Extremists by any another name: how Karelian pensioners fought against a mining company – and won

Local conflicts in Russia are often written off as paternalistic. But sometimes, people win. RU

Anna Yarovaya
30 January 2018

The camp. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Almost a year ago, in March 2017, a conflict over a forest in Karelia that had long raged between local residents and entrepreneurs and the authorities finally drew to a close. Surprisingly, though, it was local residents and activists who triumphed in Sunsky Bor.

Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, recently hosted a screening of Extremists, a film by director Alexey Tikhomirov inspired by the struggle waged by the forest’s defenders. Though Tikhomirov insisted during a presentation of his film that he’d made a “good-natured movie”, this was grasped neither by the organisers of the ArtDocFest documentary festival, who paired Extremists with a film about Pussy Riot, nor by the festival audience, whose reaction to the story was brusque and aggressive. The audience in Petrozavodsk, however, proved capable of appreciating the film’s true worth.

“Now it comes across almost like a comedy,” murmurs Tatiana Romakhina, one of the film’s protagonists, as she listens to the terse yet weighty pronouncements of Vasily Diykov, the story’s leading man. “But what did this victory of ours cost us.”

Investors are more important than people

In June 2011, Karelia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology issued the company Saturn Nordstroi with a license to conduct geological surveys and mine sand at the Yuzhno-Sunskoye deposit, some 40km from Karelia’s capital of Petrozavodsk and just 600m from the village of Suna.

This move wasn’t particularly unusual for a republic whose entire territory is bisected by a federal highway connects Moscow, St Petersburg and Murmansk – and requires constant maintenance. Yuzhno-Sunskoye is only one of almost 100 sand-and-gravel deposits dotted throughout Karelia, which borders Finland. The regional government grants licenses, entrepreneurs mine sand and gravel – and the local population swallows the dust and trembles at the explosions of hard rock.

In the majority of cases, few residents try to actively defend their right to healthy and comfortable environment

The regional authorities follow a straightforward logic: investors of any and all stripes are more important than the local population, boosting as they do the republic’s meagre coffers. Sometimes, though, local residents resist: in 2009, the town of Lakhdenpokhya held a referendum on the construction of two gravel quarries within town limits, and 77% of voters voted against the proposal. But the authorities and big business didn’t admit defeat: the administrative boundaries of Lakhdenpokhya were altered at the instigation of its mayor in 2011, leaving the quarries beyond town limits. The developers promptly began blasting operations just a few hundred metres away from residential areas.

In the majority of cases, few residents try to actively defend their right to healthy and comfortable environment – in other words, a quiet, explosion-free life. And the further you go from the big cities, the fewer and further between the activists get. In Suna, however, things panned out differently.

A socially significant forest

Sunsky Bor is relatively small in area (a few hectares) and consists predominantly of pines. The forest is surrounded by kilometres of swampland, and the Kola federal highway slices its way north and south a thousand metres hence. Perched on a sandy elevation, this stretch of forest isn’t just beautiful but “socially significant” as well.

Perched on a sandy elevation, this stretch of forest isn’t just beautiful but “socially significant”

Remains of Soviet soldiers are still being unearthed here. While archaeologists organise expeditions to ancient settlement sites in the vicinity, lichenologists discover local specimens of plants listed in Russia’s Red Book, a state document listing Russia’s rare and endangered flora and fauna. The denizens of surrounding villages, meanwhile, call the forest their nourisher. Only here can local pensioners pick mushrooms and berries, source medicinal herbs and build up stockpiles for the winter. They take the grandkids along, too, because strolling in the forest is both healthful and pleasant.


Nina Shalaeva. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.The fact that the Saturn Nordstroy company were set to begin quarrying operations here was not communicated to Suna residents by Karelia’s Ministry of Natural Resources; nor had the district administration or the village head kept them informed of developments. While walking in the forest in the summer of 2012, pensioner Nina Shalaeva – one of the future “Sunsky guerrillas”, as the Karelian press would nickname the anti-quarry activists – happened upon a group of workers marking trees that were due to be felled. They told her that the forest would be cut down and replaced with a quarry. The battle for Sunsky Bor had begun.

Pain in the neckera

Residents’ appeals to the local administration and regional government yielded a predictable result: the developer company, went the official argument, is keeping to the letter of the law and acting in accordance with the licence granted to it. It became clear that simply appealing to the authorities wouldn’t solve the issue.


Tatyana Romakhina. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Activist Tatyana Romakhina then sought assistance from environmentalists and asked them to verify whether the issuance of the licence had violated any environmental legislation. A survey of the area showed that there were indeed rare species – lobaria pulmonaria (tree lungwort) and neckera pennata (shingle moss) – growing on the territory of the planned quarry; though not the most scarce of plants, these lichens are nonetheless listed in the Red Book. Thus followed lawsuits against the regional ministry, which, though legally obliged to conduct a detailed survey of the area prior to issuing the license, had failed to do so, and against the developer company.

But the government authorities and Saturn Nordstroy managed to stop the locals, inviting their experts to testify and conducting a showcase operation to “save” the Red Book-listed plants. Professional lumberjacks sawed down several lichen-covered tree trunks and transported them beyond the territory of the proposed quarry. It subsequently turned out that the “saved” lobaria ended up perishing as a result of the operation, but by that time the court had ruled in favour of the developers, who began felling trees just beyond the forest proper to make way for a road that would be used to ferry in quarry equipment.

The Sunsky guerrillas

On 20 June, 2016 local residents discovered that tree-felling had started in the forest itself. Tatyana Romakhina and a handful of others literally stood in the way of the harvester and forced the fellers to stop. The locals now resolved upon a course of action: they’d pitch a tent on the hillside by the already-laid road, taking turns to keep watch, and if more people and equipment started arriving, they’d thwart the felling of the forest by any means necessary. Saturn Nordstroy made several attempts between June and October to resume work on the approach to the forest, but invariably encountered resistance from one of the Sunsky guerrillas, whose contingent included 80-year-olds Nina Makkoyeva and Vasily Diikov, 68-year-old Nina Shalayeva, Tatyana Romakhina, Vera and Nikolai Mushnikov, and other residents of Suna.


Vasily Diikov. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In October, the harvester returned. This time, however, it was accompanied by a police officer who urged the oldsters to dismantle their camp or face criminal action. But the local cop was far from the most senior representative of the law enforcement agencies that came to be involved in the conflict, whether at the request of Saturn Nordstrom or on their own initiative.

Nina Shalayeva received visits not only from the police but also the FSB: in the autumn of 2015, Shalyaeva was suspected of hatching an unlawful plan to block the federal highway, and the following spring she was even suspected of extremism and threatening to torch equipment and destroy the layout markings for the future quarry. Other members of the resistance were questioned, too. But the guerrillas stood firm, determined to defend the forest to the last. The harvester quit the forest in 2016, thwarted once again.

Gratitude to the media and the Human Rights Council

Vasily Diykov, the 80-year-old “guerrilla” and central protagonist of Alexey Tikhomirov’s Extremists, kept repeating a mantra of sorts at the Petrozavodsk screening of the film: “Thank you to the journalists, thank you to the journalists.” He and his associates are convinced that, were it not for the attention devoted to the affair by regional and federal journalists – attention that resulted in petitions, articles, social media posts, video reports and films – Sunsky Bor would long since have made way for the quarry.

The uproar surrounding Sunsky Bor and its defenders didn’t let up. In the autumn of 2016, two round tables were held by the Ministry of Nature Management and Ecology, with both sides given the opportunity to make their respective cases. Saturn Nordstroy director Igor Fedotov insisted that his company was operating within the law: having been granted a license by the ministry, it had already invested considerable resources into the project. The locals, for their part, continued to insist on the impossibility of measuring in monetary terms the harm that would result if the construction of the quarry went ahead. The regional authorities hummed and hawed. It would be unthinkable, on the eve of a gubernatorial election, to leave the problem unresolved. Yet to pander to the guerrillas’ demands would mean losing face and opening up an even more serious problem: it would embolden civil activists across Karelia to call on the local authorities to take action against unscrupulous developers.


Saturn Nordstroy director Igor Fedotov. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In February 2017, a few days before Karelia experienced a change of governor, the Sunsky guerrillas were visited by representatives from the Presidential Human Rights Council. Concurring that the social significance of Sunsky Bor was greater than its investment value, the PHRC representatives also noted that the environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, which granted Saturn Nordstroy permission to move specimens of Red Book-listed plants from the territory of the proposed quarry in August 2015, had done so unlawfully.

During the PHRC’s final visiting session, Governor Aleksandr Khudilainen publicly promised PHRC chair Mikhail Fedotov that a “reasonable solution” to the problem would be found.

Parfenchikov decides

However, it wasn’t Khudilainen who solved the problem. In February 2017, Artur Parfenchikov, appointed acting governor by the Kremlin, arrived in Karelia. Unexpectedly for many, the former prosecutor of Petrozavodsk set about promoting open dialogue on many of the region’s social problems.

It became very clear that if Parfenchikov could solve the Sunksy Bor problem and extinguish a couple of other hotspots of civil protest – and no matter if he were engaging in grandstanding or motivated by personal conviction – this would stand him in good stead for the upcoming September elections.


Volunteer near the campfire in the guerrilla camp. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.The Sunsky guerrillas were in luck: the acting governor came to a decision before his enthusiasm for transparency waned together with his readiness to engage in dialogue with the public. On 17 March, 2017, a month after his appointment, Artur Parfenchikov announced that Saturn Nordstroy had voluntarily relinquished its rights over the Yuzhno-Sunsky deposit. Details of the deal negotiated between the local authorities and the developers remain unknown to this day – not that this matters to Suna’s pensioners, who’ve succeeded in their main objective: the forest has been saved, and there shall be no quarry.

Suna’s activist pensioners want the forest they’ve wrested from the developers to be more than just a nature monument

The guerrilla camp, which in the space of nine months had metamorphosed from a lone tarpaulin tent into a site fitted out for permanent winter occupation and continuously manned by local residents and volunteers from Petrozavodsk and Kondopoga, was finally dismantled after the official Karelian government website reported that the ministry had revoked the quarry development license.

The forest is saved. What now?

In early April 2017, the following was posted on the guerrillas’ VKontakte page:

“Friends, we won! We’ve saved Sunksy Bor, resolving the problem through our coordinated efforts. But we’ve resolved just a single problem! Squaring the circle will be beyond us, of course. But it’s within our power to make life around us better! And this is what we want to achieve. We, the residents of Suna, want very much to develop our village, to make it better in terms of its social organisation, in terms of residents’ employment, in terms of ecology. We want to clean up the banks of the Suna. We’re ready to get to work.”

Nine months have passed since then. During the screening of Extremists, Tatyana Romakhina explained that the former guerrillas and the environmentalists who helped them defend the forest are working in two directions at once. The environmentalists – members of an NGO called SPOK (Karelia Regional Nature Conservancy) – are helping collate documentation so as to establish a “nature monument” on the site of the aborted quarry. The already-completed project substantiation document underscores the social and environmental importance of Sunsky Bor, and a map of the nature monument’s proposed boundaries has also been put together.


The celebration of victory. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Meanwhile, Suna residents are in the process of establishing a local NGO with a view, among other things, to participating in grant programmes in support of local initiatives being implemented in the republic. Perhaps they’ll even take a stab at more ambitious projects.

“The village has plenty of problems to deal with: problems with roads, with lighting, with refuse,” says Tatyana Romakhina. “We want to live in a cosy, comfortable environment, which is why we’re creating an NGO. We need to attract money. We got together during the summer and put up new bridges across the stream. And we left the shelter standing on the site of our former camp along with supplies of firewood and a fire-pit.”

Finally, Suna’s activist pensioners want the forest they’ve wrested from the developers to be more than just a nature monument: they see it as a kind of pilgrimage site for anyone determined to stand up for their rights.


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