We lost the war because it was a mistake
Arshak Makichyan and his family were suddenly deprived of Russian citizenship, where he had lived all his life, although he was born in Armenia. He is now 28 years old. He is a climate and anti-war activist and violinist. He was the "Ambassador" of Greta Thunberg's environmental movement Fridays for Future, which demands to fight global warming. On February 24, 2022, Arshak had his wedding. He came to the wedding wearing a shirt with the Fuck the War inscription on it. He advocates an embargo on fossil fuels from Russia, believing that this revenue stream allows the country to wage war. We talked to Arshak about the effectiveness of protests, xenophobia, and why he and his family were stripped of their Russian citizenship in a new episode of the Eyewitness Project
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Arshak Makichan, I am 28 years old, I was born in Armenia. When I was about a year old, my family moved to Moscow. I am a climate activist who organized the Fridays for Future movement in Russia. Before I became an activist, I was a violinist and studied at the Moscow Conservatory.
How has your life changed after February 24, 2022?
- It changed a lot. We had a wedding on February 24. We spoke out against the war then, took pictures: I had "Fuck the war" written on my shirt, Polina had a blue dress, yellow flowers. For the first month we went out to protest and tried to make some changes. Then it became obvious that open forms of protest, when you try to do something else within the framework of Russian law, don't work anymore. New bills started to appear, where you could be sentenced to 5-7-8 or 10 years in prison for discrediting the army. And it became clear that Russia was turning into a dictatorship, and if we had stayed, we would either have been jailed or we would have lived in fear. It was difficult when we decided to leave, and it's difficult now, because I didn't leave on a humanitarian visa. We left on tourist visas, on which we have no right to work.
Why did you start doing activism?
- It was obvious that the human rights situation in Russia, and not only that, was getting worse. And it seemed to me that it was no longer possible to just sit around and write some opposition posts on social networks-we had to take to the streets. Politics was already beginning to come into the lives of students. First of all, I went to the conservatory in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea, and I spoke out against it in my social networks. But, of course, that wasn't enough. And plus the conservatory started different propaganda subjects. There was, for example, a subject called "Fundamentals of Russian Cultural Policy," where there was propaganda for fascist values. And everything was terrible in terms of ecology in Russia, too, nothing good. I hadn't traveled around Russia that much before, but when I started doing activism, after traveling around the regions I realized how bad it was, not just in Moscow.
Tell us about Fridays for Future, what kind of movement is it?
- The movement was inspired by Greta Tumberg. She started coming out every Friday to protest, and other students from all over the world started joining her. There were very big protests in 2019 - millions of people around the world came out. We were doing it in Russia, too. Before the pandemic, the movement was growing, new people were joining us - five or seven cities were coming out every Friday. And it was something amazing, because in Russia protests are not something usual. It seemed that in Russia, there had always been enough reasons to be outraged by the authorities. But when you understand that you have some kind of agenda, you do something every Friday, you write in social networks, you participate in international conferences, it becomes clear that in fact in Russia there is no climate policy, despite what the official delegations say. And we, in principle, created a discussion in Russia about the climate, because before us all this was called climate change. We called it what it was: the climate crisis.
What is the climate crisis?
- About 60% of Russia is in the permafrost zone, and the climate in Russia as a whole is changing 2.5 times faster than the world average. That is, all this is melting, the infrastructure is under threat, including all the oil and gas pipes, including the houses that were built on the so-called permafrost, which turned out not to be eternal. In some southern regions, for example Dagestan, there is desertification, which no one talks about in Russia either, because all our media agenda is strongly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. In Russia they talked a lot about forest fires, which are getting bigger and bigger. And similar things are happening all over the world due to rising temperatures on a global level. It's a vicious circle: more and more forests burn because of climate change, more forests burn, more CO2 emissions, and in the end the crisis accelerates and the situation gets even worse. And to stop all this, you need to reduce emissions and switch to clean renewable sources of energy, but this is not happening in Russia. In Russia we get less than 1% of our energy from renewable sources, but in Germany 50% of our energy comes from wind turbines and solar panels. We are very far behind Europe, and there is a reason for this lag. The Russian government wants Europe and the Russians to depend on their fossil fuels (they think it is their fuel, because they own the shares). And in the same way, they do not want Russia to switch to clean and renewable energy sources, because there is less opportunity for corruption there.
You've been out protesting many times. Does the protest matter?
- We came out with completely different slogans: both about the climate and about various local problems. For example, we came out to protest when the black sky regime was declared in Krasnoyarsk. We came out to protest when there were explosions in mines in the Kemerovo region. Coal is the dirtiest source of energy. We supported both Shies and protests in Bashkortostan when we tried to protect - and protected - Shihan Kushtau. Many environmental protests were successful. When Russians start to realize that they can really make a difference, and when this happens in front of their eyes, they protest and succeed. These environmental protests were probably the most successful protests in Russia. You look out the window, and there's a landfill. And it's obvious, especially when your children are being poisoned by landfill gases. So, environmental protests were actually easier than political protests, because at political protests, you have to explain to people that Navalny is in jail now, and tomorrow they might come after you.
Why are environmentalists in Russia persecuted on a par with the political opposition?
- This is due to the fact that environmentalists very often opposed commercial projects and did not allow politicians to make money by selling and destroying Russia's nature. For example, Ecodefense was one of the first foreign agents, and this was because they were against nuclear power plants. There is a lot of corruption associated with nuclear power plants, because it is all secret. Many other environmental organizations were against building in parks. And there is nothing that propaganda can do here, because they are not going to say, "No, let's cut down the parks so that one oligarch can make even more money. That's harder to justify. And when someone is going to run for election, you can try to do something against him. To say that Navalny is a bad man, a drug addict, or something else. That is, the tools of propaganda, which influence the minds, work against people engaged in opposition politics. And when you defend nature, it's hard to find fault with you. I was picked on because I am Armenian, but I didn't hide it.
Why were you deprived of Russian citizenship?
- I received threats when I was going to run for the Duma elections. I had agreements with Yabloko, but in the end they didn't nominate me: they said they'd had a conversation with someone. I was threatened with deprivation of citizenship. Well, I thought it was ridiculous. How can I be deprived of citizenship? I've been living here all my life. As it turned out, you can. And this was a precedent in the history of already military Russia. Perhaps this was connected to my anti-war stance - I actively opposed the war, gave a lot of interviews, including to the international media. Apparently, they did not like it. I also spoke out in Europe and inside Russia when we came out in favor of the embargo on fossil fuels from Russia. It's quite an effective tool for putting pressure on the government, because all the money they have comes at the expense of the world buying fossil fuels from them. There really wasn't a formal reason. They said that when they applied for citizenship in 2004, they were given false information, but they didn't say what kind of information. They said that some documents were missing. We were granted citizenship in Russia in 2004 after 9 years of residency, and after that I have as many grounds for citizenship as any other citizen of Russia. This is some kind of absurdity.
The war in Ukraine was served as a sauce of "denazification. Have you encountered xenophobia while living in Russia?
- Of course. It was felt even when I went to kindergarten. I remember being called names because I was Armenian. It was very deeply rooted in Russia, and came probably from the Soviet Union. I encountered skinheads, of which there were many back then. Then there were fewer of them, but Putin's Russia came along, roughly as it is now. I gave a lot of interviews as an activist, and under all the interviews there were comments: "Let him go back to Armenia. And this very case is very racist. That is, it is a manifestation of racism at the state level. It seems to me that denazification is more necessary for Russia.
Why do so many Russians support the war?
- Russia is not a free country. In a country where you can be imprisoned for 7 years for your opinion, you cannot say: "People support the war," because people are afraid not to support the war. In the first month of the war more than 15 thousand people were detained at anti-war protests, and that's with the new legislation, administrative penalties, and torture. We tried to do something. Now a guerrilla movement is appearing in Russia. Things are getting radicalized now. A lot of Russians are trying to continue not to be silent, to do everything they can to stop this war.
Does Russia Have a Future?
- What will Russia be like? It's hard to say right now. Will it fall apart? No? The longer the war lasts, the greater the chance that it will all fall apart. Even after the Soviet Union, it was very difficult for everyone. And so it seems to me that right now we should not be speculating about whether the Russian Federation will have a future, but should be trying to help people who have problems. I also try to do something: for example, I've started a petition for humanitarian visas, to make it easier for anti-war activists to get visas, because the process is very unclear right now, and not too many people are getting them. And this petition was signed by 35 thousand people on the German platform. I'm trying to get through to European politicians, because they also have a responsibility: they still buy fossil fuels from Russia, they created Putin, they didn't support the activists when they needed to. Now I am also dealing with the situation in Artsakh, which is also a legacy of the Soviet Union and part of Putin's policy. Russia assumed international obligations - to protect the indigenous population of Artsakh, but it doesn't fulfill these obligations, and now they are under threat, Armenia is under threat, because Aliyev is just like a dictator.
Is restoration of relations between Russia and Ukraine possible in the future?
- It depends on what the future holds. First, we will pay reparations, then, perhaps, several decades will pass, and perhaps, if we behave adequately and have an adequate international policy, relations will improve. If you look at history, for example, Turkey still hasn't recognized the Armenian genocide, and it's been 100 years since then. Many people will think that we lost the war because the West supported Ukraine and Russia was corrupt, but we lost the war not because of that. We lost the war because that war was originally a mistake and a terrible crime. We went against international law and humanity because what is happening in Ukraine is genocide.