17 Nov 2021
Environmental situation in Russia: problems, activist strategies, changes
A new three year research project Reside / Sustain: Finnish & Russian experiences/initiatives/practices supported by the Kone Foundation focusing on residency activity and its ecological possibilities has started within the Connecting Points-programme. The project examines the role of art residencies in enabling sustainable development in Finland and Russia and aims to answer questions of how residencies can provide platforms for the multiple aspects that are necessary regarding ecological action and change.
The project consists of a collaboration between three individual practitioners, Miina Hujala, Adel Kim and Angelina Davydova, each of whom brings forth their specific areas of expertise as well as connections to a wider institutional framing.
Anna Kozonina has interviewed the collaborators in the project to shed light on their backgrounds and perspectives involved.
The second interview of the series is a conversation with Angelina Davydova, a St. Petersburg journalist specializing in ecology and the environment in contemporary Russia, director of a public organization that develops ways of cooperation between Russia and the EU on environmental and climate issues.
Anna: This interview is aimed to allow readers, both English, and Russian speaking, to get acquainted with the general environmental situation in contemporary Russia. The topic is very broad, so I suggest going through the main issues to help the audience to get up to speed, and focus on your expert opinion. Let’s start by roughly outlining the most pressing environmental problems in Russia right now.
Angelina: Russia is very large and unevenly populated. Two-thirds of the population live in the European part of the country, and in the Asian part, people mostly live along the southern border. Accordingly, there are areas of very dense settlement, for example, Moscow, everything around, and other large cities of the European part of Russia. There are, on the contrary, territories of very loose settlement. That’s why it is very difficult to give a general answer about environmental problems since most of them are of a regional origin.
In general, we can say that there are global and local issues. The two main global problems are climate change and the reduction of biodiversity. Climate change has recently become more visible: neither politicians, nor businesses, nor ordinary people can ignore this problem anymore. However, only experts are dealing with the problem of biodiversity in Russia so far.
As for regional and local problems, one of the biggest and most recognized problems is garbage and waste. Today, everyone is interested in the topic of waste reduction and recycling: there are a lot of civil initiatives, waves of protests are constantly arising in certain regions. Here we can mention protests against working (as in the Moscow region) or planned incineration plants (as in Tatarstan) or landfills (also the Moscow region, in Shies, etc.)
Another local issue is air and water pollution and the problem of access to information about environmental conditions. One more problem relevant primarily for an urban or urbanized context is, of course, the issue of green spaces. There are regional campaigns for the preservation of parks and for landscaping. Examples of this are the initiative with the park ‘Zarosli‘ in St. Petersburg, and the campaign to protect the Chernyaev forest in Perm.
Every spring and summer there is the issue of forest fires. In some years, this problem reached the federal and even international level, such as the fires in Siberia in 2019. But most often these are local difficulties of individual regions.
All these problems, as a rule, are in the public limelight, and attract the attention of both politicians and the general audience. But there are still problems that are less noticeable to the public and remain solely the concern of specialists. This is, for example, the reduction of water resources and desertification, typical for the south of Russia, for example in Kalmykia and Dagestan. For a number of regions, including the Arctic, there is a question of so-called accumulated environmental damage. This is damage from the activities of Soviet enterprises that have long ceased their work, but the negative environmental consequences of which are still present and tangible, and need to be dealt with. In addition, there are always concrete examples of pollution from industrial enterprises. This is especially true for the Urals and Siberia.
Anna: Can we discuss in more detail the dynamics of the distribution of environmental problems by region?
Angelina: In sparsely populated regions with low economic activity, of course, the environmental situation will always be better. Where there are more people, economic activity, and a higher anthropogenic pressure on the environment, the situation is worse. The ideal regions are probably in central Russia: there are few people, industrial and economic activity is in general low.
If we look at the relationship of specific problems and regions, then forest fires are mainly characteristic of Siberia and the Far East. Industrial pollution of cities is typical for the cities of the Urals and Siberia. A number of problems are typical for large cities, regardless of which part of the country they are located in. If it is a large city, there will be issues with air pollution. There is also the problem of outdated water infrastructure when water drains are not fully cleaned, and therefore water resources are polluted. It depends not only on the region but also on the density of the population and industrial activity.
Anna: I wonder how the research and management of these problems are organized in Russia and what the instances involved in environmental processes are. The state, large companies, activists? What are these players and how are they interconnected?
Angelina: Here again we should talk about local specificity. Relationships between players in different regions can be arranged in different ways. But if we try to give a general picture, we will get the following alignment.
On the one hand, there is a research community that collects data and publishes regular reports on how the climate is changing in Russia and how the environmental situation is. A number of regions are preparing very good reports on the state of the environment in specific places. For example, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, thorough analytical reports are published once a year. In many other regions, this is not the case.
The situation with political actors and authorities is pretty complex as well. On the one hand, over the past few years, the federal authorities have been trying to reform environmental legislation. This includes the reform of the waste management system, the reorganization of the forest industry, the introduction of rationing of enterprises based on the best available technologies, and the establishment of carbon regulation in Russia. On the other hand, there are attempts to soften environmental legislation on a number of points, often under pressure from big businesses. Now, for example, companies are once again trying to change the legislation on specially protected natural territories in order to simplify the rules for the withdrawal of part of the territories for construction. This is done in the interests of large commercial players who want to develop tourism and build resorts there. Environmentalists are trying to fight against such attempts.
Anna: Recently, the work of eco-activists has been increasingly visible, despite the fact that it is very difficult to do this in Russia due to political reasons. What do you associate with the growth of such activity in the country?
Angelina: Yes, indeed, despite the fact that pressure on activists is constantly increasing in Russia, the activities of various groups have intensified recently. On the one hand, this is due to the effect of the general international agenda, which has recently been trying to highlight the issues of environmental protection and sustainable development. On the other hand, research shows a link between economic growth and ecological awareness. Despite the fact that the real incomes of Russians have been mostly declining since 2014, the country’s GDP per capita has almost doubled over the past 20 years. Delving into environmental problems and demanding access to environmental data is gradually becoming the new normality. And, of course, activist groups arise in response to pressing environmental problems in particular places. Therefore, eco-activism is most often of regional, local and hyper-local nature.
Anna: What environmental issues are activists focused on within Russia?
Angelina: They usually choose issues relevant to their native regions. This may be the work of enterprises polluting the environment, the destruction of green spaces in urban areas, illegal logging, water and air pollution, the construction of new and potentially dangerous plants and incinerators, lack of access to reliable environmental data, the problem of garbage and waste management.
Anna: And in what formats does eco-activism exist in Russia?
Angelina: There are several widespread formats. The first and most prominent in the media are protest groups. These are short-term associations that arise around a specific local problem and, as a rule, do not form long-term sustainable initiatives. These can be associations of residents against a local source of pollution — for example, an industrial enterprise or an incinerator, or against real estate development in the territories of green spaces. Of the most high-profile examples of recent years, we can recall the campaign against the construction of a landfill at the Shies station in the Arkhangelsk region, which began in 2018.
Here, as a rule, activists get organized through social networks and finish their work as soon as the conflict is resolved. But sometimes these groups form associations united around common problems and interests. This is, for example, the Green Coalition of St. Petersburg, whose goal is to consolidate all public groups fighting against the destruction of parks and green spaces, or the Association of Eco-Groups in Moscow and the Moscow region.
Another type of activity is when activists try to make up for the lack of state or municipal infrastructure with their actions. This trend is most noticeable in the example of separate waste collection. Where sorting is not organized, activists are trying to arrange it on their own. A great example is the ‘Razdelny Sbor‘ (‘Separate Collection’) movement, which operates throughout the country. It’s an initiative to create new waste infrastructures — for example, organizing garbage collection points, and developing educational projects.
The third type of activism is concentrated on public monitoring and supervision of environmental and urban planning policy at the federal, regional, and municipal levels. Usually they focus on the process of project implementation and budget distribution. Independent observers sometimes also develop alternative methods and tools of environmental data assessment — especially when data is hardly available or unreliable — or initiate campaigns to ensure access to environmental information, demanding transparency and accountability. Activists, for example, create their own alternative pollution maps, distribute mobile devices to local residents to monitor air quality, and then put these data together into an integrated map. Among other examples, here we can recall the projects ‘Krasnoyarsk. Nebo‘ (‘Krasnoyarsk. Sky’), and ‘Chelyabinsk, dyshy‘ (‘Chelyabinsk, breathe’).
Anna: Do activists usually act as self-organizations opposing the actions of the authorities, or are there examples of more formal methods and cooperation with the state?
Angelina: Self-organizations and grassroots initiatives are a common phenomenon. As a rule, people unite through informal channels — mainly social networks, through which they exchange information, publish statistics, and increase their visibility among a wide audience. In addition to social networks, activists use open source information technologies, including mapping technologies, web platforms, applications, and other user-friendly interfaces that allow for larger public engagement. Several eco-groups work closely with experts from ‘Teplitsa Sozialnykh Technologiy‘ (‘A Greenhouse for Social Technologies’), a non-governmental organization that helps activists integrate online digital tools to find better solutions to their problems.
But examples of cooperation with the authorities exist as well. For instance, every year the Russian Civil Forum held in Moscow provides a platform for environmental groups to coordinate their work and develop a common position on environmental policy issues. The annual conference of the Russian Social Ecological Union gathers representatives of civil society that work on issues such as energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. They try to develop some reasonable feedback to international and Russian climate policy. Their opinion is then brought to the attention of the Russian authorities and the international community at UN climate conferences.
However, productive collaborations with state decision makers are not always achievable. It’s especially difficult if the object of the protest concerns a corruption scheme involving local authorities and business representatives. In this case, civil activists can organize protests and try to draw the attention of regional or federal authorities to the problem, go to the courts with the support of professional lawyers, or act at several levels at once. Sometimes,of course, activists are persecuted by the authorities and have to leave the region, or even the country.
Anna: Let’s get back to the list of significant actors on the environmental scene. You mentioned the involvement of business and lobbying procedures performed by companies to reach their commercial goals which can be harmful to the environment. But are there any positive examples of environmental activity on the part of the commercial sector and trends in the development of environmentally conscious business in general?
Angelina: Of course, Russian businesses are affected by global environmental trends. If a few years ago the large corporations could be skeptical about the topics of sustainable development or climate change, now even oil and gas producing companies are engaged in these discussions, collecting plans for decarbonization and writing reports on sustainability. But of course, in many cases, companies just pay lip service to these ideas.
There are also new businesses that initially position themselves as environmentally aware. Examples include small stores selling goods without packaging, regional clothing brands with local production. More and more organic farmers are emerging, this is another interesting sector that understands that industrial agriculture is harmful to the environment. Eco- and socially-oriented companies are constantly emerging in small and medium-sized businesses.
Anna: What kind of motivation can there be for a business to be eco-friendly, apart from the pressure of trends?
Angelina: First of all, reputational risks motivate companies. Every year there are more and more international requirements that force businesses to be transparent and invest in sustainable development. Investors are also beginning to demand this, so there is a direct economic incentive. Another motivation is the new state standards for production and emissions. Also, in order to get a bigger market share, companies often have to discover niches of environmentally oriented products.
Anna: There is such a thing as greenwashing. This term describes a situation in which the environmental agenda is used by a business or any other institutions (including cultural ones) as a PR technology to continue their activities. That is, a business or institution is being ecologized, but in fact, the effect of such activities either does not help the environment in any way or even makes it worse. Are there any studies on the real ecological efficiency of new ‘eco-businesses‘ in Russia?
Angelina: I would say that it is necessary to consider each situation separately and monitor the reports of environmental and expert organizations since they are the ones who most often ‘reveal’ cases of greenwashing. In Russian practice, this is done either by professional environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, or journalists and eco-bloggers, or expert centers, for example, the Eco-Union, which, among other things, deals with environmental certification issues. I’m afraid, today there are no universal ways to check whether greenwashing is taking place.
Anna: The Reside / Sustain project, within the framework of which we are conducting this interview, is researching how artistic residencies can be actors of sustainable development. To what extent is the term ‘sustainability‘ used in Russia and what is meant by it?
Angelina: Sustainability implies a harmonious combination of economic, environmental, and social factors. As elsewhere in the world, sustainable development in Russia means economic development that is sensitive to environmental and social components, does not destroy the environment or tries to reduce its harmful effects, takes into account social factors: the well-being of people, reducing inequality, improving welfare.
As a remark, it should be noted that sometimes there is confusion in the understanding of this term in Russian since the translation of the word ‘sustainable’ into the Russian language is close to the concept of stability. Sometimes economists who talk about sustainable development have in mind a ‘steadily developing’ economy, and this may not include environmental and social factors.
But in general, the use of this term in the Russian-speaking context corresponds to global trends and general understanding. And as far as I can see, the sustainability agenda in Russia has certainly intensified in recent years.
Anna: Have you spotted any changes in behavioural aspects and the cultivation of environmentally conscious behaviour among the Russian population in recent years? Does it look like a relevant agenda for the wide audience, are there educational programs that help people understand the main ecological issues?
Angelina: It seems to me that the issues of ethical and conscious consumption are becoming more and more popular among the general public. As a response to this request, educational programs and activist initiatives are emerging, and environmental blogging is developing.
There are many actors involved. On the one hand, traditionally there are NGOs’, public organizations’ and government initiatives. On the other hand, many businesses that promote sustainable consumption and allow customers to choose brands that are more ethical and more environmentally friendly have appeared in recent years. Let’s take the example of ‘Teper Tak‘ (‘From now — it will be like this’). This is a group of like-minded people who, on the one hand, help ordinary people to embark on the path of careful consumption, and on the other hand, help small and medium-sized businesses find solutions leading to reducing the amount of garbage and resource consumption, and create affordable services for careful consumers.
Eco-bloggers do a lot in this area — recently, a whole sector of them has appeared on Instagram, VKontakte, Facebook, and YouTube. Basically, these people tell their audience what certain products are made of, comment on products’ contents, open the discussions on the certification of goods, test environmentally friendly products on themselves.
Anna: What role do you think art could take on to increase sustainability?
Angelina: I guess, educational — it can talk about problems and ways to solve them, and attract attention.
Anna: And what could be the role of the residencies?
Angelina: On the one hand, a residency is usually a specific place, its work is immersed in a local context, and artists spend a lot of time there. This means that the residency can give artists the opportunity to study the environment, delve deeper into the ecological and social components of their stay there, and therefore work on issues of sustainable development.
On the other hand, the residency is what allows artists to take a break, put themselves into a new situation, and think about how the regional connects with the global, explore these connections, and demonstrate to others.
In addition, residencies work not only with artists but also with the general public, make exhibitions, work with local communities, show the results of artists’ activities, so it is possible for them to carry out an educational function. These are the three main directions of work I can spot.
Anna: What is your personal interest in participating in the Reside / Sustain project?
Angelina: I like projects at the intersection between different areas. It is always exciting to work with people who are interested in your field and your expertise, but who think completely differently and work with other research methods and means of expression.
I myself started my way in ecology in 2008 thanks to the Moving Baltic Sea project, which connected ecology and culture. It was organized as a moving festival: a ship was sailing from the northern coast of Germany towards the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, and in every city where it stopped, events that connected ecology and culture took place. There were discussions, film screenings of environmental films on sails, theatre, photo exhibitions — it involved many mediums. In St. Petersburg, I regularly take part in and help the Eco Cup festival. Its organizers bring the best environmental films from around the world to Russia and show them at various venues, arrange discussions, workshops, thus attracting a wide audience to environmental problems.
In 2019, I participated in the Barents Environmental Film Festival. It took place partly in Petrozavodsk, partly in Joensuu in Finland. The festival also featured environmental films, discussions were held on issues of sustainable development, climate, cyclical economy, there were workshops for city residents about an environmentally friendly lifestyle, and a separate seminar was held for film industry professionals on how to make the film production process more environmentally friendly.
In 2018, I participated in the Biennial of Environmental Art in the town of Ii on the west coast of Finland. We had a joint Russian-American project there with artists Andrea Stanislav and Dean Lozow, where I was responsible for the environmental component. We conducted several dozen interviews with residents of the city, asking them about various aspects of changes in the field of climate, and environmental situation, in the last decades. We used their statements to make an audio work and printed their portraits on mini-badges, which Andrea and Dean then placed on their clothes, walking around the city on the day of the presentation of the project.
So, I hope to enrich the Reside and Sustain project with my experience and understanding of the climate issues in contemporary Russia, as well as take part in developing more thorough ideas about how residencies can be actors of sustainability.