Meet the Russian Eco-Activist Who Stood Up to the Kremlin

Jul 07, 2014 at 8:22 AM ET

Russia’s Black Earth region is often called the nation’s breadbasket—and with good reason. The area, which is located in the southwest, near the border with Ukraine, is blessed with some of the world’s most fertile soil. It’s also blessed with massive nickel deposits, worth an estimated $7 billion.

But this gift has also turned out to be something of a curse. Critics say the process of smelting the mineral turns the environment into a living hell, taking years off peoples’ lives and wreaking havoc on wildlife.

So in 2011, when Russian president Vladimir Putin opened the area for politically connected oligarchs, nearly everyone in the region—from ordinary housewives to Cossacks—was worried about what would happen. The Kremlin insists the nickel mines would provide much needed jobs for the economically depressed region, but critics counter that the highly-specialized positions would likely go to qualified outsiders.

Enter Konstantin Rubakhin—a poet and journalist—who organized a movement to stop the nickel mining project before it started. He led a series of protests that angered Russian authorities. Suddenly, state television began a vicious smear campaign against the activists, and Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB, raided their homes. One activist who was arrested last year has since claimed police threatened to have him raped and sent to a prison camp if he refused to incriminate others in the movement.

Today, the protests and the mining process continue but Rubakhin—who remains a key figure in the movement—is on the run from the authorities. I spoke to him about the roots of the protests, the oligarch behind the controversial project and his troubles with the law.

Why did you decide to organize the protests?

The nickel-mining project is due to last 30 to 40 years and would be a genuine ecological catastrophe. [The Black Earth Region] is very dear to me. My father was born in the area and I used to spend every summer there. The river Khoper is one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. And the Khoper National Park is one of just two places on the planet inhabited by the Russian desman, an extremely rare breed of water mammal. There are only some 6,000 of these creatures left. When I told the local authorities this, one of them said: “Why do you want to worry about those animals, anyway? They are hardly any of them left.” That’s the kind of mentality we’re up against.

Aren’t you afraid that you could be attacked? After all, eco-activists have frequently been targeted in Russia, often with very serious consequences.

I’ve learned to live with this fear over the past two and a half years. But I’ve also taken some steps to defend myself. Before I was forced to go into hiding, I had a traumatic pistol [a handgun that shoots rubber bullets at high velocities]. I never took my hand off it while I was walking the streets alone. Now, while I’m in hiding, I am very careful. I always check to see who is about when I go outside. I almost never use my cell phone. I communicate mainly through Skype or messaging systems.

Why do you think so many people support the anti-nickel protests?

These people live in the region and recognize the value of nature. And they know very well – thanks to the Internet – what consequences mining and the construction of mining plants here would bring. They also realize that none of this is being done for their benefit – that it’s all being done to benefit the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which is running the project.

Who runs that company?

This company is owned by Iskander Makhmudov, a Kremlin-friendly tycoon whose fortune is estimated at $6.5 billion. In 2011, he was reportedly listed among the suspects in a €4million money-laundering case that was being investigated by the Spanish authorities. The case was subsequently handed over to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office but—you’ll be shocked to discover—nothing has been heard about it since.

Why are you on the run? Where are you now?

Late last year, a former anti-nickel protester called Mikhail Bezmensky called me and asked if we could meet up in Moscow. I suggested meeting in the center of the city, but he insisted on a different location. I sensed something was up, and didn’t go to meet him. Shortly after that, I found out that police were waiting for me in the street outside my apartment with orders to arrest me. There were no grounds at all for my arrest. But, as ever in Russia, grounds for an arrest usually materialize after you’ve been detained. So I didn’t go home. When I didn’t turn up, police broke my door down and carried out a search.

Mikhail was later arrested on charges of attempting to blackmail the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company. He subsequently wrote a letter from jail in which he said he’d had €7million in a bag for me that day. The police had told him to hand the cash over to me so that they could arrest me. Even though I didn’t turn up for the meeting, I was charged in absentia with extortion and I now face between seven and 15 years in jail. So I’ve gone into hiding, and I don’t use the telephone at all. That’s why I can’t tell you where I am.

Do you think you will manage to stop the nickel mining project?

I’m certain we will stop the project. If people run out of legal options, they won’t hesitate to use other methods. We’ve already had a glimpse of this last year, when people took the law into their own hands and destroyed equipment on the prospective mining site.

We’ve told Putin many times – if he stops the project, he’ll be extremely popular in the Black Earth region. As for the local authorities, if they start to help their own people, the Kremlin will thank them for it. Because the Kremlin certainly won’t be well-disposed towards them if mass disorder breaks out in central Russia, that’s for sure.