Saturday, April 13, 2019

In Russian North, Environmental Activism Becomes Political and Now Affects Ever Hotter Issues

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 12 – Protests in the Russian north against Moscow’s degradation of the environment of their regions by its incautious development of an environmentally sensitive region and its plans to make things worse by disposing of trash from the capital there are becoming the trigger for broader and more political protests.

            In Karelia, Andrey Tuomi reports, environmental protests are becoming political with those taking part raising ever more difficult questions for the powers that be as people connect the dots and recognize that the destruction of the environment they oppose is linked to Moscow’s policies more generally (

            Such moves from environmental protection to political protest were a frequent occurrence in the last years of the Soviet Union, although they often passed through or were accompanied by movements about historical preservation as well. But in the Russian north now, this process may take some time and there are many things the regime can do to restrict it. (See  

            But while trash protests have attracted more media attention, environmental activism in the North has now focused on one issue that is far more immediately important to officials in the Russian capital – the disposal of nuclear waste products.

            The Sibreal portal reports that “residents of the rural settlement of Khatanga in the furthest northern part of Krasnoyarsk Kray are demanding a referendum: people there are against the transportation of and planned disposal in their settlement of radioactive waste products of rare earth metals” (

            Yury Tyutrin, a local resident who edits the Khantanga website, says, that people are rising in revolt over these plans and “thank God for that.” Russia doesn’t need these rare earth minerals: they are being produced only to make money by export; and those who are doing that are doing so “at the expense of our health and the health of our children.”

            He adds that residents, having had their fears confirmed by specialists, are “to speak honestly, now in a state of panic and shock.”  They are also infuriated by the Russian firm’s effort to frighten them into silence by saying the town won’t exist at all if it doesn’t agree to have these waste disposal sites on its territory.

            “Khatanga has been standing for almost 400 years,” Tyutrin says.  “We have a port and air connections always have worked normally.” We can survive without these dumps. Indeed, he suggests, residents will be better off because they are less likely to sicken and die.

            Residents are also upset that no one will take responsibility for saying that the company can put the wastes there, Gennady Shchukin, the head of the Association of Social Movements of the Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North of Taymyr’s Dolgano-Nenets district. And they fear that as a result, bad things will happen and no one will stop them.

            The experience of Sakha is both instructive and frightening in that regard. Olga Timofeyeva-Tereshkina, head of the Association of the Dolgans of Sakha, says that places in her area were forced to accept such nuclear wastes and now people are dying at 50 of leukemia and other former of cancer.

            To prevent that from happening or at least happening without their views going on the record, residents of Khatanga plan to conduct a referendum on whether they approve such disposal locations.  Activists say they expect pressure against them to increase over the five to six months it will take to prepare that effort.

            But they have no confidence that meetings with the Russian company involved will lead to a positive outcome; and they hope that their efforts at direct democracy will attract the kind of broader attention that the firm will not be able to avoid. No one should die of cancer so that a company can make a profit. 

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