Today marks my third visit to Russia, the last being in 2006 when I had the privilege of meeting President Putin to talk about the freedoms with which NGOs can operate in this country. In a curious turn of events, and some six years later, both Putin and freedoms are still very much in the news.
You can take your pick from any number of scandals currently making headlines in Russia: planned legislation aimed at hampering NGO activity and the right to protest, draconian laws aimed at internet censorship – even the fallout from the recent performance by punk group Pussy Riot, which has garnered international attention.
What is different, between my last visit and now, however, is the scale and unbridled nature of the public’s response. Russians have taken to the streets en masse to protest the shrinking democratic space in their country – up to 100,000 at various times in Moscow alone to speak out against Putin’s rule. It’s clear that Russians are no longer prepared to tolerate civil injustices and are increasingly prepared to speak up fearlessly in their own defense.
Amid this atmosphere, I am here to address the shrinking democratic space surrounding organisations like ours, but also to bring to people’s attention an outrage of a different sort; one that goes beyond Russian borders to a plight much more epic – that of our shared Arctic.
I’ve said elsewhere that the quest to save the Arctic is one of the defining battles of our time, neatly bringing together the tensions between economy and ecology that exist in our modern world.
Russia today is a country in the midst of much welcomed growth and expansion – yet progress is happening at such a rapid rate that it has become reckless; short term interests are being vigorously pursued, yet the more pertinent question of longer term impacts is rarely addressed.
At Greenpeace we’re campaigning for a halt to the senseless destruction of the Arctic in the quest for oil. We seek preservation of this pristine wilderness, and a focus instead on the many abundant sources of renewable energy that exist, and are viable alternatives, today.
When I confronted Arctic destruction by occupying the Leiv Eiriksson oil rig last year, I took with me 50,000 signatures in opposition. This year, we count well over 1.3 million voices from around the world (a great many of them Russian too); they are people who are prepared to be counted as they say No to the willful destruction of our planet.
I am here to say No to environmental destruction as much as I say No to limits on freedom of expression and assembly. History teaches us that in all major struggles, whether it’s women’s rights, apartheid, or the US civil rights movement, that it’s only when people rise in peaceful acts of civil disobedience that the course of history changes.