Arshak Makichyan: 'I believe myself to be a Russian activist, and in the future — a Russian politician'

At the end of October, Arshak Makichyan, a climate activist and Fridays for Future participant, and three of his family members — his father and two of his brothers — were stripped of their Russian citizenship by court order. Russian citizenship was the only one they had; the family had moved to Russia from Armenia when Arshak was one year old. The court ruled that Russian passports had been issued to them illegitimately; in the case of the Makichyans, some documentation was missing, which the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself lost during their registration. In February 2022, Arshak had declared his anti-war position, and a month later left Russia. He is now sure that the decision of the court was caused by his civil position. September discussed with Arshak the significance of this precedent for activism in Russia and the connection between anti-war and environmental protest, as well as the COP27 summit, the strategy and tactics of the climate movement, and prospects for a green transition.

S: First of all, how is your mood? How do you feel after everything that has happened?

AM: My mood is about the same as the last five months since this case started. Now it’s become even easier because I can do something, try to look for solutions and just try to understand what I should do. The situation is difficult because I am not [Oleg] Tinkov, I don’t have British citizenship, and I don’t have unlimited resources. And so there have been a few problems recently — I am looking for work, I am thinking about how to continue my life, and now this has been added. It’s difficult.

S: Why do you think you were subjected to this form of persecution? For example, they didn’t declare you a ‘foreign agent’ and didn’t open a criminal case, but deprived you of citizenship.

AM: I think all this is still to come. Recently, I was denounced by an organisation which wrote a denunciation of Meduza, and most likely, I will also be declared a foreign agent. They used a new tool of repression because I am a convenient target; I am one of the most famous environmental activists in Russia, and besides, I am an Armenian. And leaving aside the fact I’m Armenian (laughs), I did manage to achieve some change in Russia. We started the Fridays for Future movement, and, generally, started climate activism in Russia. Before the pandemic, our movement was only growing, and it was a perfect example of success, although in Russia the situation was only worsening. Young people, despite the horrible situation with human rights in Russia, were taking to the streets. It was the result of a huge amount of work which I and other activists have done. And, of course, we will win, because the people in power now are seventy-year-olds who are only thinking about staying in power and are going crazy from it.

If I am deprived of citizenship, this may scare only a few people, and on the contrary, it will anger other non-Russian people in Russia, and turn them against the government. If they can even deprive a person who did nothing special — I'm not Navalny — of citizenship, for simply speaking out, this is not normal. It is a very dangerous precedent; if you first deprive all those who don't agree of their citizenship, and then deprive them of the right to own property, then you can 'solve' economic problems, give everyone who was mobilised an apartment, and eventually, everyone will live 'happily ever after'. But then Russia would fall apart, because Russia has always been, and remains a multinational country. If there is discrimination on the basis of nationality, this will lead to irreversible consequences for the country. These days, there is a lot of talk about colonialism and imperialism. And it is precisely these actions which are tearing apart the country, and not conversations about greater independence for the regions.

S: So do you think that what has happened to you could become a precedent which will be applied, or, at the least, could be applied to other political or environmental activists?

AM: I am not the only one talking about this, my lawyers are too. And so we are trying to fight through the Russian courts, and trying to defend ourselves with publicity. Unfortunately, for now, the public reaction is not enough to reverse this process. So they would say, ‘Oh, a mistake was made’. Because people are busy trying to survive, people are busy with the war. But this is a terrible process, especially terrible for Russian statehood. My family and I have all lived in Russia our entire lives, and if all these documents can simply be cancelled, then… This, of course, cannot be compared to what they are doing in Ukraine — destroying houses, killing people — but it is something very serious.

S: Have you tried to communicate with other people who were deprived of Russian citizenship? According to statistics, this is about two or three thousand people per year. Maybe to understand how to fight it?

AM: We need to understand that there are somewhere in the region of 15 million people without citizenship in the world. But my case, regarding Russia, is special — it is deprivation of citizenship for political grounds and without basis, so now I have nobody here to discuss it with. Brodsky was stripped of his citizenship, but he is already dead. Therefore, I am still trying to make sense of it on my own, to take some action to raise awareness. Would it make sense to simply discuss it with people and share experiences?

People give a lot of advice, especially those who have not faced anything like this, and usually not very useful advice. They say that I could ask for asylum in Europe. I know about this, but this option does not suit me, because I will be stuck in Europe, in one country, and will be unable to see my partner or take part in activism on an international level. Or they say that I could get Armenian citizenship since I am Armenian by nationality. But this is also an inconvenient option because I have lived my whole life in Russia and am culturally Russian. I speak Armenian, but only on an everyday level, so I could not live in Armenia. Many Russians are trying to live there now, but it would be hard for me to find a job.

Now I am looking for work in an environmental NGO, in order to continue doing what I’ve been doing, but in Armenia, there are no such resources. People there are also trying to survive, for thirty years there has been a war; they don’t have the resources to help me, as they have enough of their own problems. Plus, now there is also a war there. It is a completely different situation, it is not comparable to Ukraine, but the Armenians are trying to defend their land. I support people who are doing this in Artsakh (in Nagorno-Karabakh) but I am also not ready to go to war. I am not ready to go and die, because I can still be useful on a political level in my native country. I believe myself to be a Russian activist, and in the future — a Russian politician, so now it is important for me to progress in this direction. That is to say, I would like to find a job, gain professional experience, and at the same time pursue my education, so that in the future when Russia becomes free, I can be involved in what I want to do, and offer something to Armenia too.

When I am doing activism, I try as a Russian Armenian to raise these issues both in Russia and to the Russian audience, to talk about what is happening in Artsakh, about the negative role of Russia. After all, this war was profitable to Russia; Russia supplied weapons to both sides and did not want Azerbaijan and Armenia to find a resolution to this conflict. Plus, Russia did not keep to its agreements with Armenia; recently, there was a war on what is definitely the internationally recognized territory of Armenia, and Russia did not fulfil its obligations as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian Armenians can also take action to help Armenia; they have the right to express their own, alternative opinion, as I did, and try and promote the interests of the people surviving in Artsakh. This is very important and few people can do this if not the Armenians themselves. But my role in this conflict is not to go and die there. I don't have any idea how to fight, it is not for me.

S: You mentioned Oleg Tinkov, and recently you confronted him on Twitter since he is now voluntarily renouncing his Russian citizenship in order to safeguard his capital. Why is it important for you to draw this line?

AM: Well, for a start, because oligarchs — these are such privileged people…although Tinkov is not an oligarch, he is simply a rich man, a billionaire, who does not like to call himself an oligarch. But these people have a huge amount of money and they can do absolutely anything. Tinkov has citizenship in another country, which enables him to travel around the world, but I have no other citizenship which would allow me to be, for example, in Germany. And I can't get a visa. I have a visa until the end of this year, and I will most likely not be able to renew it, because after my appeal decision my documents will become invalid. I don't know how to carry on my life here, or on what documents to base my stay in Europe.

And it's not just me. In Russia today, there are a huge number of people belonging to different minorities, and none of them can leave Russia. The world does not have enough space for tens of millions of people. Well, there is probably enough space theoretically, but organising your life in another country is very difficult. You need to know the language, you need to find the money for the first time, while you look for work…and so I think that now, we need to try to defend the interests of Russian citizens who are fighting against the regime. The decision to strip me of citizenship has shifted the scope of possibility and created a precedent, so for me, it is important to defend myself, important to maintain my political and activist identity to defend the rights of other Russians; I am Russian myself, and I do not want to give up my identity.

It seems to me that overall Tinkov is speaking more about giving up loyalty to the Russian state, not to Russia because Russia … is something bigger. But in general, both he and other super-rich people could play a bigger part in building an anti-war movement. Activists who had to emigrate need help, and as a whole, the anti-war movement needs a lot of support. For example, I have not seen one post by Tinkov calling for protests, nor one post supporting the anti-war movement. But this movement exists in Russia, and activists are doing everything they can to continue its existence. So that people can have hope that not just one person in Russia, but also, can participate in political life.

I take an opposing stance to him because I am really not ashamed of my life in Russia. I have tried to do everything in my power. Tinkov has lost a few million, but this is not comparable to what many activists living in Russia are losing now, it is not comparable with torture, with how intensely we have risked our freedom. I am not devaluing what Tinkov is doing, he created a good business in Russia, but he should support the anti-war movement more actively, not just whitewash himself for an international audience.

S: Because of the war, climate issues have gone on the back burner for many, even though the situation is only worsening — take, for example, the terrible flooding in Pakistan, which claimed thousands of lives and made tens of millions of people refugees, the heatwaves which swept across the whole continent this summer. October in Europe was seventeen degrees warmer than average, and in the Horn of Africa, the third year of drought caused by La Niña … How important, still, is climate activism for you; do you link it with anti-war activism?

AM: There is a direct link here. In the last few months, I have tried to engage in environmental anti-war activism, demanding an embargo (on Russian energy sources) — it would be good, not only in order to stop the war, but also to transition to renewable sources of energy more quickly in Europe. I have tried to do a lot in this regard, but unfortunately, the majority of environmentalists and environmental media in Russia lack agency.

Many environmental channels on Telegram try to sit on two chairs; they are involved in environmental activism, they try to benefit the country, but at the same time, continue a dialogue with the authorities, cooperate with them, and sometimes even take part in propaganda. When a person does not promote the interests of Russians, but the interests of some group of people, specifically the regime, this brings great harm to environmental activism. As a result, independent activism, and even independent NGO work in Russia is now almost impossible. We can see that organisations — I won't name specific ones — are carrying on in survival mode and cannot allow themselves to talk about the link between the ecological crisis and the war. As a result, these issues are not discussed and there are no solutions. So from this point of view, it is important to talk about the war.

The UN conference on the climate is now taking place, and not one Russian activist can go there. The opinion of civil society will not be represented there, and this is bad. In general, it is unclear how activists and NGOs can continue their activities in Russia going forward, because here you either just exist, or tell the truth and leave for another country. So the choice here, of course, needs to be made by everyone individually. And organisations also need to develop some kind of strategy. My choice was obvious: I was not prepared to sit with my arms folded while our country kills people. And the environmental consequences of the war in Ukraine are also horrific — even before [the invasion], I wrote an article about war and climate, where I describe how the main consequences come during the time after the war when infrastructure has to be restored. Now, our propaganda boasts about the fact that they have destroyed 47% of Ukraine's energy system — this is enormous damage to the environment. And not only the environment, but also everything else, as it will need to be paid for, and paid for with our money; we will be paying reparations to Ukraine.

This war has also inflicted enormous damage on international relations — countries are worried they could be attacked by a neighbour. Germany is planning to spend a hundred million dollars on weapons, which they could be spending on fighting the climate crisis and helping neighbouring countries. Basically, an arms race, a race of hatred has begun, and if it is not stopped, we will not have a chance to fight the climate crisis. On the other hand, it is impossible not to say it is important to support Ukraine, militarily at that, otherwise, we will lose the struggle for democracy and the struggle for freedom, and without freedom, there will be no opportunity for change on the scale that is necessary. As a result, I am in a difficult position, (laughs) where all activists are, because talking about the climate is now impossible without some sort of connection to what is happening in Ukraine. If we stop the war, I hope that Russia will play a positive role in international discussions. I think they will now try to negotiate with international partners to get the sanctions lifted from them; use rhetoric like 'let's unite', but uniting with a bloody dictator — it's counterproductive. It's possible to unite with Russian civil society, with people who are not criminals, but uniting with dictators is not very good.

Also, for example, the UN conference is being held in Egypt, where there are huge problems with human rights, where there are sixty thousand political prisoners. One of their most famous political prisoners is on hunger strike and may die at any moment; this has already lasted more than two hundred days. The war which Russia started has given rise to terrible processes. Now Iran is thinking about starting a war with Israel or Saudi Arabia, and other countries are also reflecting on whether problems could be solved with the help of weapons. As a result, everyone will forget about the climate, the climate crisis will worsen, and ten years on, there will be more wars, and there will be more migrants because there will be fewer resources. This vortex will pull us all in, and humanity will simply destroy itself. So this war is much worse than people realise now.

arshakclimat2.jpgProtest against Russian aggression in Ukraine and the use of fossil fuels. Photo from Arshak Makichyan's personal Facebook page

S: Regarding the COP27 summit in Egypt, many are calling for it to be boycotted in connection to what you have described — repression against political and environmental activists. What do you think: should it be boycotted and why?

AM: It seems to me that here, everyone can choose their own strategy; if some activists decide that they want to go there, it is important that they go. Plus, activists are not calling for a boycott, but for voices from the most vulnerable countries to be heard. And activists from Europe, for example, have tried to help activists from these countries to get there, because this COP will be more about helping the most vulnerable countries. They will discuss, for example, ‘loss and damage’, damage which is already caused by the climate crisis — because there are countries which are suffering less from the crisis and have more resources, and these countries should help others.

Unfortunately, Russia is not playing any kind of role in this. Instead of starting a war and spending how much on it? Five hundred million dollars a day? We could spend this money on helping these more vulnerable countries. International support would grow as a result, not because we are seizing and forcefully holding more and more territories, but because we would be helping other countries to cope with their problems. That is, we could have a decent foreign policy, not what it is now. So if I was able to go, I’d think about this. I would weigh up the pros and cons. Many activists in Europe who don’t understand what they will be doing there, maybe won’t need to go. But a complete boycott is also unproductive, because negotiations will take place regardless, and it is important not just to raise the voices of politicians, who do not always represent the majority opinion, but the voice of civil society.

S: How do you see the future of environmental activism in Russia and the world? What strategies do you think are the most successful in developing the climate and environmental movements?

AM: To me, it seems there is no single strategy that will help us cope with these problems. For example, the recent actions of activists who poured soup on paintings did more harm than good. But I think that it is important to look more carefully; much of the media wrote about these actions, but they didn’t really change anything, they simply poured something on the glass and drew attention to themselves, to environmental problems. A lot of people were talking about them because the media and corporations want to find the guilty ones and want to show not the changes that activists have achieved through peaceful protests, but the face of activism now as being like this, that these activists are allegedly delusional or something like that. But it’s not like that.

Now, many young people are in a state of silence. Many are depressed, they do not understand what to do, or how to continue their lives when we are in danger of catastrophe. Besides, because of the war, people are in a very vulnerable emotional state. So simply starting to say, ‘Oh, how bad we are!’ — does not help us solve problems with the environment or politics. It is clear that we need to seek changes in Russia as a whole so that Russia becomes a free country so that we can take to the streets and so our judicial system works. But if people in Europe generally understand what the climate crisis is, then in Russia, activists have a lot of work to do. And for this to take place, we need to ensure that we have democratic institutions, and find decent people in government who will not violate human rights. And after this, we will build a green movement in Russia, which, unfortunately, it does not yet have.

S: Then the last question is about Russia itself. Today, Russia receives 60% of its export revenue from the sale of hydrocarbons. Renewable sources of energy are barely used in the country, and other countries are far ahead in this way. In the hypothetical situation you have just described of a change of power, how do you see a green transition? Is it possible without receiving oil and gas revenue?

AM: This is a good question, because now, revenues from oil and gas are already decreasing, and in December there will be an oil embargo. With gas everything is complicated, because there is no embargo on it, and instead, we are going to blackmail Europe ourselves — Russia has not shown itself to be a very reliable partner in this respect. As it turns out, this is the economic impasse into which the government has led us. We will all have to deal with this, and there are no simple solutions here. For a transition to renewable energy, we also need money, and this money will have to be found somewhere. And when Russia becomes free, it will need to establish partnerships with Europe, but now, Russia as a whole is treated as a very dangerous country there. We will need to convince them that we are decent, and that we are not murderers. We will have to put a lot of effort into restoring our image as a reliable partner in the international arena, and it will be a long road.

We are very far behind, and the war has only made it worse; Russia is now not only isolated by sanctions, but also by attitudes to Russians. And these attitudes, unfortunately, are justified, because many people have really not stood up against the crimes committed in our name. Few of us chose Putin, but many have participated in this, many have some share of responsibility — some have less, some have more. And when Russia becomes free, people who made these decisions will go to prison. And other people, who were simply silent or even supported what was happening, will not face any legal consequences, but they will have to live with this their whole lives. It seems to me that what matters is not what we defended, the fact it will be difficult for us after the war, but how we will live with it afterwards. It is very difficult to comprehend what is happening in Ukraine; in Bucha, in Mariupol, and in other destroyed cities, and we will be thinking about it for a long time. We are facing difficult times. But it will be easier than when your brother, son, or father, can just be sent to die, and not for something good, but for the ambitions of one person.

In any case, it will be better when we are free, but unfortunately, the economy is falling apart, and Putin has led us here. Even so, I hope we make it. The tools of activism can help us in this — solidarity, mutual aid; everything which we built in Russia up until the war started. We do have a civil society, there are NGOs which help people who are left without homes — ‘Nochlezhka’, for example, which is why it was declared a foreign agent — and other NGOs, which continue important work… We have this experience, and there are people who can get involved in politics, who can take responsibility themselves. And when we have decent leaders who can talk to people, we will be able to solve all these problems. But of course, one shouldn’t think all this will change straight away. I hope things won’t be worse for us than in the nineties, but everything will still be very difficult. A lot of things have been destroyed. So far this isn’t visible, they are trying to patch up all these holes, but a great many processes are irreversible and a lot will have to be built from scratch.

S: Arshak, thank you very much, good luck with your appeal, and just good luck in activism, in the fight.

AM: Thanks, the same to you!

Translation: Rachael Horwitz

Editing: September collective