Environmental Watch ecology group activist Yevgeny Vitishko stands in front of the new road between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in December. Credit: Getty Images
Editor's Note: The following piece is from the perspective of Metro World News reporter Alexey Shunaev.
My long day winds down at a cafe. Not many people are about as it’s late, just a few chatting about Russia’s victory in figure skating. But like everything connected with Sochi, talk of politics is never too far away. In Russia, we often have such debates around the kitchen table, fueled by plenty of pickled food and vodka. This time, it’s a coffee shop table, with late night espressos. And when I hear three guys mutter the name "Vitishko," I ask if I could join in.
Yevgeny Vitishko is the latest Kremlin critic to hit the headlines, or as liberals would say the latest "victim of the regime" – and now perhaps the political prisoner of the Sochi Olympics. I’m updated on who this man is by Natalia, the prettiest of the fervent talkers at the table: “Vitishko is just an ecologist, but quite a brave one. Back in 2011, he found that Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar Region, had decided to build a house for himself in the middle of a protected forest. Endangered pine trees – listed in the Russian government’s own 'Redbook' of species under threat of extinction – were being chopped down inside the fenced-off territory. Yevgeny and an activist Suren Gazaryan found the place and spray-painted some slogans on the fence.”
Natalia’s friend Maxim then jumps into the conversation and continues: “Vitishko was predictably prosecuted and given a suspended three-year jail term. But then a couple of months later, they changed it into a real sentence. Vitishko appealed, but this week the courts have denied to consider the appeal.”
“If they give prison sentences to people who spray-paint on fences, then all of Russia’s children would be in jail,” Natalia adds. “But Tkachev, as governor of Sochi’s region, is one of the most popular people in the world, thanks to helping the Olympics become a reality.”
Becoming more solemn in tone, Natalia gloomily concludes: “They steal not just money, but also three years of Vitishko’s life. He just wanted our forest to be safe.”