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Were Russians beaten for defending a forest?

The Khimki Forest affair captivates a country tired of sprawl and unexplained violence.

Khimki Forest
Russian environmental activists hold signs at a rally against French construction company Vinci in Moscow on Aug. 3, 2010, to protest a highway Vinci is building through the Khimki Forest outside of Moscow. The sign reads: "Today Khimki — Tomorrow Boulogne!" in reference to the forest on the outskirts of Paris. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

KHIMKI, Russia — About once an hour, flocks of squawking black birds swoop through the skies above Khimki, a Moscow suburb.

“They come from the trash dump,” said Zoya, a 71-year-old retiree whose family has lived in the city for three generations.

In the past five years, the dump has grown to be over 160 feet high, visible even from the highway that links Moscow to Sheremetyevo, its main international airport.

Soon, the dump may not be the only scar marring the town's skyscape. Local and federal authorities have approved the construction of a major highway to connect Moscow to the northern city of St. Petersburg that will cut through the sprawling oak forest that lies on Khimki’s outskirts.

Since 2008, locals who have protested the transformation of their city have been systematically intimidated, arrested and beaten. One was left brain damaged. Another remains in a coma.

The uproar about these attacks within Russia grew, but only spilled over with the savage beating earlier this month of Oleg Kashin, a star Russian journalist who doggedly covered the struggle over Khimki for the country’s leading daily newspaper, Kommersant.

The Khimki Forest affair, as it has come to be known, began as a local struggle to save a small dilapidated city from the free-for-all mega-mall construction that has turned Moscow into a traffic-clogged, advertisement-filled metropolis wanting in parks and green spaces.

The struggle is emblematic of the average Russian's helplessness to decide his own fate, as well as the fact that opposition to the official line is so often met with stinging, and sometimes deadly, violence.

Khimki is not a beautiful city. The balconies of its Soviet-era apartment blocks are painted in alternating yellow and blue, providing the few spots of color in a grim gray landscape. Across the airport highway lies one of Russia’s biggest malls. Moscow’s urban sprawl is such that Khimki blends seamlessly into the gridlocked capital.

But for its 180,000 residents, it’s a world away. Maybe it’s to escape the dreariness of their city that they love the forest so. Maybe it’s also out of necessity. On a recent Saturday afternoon, men and women of all ages walked the forest’s trails with 5-liter bottles of water. The water in Khimki, a city just outside a metropolis that aims to rival London or Hong Kong as a financial center, is said to be so bad that locals prefer to cook with water they gather from the forest’s streams.

“It’s a unique place,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, whose apartment building stands on the forest’s edge. An eloquent and tireless speaker, Chirikova, 34, has become the face of the Khimki protest movement.

“It’s a completely corrupt decision,” she said, walking through the forest with her two young daughters, pointing out the site where the road, first approved in 2006, will be laid. “It’s a seizure of our land — to build supermarkets.”

Chirikova began protesting the project in 2006, arguing for a route that wouldn’t cut the forest in two. She has appealed to financers, like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and French construction firm Vinci, which will help build the road, as well as the Russian authorities.

Few outside Khimki had heard of the opposition to the road until November 2008, when Mikhail Beketov, the editor-in-chief of local newspaper Khimskaya Pravda, was savagely attacked outside his home. He lay unconscious for two days, having suffered severe blows to his head, legs and hands. Sepsis set in, and he had three fingers and one leg amputated. Beketov, 52, will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair unable to speak.

An initial investigation into the attack was inconclusive, and the only court decision related to the case came last week. Beketov was found guilty of slander for accusing Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko of plotting the explosion of the editor’s car in 2007 as an act of intimidation for protesting the Khimki road.

Many local residents see Strelchenko as an outsider, and the opposition openly and repeatedly accuses him of personally overseeing the attacks on his opponents.

“It’s political terror,” Chirikova said.