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.