Environmental activist Vladimir Slivyak: "We are dealing with the power of villains.
Vladimir Slivyak is an eco-activist, winner of the alternative "Nobel Prize" - the Swedish "For a Better Way of Life" award, co-chairman of the NGO "Ecozaschita". "Ecodefense" was founded in 1989 in Kaliningrad, and with time it has opened branches in other regions of Russia. It fought against environmental pollution, protested against importation of nuclear waste and construction of nuclear power plants. It became the first environmental organization in the country to be added to the list of "foreign agents," along with Memorial, Public Verdict, and Agora. This happened in 2014, the year of the annexation of Crimea. Vladimir Slivyak talks about the non-recognition of "inagent" status, Putin's hatred of civil society, and what can be done to make the war unleashed by Russia end more quickly in the Eyewitness Project.
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Vladimir Slivyak and I am co-chairman of the Russian environmental organization Ecodefense. We still exist in spite of the fact that most of our people left Russia because of the war or before the war. I'm from Kaliningrad city on the Baltic Sea, but I spent most of my professional life working in Moscow. We were very much against nuclear power, we managed to get a number of important projects connected with nuclear power, with oil and with other fossil fuels to be shut down. In the 1990s and 2000s, before the massive pressure from the Russian authorities on civil society, Ecodefense was one of the most influential and effective organizations in Russia and was doing very well with very few resources.
How has your life changed after February 24, 2022?
- I would say that our lives began to change much earlier. We were the first environmental organization in Russia to receive the status of a foreign agent. This happened in the middle of 2014. After that, we were not touched so seriously for a while. How could we not be touched? Every year the Ministry of Justice opened several administrative cases against us, and we had to go to court, we were fined. But we are a non-commercial organization, we don't earn any money, so we couldn't pay the fines. So we wrote a statement saying that we're not foreign agents, because we're not defending any foreign interests, we're only defending the interests of Russians. We also decided not to pay any fines. This position was taken in part because of Crimea. We understood that Putin's regime had started a war. It was decided in our organization: we don't want to pay money to a state that uses it for war.
Why did you become involved in ecoactivism?
- When I was 16, there were several students around me who were also very unhappy with the environmental situation. In Russia, there has long been propaganda about how wonderful the Soviet Union was. Maybe it was great for some people. What did we see in the late '80s? Environmental degradation, although I can't say that our region was terribly industrial. We were just concerned young people who were outraged that the Soviet government, which did not care about people's health, ignored the environmental situation and allowed pollution. Because your health depends directly on how polluted your environment is. We decided that if no one wanted to do it, why don't we do it. We started organizing protests, and it was quite effective. The first environmental public protest campaign was against the pulp and paper factory, which dumped chemical waste into the river without any treatment, and it smelled terrible in the summer. And the river flowed through the center of Kaliningrad city. And the people who lived near the river, it was impossible to open the windows - it stank terribly. The level of pollution was terrible - fish were swimming upside down. Today it flows the same way, but it's cleaner. We wanted to protect the public interest because we saw that no one was protecting it. Later on, in the '90s, we became, for quite a long time, the leading organization in Russia that criticized nuclear power, the importation of nuclear waste into Russia from other countries, and the construction of nuclear power plants. We even managed to do things that other organizations in Russia failed to do.
Did the protest matter? How effective was it then?
- Very effective, especially in the 1990s. Probably because state power was objectively quite weak. I think the difference between a democratic society and an authoritarian or dictatorial society is not that in one everything is fine and in the other everything is bad. There are always encroachments on the rights of citizens by the state, but if it is a democratic society, it has the ability to defend itself with an independent judiciary. But in an authoritarian society, or in a society ruled by a dictator, violation and disregard of civil rights by the state is the norm. There is no independent judiciary there, and a person has nowhere to turn if the state infringes on his rights. And sooner or later it will, no matter what society you live in. And in the 90s, the biggest strength of Russian society was the fact that the government was so weak that it was not able to seriously infringe on civil rights. The people had the power to defend them. When Vladimir Putin came to power, the situation began to change. We saw this, and we saw it much earlier than anyone else, including the Russian opposition. We were the first to be affected.
Why did Putin's regime attack eco-activists in the first place?
- Because at that time we were the most effective. There are various minority rights, there are human rights, there are environmental rights, and many other subspecies of rights. Activists are those who try to defend these rights and who see in this struggle the improvement of society. We are just as much human rights activists as those who defend classic human rights. In the 90s, the strongest segment of civil society in Russia was the environmental movement. And that is why when Putin came to power, the first to feel the pressure were environmentalists. From as early as the first year of Putin's presidency, we could see that deep down inside this man, his hatred for civil society is very strong. And I think this can easily be explained. This man is from the KGB, and he worked in Germany. Even East Germany (GDR), where he worked, was fundamentally different from the Soviet Union in that things were much better there with civil society. The KGB was always trying to use civil society organizations in one way or another to achieve its goals. You can pick up his first and other interviews at that time - I remember his big interview in Komsomolskaya Pravda, where he mentioned that he might go to work for Greenpeace when he was no longer president. There you could see that he understood very well what civil society and public organizations are, and what problems they can cause the state if the state doesn't nail them down. And all the time he was in power, we saw that slowly but surely the work was going on to neutralize the main structures upon which civil society was based, which we had been able to build at best in the 1990s. Then this turned into the dismantling of democratic institutions. Civil society was not able to see these signals that had been there from the very beginning. And if it had seen them, I think there would have been no war or dictatorship in Russia.
Name the top 3 environmental problems of Russia. How can they be solved?
- In terms of radioactive contamination, this is primarily the Chelyabinsk Region. The consequences of the 1957 explosion at the Mayak Combine, when a large tank of highly radioactive waste exploded, and a large amount of radiation rose into the atmosphere and then settled over a very long distance of several thousand square kilometers. This was called the East Urals Radioactive Trace. There, by the way, economic activity has been prohibited there since 1957 and still is. There are fenced-off areas where you can't pick mushrooms or berries. This is to the question of how long the radioactive contamination lives. In terms of you and me living - more or less always. Chemical contamination is Dzerzhinsk in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Also a Soviet problem. And of course Kuzbass and coal mining is the most underestimated environmental problem that Russia has had for a long time. We were the first environmental organization to pay attention to this. If you look at the state's official environmental statistics from Kuzbass, you see that over 90% of the drinking water sources in Kuzbass are polluted. Every day you get a new batch of dirty and toxic substances in your body, and they accumulate there. People have been living in such conditions for decades. The problem is that in order to even begin to solve an environmental problem, you have to cooperate with the authorities, and you can be anything you want, you can protest, you can criticize everyone-yes, these are the tools of our job. When we need to, we criticize, protest, and make nice actions. When we think it's more effective to negotiate to solve the problems we're working on, we go negotiate. One of the biggest tragedies is that Russia has established a fascist dictatorship with which it is impossible for civil society to cooperate. From the point of view of environmental protection, we cannot cooperate with such a dictatorship, because its interests are in direct conflict with ours.
What can Ecodefense employees do to make the war end faster?
- There are things that affect the situation, and they all have to do with reducing and preferably completely stopping the flow of money that still goes to Moscow from the West. Because the West still buys fossil fuels: gas, oil, nuclear fuel, coal. More precisely, the West does not buy Russian coal, there is an embargo, but it, for example, allows its companies to insure coal that goes to third countries. This is also one of the ways for Putin's regime to enrich itself. And I think that the most effective thing we can do is to influence those who make decisions in the West and make every effort to ensure that they completely stop buying oil, gas, and nuclear fuel.
What is the reaction of European politicians? They depend on their voters, don't they?
- There was a period during which the more people talked about stopping buying gas, oil, and coal from Russia, the more some Western countries tried to buy more. That is, they began to buy even more from Putin and at a higher price. During this period, Putin's regime objectively earned several times more than before the war. But nevertheless, look at what happened. At the time the war began, not one person, not one expert in Germany would have dared to say that Germany could do without Russian gas. It was impossible. More than 60 percent of the gas used in Germany was purchased from Russia, and it was pipeline gas. It took less than a year, and by the end of 2022 Germany was almost completely independent of Russian gas. A huge amount of German money was invested in this. And this money was invested absolutely consciously. This is truly fantastic. It was unimaginable a year ago, but it happened.
What does the future hold for Russia?
- Russia will definitely have a good time. I am not in favor of the idea of collective guilt. I am in favor of the idea that collective responsibility exists. Collective responsibility does not mean that you personally are responsible for the fact that Putin decided to start a war. In another sense: if you're walking down the street and you see that someone is attacking another person with a knife and is about to kill him, it's not your fault that he attacked. But it is your responsibility to intervene and stop the killing. We really have a responsibility to make sure the country has a future. It's going to take a lot of work, because so far Russian society is trying to ignore what's going on, despite everything that's going on, despite the hundreds of thousands of victims of this war. Russian society is still trying not to turn its face toward the war.
Why does this happen?
- I think it is a combination of factors related, on the one hand, to the Soviet legacy - to the state in which society emerged from the Soviet Union and what happened to it next. That is, on the one hand, with history, and on the other hand, with a conscious, planned, purposeful policy of the Putin regime to destroy the very foundations and structures of civil society. This policy was aimed at destroying the horizontal ties between people, at separating people and preventing them from cooperating, agreeing, and uniting into a civil society. Yes, of course this was under conditions when society was in a state of transition after the Soviet Union and was still overcoming various complexes, but this does not absolve people in Russia of all responsibility. I think that, yes, there are some issues that are not straightforward, but to the question, "Are there hell-bent villains?" - Yes, there are, and we see them. We live in a time when the nerve of time is bare, and we have seen that it is true that there are villains who have come out of hell. We are dealing with the power of villains, and we have not been able to stop it. If Russia had a more mature civil society, if it had more moral guidelines... A very big problem of the emerging civil society in Russia was that a lot of prominent people who were counted among the opposition, on the one hand, claimed to have these moral principles, and they supposedly acted according to them, but on the other hand, as soon as they got a chance to take money from Putin's regime, all these moral principles went somewhere else. They took the money, came back, and again pretended to be people of principle. This is not the way to do it.
Will you go back to Russia?
- Of course. After we left, we did quite a bit to make sure that the Putin regime had less money for the war. And if we want to walk down the carpet from the border into some Boutyrka, then of course we can go. But the return to a normal life in Russia, which of course I and all my colleagues want very much, will only be possible if the Putin regime is gone.