politics are joining in. [...] It gives you the feeling that we haven’t lost Russia.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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