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.

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.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Russian naturalists traversed their continent to establish reserves. In the Russian Caucasus, Kavkazsky Zapovednik, founded in 1924 and soon intended to become the main site for reintroducing leopards into European Russia, descends from its peak at more than 11,000 feet through pastures that hold European bison and past cliffs that are home to an almost-acrobatic wild goat, the Caucasian tur. On the Pacific coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a volcano-studded scimitar slicing into the Pacific, Kronotsky Zapovednik, created in 1935, begins atop snow-topped volcanic cones. Its landscape descends into a valley of spouting geysers, which shoot steam high above riverbanks that can be as colorful as stained glass. In Kronotsky’s volcano-flanked lakes and rivers, salmon spawn in uncountable millions—as much as one-fifth of the world’s wild salmon spawn in the pristine rivers of Kamchatka. In one abundant Kronotsky-protected lake, where spawning salmon can number 2 million in a year, brown bear gather in the world’s largest concentration. Government designation of a zapovednik (a word based on “commandment”) mandated that its territory remain off-limits to human entry, except for protection by rangers and for studies or educational work led by scientists.

In the spring of 1992 Simonov took a course with Stephen Berwick, Ph.D. ’74, who was coordinating major projects in international conservation for the World Bank. After Simonov wrote a paper describing Russia’s zapovedniks, Berwick suggested that it could become a funding proposal. Once the term ended, Simonov wound up at Berwick’s home, working 72-hour stretches to finalize the proposal for submission to the World Bank. The review process would take years.

When Simonov’s Yale studies ended in 1993, he applied to Echoing Green for funding to do conservation work in Russia. So did his classmate Margaret Williams ’93, who with his help had spent the summer of 1992 as an environmental educator in Magadansky Zapovednik on Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk at the edge of the Pacific. Both Yale graduates got annual grants of $25,000 for two years and headed to Moscow. Teamed with Simonov, Williams set about creating Russian Conservation News, which became an international publishing forum for leading Russian conservationists. Both worked under the umbrella of a newly created organization, Russia’s Biodiversity Conservation Center (BCC), which often seemed to run out of Simonov’s family apartment and, Williams recalls, was a vibrant intellectual salon, filled with leading Russian conservationists and flavored by the smoke from Simonov’s ever-present pipe. Williams, recalls Stepanitsky, who met her in his role as director of the nature reserve system and then teamed with her at BCC, seemed “like an alive symbol of Russian-American cooperation.”

At the current Moscow offices of BCC, its walls covered with protected-area maps, I was regaled with stories by Nikolai Sobolev, who in the early 1990s had served in Russia’s Ministry for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. As Sobolev recalls, Simonov introduced the idea of adding “ecological corridors” to help connect Russia’s impressive protected areas into interacting ecological networks. Sobolev also recalls that the Echoing Green grant got divided by Simonov into separate funds to start BCC’s ecological networks program; to inaugurate a Center for Russian Nature Conservation; and to sustain the BCC itself, which by 1994 provided at least part-time pay to 18 Russian environmental advocates.  

In 1993 Laura Williams ’99 (no relation to Margaret) arrived in Moscow to recruit a leader for a new WWF office in Russia. Stepanitsky suggested Vladimir Krever, a protected-areas specialist, who went on to work with Williams to dispense funds—provided mainly by WWF-Denmark—for research and education in zapovedniks. Coming at a time when the Russian government, besieged by a collapsing economy, was slashing the budget of the reserve system, WWF-Denmark’s aid plugged a few funding gaps. Treasure arrived, however, in 1996. The World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF) awarded $20 million for Russian nature conservation based on Simonov’s proposal from his Yale days. “It was like an explosion for us,” Krever recalls. “It was an incredible amount of money for Russia in the middle of the 1990s.”

Suddenly Simonov and Laura Williams, while continuing at BCC and WWF-Russia, respectively, were lead consultants, working to apportion millions of dollars allocated by the GEF, and Margaret Williams became a contributing expert, focusing on nature reserves. Simonov insisted, against GEF’s preference for a few large allocations, on sending lots of grants to lots of reserves, supporting some 750 projects that had impact throughout the continent—allocations like the following: annual $1,600 salaries for anti-poaching rangers to protect Russian tigers; payments of $12 a ton for 475 tons of winter feed annually for rare European bison at a reserve that breeds endangered species; $70 each to buy 10 inflatable boats for a reserve in Kamchatka; and an annual $2,400 salary for a scientist to manage a project for restoring rare cranes in flood plains near the Amur River along the Chinese border. Simonov pushed another policy—get money into the hands of underpaid Russian scholars and naturalists, rather than overpaid outside consultants. “We were managing this $20 million in bags of $1,000 to $20,000,” recalls Simonov, and “it drove the World Bank wild.” (In those years of a mostly cash economy, they really did use bags.)

The final GEF report praised Simonov’s project for success that had “no analogs in the scale of public participation (over 110,000 people) in practical activities on biodiversity conservation and restoration” and that sent funds to “82 of Russia’s 100 nature reserves.” Berwick said that for Simonov to have convinced GEF to let him—a young Russian in his mid-20s—allocate millions of dollars to researchers spread across thousands of square miles of Siberia is “just a total reflection of his energy and brains.”

Spreading funds widely meant that Simonov had managed a pervasive revitalization of Russia’s conservation community. Soon many of Russia’s leading conservationists, a large proportion with doctorates, began to work with Simonov and Margaret Williams at BCC or with Krever and Laura Williams at WWF, in the process creating durable organizations. The years took on the aura of a golden age. The acreage of Russian nature reserves jumped in the 1990s to 83 million from 52 million—approximately catching up, for the first time since Stalin cut them back, with the acreage of America’s national parks.

Then came the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin. The new president wasted no time in leading an assault on the integrity of zapovedniks, whose directors were told to make their lands pay. At a meeting of zapovednik directors in October 2001, a deputy finance minister told them to start cutting and selling forests in their nature reserves. In 2002 Stepanitsky quit his job as director, announcing that going to work was like “going behind enemy lines,” and took a job at WWF. He noted in 2005 that the failure to create any zapovedniks from 2001 to 2004 under Putin was matched in duration only by the same failure from 1951 to 1954 under Stalin.

A Spreading Environmentalism

Recently, a coalition of 200 Russian researchers, led partly by Krever, completed an analysis of gaps in Russia’s protected areas, such as failures to protect species or ecosystems. It found, for example, that among Russia’s rare and threatened species, protection was adequate for only 51 percent of mammals, 41 percent of birds and 36 percent of reptiles. Their gap analysis calls for increasing Russia’s total protected areas to 500 million acres, or 10 percent of the country.

Stepanitsky, rehired by the government to run the office of zapodveniks and parks, is now drawing on this analysis to make a case for greatly expanding Russian protected areas. Although the numbers are not yet official, Stepanitsky told me that a hoped-for target would be 11 new zapovedniks and 18 new national parks by 2020. He declined to predict a total area, but another source told me that Stepanitsky’s team hopes to increase zapovedniks by 5 million acres, to more than 88 million, and to nearly double Russia’s national park lands to 38 million acres. Federal funding must increase, said Stepanitsky, but he has managed for years on slim budgets: $63 million this year for Russia’s 102 zapovedniks and 41 national parks, covering 107 million acres. (His 2010 budget would run America’s National Park System, at 84 million acres, for eight days.) Winning protection for 20 million more acres within a decade to protect Russia’s biodiversity may prove tough in a difficult economy. Stepanitsky, not prone to hyperbole, said of the task ahead: “I will be doing my best.”

Since the mid-1990s, Stepanitsky has been urging researchers in zapovedniks to embrace an educational, as well as a scientific, mission. In 1995 Margaret Williams introduced the March for Parks, which inspired schoolchildren to hold a science conference in Laplandsky Zapovednik, clean up a river basin in Voronezhsky Zapovednik, build a nature trail in Bryansky Les Zapovednik, and more. Last year, under the direction of BCC, March for Parks involved nearly half a million Russians, with 40,000 volunteers conducting 520 environmental projects and raising more than $160,000 for zapovedniks and national parks.

In April under a bright blue sky, three young Russians wearing blaze-orange jumpsuits and climbing gear strolled toward a 20-foot-high fence that protects the grand entrance of the Moscow White House, headquarters for Prime Minister Putin. Each climber, Greenpeace emblazoned on his back, zipped upward to a position astride the fence. They unspooled a 100-foot-wide, lemon-yellow banner, its jet-black letters as high as six feet, asking: “Who is the enemy of Baikal No. 1 of 13 January 2010?” The obvious answer would be Putin. His decree (marked “No. 1”) on January 13 had opened Lake Baikal to renewed pollution by an antiquated paper-making factory that dumps chlorine, dioxins and other pollutants into the otherwise pure lake. Armed White House guards raced toward the fence, but they did not fire. The Greenpeace climbers walked away. In Moscow Andrey Petrov, head of his nation’s Greenpeace program to support World Heritage sites (Lake Baikal is one), said such bold actions for Baikal would remain “part of our chain of actions … we will not stop before we solve the problem.”

As we spoke, Petrov was preparing to fly to Brasilia for the annual meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. He would take a letter from members of the Russian Academy of Sciences that accused Putin of violating Russia’s agreement, made when it nominated Lake Baikal for World Heritage status, to stop the mill from polluting the lake. Under pressure, the Russian government committed itself to ending the plant’s pollution of Baikal within 30 months. Based on this promise, the World Heritage Committee refrained from issuing sanctions.

In late August Prime Minister Putin joined the director of Kronotsky Zapovednik in a small speedboat for a close look at Kamchatka’s abundant bears and salmon. The excursion gave Tikhon Shpilenok, the zapovednik’s director, an opportunity to discuss poaching slaughter, which left Putin sounding outraged. Asked why he spends so much time among wild animals, Putin replied, “Because I like it. I love nature.”

So what to make of Russian leaders claiming that they love nature and share the sentiments of environmental bloggers? Why would they begin listening to and sounding like environmentalists? As this summer’s record heat helped torrid wildfires advance toward Moscow, President Medvedev called the combination “a wakeup call to all of us” to “take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.” Russia’s leaders may sense—in the thousands of citizens who march for parks or rally for Baikal or flee from raging fires—the beginnings of a broad environmental awakening.

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