Defending Russian Wilderness

Shortly afterward Medvedev released a list of 24 environmental orders to the Russian government. They included the following: Devise methods to calculate the economic value of environmental damage. Improve laws to protect Russia’s waters against oil pollution. Improve financing for Russia’s vast but underfunded protected areas, such as national parks and zapovedniks (nature reserves). Improve laws to reduce illegal logging and “corrupt ties” between forestry companies and government officials. Submit proposals to use anti-pollution fines to fund “eco-efficient and environmental technologies.” Finally, he put in charge the one official whom many Russians believe may be more powerful than the president—Vladimir Putin, now prime minister and widely rumored to be awaiting the chance to run for president in 2012, who would be responsible for following through on all of the orders, many of which would address environmental problems that festered during his own presidency from 2000 to 2008.

Russian environmentalists were floored. WWF-Russia announced that the orders opened “a new chapter in conservation of our country.” To account for his access to high-government officials, Chestin explained some recent history when I met him in Moscow this summer.

First, large protests occurred in 2006 against a proposal to build a major oil pipeline across the north end of Baikal, estimated to hold one-fifth of the Earth’s surface fresh water, most of it drinkable without filtering. Those protests apparently led Putin, in a scene shown on Russian 
television, to walk to a map and, red marker in hand, instruct the pipeline company’s shocked director that the line must move, even at great expense, far north of the Baikal lakeshore. Russians rejoiced. Chestin added that demonstrations bringing masses of people to the streets must remain part of the tool kit for WWF and other environmental organizations. A month after we spoke, Chestin stood with a bullhorn in a Moscow square—at the type of unauthorized demonstration that riles Putin—addressing a throng of thousands who were protesting construction of a major highway through an old-oak forest. Four days later Medvedev suspended construction.

Second, said Chestin, environmentalists’ new influence “coincided with a time when Putin started to get interested in large mammals. He loves them.” In April Chestin had brought a leopard from Iran to Russia and joined with Putin for its ceremonial release as part of efforts to repopulate a nature reserve in the Caucasus. Although I had seen photographs of Putin engaged recently in research expeditions that put him in contact with tigers and polar bears (anesthetized), I balked at Chestin’s use of the word love. It seemed more like political posturing. But Chestin, ferocious as usual, insisted that for Putin the feeling is love: “I’ve seen his personal reactions.”

When the government needs advice on environmental protection, it often must seek guidance from nongovernmental organizations like the WWF.

Third, Chestin added, Putin’s presidency left the government bereft of environmental specialists in part because, as Evgeny Shvarts, director of conservation policy for WWF-Russia, explained in a 2001 article for Russian Conservation News, the Putin-era evisceration of Russia’s federal services responsible for forestry, geology, water purity, nature protection and environmental safety left them with “almost no real responsibility” and led longtime employees to depart lest they later be treated as “scapegoats” for failing to safeguard the natural resources that they had been stripped of the ability to protect. Now when the government needs advice on environmental protection, it often must seek guidance from nongovernmental organizations like the WWF.

Origins of a Resurgence

If a resurgence of Russian environmental organizations is occurring, its origins can be traced to decisions in the 1990s by Russian academics and conservationists. Some of the most important involved a 23-year-old Russian environmentalist named Eugene Simonov ’93, who enrolled in 1991 at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies as the Soviet Union was dissolving.

Shvarts recalls a pivotal meeting in the Moscow apartment of a well-known oceanographer, Vadim Mokievsky. It included an eminent ornithologist, Viktor Zubakin; an advisor, Svet Zabelin, to the leading ecologist-legislator in the Soviet government; and the head of Russia’s nature reserves, a much-respected researcher-turned-administrator named Vsevolod Stepanitsky. Most of these men had become mentors to Simonov during his undergraduate years while he rose to leadership at Moscow State University in a legendary group called the druzhina (militia) for nature protection.

Shvarts recalls that “a direct order to Eugene” was made to raise money in order to save and “reform and transform the Russian and post-Soviet conservation system.” With the Soviet Union in collapse, its zapovedniks—those pristine nature reserves that had been protected for most of a century—were at risk of falling victim to hunters and loggers. Simonov does not recall a direct order, but he said the urgency they all felt during that time pushed him to begin a “save-the-zapovedniks program”—a quest to find funds to save Russia’s nature reserves.

Hidden behind the Iron Curtain and defended for decades by academics and researchers against the depredations of Joseph Stalin was the world’s greatest system of scientific nature reserves.

At Yale on scholarship, Simonov had no philanthropic contacts, but he had an almost-unknown conservation story to tell: Hidden behind the Iron Curtain and defended for decades by academics and researchers against the depredations of Joseph Stalin was the world’s greatest system of scientific nature reserves, begun in 1916 on the shores of 400-mile-long Lake Baikal. Descending from granite ridges and peaks, standing almost a mile above the lake, Barguzinsky Zapovednik descends through a land of glacial amphitheaters, stone rivers, hanging valleys, upright inselbergs and stepped waterfalls. In its alpine valleys bloom golden rhododendron and purple Siberian tea. Clustered around hot springs—home to relic species like dwarf dragonflies that belong in the subtropics but survive in Barguzinsky—birches rise 90 feet, white and smooth as marble columns. Where Barguzinsky reaches the granite cobbles of Baikal, the lake dives a vertical mile to the bottom—the deepest, oldest, most voluminous lake on Earth. Continuing deeper than its own lake floor, the great rift of Baikal descends through another four vertical miles of silt, carried in by tributary streams for some 25 million years. While the Earth’s other lakes have come and gone, Baikal has spread tectonically, enabling the evolution of hundreds of species found nowhere else on earth—all gaining at least partial protection from the presence around Baikal’s shores of three zapovedniks and three national parks.

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