Defending Russian Wilderness

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, glancing to his right on May 27 at a high-level government meeting, said, “Let’s listen to the environmentalists.” He looked at Igor Chestin, head of the Russia office of WWF (known internationally as the World Wide Fund for Nature), a guest among the high-government officials of the Presidium of the State Council. Not since 2003 had the president of Russia, then Vladimir Putin, convened the presidium to discuss environmental initiatives. That meeting, which produced almost no results, left Russian environmentalists fuming.

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© Igor Shpilenok

If the government in Moscow—heir to a history of Soviet environmental mismanagement that helped desiccate the Aral Sea in Central Asia and melt down the Chernobyl reactor on the edge of Europe—begins listening to good environmental counsel, the global environment may reap huge benefits. Russia controls one-eighth the land surface of the habitable globe and one-fifth of its forested areas, which may store more carbon than the forestlands of any other country. It is also the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, second-largest exporter of oil and third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the United States.

Russian efforts to manage forestlands to maximize their ability to store carbon, rather than permit their destruction by fire or by sloppy logging, could significantly reduce the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and related impacts on climate change. Russian efforts to shift toward use of renewable energy such as wind power, available abundantly in Russia, could drive down its own high emissions. A reduced dependence on exporting fossil fuels could lessen Russia’s need for potentially polluting oil and gas exploration in the oceans of its continental shelf. A Russian decision to place environmental controls on the kinds of mineral exploration and oceanic transportation that occur in the increasingly ice-free ocean above its north coast could help protect Arctic regions against environmental damage. And protection of its waterways against pollution could make Russia a source of pure water in an increasingly thirsty world, since Russia possesses 9 percent of the world’s constantly renewing sources of water in its rivers and 26 percent of the world’s stored surface water (most of which is now so pure as to be potable without filtering) in its lakes.

The idea that Russia’s leaders would listen to Russian environmentalists’ entreaties runs contrary to the experience of most Russians and of people throughout the world. Indeed, most of the world seems unaware of the history and current work of Russian environmentalists on behalf of nature protection and conservation. International awareness about current Russian conservation efforts can, in the words of Stephen Kellert, Ph.D. ’71, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and since the 1970s an expert on why people worldwide make decisions to preserve the natural world, seem as dim as a “black hole.”

A familiar view appeared this summer in the New York Times article “Kremlin Relents, for Now, to Foes of Highway,” which said that environmentalists trying to get their government to listen—with the only forum often being public demonstrations—have for years “risked arrests and sometimes beatings by the police and masked plainclothes thugs” and that “such efforts lead to little but holding cells or worse.” Adding clout, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this summer warned demonstrators who failed to receive the right kind of advance permit (not always readily offered) should expect that “you are going to get beaten upside the head with a club.” Putin is usually viewed as the nation’s environmental nemesis, beginning from the start of his presidency in 2000 when he dissolved the nation’s 200-year-old forest service and put the nation’s nature reserves under the management of a ministry whose historic role had been extracting resources by logging and mining rather than protecting nature. As if to complete the symbolism, then-President Putin named a builder of highways as the new minister in charge of nature reserves. The machinery of state repression of environmentalists, apparently continentwide, includes efforts to disable environmental organizations by such tactics as sending plainclothes police to confiscate all their computers on the suspicion, even if unfounded, that the computers may contain unlicensed software, as reported this summer on the front page of The New York Times in the article “Russia Uses Microsoft to Suppress Dissent.” A 2008 Newsweek article said that Russian “officialdom now seems to spend more time cracking down on ecologists than tackling ecological problems.”

As Chestin prepared in May to ask Russia’s president to confront environmental challenges, he had reason to believe that he would not receive support. In opening the session, President Medvedev remarked that businesses need to see economic benefits if they attempt environmental modernization. Following the president, the federal minister of natural resources remarked that possessing huge territory had permitted the Soviet Union to ignore environmental issues. And a spokesman for Russian business argued that environmental improvement hurts national competitiveness. Those arguments offered snapshots of environmentalists’ fears: Soviet-legacy environmental errors might seem unfortunate but beyond remediation; pork-belly projects would get fresh greenwashing; business interests would continue to prevail over environmental concerns.

“Dear Dmitry Anatolevich,” Chestin began, looking fierce in his dark suit, which was a far cry from his usual field naturalist’s garb. He then went on attack, critiquing Putin’s unproductive 2003 session, which occurred in the same room, for failing to avert what became a decade of environmental missteps. Medvedev, interrupting as he had not done with other speakers, tried to block Chestin from dwelling on past problems. Chestin charged onward. He attacked changes that took effect in 2000 with Putin’s presidency that eliminated environmental assessment of major public works, such as the construction of a ski resort within a national park, and weakened defense of protected natural areas. Chestin contended that the government had cut the number of rangers in Russia’s forests by more than 80 percent in a decade (the number of rangers decreased to 12,000 from 70,000), leaving Russia unprepared when wildfires erupted, as they did this summer, darkening Moscow with smoke.

Another environmentalist, Vladimir Zakharov, a professor in the Russian Academy of Sciences and president of an independent organization called the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, argued that “ecology today is economy”—the two are one. President Medvedev, remarking on the environmentalists’ energetic style, said, “There must be someone who beats an alarm.”

Nine days later the president went on the Web via video, as he often does when he wishes to speak to the nation. Soft light slanted through a forested park behind him. When he began to make the point that was the title of his talk—“Ecology and Economics Do Not Contradict Each Other”—the camera cut from the forest to the previous week’s seminar table, starting with close-ups of Chestin and Zakharov. At this “ecological moment” in world history, he said, “any normal economy must be environmentally friendly.” He noted that his videos have elicited many environmental pleas from blogging constituents, and he praised those calling for new environmental laws and more ecological education.

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