The summer roadtrip is a tradition around the world, though Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's recent excursion was more extreme than most. He recently traveled along a desolate stretch of highway outside of the far eastern city of Khabarovsk. The purpose of this trip was two-fold: to celebrate the opening of the final section of highway that after decades of construction finally stretches across the breadth of Russia, and to boost Russia's sagging domestic auto industry since Putin took the jaunt in a new Lada Kalina. At least that was the official story, government spokesmen admitted that Putin would only be driving “part” of the trip in the Lada, the rest would be taken in one of the luxury off-road vehicles in the symbolic convoy following the Lada. The roadtrip came after Putin's excursion to the Russian Arctic north where he took to the turbulent Arctic Ocean in an inflatable boat with a scientific research team and shot a whale with a crossbow. The purpose of the arrow wasn't to harm the whale, but rather to take a tissue sample for analysis, so the folks from Sea Shepard don't have to worry about traveling north to protect the whales of the Arctic from a crossbow-totting Prime Minister, though it's doubtful that even the Sea Shepard crew would want to tangle with Putin. A joke making the rounds in Russia is that Vladimir Putin does not have to worry about ever having a heart attack since his heart would not be foolish enough to attack him.
It's a joke that speaks to the tough guy image Putin has carefully crafted during the past decade. It is an image reenforced by statements like the one he issued last week where he said that public protesters in Moscow could expect a nightstick over the head if they gathered in the streets. That's a troubling statement for the Prime Minister of a democracy to make, especially one where the people's right to peacefully assemble is guaranteed by Section 31 of the Russian Constitution.
But Putin has been having a rough time with public protests from the normally docile Russian populace. First there was the widespread discontent over the government's managing (or failure to manage) the wildfires that swept through wide swaths of European Russia this summer, which killed dozens, destroyed entire villages and wrapped Moscow in a chocking haze for nearly two weeks. More recently long-running protests over plans to build a toll highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg through the historic Khimki old-growth forest came to a head last week thanks apparently to of all people, U2 frontman Bono – Foreign Policy even ran a story of their website asking if Bono had defeated Putin.
The backstory here is that for the past several years, Russian environmentalists have vigorously opposed the plans to carve a highway through the forest, which even during Soviet-times was a protected reserve because of its ecological importance as one of the only stands of old-growth forest left in the Moscow region. That protection was revoked in 2009 by Putin himself, and plans for the modern superhighway moved forward. Earlier in August, supporters of the Khimki forest planned a rally in central Moscow that was to feature several musicians, including Yury Shevchuk the singer for the iconic Russian rock band DDT. Moscow officials denied the group a permit for a concert, which the organizers countered by saying it wasn't a concert, but a rally featuring musicians who could perform a song or two if they wished. The rally went on anyway with 3,000 people in attendance and Shevchuk singing to the crowd through a megaphone since the rally was not allowed to have a PA system. That may have been the end of the story, but last week, U2 happened to be playing in Moscow. For an encore, Bono invited Shevchuk onstage where the two sang Bob Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door”. The high-profile appearance catapulted the earlier Khimki forest protest back onto the national stage. Within a day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a halt to work on the highway, saying the plans needed to be “reviewed.”
The victory though could be short-lived. Putin stepped in to remind everyone that the project was only paused, not canceled outright. And environmentalists are saying the reprieve may have come too late anyway, since roughly half of the right-of-way has already been cleared through the Khimki forest (evidenced in this photo from the Moscow Times); some estimates say even if the work were permanently halted it could take the forest 70 years to recover. As to why authorities would allow a highway to be built through an ancient, and until Putin stepped in protected, forest is another question. Unfortunately the answer seems to boil down to political connections. The driving force behind the toll highway is, according to Foreign Policy, Arkady Rotenberg, an old friend of Putin from his St. Petersburg days. Meanwhile an alternate route that would have bypassed the Khimki Forest was rejected because it would have passed through land owned by the wife of Moscow's powerful mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Since the protests hit the big time though, Luzkhov is now supporting this alternative route – surely coincidentally the Moscow Times is reporting that his wife's company recently gave up on development plans for the land that would have been bisected by the new highway.
So while some are hailing the government's decision to put the destruction of the Khimki Forest on hold as a rare triumph for public discourse in Russia, it's quite easy – and perhaps quite correct – to draw a different lesson from the events; namely that the government cares very little for the will of the people and sees their mission not as the protection of the populace and the promotion of the general well-being of the nation, but rather as an opportunity to make a small circle of well-connected individuals incredibly wealthy by using the power and resources of the state, since had it not been for the chance appearance of Shevchuk and Bono, the loggers would most likely be felling trees in Khimki today.
Or to put the Khimki decision in context, it's useful to look at another Russian ecological treasure in very immediate danger – the Pavlovsk Agricultural Station. Located outside of St. Petersburg, Pavlovsk is a living depository of food crops, housing one of the world's largest collections of fruits, berries, and grains – many ancient stocks, 90% of which, according to NPR, are grown nowhere else in the world. So precious is Pavlovsk that during World War II the scientists who maintained the station decided to starve rather than eat the unique plants growing there.
That is Pavlovsk was precious, until a Russian government agency decided earlier this year that the station was in fact worthless, paving the way for the land to be commercially-developed. An auction of the first parcel of land is scheduled in three weeks. Medvedev has promised a review of this situation as well, but backers of the Pavlovsk Station fear the sale will go ahead anyway. So far international protests have failed to sway Russian governmental opinion on Pavlovsk. Hopefully U2 will be playing St. Petersburg in the next couple of weeks.
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