Were Russians beaten for defending a forest?

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.

Strelchenko, a native of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, has been mayor since 2003. He is said to be a close ally of Boris Gromov, the long-serving governor of the Moscow Region. Both built their careers as prominent fighters of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Twin attacks on two men related to the Khimki affair have brought Strelchenko's role back into the spotlight. Kashin, the Kommersant journalist, has regained consciousness after being beaten by two men with a metal rod outside his home and is said to have described his attackers as “football hooligans.”

Konstantin Fetisov, the Khimki representative for Pravoe Delo, a small political party, was attacked outside his home just one day before Kashin. He was beaten with a baseball bat so brutally that it broke in two.

His friends complain that while an ambulance was called right away, it took police nearly five hours to arrive.

Boris Nadezhdin, a fellow party member, said Fetisov told him he had received threats several times. “Everyone here gets threats — activists, opposition deputies even,” Nadezhdin said. “I hold the local administration responsible.”

Nadezhdin was speaking at a small rally in support of Fetisov in a Khimki park. Compared to the 500 who turned out in Moscow to support Kashin, just a dozen activists showed up to this protest. There were an equal number of police and undercover security officers. One police officer went around with a video camera, shooting from up close everyone who attended the rally — a clear signal to all attendees that they were being watched.

A representative of the local administration who attended the rally denied any official connection to the attack, and lay the blame on Fetisov’s business interests.

Activists see another story.

“Beketov, Fetisov, Kashin — all these people were somehow connected to the Khimki Forest,” Chirikova said.

Chirikova herself has been threatened. She was corralled by riot police outside a Moscow press conference this summer and detained in a separate incident for 14 hours. Her husband has been beaten.

A camp that the Khimki activists set up at the start of the construction site was attacked by a group of young thugs in July. Activists who were at the site said a group of about 20 men descended upon the site, wearing white masks and neo-Nazi insignia.

“We called the police to help us deal with these Nazis,” she said. “Instead of taking them, they took us.”

“It’s not normal when you think of this place as someone’s private domain, where the prosecutors, the courts, the politicians and the criminals are all tied together,” Chirikova said. “We have absolutely no way to protect our rights.”