By Maxim Edwards
A desolate railway siding in Russia’s far north has become the unlikely catalyst of a nationwide protest movement.
For the past six months, a round-the-clock protest camp has been held outside a planned landfill at Shiyes in the Archangelsk Region, located 1,125 kilometers from Moscow. Its occupants oppose the construction of a euphemistically called “eco-techno-park” which is to receive several railway wagons of trash from the Russian capital every day.
There’s not much in the former village of Shiyes; the area is surrounded by swamps and forests. But it is a few kilometers from the border with the Komi Republic, another of Russia’s northernmost regions. So when residents of the nearby town of Urdoma started to protest against the landfill last year, their cause drew the attention of civil society in two provinces.
Several months on, the Russian internet is abuzz with the hashtags
#ПоморьеНеПомойка (“the Pomorye is not a garbage dump,” in reference to the historical term for provinces along the White Sea) and #ЧистыйСевер (“A Clean North”).
Solidarity protests have now been held across dozens of cities in Russia, while Shiyes regularly makes news headlines.
The story begins in 2007, when 57 hectares of land around Shiyes were transferred by the Archangelsk Regional government to Russian Railways for “industrial use” until 2056. In July 2018, Russian Railways leased the property to the Moscow company Technopark. At the end of the month, it became clear to residents of nearby villages that something large was being constructed, leading local ecologists to demand an explanation from the regional authorities.
These demands gained momentum and questions about the construction site began to be raised in both the Komi and Archangelsk regional parliaments. Photos of pensioners from the area’s remote villages holding solitary pickets (the only legal way of holding spontaneous protests in Russia) soon surfaced.
But the situation at Shiyes remained murky. Neither Technopark nor local authorities clarified exactly what was being constructed, first suggesting that the facility was a waste recycling plant rather than a landfill. In a September 2018 interview with independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, Archangelsk Deputy Governor Elena Kutukova let slip during an advertisement break that rubbish was already being transported to the region and that officials were not saying anything about it as it was a “sensitive political moment.” (For Russian speakers, a detailed interactive timeline of these events can be found at 7×7, a news website focusing on Russia’s far north).
Local ecologists argued that Shiyes was “the worst site for a landfill,” as the area’s peaty bogs drain into several rivers which flow into the White Sea. Meanwhile, environment activists raised concrete procedural demands. As Elena Kalinina and Antonina Obedinina, activists from
#ПоморьеНеПомойка, said during a June 2019 interview with the Salt.Zone podcast, which follows civic movements in Russia, environmentalists demand a popular referendum on the construction of the landfill, and that municipalities are re-granted powers over issues relating to public land use.
Activists were heartened by a ruling of the Archangelsk regional court in April which revoked local deputies’ attempts to ban such referendums. But on June 25, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned that ruling and found the ban on referendums to be in accordance with Russian law.
Influential political scientist Valery Solovei predicted that the Supreme Court’s ruling would only radicalize the protesters:
Yesterday I was lucky enough to meet and talk with a delegation of activists from the Archangelsk Region and Komi [Republic], who oppose the construction of a landfill in Shiyes. They were prepared for today’s Supreme Court ruling, which has practically closed off any possibility of a referendum in the Archangelsk Region on the issue.
However, after the meeting my doubts disappeared: these calm, resolute people will simply not allow a landfill to be constructed on their territory. Their resistance will increase in proportion to repression; if a conflict develops, its consequences will be radical and on a large scale.
— Valery Solovei, Facebook, 25 июня 2019
In a blog post for Ekho Moskvy on the controversial court ruling, veteran Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov stressed that Muscovites had a duty to stand with people in the Russian north “in their fight against arbitrariness and lawlessness,” noting that:
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the authorities, together with private security companies and businesses close to power, have imposed an occupation regime on the Russian north.
– Lev Ponomaryov, Ekho Moskvy , June 26, 2019
Green activism in Russia and its discontents
These observations lie at the heart of Russia’s new wave of environmental activism. At a panel discussion on June 5 in Berlin’s PANDA Theater attended by the author, the independent Russian politician Dmitry Gudkov noted that “90 percent of all protests in Russia are green in nature.” Gudkov’s colleague Alexander Solovyev retorted: “Yes, but these protests are not ‘green’ because protesters are worried about climate change; they’re green because people worry about what’s going on in their backyard, about getting ill from cancer or pneumonia.”
This is no Extinction Rebellion; the resistance to Shiyes is about environmental safety rather than climate change per se. The rhetoric of Russia’s ecological activists focuses on a lack of accountability and heavy-handed governance by an elite which some Russians feel treats them as disposable, much like the trash which ends up in Shiyes. And that’s a story which resonates widely in Russia, across many diverse local protest agendas.
As prominent Russian blogger Pavel Pryanikov writes:
Shiyes is a good example of how our people are becoming wiser. At first [the population] learnt what private property is. Now people have a good understanding of their land, of their small “motherland.” Not only is the humanization of Russia progressing quickly, but our society is also quickly learning the basics of building a civic nation. That took 200-400 years to achieve in Europe, and we’ve caught up with it in a few decades. It’s great that, outside the Moscow metropolis, people have a sense of their own land; land which they and only they can do with as they see fit, rather than some “uncle from Moscow.”
On the whole, the national idea of our times is not just WHERE’S THE MONEY!? (which I write about a lot), but also EVERYTHING MUST BE PAID FOR. People are slowly coming to understand that everything requires payment: from KrymNash [the annexation of Crimea – ed.] to militarization and Tsar-rockets, and feeding the army of bureaucrats and oligarchs. […] “You demand that we tighten our belts; we demand that the Tsar’s garbage disposal men tighten their own belts for a couple of years. Comrades Sobyanin, Rotenberg, and Chaika: EVERYTHING MUST BE PAID FOR.
– Pavel Pryanikov, Facebook, June 2, 2019
Shiyes is far from the only location of a planned waste dump. In an effort to solve the capital’s significant waste management problem, Moscow officials have for several years resorted to burying trash elsewhere. As such, ecological activists in Ryazan, Tula, Kirov, Krasnoufimsk, and several other towns have made a stand against waste dumps, landfills, and garbage incinerators on their turf. Some have even succeeded — last December, protesters in Yaroslavl, a town due east of Moscow, triumphed when the government ruled that waste from the Russian capital would no longer be exported to their region. Artur Parfenchikov, governor of Karelia even promised on his VKontakte page that he would refuse to accept imports of trash from outside the northerly province.
While the protests at Shiyes certainly play to grievances of regional inequality before the capital, that doesn’t mean that Muscovites haven’t come out in support themselves. On July 3, several hundred people gathered at Moscow’s Suvorovsky Square in a protest organized by Russia’s left opposition parties. Even Russia’s communist party, which has parliamentary representation, has taken up the cause; leader Gennady Zyuganov expressed his admiration for the protesters:
Рядом со станцией Шиес ежедневно проходят столкновения борцов за чистоту родной природы с охранниками, которых поддерживает полиции. Между тем, в планах власти, насколько нам известно, создание более полусотни «объектов», превращающих живописный северный край в гигантскую свалку.
— Геннадий Зюганов (@G_Zyuganov) June 25, 2019
On a daily basis, near the Shiyes station, there are clashes between those fighting to keep their environment clean, and guards who are supported by the police. By the way, as far as we know, the authorities plan to found over fifty such “installations,” which will transform the picturesque northern region into an immense rubbish tip.
– Gennady Zyuganov, Twitter (@G_Zyuganov) June 25, 2019
The Russian authorities certainly seem concerned at this new wave of environmental protest, which has become increasingly brazen. On July 2, new “ekobessrochki” (round-the-clock protests) were launched across northern towns such as Kotlas, Severodvinsk, and Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic. Furthermore, on July 4, Archangelsk-based ecological activist Dmitry Sekushkin even set up a billboard directly outside the security services’ local headquarters reading “Shiyes is Ours! The Russian north is not a garbage dump for Moscow!” The banner was removed within a day, and Selkushkin was detained.
Another example of this unease came after Direct Line with Vladimir Putin on June 20. The annual live call-in show allows journalists and ordinary citizens to address their questions directly to the Russian president. Putin was asked by journalist Roberto Panchvidze about a new law against “insulting the authorities” which had been brought against several people for comments posted on VKontakte, mentioning one woman in the Archangelsk Region who ran afoul of it for writing “they’ve got a lot of nerve” about the landfill in Shiyes. News websites noted that the word “Shiyes” and any mention of the landfill were removed from the official transcript of the event. Prominent Russian sociologist Ekaterina Shulmann caustically remarked:
Forgive me, dear readers, but clearly we really are dealing with some manifest form of madness. Shiyes has again disappeared from the transcript of Direct Line on the site Kremlin.ru. Yesterday evening it was there, this morning it’s gone. […] Citizen computer specialists, does this kind of thing just happen, or are there really no rational explanations besides forces of evil?
– Ekaterina Shulman, Facebook, June 22, 2019
A correspondent for Znak, a Russian news website, who visited Shiyes before and after Direct Line was broadcast noted how disappointed members of the protest camp were that their cause was not directly raised with the Russian president. The same journalist indicated that reaching the protest camp outside the construction site now demanded a walk of over 13 kilometers over a mud track, as Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom has closed a nearby road.
Moreover, since June 28, passenger trains no longer stop at Shiyes, a move which unleashed a flurry of pickets outside the offices of Russian Railways. Some protesters even bought dolls of Zhdun to ticket offices with the words “will there be a train to Shiyes?” (Zhdun, whose name translates to “waiting guy” is a Russian meme resembling a walrus, with hands clasped in quiet anticipation.
Zhdun dolls have also been observed overlooking the landfill site at Shiyes demanding construction to stop, an end to deliveries of trash, and the departure of private security guards.
As Zhdun waits, more and more visitors, celebrities, campaigners, and ordinary citizens alike, are reaching Shiyes despite the obstacles.
One Muscovite writes, after a visit to the campsite on July 7:
We were only in Shiyes for a day. Alas, [we should] have come in whole legions. People there are holding on, the camp shows impressive self-organization. There’s a bathhouse, a well, a little garden with amaaaazing onions, a little forest. But the main thing is the people. The meet you, show you around, make sure you have whatever you need, give you advice, feed you for the whole day. Everybody should go there, especially Muscovites.
– Margarita Baeva, VKontakte, July 7, 2019
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Photo credit: Global Voices