Amid permafrost and tundra, Russians forge their own environmentalism

Fred Weir
Anastasia Trofimova stands in her shop The Green Point, Aug. 30, 2021, in Arkhangelsk, Russia. She was inspired by protests against the proposed Shiyes landfill to launch her business, which sells around 700 different products, all from natural or recycled materials.

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About two years ago, mass protests in the Russian region of Arkhangelsk forced Moscow authorities to abandon plans to build a giant waste dump near the village of Shiyes. The success of that “Stop Shiyes” struggle launched an ecological movement in the Arctic region and ushered in more environment-friendly local leadership.

It also planted surprisingly divergent ideas about how to turn that newfound consciousness into permanent ways people relate to the environment around them, utilize its resources, and manage the consequences.

Why We Wrote This

Promoting ecologically friendly practices is not easy in Russia. But in the country’s Arctic north, locals are finding inventive ways to change the public’s interaction with their environment.

For Oleg Mandrykin, a local real estate developer from the city of Severodvinsk, it served as inspiration to try and get into national politics in order to raise ecological awareness in Moscow. Anastasia Trofimova, an Arkhangelsk doctor, went a different direction, eschewing politics for what she regards as the more influential realm of business. And Alexandra Usacheva heads Clean North, a group that interfaces between the public and local authorities to promote ecological education.

“The ‘Stop Shiyes’ campaign changed the popular mentality in this region,” says Ms. Usacheva. “All that attention made people think about the future. And some became really inspired to do something more.”

Arkhangelsk, a Russian region almost as big as France that borders the White Sea, is a land of permafrost and marshy tundra, with stunted Arctic forest, rolling hills, and labyrinthine lakes and rivers. It’s been inhabited by Russians for almost a thousand years; Indigenous peoples, some related to Finnish Laplanders, have been there much longer.

People here are very conscious of history. Much of it revolves around their fragile Arctic habitat and the need to preserve it.

About two years ago, mass popular protest forced Moscow authorities to abandon plans to build a giant waste dump near the village of Shiyes in this Arctic region that had been intended to receive 2 million tons annually of the garbage overflowing from heavy-consuming Moscow. The success of that “Stop Shiyes” struggle launched a lasting ecological movement and ushered in the election of a more environment-friendly local leadership. It also planted surprisingly divergent ideas in some peoples’ minds about how to take that newfound consciousness and turn it toward a permanent transformation in the ways people relate to the environment around them, utilize its resources, and manage the consequences.

Why We Wrote This

Promoting ecologically friendly practices is not easy in Russia. But in the country’s Arctic north, locals are finding inventive ways to change the public’s interaction with their environment.

For Oleg Mandrykin, a local real estate developer from the closed naval shipyard city of Severodvinsk, it served as inspiration to try and get into national politics in order to raise ecological awareness in Moscow. Anastasia Trofimova, an Arkhangelsk doctor, went a different direction, eschewing politics for what she regards as the more influential realm of business. And Alexandra Usacheva heads Clean North, a group that interfaces between the public and local authorities to promote ecological education.

“The ‘Stop Shiyes’ campaign changed the popular mentality in this region,” says Ms. Usacheva. “All that attention made people think about the future. And some became really inspired to do something more.”

“This victory will not last until we secure it”

Mr. Mandrykin, who was prominent in the anti-landfill protests, believes that until ecological awareness comes to the giant garbage-generating centers like Moscow, the threat to despoil other regions is unlikely to abate. With support from local environmental groups, he is standing as a candidate for the State Duma, in nationwide elections slated for Sept. 19.

Fred Weir
State Duma candidate Oleg Mandrykin, shown holding one of his campaign flyers on Aug. 30, 2021, in Arkhangelsk, says that only political representation in Moscow can achieve consistently pro-environmental policies for the whole of Russia, including his region.

In Russia, it’s almost impossible for an independent candidate – even one who’s emerged from a popular movement – to get on the ballot. So, Mr. Mandrykin has accepted the nomination of the liberal Yabloko party, one of a handful of “systemic” political parties: those with elected representatives in Russian legislatures, which have the right to field candidates without going through a punishing list of requirements needed to get registered. (Other such parties include the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democrats, the social democratic Fair Russia party, and of course, the ruling United Russia party.)

Mr. Mandrykin says this limited political system has not served the residents of Arkhangelsk very well because the “systemic” parties tend to get co-opted by big business and Kremlin political interests, which exercise power on almost every level. Opinion polls suggest that he has a fighting chance to win on the back of his environmental activism and general fatigue with economic conditions in the region. He insists that if he makes it into the Duma, he’s going to find the ways to shake things up.

“There are six existing deputies from this region, not one of whom has ever said a word in support of our movement,” he says. “There need to be people in the Duma who come from the roots, and really speak for the majority of voters. After the success of ‘Stop Shiyes,’ we realized that this victory will not last until we secure it with political representation in Moscow.”

The Moscow government has pulled back from its plans to offload the city’s oceans of waste into landfills in far-flung places after popular protests in several regions, the biggest of which was in Arkhangelsk. But despite implementing a plan last year that requires garbage to be sorted into two categories – organic and recyclables – experts say it isn’t taking hold and, in any case, isn’t enough to solve the immense problem. Much of Moscow’s waste still goes into overloaded landfills near the city, such as one at Mikhali in the Kaluga region that receives 3,000 tons of garbage per day.

“We are convinced that garbage reform needs to be based not on creating more mega-dumps, but on comprehensive principles of recycling,” says Mr. Mandrykin. “We hear talk of plans. And something is being done. But I think the push has to come from below. People need to be involved. That’s why I am going into politics. It’s not just about garbage, it’s about making this system work for people. We’ve seen that the authorities will listen when thousands of people protest, but we need to translate that into real and permanent political power.”

The Green Point

Dr. Trofimova, who also took part in the “Stop Shiyes” movement, was enthused by the victory and decided that more needed to done. She and a few friends put their resources together, appealed to local producers and artisans for ideas, and started a shop to sell only natural or recycled products.

Now, a couple of years later, they have more than 700 items for sale, ranging from all-natural cosmetics issued from dispensers – to avoid plastic packaging – to recycled paper products, pens made from discarded toothbrushes, real soap, bags and facecloths made from old clothing, and lots of locally sourced art and handicrafts.

“Our main method of advertising is through social media. But when we launched, we were almost overwhelmed by the response,” she says. “For Arkhangelsk, it was a huge sensation.”

The shop, called The Green Point, is supported by environmental groups and nongovernmental organizations, and many of the workers who manufacture its goods are disabled or underemployed local people.

“We wanted to create something that is socially educational, that plays a role in changing consumption patterns and infusing ecological consciousness into daily life,” Dr. Trofimova says. “Of course we wanted it to be commercially successful, and it has been to some extent. But it has to be sustainable, tapping into and developing local sources, and involving local people as more than just customers.

“We’ve learned a lot, especially about marketing. You have to reach people with the right messaging, or it just won’t work. As a small entrepreneur I am hoping that, if it works here, we can expand to other parts of Russia.”

A mixed reception

Different paths to ecological activism appear to be greeted by local officialdom in contrasting ways.

Mr. Mandrykin, the Duma candidate, reports that he faces constant hostility from the authorities. He claims that his attempts to buy billboard space or advertise in local newspapers are always mysteriously thwarted. Aside from the very limited TV time allotted to each registered candidate, he says, “all we have is the internet; we get a lot of buzz on social media.”

Dr. Trofimova, the entrepreneur, says that “local officials don’t help us at all, but they don’t get in our way either.”

But Ms. Usacheva, head of the Clean North ecological group, says that her requests to authorities for access to schools to give environmental lessons, or appeals for help in organizing cleanup campaigns, are like pushing on an open door.

“Our authorities want to be helpful. They want to be seen to be associated with good ecological values,” she says. “It’s not political. I don’t even want to go into politics. In our time and place, there are more effective ways to promote the environmental principles that I believe in. Educate the youth today, and we will win tomorrow.”

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