Greenpeace and Russia. For many, the case of the Arctic 30 serves as the link between the two: when Greenpeace activists who attempted to stage a protest on the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform in the Arctic were detained by the Russian government and faced piracy charges. They were later freed from prison after international public outcry, which drew prolific supporters such as Paul McCartney and Madonna. A book and a film have been made about their story. As dramatic and important as this story is, it is not the only story linking Greenpeace and Russia. I would like to share another story, one of persistence, quiet victories, and—since we’re talking about challenging the Russian state—conflicts and threats. This story is Mikhail Kreindlin’s.
Mikhail has been working with Greenpeace Russia since 2002, but was involved in environmental protection well before that. At age 15, thanks to his schoolwork, he became aware of the importance of the environment and went on to participate in a student organization whose activities ranged from supporting protected lands, doing bird population counts, and stopping poachers. After finishing his education, Mikhail worked in government for ten years at various iterations of the ministry of natural resources (which, at the time, was undergoing significant structural changes due to the recent collapse of the Soviet Union).
Though Mikhail had an early start in direct activism, he came to the understanding that he needed to spend time working on the legal side of environmental protection. Now, his work focuses on protecting special areas in Russia, such as national parks and nature refuges, through legal cases. Currently, four out of eleven UNESCO World Heritage Natural Sites in Russia are under threat. Often, these threats come from business interests that are aligned with, or largely owned by, the Russian government. In other words, when pursuing legal cases to protect these lands, Mikhail is using the system against itself.
According to Mikhail, he and his allies “constantly have to fight for any specific territory” in order to protect its special legal status or against harmful projects in its boundaries. But, he and the team at Greenpeace Russia have had a lot of success: in the past five years, they have won ten cases against weakening the protective status of special areas.
But working against state interests doesn’t always go so well. Most recently, Mikhail and his allies have failed to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline through Kurgalsky Nature Reserve, which is home to endangered and threatened species. This situation has been tough: “we had the law on our side, but the state machine works against the law, or changes the law so it won’t interfere. This is, of course, hard,” Mikhail laments. In this case, Kurgalsky Nature Reserve is protected not only by Russian law but by two international conventions, the 1992 Helsinki Conventions and the 1971 Ramsar Convention. However, Nord Stream 2 is a Gazprom project, and Gazprom is majority-owned by the Russian state and thus, Mikhail and his team did not win in court.
The first time I learned of Mikhail was in relation to another tough situation. I got online for a scheduled call with my friend Evgenia to find her upset and anxious about news of friends who had just been physically attacked and she heard that one of them, Mikhail, was injured. Luckily, he came away suffering nothing worse than a broken nose. Mikhail’s group had been in the Krasnodar region near the Black Sea volunteering as forest firefighters when they were beset by masked men who beat them and screamed that they should go back to America. I asked Mikhail if he had been afraid, and he said that instead he felt anger: anger that they could not repel the attack. “It is a shame that we were treated this way; we weren’t even protesting anything! We simply put out a wildfire and were attacked for it. To this day, we can’t understand why it happened and who we so offended with our activities.” At the same time, Mikhail recognized this situation is not out of the ordinary; even though for him it was an exceptional case, these things can happen when you come into conflict with any level of the Russian government.
Even so, for Mikhail the feeling he must battle more than fear is despair, and he cites the inability to protect Kurgalsky Nature Refuge as an example. But, he says, “so far it has been possible to prevent the destruction of natural objects and so I continue to protect nature.” When asked what keeps him going, Mikhail states, “I see the point of it. So far, I haven’t gotten the impression that it’s all useless.”
Mikhail advises others to see activism as a means to an end, and that it is firstly most important to have a goal. Then, activists must use many different tactics, not only protests or only legal methods, in order to achieve their goal. Using different approaches in combination is crucial to reach success. Given the example of Mikhail’s own work, tenacity and straightforwardness also are helpful qualities to embrace.
This tenacity is important, since Mikhail is monitoring many threats. The Caucasian Nature Reserve is under pressure from ski resorts. Gold mining interests threaten Yugyd Va National Park in the Komi Republic. Constructing resorts and mining in protected lands is, Mikhail says, “illegal, and there have already been many court cases, but still these plans have not been abandoned.” There is also another threatening Gazprom pipeline that needs to be prevented: a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the Ukok Plateau, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, in the Altai.
Clearly, Mikhail’s story will continue as the lands he works to protect continue to come under threat. Though his legal work isn’t always flashy, Mikhail’s story is one that deserves international attention and celebration, especially since he is in the fight for the long haul.