Posted on 23 December 2021

This is about where I didn’t go as much as where I did go. Landscapes shifted drastically over space but comprehension remained steady. I knew how to interact. I understood everything. I threw myself into a vast land, I hauled myself into higher altitudes, I walked between rocks that reached up to the sky and, still, there was always a sense of familiarity. A part of me reaches for the total unknown. I want to be submerged in that which I do not recognize or understand. I want to be overwhelmed, bombarded with novelty.

I miss different languages, different cultures, different buildings streets rules stores food almost everything. As much as we, humans, fuck each other and much else over, I suppose sometimes I still revel in what we have made in all its multifariousness.

My country is known to me, even when I visit someplace I’ve never been. The familiarity I hold is in part awareness of destruction because though it may not seem so, I know what I’m looking at is damaged.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. After all, I can go anywhere on this planet and it will probably be beautiful and also sad. That stays the same.

Sawtooth Lake, Idaho

Sawtooth Lake, Idaho

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Devil's Tower, Wyoming

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Badlands, South Dakota

Badlands, South Dakota

Big Horn Sheep Babies, Badlands, South Dakota

Bighorn sheep babies, Badlands, South Dakota

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Alabama Hills, California

Alabama Hills, California

Bristlecone Pine, Inyo National Forest, California

Bristlecone Pine, Inyo National Forest, California

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Human History is Always Dying

Posted on 31 December 2020

A traveling band of robbers fell upon our household one night. They were as senseless and villainous as robbers are in fairy tales.

Father stood in the door with a pitchfork and shouted to the older children. “Run! Escape! Fly!”

The robbers overpowered my father and knocked out his front teeth. They hit my mother, and she fell to the floor unconscious, and they picked up the baby she had held in her arms and swung her against the floor so that she was killed instantly.

The band of robbers carried away all of our belongings worth anything, and partially razed our house.

“We must leave a country where such things can happen,” said my father, and with that I agreed entirely.

—Written by Sarah (Mandelbaum) Sidis, my third great-aunt, or the sister of my great-great grandfather, about the pogrom that led her family to emigrate from land that is now Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire, to the United States.

I look back in time and see some pieces of what befell my ancestors, tragedies that mar a life. And whether those lives were also bolstered by joys, I cannot say with any certainty. There was war, there were childhood deaths of siblings, sudden deaths of spouses and parents. There was more, I’m sure; looking back through time reiterates that humans hurt one another and many things hurt humans.

It’s almost certainly a good thing that my great-great grandfather’s family left the Russian empire when they did. At that time, the end of the nineteenth century, more than half of the town they lived in was Jewish. On the eve of World War II, a third was. After the war, less than one percent. The Jewish history of that town is faded, dispersed, dead. What, who, where else has died, been killed off?

In the present day, I live in a narrow slice of the world that has mostly known a relative peace during my lifetime—at least on this patch of soil. I can vote and have at least some voice in the functioning of our system. I can say what I want. I have had food and clean water, even an education, and a stellar one at that. On swaths of this earth, this isn’t the case. I have been in those places, with the power to drop in and then leave.

I am the offspring of a generation that extracted more and more from the earth and burned it, temporarily benefitting while choking off my future and the present of even more people across the world who played next to no role in heating the air, spurring the storms, raising the seas. I am a member of a group with power to continue to pollute while enjoying a high standard of living, at least for now. Some of us contribute more to suffering than others; some suffer more than others.

But overreach can hurt more than those without power. The evidence is scattered across the past: the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku, the Akkadians, the Mayan, and others, many others. In graduate school, I took a class with a professor whose research revolved around modeling societal collapse. Unfortunately, as we layered economic and ecological models, extraction won and ecosystems lost. Yet even the powerful themselves rarely survived. In the end, at the root, we are a part of the ecosystem ourselves.

Sunset at Lake Nakuru

I was brought up to expect peace and prosperity. But I suspect this is abnormal relative to space and time, and perhaps the fact cannot be escaped: human history is always dying. We are battered, we batter, we eke out survival, we snatch it from others, we die. The wealth and peace I have enjoyed, that a slice of my parents’ generation enjoyed, was based on maintaining “progress”, economic growth, while ignoring the rising pollution, the consequences to the biosphere, to us. Short-term benefits for some, in the grand scheme of things, are perhaps only long-term pain.

My confidence in this posited better future did begin to waver early; whether it was a natural pessimism or the result of delving into environmental studies, I don’t know. An Inconvenient Truth came out right when I began college. The next academic year, I recall being overwhelmed with the thought we can’t escape this as I sat behind a desk in a lecture room, listening to my Global Environmental Politics professor. As I walked out of the class at its end, the professor pulled me aside: are you all right? Four years later, I had similar reactions in my graduate classes on energy and environmental economics: can we stop this or is it too late? But by then, I had spent a bit of time working in Eastern Africa and uncomfortably had to swallow the fact that it wasn’t even my slice of the world that was near the brink. Tropical diseases may spread? Droughts will make it even more difficult to access potable water? Old news.

Sunset north of Mombasa

Is looking at a world of climate collapse different than the futures our predecessors imagined? It’s a question that may be irrelevant when framed against realities of mass ethnic persecution, famines spurred by both men in power and natural chance, daily existence shadowed by these possibilities hovering just ahead. How far into the future did my predecessors look? Over their lifetimes did horizons expand or shrink?

But from their lives, here I am now, thinking, speaking. A comfortable life is more unusual than trying to survive. Democracy is more unusual than its backslide or its absence. But here I am.

Here I am, but the expectations with which I was raised are being snatched away. Or—not snatched, but tugged, ever further from reach as tragedies drift in. Personal tragedies are expected, but what of summers choked by hazardous smoke? A pandemic that grinds everything down and reframes nearly every way we associate with “the outside”? Hurricanes slamming one coast, and then another, more frequent than ever? I know that these events, inevitably now, will continue. Was it good to have some anticipation of peace and joy, at least for awhile, or does that just make reality all the more crushing?

Is it harder to be aware of the magnitude of it all, the suffering that will lay its hand on billions? To see the images from around the globe coalescing into one big mess of horrors? Or does it matter, if your scope of awareness and access is bombarded regardless, does it matter how large the suffering is? Is it even possible to compare anyway?

Senja Island

These questions are bleak, I know. And frankly, a look across our past is too. At any point in human history, you’ll find mass tragedy. In nearly every life you’ll find personal tragedies too. At the same time, though, I know, joy is eked out, remarkable things happen. There are even heroes.

So, also: human history is strewn with individuals and stories that floor you. One person can prolong or improve the lives of many. One person can bring into existence an object or knowledge that reverberates through the years after their death, causing wellness or awe or joy. Everyone will die, but there are degrees of dying. And well, one person can at least temporarily act against death: saving lives. I recently read a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede credited with saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the end of World War II. He created protection documents for them. He sheltered them in designated Swedish buildings in Budapest. He snatched some from death marches and trains en route to death camps. He stayed in Budapest at risk to his own life. He almost certainly died in a Soviet prison. He died, and there were many he couldn’t save, but the thousands he did went on and had families who had families, people who hopefully experienced some joy and did some good. Furthermore, Wallenberg wasn’t alone in his mission: he had help. There were also others elsewhere, attempting similar, quiet acts of heroism.

Shoes on the Danube Bank

Of course, many people do quite the opposite. Wallenberg wouldn’t have been saving people if they weren’t being persecuted. There are the masterminds of campaigns of hate and destruction, but there are also those who aid and abet. Witness: turning in your neighbor, out of fear or spite or for gain, knowing they’re off to prison, camps, mines, GULAG, killing fields… Witness: laughing at a sexist or a racist joke to fit in… Witness: the banality of evil. And yes, witness: passivity amidst a dangerously changing climate. Knowing, but not caring. Or caring, but not caring enough to act in ways that are difficult or even dangerous.

We are powerful and powerless, and it’s not quite clear how these elements will combine to shape our present and the future that we will never know. Human history is always dying, but there have been people who continue to push it along, even as others gather power or comfort for themselves to the detriment of many. Which one am I? Who are you?

U Bein Bridge Sunset
You are history.
You are history.
You are history.


Posted on 16 February 2020

Sometimes the world seems as if it is made up of different planes of being that may overlap, or crash into each other, or may simply stay parallel, not touching. It sometimes jars me to think that my life in Seattle exists in tandem on the same earth as that of a child growing up in the remote Andes or of a yacht-owner in Monaco. These planes of existence sometimes intersect, but geography mostly holds them apart. There are places, though, where the edges bleed and blend, and one of these places is Po Toi.

Po Toi is the southernmost island in Hong Kong. And though the Hong Kong you’re likely thinking of is full of towering skyscrapers and crowded with people, this part of Hong Kong is home to 200 people at the absolute most (this is according to the internet, but I suspect far fewer people live there). At some point in history, it capped out at 1,000 residents, fishing, farming, and gathering seaweed. Today, the island’s school is abandoned and far more visitors than residents traverse the trails.

Kai-to ferries plow the waters between Hong Kong Island and Po Toi, coming and going just a few times a week from Stanley and Aberdeen harbors. The ride, which takes just under an hour, gives you a clear view of enormous ships, nearly uncountable on the horizon, moving goods and crap around the globe.

Aberdeen harbor.

Container ships along the horizon.

The kai-to pulls up alongside Po Toi’s jetty and empties itself of people who mostly, like us, appear to be there for day hikes, though some are geared up for camping, too. We disembark onto a path that will take us around the island, first winding through areas that contain graves, and then along the shore where the boulders bear carvings from the Bronze Age. At first the walk is a bit crowded before people space out at their own paces. A cool wind is blowing but we’re moving uphill so I’m fine in my t-shirt. A woman touches my bare arm, comments, “so strong!” and rubs her own jacket-clad body to indicate I must be cold. Different acclimatizations. I grin at her. Some people set up their tents out in the exposed, windy hills and the fabric flaps loudly. Despite the well-made path, complete with concrete stairs and handrails (which were being painted as we walked), the camping area contains no toilet or trash bins and some litter flutters in the wind.

We continue past the lighthouse on the point, odd-shaped rocks, and a pagoda which seems quite new to the top of the island, before descending back to the harbor. We walk past abandoned buildings, some strewn with seaweed drying on their roofs. As we approach the village, dogs begin to check us out. The beach is dominated by a seafood restaurant, where we decide to eat. Another, smaller restaurant sits next door. A generator is powering everything.

Our food is good, and plentiful, but relatively expensive. A few yachts have anchored in the harbor now and groups of obviously wealthy people sit around large tables, eating and drinking, and leaving quite a bit of food on their plates. They’ve just come for the lunch, it seems. The village dogs keep pestering their groomed dog, who isn’t too pleased with the attention.

We head out again to walk the trail looping the other side of the island. A few houses line the path that leads us to a temple that looks recently renovated, a stark contrast to the homes. We notice the outhouses empty straight into the ocean. This trail is unlike the paved path we walked to the lighthouse; it is dirt and we ascend through scrub and rocks to the top of the island from the other direction. We can see the harbor below, and the skyscrapers of Hong Kong looming in the distance, fading in a haze. Then we descend again, back to the pier, back to the ferry, back to the city.

Generators, outhouses, and abandoned buildings. Paved paths and new pagodas. Container ships. Skyscrapers of a technology-saturated city. All within eyesight, intersecting.

Getting to Po Toi

Kai-to ferries run just a few days a week from Aberdeen and Stanley. You can see the timetables here. Make sure you plan ahead so you don’t miss your ferry, especially on the return! Since the island is quite exposed, bring layers and sunscreen.

Note: Since my visit at the end of 2018, a lot has changed in Hong Kong. I want to acknowledge the courage of those who risk their safety for a better present and future.

Nadezhda Kutepova: the white crow of a nuclear city

Posted on 2 November 2019

Ozersk, Russia did not used to be on any maps. Residents, if they left the city—with permission, of course—, were unable to share where they were from. Even today, one cannot freely enter or depart the city. It is closed.

Nadezhda Kutepova

It is in Ozersk that Nadezhda Kutepova was born, it was where she lived, and for whose residents she fought, until she was forced to leave for her own safety in 2015. “I’m a mutant!” Nadezhda laughs, having grown up in such a secretive, secured place and despite that, speaking out against the powers that be. The word “mutant” holds a double meaning though; Nadezhda may not be the typical resident of a closed city, or even a typical person, but the sad history of Ozersk means that most people there have indeed been genetically mutated by nuclear waste. The nuclear industry is, literally and figuratively, part of Ozersk’s DNA.

Ozersk and the surrounding areas are some of the most contaminated places on the planet. The city is home to Mayak, a large nuclear plant that produced weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War and now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. The town’s construction began in secret in 1946, solely to support the Soviet Union’s nuclear endeavors. Today, Mayak still is the centerpiece of Ozersk, with a huge number of the city’s residents either employed directly or affiliated with the plant.

Even those that live in villages outside of Ozersk have been touched by the plant. For three years, starting in 1949, high-level nuclear spent fuel was dumped in the river Techa, a major water source for dozens of villages. And then, in 1957, a radioactive waste container exploded—the largest nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl. Over 10,000 people were eventually evacuated, but no official reasoning was provided. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Soviet government began to declassify information on the catastrophe. Of course, by then, it was far too late to stop the nuclear contamination.

As a result of these sudden and continuous “accidents,” as well as unsafe protocols for workers at the Mayak plant, many people in the Ozersk and the surrounding areas are ill. Nadezhda wanted to help them at the very least receive compensation from the government to help them survive. This became a vendetta for her: her family’s history is tied up in Mayak and her family worked there. Her mother’s compensation was cancelled, she fought this decision until she became sick, was sent to a mental clinic, and there she died.

Nadezhda (right) at a conference.

Nadezhda first got involved in her activism after attending an ecological conference in Chelyabinsk while she was in university. At the conference, she heard different things about accidents and contamination in Ozersk than she had heard at home. This led her to better understand the place in which she was brought up, and made her determined to work to secure the rights of residents in the closed city. The situation also showed her that human rights and ecology are two sides of the same coin. “If we’re talking about fish, we’re also talking about the people who eat the fish.” This is literally true for many people living along the region’s contaminated waterways.

Nadezhda originally studied sociology in university, but in order to better help her community, she went back to study law. She did not finish due to having four children, but she was still able to work on civil cases. In 1999, Nadezhda started an organization called “Planet of Hopes” and began to pursue strategic litigation in order to solve legal barriers that prevented victims of Mayak contamination from receiving just compensation. The organization also worked to protect the rights of those from closed cities through the Human Rights Public Department project, under which people could ask lawyers about their rights living in a closed city and about nuclear contamination.

Under Russian legislation, there are groups of people who are ineligible to receive compensation despite, in actuality, being victims of the contamination from Mayak. Nadezhda worked on strategic litigation campaigns in an attempt to secure the rights of children of liquidators who were in utero and thus not covered under the law; schoolchildren who served as liquidators in Karablka village; for the widows of liquidators; and more. Nadezhda also campaigned for impacted children to receive compensation after the age of 18 since due to the word “children” in the law, they were only eligible up until that age. Though Nadezhda won a case in the European Court of Human Rights and consulted with thousands of victims, she was not satisfied with the “sickly” results of her efforts, which sadly did not lead to the systemic change that is needed.

Of course, Nadezhda was fighting a difficult battle on many levels. In the Soviet Union, it was incredibly dangerous to speak out against the decisions of those in power, but this was even truer for residents of closed cities who were subject to strict rules and surveillance. Nadezhda also calls herself a “white crow” since she wasn’t afraid to speak her opinion despite growing up in such an environment, breaking the taboo for her city. There is, she explained, the idea that “you can’t be against the place you depend on” and her activism, though she was trying to help people, meant she was challenging a place where her classmates, her friends, and their parents worked. They felt that she wanted to take their jobs and their income. “I thought about this a lot … I decided that these people are all victims of propaganda, victims of ideology, the ideology in our city that our atomic plant saved the whole planet from a war with the Americans.”

Even so, Nadezhda wanted to help those who needed it—and thousands did, and came to her. For the first five or so years of this work, Nadezhda felt a bit desperate; she had the urge to help everyone, show everything and so she did all that she could, but still thought that maybe it wouldn’t help. Now, she advises activists who feel similarly to pause, perhaps do something else momentarily, think about what to do differently, and then regroup. After twenty years of experience under harsh circumstances, Nadezhda’s overall guidance for activists is to believe in what you do, know what you can lose, and know what you can do to care for yourself.

The result of growing up in a closed city meant that Nadezhda always had a sense of danger; residents were taught there were spies everywhere. As she began her work, she knew that she had very powerful opponents in the atomic industry and the FSB (today’s equivalent to the KGB). Because of this, fear was omnipresent and according to Nadezhda especially “appears in times of desperation”, though often her other feelings were able to surmount this. But, there came a time when the danger was clear enough that she had to leave.

First, in April 2015, like many other NGOs in Russia, her organization was listed as a “foreign agent” and fined $5,000 for failing to register as such after a new law was enacted that made it difficult for organizations that received any funding from abroad. Then, Russian state-owned media channels began running features on Nadezhda’s work, accusing her of being a traitor and an American spy. One of her accusers was a former FSB agent. One of the programs showed where she lived. Nadezhda was facing both legal horrors—a charge of espionage carries 20 years in prison—and physical fear. She looked at her children and decided they had to leave. They received political asylum in France. The two other members of Nadezhda’s organization, though less publicly visible, had to leave Ozersk as well.

Despite her hardships, Nadezhda keeps going, thanks to her “sharp feeling of what is unacceptable, disrespectful to society and the environment.” She is the type of person that, if something is close to their heart, will not refuse to take action. “I do what I can; it’s my work,” she states. “If I can fight against injustice, I should.”

So it was that in in early October 2017, high levels of radioactive ruthenium were detected across Europe. Rosatom, who runs Mayak, said they were not to blame, but Nadezhda became interested and began to meddle. She found experts to work with who conducted an investigation. Ultimately, an international team of researchers concluded that, indeed, Mayak was to blame. Nadezhda considers this particular campaign of hers as a success, thanks to finding the truth and because the contract for the material from Mayak, destined for a laboratory in Italy, was cancelled.

Though Mayak, in a way, followed Nadezhda to Europe, she would still like to do something to help those who remain in the areas around Ozersk. Five thousand people still live in villages along the highly contaminated Techa River. While based in France, Nadezhda is still working hard: she has been studying French and just completed her legal education at Sorbonne University. She will now be able to look at legal questions from the perspective of French and European laws, including the ruthenium incident. Though forced from her home, and the organization that she founded, Nadezhda is undeterred and plans to use this new training to continue her work from an additional angle.

As Nadezhda says, “all activists need to be ready, in the state of a phoenix,” living and then dying in a flame, to then in ash be reborn.

Nadezhda Kutepova

This profile is part of a series that was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. Learn more about the project here.

Alla Chernysheva: Words Protect

Posted on 18 September 2019

It was a date that Alla Chernysheva was able to recall without hesitation: on June 10, 2007, she went to a meeting about the woods near her home in Khimki. She had seen a flyer about this event and went to see what it was about. There, she learned about the government’s plan to cut down the forest in order to build a highway. After the meeting, she called the organizer, Evgenia Chirikova. Not only do they remain friends to this day, but they also work together. On this June day, Alla’s trajectory shifted; she started realizing what she now considers her mission. Today, Alla reports on civil society and environmental issues in Russia as a journalist for and as editor of Eco Defense of the Moscow Region. She often plays an activist role as well, protesting trash dumps or the destruction of open, green space near her home.

Alla Chernysheva and one of her daughters.

Though the Khimki forest movement was the beginning of Alla’s participation in civic protest, she quickly and bravely exposed herself through this work. Already, during the protests, people had been severely beaten (one journalist, Mikhail Beketov, suffered brain damage and other horrendous injuries, which led to his death some years later). Still, despite the dangers, Alla continued her efforts. One day, after a protest rally, police officers showed up at her home and arrested her along with her two young girls. Alla described this episode as an example of “moments of unpleasantness” when I asked her about whether she experienced fright as a result of her activities. This “unpleasantness”, she elaborated, comes from the government. She credits Evgenia for helping her when she was arrested, since she organized a campaign to protect her and helped with lawyers. Evgenia returned the praise, describing Alla’s bravery and her unwillingness to sign any incriminating documents or write confessions for the police, despite them telling her she had to report on her “crimes” or lose her children. While Alla was locked up, many people involved in the Khimki movement came and stayed near the police office.

In the end, despite these tribulations and the fact that a road was built through the forest, Alla considers the Khimki campaign an almost-success. Thanks to the protests, thousands of hectares of forest were saved; rather than destroy the entire area, only portions were cut down for the road. The Khimki movement was successful in other ways as well. Alla explains that, thanks to her activism, she has realized a lot about what is happening in her country. During the Soviet Union, she says, “people were to sit quietly”, but after the 2000s, people began organizing meetings and “learned how to fight for their rights,” start non-governmental organizations, and more. This is how Alla has changed as well. She has learned to defend her rights and be active.

Alla Chernysheva.

According to Alla, the environment is one of the main themes of protest in Russia today, across the entire country. As a journalist for, she has written over a thousand articles detailing different movements in diverse regions. Putin has seriously weakened environmental legislation, is pursuing fossil fuel extraction, and is building garbage dumps everywhere, she says, which leads to civic actions. However, she also says the majority of actions are unfortunately not successful. She cites an example of a campaign she participated in to protect a square near her home and the fact that the government has built many garbage dumps already. Even though success is far from inevitable, Alla keeps writing about and participating in civic actions to protect people and the environment because “you do what you can” and “it’s my mission.”

Writing about actions in Russia is extremely important. On the whole, Russian mass media is silent about environmental issues and protests, so Alla has stepped in to not only fill in a gap, but to support activists by sharing information about their efforts. Doing so not only helps their cause, but the publicity can also protect them.

Alla’s advice for others who are interested in activism follows along those lines. First, she suggests, spread information about the issue, build groups on social media and connect with others who are concerned. Second, decide whether to do a mass action, file a lawsuit or grievance, or pursue other tactics. Then, share information with people who live nearby, with the media, and on social sites.

This worked for the Khimki protests, after which “people realized they can do something,” Alla included. Indeed, twelve years later, she is not only participating in other actions, but is spending her time sharing information about protests all across the country, despite the “unpleasantness” she has already incurred. Alla’s courageousness and diligence is allowing her to fulfill her mission and help protect people and the environment across her country in a meaningful way.

This profile is part of a series that was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. Learn more about the project here.