Just days before Christmas, a Russian court sentenced a young climate activist to six days in jail for participating in a climate change demonstration in Moscow. Supporters of the 25-year-old violinist Arshak Makichyan claim that this disproportionately severe punishment is one of the harshest crackdowns on student activists anywhere in the world. Russian authorities slapped charges on him for participating in an unauthorized demonstration upon his return from a speaking engagement at the COP 25 UN Climate Change Conference.
Makichyan joined the Fridays for Future movement after being inspired by the teenage climate striker-turned-yachting enthusiast Greta Thunberg. Emulating the Swedish icon, he started a 40-week-long solo strike in front of his school on Pushkin Square in Moscow, apparently in violation of Russia’s draconian anti-demonstration laws.
Earlier this year, he discussed his motivations for starting his one-man-picket with the Moscow Times. “I know that not many people are willing to protest in Russia because most of the population doesn’t understand what global warming is… so I decided to start it myself,” he said. Russia hasn’t exactly put combating climate change at the top of its priority list. With its environment still reeling from the catastrophic industrialization experiments of socialist central planners of yore, Russia’s economic recovery has been intimately tied to the extraction and export of fossil fuels. Those who are indeed aware of the climate change issue are more likely to see the benefits: clement weather and new arctic sea lanes for Russian shipping.
In another interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Makichyan described his repeated, if Sisyphean, attempts to receive legal permission for the strike from authorities. “In Moscow, it is almost impossible to get permission for a mass demonstration so we protest in a queue. One person holds a poster for five minutes, then hands over to the next person who is waiting nearby. That way, we don’t have any problems because it is a series of solo strikes rather than a group gathering,” he explained. But that would not be enough to keep out of reach for Russian law.
The young violinist received an outpouring of support from fellow climate activists around the world during his ordeal in Russian prison, including Thunberg herself. Protests were held in front of the Russian embassy in Portugal and other cities. Upon his release, Makichyan’s tweets seemed to imply that his experience was nothing like that described in Solzhenitsyn’s infamous novel. In fact, prison was “not that bad” – save for the cockroaches, the smells and the lack of vegan meal options.
Makichyan has been recognized as one of Russia’s most high-profile climate activists. His story has been covered by international media outlets including The Guardian, the BBC, The Moscow Times, Vice News and even UNESCO, to name a few – yet he remains strangely unheard of in his native Armenia.