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Devoted to saving Lake Baikal, she won even Putin's ear

Marina Rikhvanova is one of seven grass-roots environmental activists who will receive the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco Monday.

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Sometimes called "Russia's Galapagos," Lake Baikal is a unique ecosystem with almost 2,000 endemic plant and animal species. Nearly 400 miles long and more than a mile deep, it is a vast reservoir of pure water – the world's largest – collected in an ancient rift valley at Asia's heart. Rikhvanova, a native of the region, was profoundly influenced as a young girl in the late '60s, when the Soviet Union's first environmental protest movement erupted over a plan to build a pulp and paper mill to take advantage of the lake's unlimited supply of clean water. The factory, which still operates at Baikalsk on the lake's southern shore, has remained a potent symbol of economic abuse for generations of Russians.

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"Any biologist dreams of working at Lake Baikal, it's one of the most special places in the world," says Irina Pokrovskaya, a biogeographer at the official Institute of Geography in Moscow. "It's a crime that there's a pulp and paper mill operating there."

Rikhvanova recalls being taken by her father in the 1970s to visit Valentin Rasputin, the traditionalist writer who did much to publicize Lake Baikal's plight within the tough literary controls of the Soviet system. At university, she made friends with Jennifer Sutton, a British woman who'd lived and taught English in Irkutsk for many years.

"Jennifer was interested in ecology, and she would discuss it in class," Rikhvanova says. "At one point she brought in a lot of [Western] literature about the environment and, gradually, our English-language club became an ecological organization."

After graduating, Rikhvanova worked as a biologist at the famous Limnologicial Center on Lake Baikal's shore, classifying the lake's unique fish species. But she turned to activism in the early 1990s after growing disappointed with local politicians' lack of commitment to ecological priorities. "We saw it was no use to work with them, so we decided to do it ourselves," she says. Members of the Baikal Environmental Wave, which Rikhvanova cofounded with Ms. Sutton about 16 years ago, started out lecturing in schools, collecting books for the local library, and producing a monthly magazine about the struggle to save Lake Baikal.

"Rikhvanova and her group never let public opinion in this region fall asleep," says Vadim Takhteyev, chair of biology at Irkutsk University. "One might criticize their actions at times, but on the whole it's positive. Their magazine has done a lot to improve ecological education around here."

Since Putin came to power, an increasingly authoritarian, economically-interventionist Kremlin has clashed repeatedly with local environmentalists. The Baikal Environmental Wave's protests in 2006 and the subsequent rerouting of the pipeline was the first big victory for environmentalists in Russia. Despite the official harassment she's suffered, Rikhvanova says there's hope that Russian authorities will learn to respect the environment. "The authorities are watchful toward us, but at least they are paying attentionk," she says.