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Were Russians beaten for defending a forest?

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

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.”