Shiyes, a battle for the homeland

A Cautionary Tale

This is a story about a region of Russia, the Arkhangelsk Region, being forced to accept an environmental disaster.  Here are the main points.

  • The disaster involves the cutting down of a large section of forest and the construction of the largest landfill in Russia.
  • The dump will receive 2.3 million tons of waste from Moscow per year, for 20 years.  The waste will include toxic material, organic material, recyclable waste, and waste from constructions sites.
  • News outlets are owned or tightly controlled by the government and people are being brutally arrested for criticizing the government or the police.
  • Because the courts are controlled by the government, all legal appeals have failed.

All of the sources are in Russian.  I am fluent in Russian and have tried to translate and paraphrase what I have read accurately.

Some activists of Shies. Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

The impact on the environment. Shiyes is a small train station on the Northern Railroad. This railroad, through its different branches, connects Arkhangelsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and many towns across the Arkhangelsk region and the Republic of Komi. The Shies train station is located on the bank of the Shies River.  Passenger trains are no longer permitted to stop at Shies to prevent protesters from coming to and going from Shies.

Shiyes is located in the southeast part of the Arkhangelsk region and only 2 km from the border with the Republic of Komi. The nearest communities are Urdoma, which is 30 km away from Shiyes, and Madmas, which is part of the Republic of Komi. Shiyes is surrounded by unspoiled forest and peat bogs, where wildlife such as bears and elk are common. Locals still go hunting, fishing, and picking berries and mushrooms. Berries and mushrooms gave additional income to grannies, who sold them to the passengers of trains passing by.

About a year ago the life of the residents of Urdoma and Madmas changed dramatically, when they learned that a Moscow construction company started clearing the woods for building a huge landfill. This landfill, according to Forest Forum Greenpeace, will be one of the largest dumps in the world. The garbage will include organic waste, recyclables, toxic material, and garbage from construction sites.  This garbage will be crushed, pressed, and packed in plastic in Moscow and will be shipped by railroad to Shiyes. The first 15 hectors of pristine forest has already been cut down and another 301 hectors of pristine forest are designated to be cut down in order to serve as a place for Moscow’s landfill.

The plan is to bury 2.3 million tons of garbage annually for 20 years in the Shiyes landfill. Greenpeace specialists in the environment called this dump “Another Chernobyl.” According to Greenpeace, the organic garbage will produce gasses which break the plastic wrapper due to significant differences of temperature during the summertime. The garbage will then spill into the surrounding bog, which feeds creeks and eight small rivers that flow into the Vychegda River. The Vychegda River in turn flows into the Northern Dvina River, which empties into the White Sea. The White Sea is connected to the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Pollution and toxic spills from the landfill will accumulate over the years and inevitably pollute the environment. It will also cause deadly health problems in residents, who live not only in close proximity to Shies but also those who live along the river Vychegda and the North Dvina River.  Towns and cities such as Urdoma, Madmas, Koryazhma, Kotlas, Krasnoborsk, Verhnyaya Toima, Bereznik, Emetsk, Kholmogory, Novodvinsk, Arkhangelsk and many more will be affected.

According to law 67.1, which regulates the Water Resources of Russia, the construction of dumps and cemeteries in the basins of rivers and in the bogs, which feed these rivers, is prohibited.

According to Greenpeace, the Republic of Komi will get air pollution from the dump. The dump will stink, ferment, and periodically catch fire. And this, according to Novaya Gazeta, can be a cause of an even bigger disaster. The peat in the bog, which surrounds the area, is highly inflammable. Additionally, a major gas pipe of Gazprom goes through the area.   In fact, many residents of Urdoma work at the gas compression station of Gazprom at Urdoma. 

Resistance of protestors and local activists. Ivan Chesnokov, a journalist of BBC Russia, interviewed local activist Victor Zhuravlev, who was born and raised in Urdoma. Victor Zhuravlev said: “I will not let our nature be destroyed. This nature nurtured and raised me, fed and provided water…… We won’t give up! I don’t care whether I die from Moscow’s garbage or from the bullet of OMON (special police forces in Russia).” 

A block post. Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

Victor took the journalist around and told him the history of the nine months resistance. Every week Victor comes to one of the block posts in Shiyes. There are three block posts, strategically located close to a dirt road, which connects Shies with Urdoma and Madmas. A block post is simply a tent with a supply of food and drinking water, equipped with radios to keep in touch with other block posts. The frequency of the radios has to be changed often so that they are not detected by security guards protecting the construction site. People from many Northern towns and cities, including Urdoma, Arkhangelsk, Syktyvkar, St. Petersburg, and even Moscow, come to support local activists on their watch.

Another block post. Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

The purposes of these block posts are twofold: first, not to let construction machinery come to the construction site and second, to document all legal violations on video. The names for these block posts speak for themselves: Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Campfire.  Activists are convinced that the wood cutting and construction were started illegally without proper documentation and permissions.

Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

Timeline.  Here is a brief timeline of events, documented by a BBC Russia journalist after conducting interviews with the activists.  The timeline also includes material from other sources.

In July 2018 the administration of the Arkhangelsk region gave the rights to use 56 hectors of land around Shies to the company Russian Railroads until the year 2056. Russian Railroads gave the land to a company in Moscow called Automobile Roads, which in turn gave it to its subsidiary Technopark.

In the summer of 2018 local hunters discovered that unidentified people were cutting down pristine forest around Shiyes.

In August a regional minister of natural resources recognized that deforestation around Shiyes is illegal. An assistant of the governor of the Arkhangelsk region admitted that a timber processing plant and a landfill for Moscow’s garbage will be built in Shies. Residents of Urdoma collected signatures against the landfill. 

Conflict between the construction company Technopark and local activists started in the fall of 2018, when the activists blocked the road from the Republic of Komi to stop trucks carrying sand for the construction.

In December 2018 mass protests and demonstrations against the construction of Moscow’s dump took place in many cities and towns of the Arkhangelsk region and of the Republic of Komi. Citizens of Arkhangelsk and Severodvinsk demanded the resignation of Governor Orlov, who is the governor of the Arkhangelsk region.

In February 2019 activists blocked the road to Shiyes from Urdoma, cutting off the transport of gasoline by trucks to the construction site.

In March 2019 the conflict between activists and the construction company turned violent. An earthmover and two trucks drove to a trailer, which served as a post for activists who were on their watch. The earthmover pressed one activist to the wall of the trailer and then crushed the trailer with its bucket. The earthmover then drove into a crowd of activists like a tank.  According to the local newspaper 29.ru, Vladimir Kogut, the activist who was pressed against the trailer, was badly injured by the bucket of the earthmover and was taken to a hospital. According to BBC Russia, three activists, Valerii Dzuba, Vechaslav Grigoryants, and Adrew Starkovsky, were detained and accused of beating up Kozlov, the operator of the earthmover. Grigoryants stated that he was not there at the time of the incident. According to 29.ru the police ignored the reported injuries of the activist Vladimir Kogut and did not start a case against Kozlov, the operator of the earthmover.   A fourth activist, Denis Dobrynin, was later criminally charged in the incident with the earthmover.

On April 5 2019, Orlov, the Governor of the Arkhangelsk region, during his public speech in Severodvinsk, was questioned by journalists about the construction of the landfill.  They noted that almost all residents of the Arkhangelsk region (96%) are against the construction of the landfill and want it stopped.  Orlov responded: “Hell no! It will never happen. .… And any kind of shelupon (trash), who are nobody here and their names are nothing…. I don’t give a damn about their ratings and what they think.”

On April 7 2019, unsanctioned meetings, triggered by the derogatory remarks of the governor, happened in 20 different cities and towns of the Arkhangelsk region. Under banners saying “You will pay for shelupon (trash)!,” several thousand people marched in these towns. They demanded the following: that the construction of the landfill in Shies be stopped and that Governor Orlov and members in his government resign, because they did not live up to the peoples’ trust. More than 30 people were fined after the meetings. The total fines amounted to more than 1 million rubles ($ 15,384), or approximately $513 per person. This is about 2 to 3 months of an average monthly salary or pension.

Protests in Arkhangelsk. Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

Activists started a constant protest in front of the building, where the government of the Arkhangelsk region meets. Constant protests are also taking place in Shiyes and Severodvinsk.

In Shies, Police confiscated phones, cameras, laptops, and memory cards from activists.  Trailers that were stationed on each block post were confiscated too. Activists were left with tents only.  

On May 9 2019, on Victory Day, about 50 people gathered at the block post named Leningrad. Activists from Arkhangelsk, Syktyvkar, and other northern towns came to support the protesters. Flags were flown and music was played. The protesters called each other the defenders of the Motherland.

Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

The construction site is about 200 meters from block post Leningrad.  One can see piles of sand, earthmovers, the living quarters for workers, a heliport, a hangar for fuel storage, and many security guards.  The security guards are employees of the Moscow private security company Guarantor of Security.

The construction site.
Security guards and and activists.
Security guards and activists confrontation. Photos courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

It is very disheartening to read and watch videos showing how brutally the security guards beat people up.  Many of them are women and pensioners.

According to the local newspaper 29.ru, on May 10 2019, “about 40 activists tried to prevent the delivery of fuel by a helicopter.” They sat in defiance on the cement of the heliport, forming a human shield. About 80 security guards rushed to the heliport and surrounded the activists. The guards brutally attacked them. People were beaten, kicked, and dragged across the cement of the heliport.  They were dragged through the dirt and thrown out of the construction site.

Photos courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

Journalists from 29.ru interviewed a victim of this assault, Marina Dzuba. They reported:  “Marina is a slight woman, a poet, a soul and a conscience of Urdoma and the Arkhanglesk region, who stands for the truth.  She thinks that the truth in Russia is shamelessly and with impunity being stomped into the mud.” Marina was dragged by the security guards to a sewage ditch. They wanted to throw her into the ditch. She resisted and tried to get away, but they threw her to the ground. As a result, her head and back were injured and her ankle was twisted.

Many activists received bruises and injuries. A guard dragged one of them and smashed his head against cement.  Another protester was injured so badly that he could not walk and was taken to the hospital. Security guards did not even spare a nurse from an emergency vehicle, which arrived at the scene. One security guard punched her.

Police watched all of this violence and did nothing. Marina reported her injuries to the police.  They sent her report to the National Guard. The National Guards sent it back to the police, claiming that it’s not their business.

There is a video of the assault by guards at the heliport.

According to a newspaper called Znak.com, other assaults were carried out by security guards later in May, resulting in concussions, broken legs, and back injuries.

 On June 15 2019, in spite of the bitter resistance of activists, the construction company, backed by security guards, police, and Special Forces of the National Guard, completed the first stage of construction.  They carried off all the machinery from the construction site by railroad. 

 According to News29.ru, there will be research, preparation of documentation for the project, evaluation of the project, public hearings, and finally government experts’ examination of the project. But people don’t have trust anymore. They think it’s the calm before the storm. They are sure there will be more “repressions” against activists and that the construction will continue with full speed.

The decision about the construction of the dump in Shiyes was originally done by Governor Orlov, who signed an agreement with the Mayor of Moscow. After people learned about this project, they wrote letters, appeals, and have recorded videos to reach out to the President of Russia, who obviously knew about this problem. They listed all of the reasons why millions of tons of garbage, buried in Shies, will be harmful to the pristine nature of the North, to their health, and to the health of their children.

There was great hope to reach out to the President during a direct line with him on TV on June 20, 2019. There were more than 500 hundred people, who came to Shies on that day in the hope of some resolution from their president. According to journalists from Znak.com “there were about 240 tents laid out along the railroad tracks, which activists brought with them. People from all walks of life came to Shiyes on that day, including teaches, firefighters, scientists, former cops, doctors, shop assistants, students, retirees, truck drivers, lawyers, journalists and specialists from nuclear centers.”

Protesters camping in Shies. Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.”

People came from the Arkhangelsk region and the Republic of Komi, Vyatka, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vologda, Yaroslavl, and Ural. Thanks to the generosity of activists there is one tent, where people can borrow rubber boots, rain jackets and water proof pants. Thanks to local computer wizards there is a 10 square meter space, where people can get connected to Wi-Fi and mobile networks. Sometimes the connection fails but most of the time it works.  However, the direct line between Shies and the President didn’t happen. Shies was not even mentioned in the dialogues.

Activists recording an appeal to the President of Russia. Photo courtesy of the Facebook page “The Russian North is not a dump.”

According to 7*7 Horizontal News, there is a video recorded for the June 20 direct line to the President.  There is also a text of the appeal to the President. Activists stated that 96% of the residents in the Arkhangelsk region and in the Republic of Komi are against the dump. Here is the text of the appeal with the activists’ demands:

“1.The dump will destroy the ecological system of the bog.  Pollution of the area will cause an ecological catastrophe, which will affect not only two Northern regions of Russia but also areas on the shores of the White Sea and the Barents Sea, including some European countries.

2. A referendum to vote on this issue and also a ban on garbage from any other regions of Russia. The Arkhangelsk region and the Republic of Komi give so much to the country. These regions give natural resources such as oil and natural gas, coal and diamonds. They accommodate an important space launching site and a nuclear submarine building facility. Brining the garbage to our regions humiliates our dignity and honor.

3. The resignation of the governor and the return to fair and direct elections in the Arkhangelsk region and the Republic of Komi.

4. All senators, who represent our regions, must resign because they do not deserve the trust of the citizens.

5. To stop prosecution of the activists and members of their families because they did not break any law. People who harass these activists must be disciplined according to the law of the Russian Federation.”

Now it’s only a few hundred activists against an army of judgers, police, Special Forces and the government. These activists are admirable for their courage, love for their native land and their conviction.  There, in Shies, they are one family connected by camaraderie and shared values. Shies always welcomes brave volunteers.

Unfortunately, on June 25 2019, the Supreme Court in Moscow cancelled the decision of the regional court to hold a referendum. People were denied the right to vote on the construction of the dump. They appealed to the Constitutional Court, which is the last court of appeal.

Freedom of Speech.  Many users of social media who expressed their opinions about the dump and the governor were charged for their criticism. According to clerk.ru, a new law punishes people and media for criticizing government officials and organizations. This law was signed and came into force on March 2019. First time violators get a fine from 30,000 to 100,000 rubles (from $460 to $1,538). The second offence is punished by a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 rubles (from $1,538 to $ 3,077) or 15 days in prison. A third offence is punished by a fine of 200,000 to 300,000 rubles (from $3,077 to $4,615) or 15 days in prison. Criticism is defined as someone saying or writing something clearly disrespectful or indecent about government officials or government organizations. So far people have been fined for comments on social media because they were upset that Governor Orlov called them “trash” or because police did not take any actions when they were asked for help.  Here are three examples.  According to 29.ru, Svetlana Baksheeva, a shop assistant from Kotlas, received a fine of 30,000 rubles ($460) for her comment about the Governor, who called people “trash.” Elena Makarova, who questioned in a comment the honesty of police and judges, is under investigation. Alexander Pushkin from Arkhangelsk, who wrote a comment expressing his resentment to the huge fines for criticism of the government, received a fine of 30,000 rubles ($460).

There is another law, signed in March 2019, which prohibits “fake news.” According to 29.ru, Elena Kalinina, a mother of three, who organized an unsanctioned meeting against the construction of the dump on April 7 2019, was accused of spreading “fake news.” She most likely faces a fine of 100,000 to 300,000 rubles (from $1,538 to $4,615).  Some of these outspoken people were reported to police by 68 years old Olga Iljina, who did not like these comments in the social media VKontakte. And more activists are on the list of “most wanted” for their criticism of the government, police, new laws and judges.

According to BBC Russia, lawyers and members of the Human Rights Organization in Russia think that these laws will seriously curtail the freedom of speech in Russia because these laws are so general and vague that they will be applied arbitrarily. 

How did it happen that people in Russia were deprived of their human rights and that their freedom of speech is so brutally suppressed by the government?

It took only two decades in Russia to take away democracy, freedom of speech and human rights from people step by step and law by law.  In terms of history this is the blink of an eye.

There is nothing about Shiyes on any of the central and regional TV channels in Russia and only a handful of independent newspapers and a Facebook group continue covering this human tragedy and the threat of an ecological disaster. However, there are real heroes, who stand for what they believe in: the human rights of the Russian people, a clean environment and freedom of speech. They are ready to sacrifice everything including their lives for these values. These people are the real treasure of Russia, so unappreciated by the government.

If you don’t have:

1. The separation and independence of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

2. The judicial review of both the executive and legislative branches of government.

3. Legislative review of the executive branch of government.

4. Members of the executive branch of government being held accountable both criminally and civilly.

5. A free and independent press, including TV, newspapers, radio, books, and the internet.

Then you don’t have freedom and the rule of law. Instead you have Russia.

This is Russia today for you. This is not “Russia Today,” the TV channel that spreads propaganda, trying to put down American democracy, twisting the truth and broadcasting lies which they call their interpretation of events.

Wake up America! Don’t let it happen here, in the land of the free. It’s happening now. It has started already: an autocratic president, who allies himself with brutal dictators, who calls all independent media “fake news,” appoints judgers and attorney generals who serve his political self-interests, welcomes help from foreign governments in his election and does nothing to protect the 2020 election from this interference. What happened to the Republican Party, which became complacent to all of the above listed signs of a crumbling democracy? Don’t let yourself be fooled by a red hat with fake promises written across it. We need a president, who is tough on our enemies and merciful to refugees and their children, not the other way around.  Appreciate and protect your democracy, your freedom of speech, and your human rights. These values won’t survive if we leave them unprotected and are complacent to autocrats and corruption.

Resources used

Greenpeace:

BBC Russia News:

https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-48339319

https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-46549134

29.ru Arkhangelsk online:

https://29.ru/text/incidents/66084619/

https://29.ru/text/incidents/66109243/

https://29.ru/text/incidents/66017431/?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop

https://29.ru/text/incidents/66084304/

https://29.ru/text/incidents/66103549/

https://29.ru/text/politics/66070609/

https://29.ru/text/politics/66139150/?

https://29.ru/text/politics/66115414/

https://29.ru/text/world/66022855/

ND.29 News of the Day:

http://xn--29-jlc9a.xn--p1ai/?p=152948

Clerk.ru

https://www.klerk.ru/buh/articles/483487/

Znak.com internet newspaper:

https://www.znak.com/2019-06-21/protestnyy_shies_pered_pryamoy_liniey_s_putinym_i_posle_nee_reportazh?fbclid=IwAR017Nu9y9Ldc4GnirxXxsJVuA_IkbfBWMONIqQaZEDAwJqQ0XNLfseO_GE

Novaya Gazeta:

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/06/18/80934-luchshe-pod-dubinki-chem-na-svalku?fbclid=IwAR3natx72baMcYmf4cIpwtRFiSvUiMIvYoMEFXOTDODE_Kkf0_Keoafns-g

7*7 Horizontal Russia:

https://7×7-journal.ru/articles/2019/06/20/aktivisty-na-stancii-shies-arhangelskoj-oblasti-potrebovali-ot-prezidenta-putina-zakrytiya-ekotehnoparka

All photos are used with permission of the Facebook group “The Russian North is not a dump.” https://www.facebook.com/poligonamnet/?tn-str=k*F

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