Strangers at the door
“I told her at once: ‘Mom, do not open the door to strangers’,” says nine-year-old Liza. “And Sasha wanted to open the door! She is such a child!”
“I won’t do it again,” says Sasha slowly. She is four.
The strangers came last Monday. They was a fragile-looking woman, along with two goons. They banged on the door, although there is a doorbell. Zhenya decided not to open the door.
The delegation then knocked on the neighbours’ door. It turned out that those three were from the child-welfare authorities and had come in response to a child-abuse report. The report was a typed document signed by E.I. Bogoyavlenskaya, allegedly Chirikova’s neighbour. The report stated that the children were always hungry, dressed in “some rags” and seemingly physically abused. Besides, it said, there was some homeless person spending nights in Chirikova’s apartment… “There aren’t and never have been any Bogoyavlenskys in our house,” the neighbors said in surprise. “And the children are perfectly normal; what is this nonsense all about? What homeless people? Where are they?” The woman introduced herself as Inspector Raisa Ivanovna Bystryakova and gave the neighbours the phone number to reach her at.
Zhenya gave her a call. Ms Mystryakova explained that she is required to follow up on the report filed with the child-welfare services, which meant inspecting the apartment, checking on the children’s condition and preparing an official report. The recording of the phone conversation with the Khimky Child-Welfare Services was published on the environmental protection movement website ecmo.ru. By the end of that day, the child welfare-services office was bombarded with phone calls. The authorities termed the incident a “misunderstanding”. Pavel Astakhov, an ombudsman for children’s rights, looked into the situation and used much stronger words to describe it; he promised that Chirikova would not be disturbed again.
But this Sunday, the ground-floor front door bell rang – it was the “police come in response to a report”. They did not open the front door, and the police left.
Now, there is always someone from the movement’s activists staying “on duty” in Zhenya’s apartment.
After the child-welfare officials’ visit, the girls stayed at home for two days: they were frightened to leave the apartment. Now, it seems, their fear has dispersed, and Liza is again attending school and children’s clubs she belongs to, and Sasha is going to her lessons at a children’s development centre. The person offended most by the poison-pen letter was the girls’ regular baby-sitter, who the anonymous report called “some woman, who is – judging by the children’s constant crying – always punishing them.”
In the meantime, Zhenya’s daughters display an unlikely knowledge of judicial literacy.
“We are registered as residing in Moscow, not Khimky,” the 9-year-old Liza told me, putting her doll away. “And that means that we are not in their ju-ris-dic-tion.
“And it is not personally against me. They began a campaign against us,” says Zhenya.
A new wave of problems hit the environmental protection movement on 1 February. They were holding a protest meeting on the right bank. The Khimky Administration had allocated the water conservation zone of the Moscow Canal for a land plot for a housing complex called Pravy Bereg (The Right Bank). The environmentalists say the land does not even belong to the town of Khimky; it is federal land. Besides the water conservation zone, the land plot also includes a cemetery dating back to the 17th-18th century, where, in the Soviet era, political prisoners that died while working on the construction of the canal were buried. They are planning to build a car park with 1000 spaces where the cemetery sits. The environmentalists filed a court claim. And, on 1 February, having heard that the drilling equipment is already working in the cemetery, they organised a protest there.
The meeting, however, did not last long: the police came and said there was a bomb at the construction site. The activists, unwillingly, had to leave the cemetery.
On 10 February, some people from the Khimky OBOP (Department for Organised Crime Control) paid a visit to Alla Chernysheva, one of the movement’s activists. Alla was just going out to take her kids to their doctor’s appointment. When the OBOP people demanded that Alla “follow them to clarify a few things”, Alla took the children with her. She had to stay at the police office for six hours. They told Alla that she was among the suspects in the bomb case, which in fact was a hoax… Alla tells us that the OBOP people promised “to crush the movement, and deprive her and Chirikova of their parental rights”. They kept pushing some papers in her face demanding that she sign them. Alla was in tears but she refused to sign anything. At that time, Evgeny Gildeev, Director of the Public Information Department of GUVD (Central Internal Affairs Directorate) for the Moscow Region, was officially stating the following: “Based on the surveillance camera records, it has been established that Alla Chernysheva had brought in and
placed the said package where a crowd of people was gathered.”
The environmentalists quickly found witnesses from among the participants of the protest who saw a man that had left that suspicious package on the ground where the people were gathered. The vigilant activists had even taken a photo of the man and showed it to Goldobin, the head of the 2nd District OVD (Department of Internal Affairs) Office at Khimky. But he said that it was one of their plain-clothes agents. Several minutes later, the package was cordoned off, and they announced that there was a bomb on the site …
In the meantime, active investigations into the activities of EZOP Company, owned by Zhenya and her husband, were underway. OBOP had been looking into the business activities of the company specialised in electromagnetic compatibility for some time, investigating its transactions. Due to the law-enforcement organs’ increased level of attention in the company, banks would often reject their loan applications. Then, the Moscow Region GUVD summoned some of the company’s clients for interrogation. The number of clients has significantly decreased since then; one railway company has even refused to pay the company for the work already completed.
And, on 21 February, the Child-Welfare Services people knocked on Chirikova’s door.
Three significant events have taken place over the past six weeks.
The day after Dmitry Medvedev approved the construction of the road running through the Khimky Forest, it was officially announced that Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch and Vladimir Putin’s old friend, purchased the shares of SZKK (the company in charge of the construction).
In January, the expert committee had completed three months of work on a public expert examination of the road construction plan. The committee was chaired by Tamara Zlotnikova, Deputy Chairman of the National Environmental Audit Chamber, and included 18 specialists from the Institute of Transport and Roads, the Economy, Geography and Biology Departments at Moscow State University, and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Forest Science… 9 PhD’s and 5 Advanced Doctor’s degree holders. The results of the examination were as follows: the construction plan for the road running through the forest is considered “absolutely unacceptable”. Instead, the committee suggested 10 (!) alternative plans developed both in terms of technical and financial aspects of the project. Among the 10 suggested plans is a proposal that the road should run along an old power line seriously damaged by “icy rain”. There are no buildings to demolish along the power line route, nor any forests to clear away. What is more, according to this plan, the road would start at the newly expanded bridge over the Moscow Canal (in the current road construction plan, the bridge over the canal still needs to be built, which alone will take 3 years).
On 1 February, Sergei Tsyplenkov, the head of Greenpeace Russia, personally handed the report to Medvedev, who promised to read it.
And, the third thing: the Khimky Forest protectors are expanding the area they are fighting to defend. Chirikova and her friends got themselves involved in the issue of construction development in the water conservation zone of the Moscow Canal. And Nedarkal Company is already selling apartments in the yet to be built houses in Yunnatov Street, where the “bomb incident” occurred.
It is a vile thing to write about, but the modern history of Khimky shows that exerting pressure on the activists through children is a very effective mechanism.
In Khimky, there used to be a children’s arts and crafts centre called Viktoria. For 58 years, it had operated as a huge complex of children’s clubs and activity courses for 1200 children. In the summer of 2009, it turned out that its building - completely overhauled not long before - was actually a very dangerous structure in an unsafe condition. The children’s centre was closed down and, under the personal order of Mayor Strelchenko, the land plot was allocated to MOIS-1 for the construction of a multistorey apartment building.
The centre’s teachers and the children’s parents decided not to let the centre go without a fight. The initiative group spontaneously formed around the centre’s director, Galina Lebedeva and her daughter Irina, who was one of the teachers working there. These two brave women were not afraid of courts, OBEP (Economic Crime Department) inspections, or telephone threats. But Irina had two adopted children. First, the Department of Education began “working” on the children’s babysitter; then there were threats that they would involve the child-welfare authorities, as Ira Lebedeva “exposes the children to potential danger”. Suddenly, the Lebedevs were no longer civil activists – they were a mother and a grandmother, whose children were in danger. All their protest activities came to a sudden halt; the centre’s last building was demolished in September, and the construction of an elite apartment building is already underway.
Of course, the authorities do not really need or even care about Zhenya Chirikova’s wonderful children. What they do need and want is to break Zhenya.
And the point is not so much the Khimky Forest anymore. Chirikova has become a problem in and of herself. Over the past four years, a powerful protest movement has formed around this slender thirty-year-old manager: a movement not afraid of the OMON (Special Police Force), ‘Centre E’, football fans, or the devil himself. Zhenya finds support among amazingly diverse circles – from the Moscow anarchists to the Moscow State University professors, from the Moscow Region elderly to the green party faction of the European Parliament. She is not going to slow down.
They have tried to crush the movement, beat it dead and frighten it into submission. Now, they are trying to behead it. How can we stop Chirikova, who is ready to actually throw herself in the way of operating construction equipment? We can remind her that she is a mother.
Zhenya and children
“I was very angry. I was furious,” Zhenya says. She only just finished writing yet another petition to hold yet another protest meeting. “Of course, they did not anticipate such a reaction from me. They had expected that I would go to the child welfare authorities’ offices ready to beg them and humiliate myself. But, there was only one thought in my head: ‘What bastards!’ But I had not anticipated receiving such support. People that I do not even know write to me: ‘If they come, barricade yourself in the apartment, and post a message on Twitter – we will come to your rescue.’ It is Twitter - no longer the state – that we put our hope in. And the support of Internet users is more important for me than the bureaucrats’ support.”
A few words to the child welfare authorities
Dear child welfare services employees! I have spoken with you and you did not seem to be mean people. You said: “Nobody is trying to take away Yevgenya’s children. We simply must follow up on the report we have received because the law requires that we should do so.” And, that much is true.
But no law requires that you should join in the hounding campaign against Zhenya. Liza and Sasha, whom you claim to be protecting, are mostly afraid for their mother.
In this war, you should be on the side of the children.