The fertile territories around Voronezh have long been referred to as Russia’s ‘breadbasket’. They also hold the last major nickel reserves in Europe, and the mining companies are about to move in...
Konstantin Rubakhin, a poet and former state television analyst, always knew that his home village, deep in central Russia’s fertile Black Earth region, was sitting on top of massive nickel deposits. But like everyone else in the area, renowned for centuries as the country’s ‘bread basket,’ he believed the region’s agricultural significance and the presence of a nearby nature reserve meant the valuable deposits would go untapped.
He was wrong.
Everything changed for the people of the Voronezh region in December 2011, when national leader Vladimir Putin signed a decree calling for a tender for the right to develop the deposits, believed to be the last major nickel reserves in Europe. That tender was won in May 2012 by the Ural Metal and Mining Company (UGMK), described this year by Russia’s respected Kommersant broadsheet as ‘one of Russia’s most secretive metals companies’.
‘It was a massive shock,’ Rubakhin, 38, tells me when I meet him in a central Moscow cafe. ‘I’d been living away from the area for ten years, but I immediately returned to help fight against the project.’
Nickel extraction has blighted towns and cities across Russia, most notably north Siberia’s Norilsk, which has been transformed by nickel ore smelting into one of the most polluted places on Earth. In Norilsk, life expectancies are some ten years lower than Russia’s already unenviable average of just under 70 (64 for men). It is a fate the vast majority of people in the Voronezh region’s countryside do not wish to share.
The Yelanskoye and Yelinskoye deposits were discovered in the east of the Voronezh region by Soviet geologists in the 1960s and are believed to jointly hold around 400,000 tons of nickel, on top of tens of thousands of tons of copper and cobalt. In 1977, the Kremlin abandoned plans to extract the metals, but placed them on the country’s list of strategic reserves. On today’s market, the deposits would be worth some $7 billion.
The week after meeting Rubakhin in Moscow, I take an overnight train to the Voronezh region, where he meets me on the platform before driving me to see the woman who has helped spearhead the anti-nickel campaign.
‘Nickel brings death. This is the heart of Russia, and these people are going to kill it’ Activist Nelly Rudchenko
‘Nickel brings death,’ says Nelly Rudchenko, a jolly fifty-something housewife who sells headscarves for a living. We are sitting in her one-story house in the village of Novokhopyorsk. ‘This is the heart of Russia, and these people are going to kill it,’ she says.
Rudchenko is not alone among locals in being radicalised by the Nickel project. ‘Before, we would see all these people marching in Moscow against Putin, and we’d just be amazed. ‘Why would they do that?’ But now we know. Now we see that the authorities have no respect for the people,’ she tells me, as her husband brings us breakfast. Rubakhin, up all night planning the eco-activists’ next move, is snoring away loudly on a couch.
Opinion polls indicate some 98 percent of locals in the Voronezh region’s towns and villages are against the planned nickel extraction project and a series of well-attended protests have backed up the statistics. But regional officials aren’t listening — never mind the Kremlin. Not only have the authorities refused to hold a referendum on the project (against the advice of both Russia’s Public Chamber, which counsels the government, and the Kremlin’s own human rights council), but both Rubakhin and Rudchenko’s homes have been raided by officers from the Federal Security Agency (FSB) and the local anti-extremist centre. ‘My father told me this was actually the fourth time my house here has been raided since it was built – the other three times were by the KGB,’ Rubakhin told me. Shortly after my visit, Rudchenko was once again taken in again by police for questioning.
As mainly middle-class protests against Putin's long rule fade in Moscow in the face of disillusionment and a Kremlin clampdown, regional issues - environmental, economic and social – are slowly stirring dissent in Russia's heartland. Massive increases in payments for housing utilities, postponed ahead of last year's presidential elections, triggered demonstrations in central and north Russia this spring, signalling new dangers for the authorities. Much of this provincial discontent has been sparked by the newfound access to information, independent of tightly controlled state-run television channels, facilitated by the dramatic rise in Internet penetration across Russia.
‘Before, we would all have been isolated from one another, with no way of finding out if what they said on television was true,’ says Rudchenko. ‘Now almost every home in the village has a computer linked to the Internet. This makes it a lot easier to organise ourselves.’
From Rudchenko’s home, we drive deep into the countryside, towards the site of the planned mining project, already cordoned off and guarded round-the-clock by security guards employed by the UGMK mining company. We pass a nature reserve that is home to an extremely rare breed of water mammal called the Russian desman. Activists say the reserve will be threatened by the proposed mining project.
‘The mentality of the local administration is just amazing,’ says Rubakhin. ‘I told an official any nickel mining in the region would kill the Russian desman off, and he said ‘Why do you want to worry about those animals, anyway? They are hardly any of them left.’’
The Voronezh region’s Cossacks, the fierce horseman who guarded Tsarist-era Russia’s frontiers, have been among the most vocal opponents of the project and a group of them have been camped out in the area since the start of the year, keeping watch over the land. It was the Cossacks who helped erect a massive cross to ‘protect’ the local countryside from what one of them describes to me as the ‘curse’ of nickel, after what activists say was an order by the Orthodox Church barring local priests from becoming involved with the protests. The region is a deeply religious, conservative area, but the Orthodox Church’s ban sparked a crisis of faith for many locals. ‘Churches round here really started to empty after the priests were told to stay away from the protests,’ Rudchenko says.
Around 100 anti-nickel activists – including elderly women, Cossacks in uniform, and activists from across the political spectrum – have gathered at the planned nickel mining site. As a light snow falls on the still frozen fields, Ataman Igor Zhitenyev, a regional Cossack leader, addresses them.
‘The Cossacks are in the vanguard of the struggle, as it has always been in Russia,’ Zhitenyev says. ‘They thought they could fool us, but you can’t fool the people.’
From the road opposite, a figure dressed all in black films the crowd for a good ten minutes, before driving off. ‘FSB,’ mutters someone behind me, as the protesters, many singing hymns or praying, make their way across the field to confront UGMK’s security guards.
‘What will you do when the mining starts and we come here to stop it?’ a middle-aged woman asks a security guard, as she throws dog hair and salt onto the cordoned-off land (’It’s a local curse! Witchcraft!’ she mutters to me, with a wink). ‘Will you shoot us?’
There is much talk of violence to come if the project goes ahead, and an emotional Zhitenyev claims it is only the presence of his Cossacks that has kept things from turning nasty so far.
‘Those officials steal and build themselves mansions, and we always just thought, ah to hell with them. We just got on with our lives. But now they are even threatening our way of life. And our lives.’
Cossack leader Igor Zhitenyev
‘I really don’t know what’s going to happen if they start mining here,’ he tells me. ‘Lots of people say, 'I’d give my life to stop the nickel. At least then I won’t have to feel ashamed in front of my kids’ after they destroy the land.’’
The Kremlin has supported a Cossack revival across Russia in recent months as part of its drive to reach out to the conservative heartland in the wake of last year’s unprecedented anti-Putin demonstrations. Zhitenyev, however, is largely scornful of both the regional and national authorities.
‘The authorities have sold out the people,’ he rages. ‘I was speaking to local administration officials recently and I said ‘The people are against the extraction of nickel.’ ‘What people?’ they laughed. ‘You lot aren’t the people.’’
‘But if we aren’t the people, then who is?’ he says to me, clearly baffled ‘We are a simple people, we don’t need much – those officials steal and build themselves mansions, and we always just thought, ah to hell with them. We just got on with our lives. But now they are even threatening our way of life. And our lives.’
The UGMK mining company sees things differently, stressing the jobs and money it says the project will bring the economically depressed region, where average monthly salaries stand at around 420 pounds ($640) a month. The company also insists any ecological fears are misplaced.
‘People’s concerns are linked to the fact that a group of so-called ecological activists has been running around frightening people,’ says Evgeny Bragin, UGMK’s deputy director general. ‘But these fears are ungrounded. First our company is only carrying out prospecting and evaluation work. The project will also be subject to expert evaluations, including an ecological one.’ Bragin insists the existence of the reserves still has to be proven and that any enrichment of nickel in the Voronezh region will cause no harm to the environment, including the local River Khoper. ‘It’s pretty large,’ he says.
UGMK’s arguments may have been resoundingly dismissed in the towns and villages around the potential nickel mines, but they have proven much more successful in the city of Voronezh, the region’s capital.
‘When I first heard about the nickel extraction project, I thought ‘well, that’s good, it will bring some money to the region,’’ admitted Roman Khabarov, an ex-police officer and local opposition activist. ‘That was before I looked into the consequences of the project, of course,’ he says. ‘But lots of people in the city have bought into UGMK’s arguments.’
Environmentalists believe that many of the approximately 2,500 jobs that UGMK says the project will create are likely to go to specialists from other regions and that the financial benefits will fade beside damage caused to the area’s agricultural sector. They also say UGMK has a less than perfect environmental record in other projects, pointing to alleged problems at its zinc processing factory in the North Caucasus region of Vladikavkaz.
‘If Moscow’s wealthy protesters are fighting for ‘abstract ideas, like freedom and a sense of worthiness,’ these newly-found dissenters are engaged in a battle for something much more tangible.’
Back in Novokhopyorsk, activists have gathered at a makeshift HQ in a local house to discuss further tactics. The fussy housewives, potbellied market traders and middle-aged Cossacks sitting around a table laden with sausage, vodka and fruit are a far cry from the Moscow hipsters at the heart of anti-Putin protests in the Russian capital, but there is no doubting their commitment to their cause. And if Moscow’s relatively wealthy protesters are fighting for what opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny called last autumn ‘abstract ideas, like freedom and a sense of worthiness,’ then these newly-found dissenters are engaged in a battle for something much more tangible.
One thing, however, the Voronezh region anti-nickel movement has in common with the Moscow-based anti-Kremlin protesters is the presence of nationalist and far-right elements among its ranks. ‘There are people in our eco-movement who believe all that Kremlin propaganda, that the anti-Putin movement is funded by the US State Department, and so on,’ admits Rubakhin.
Anti-Semitic slogans are also common at anti-nickel rallies. ‘They were shouting ‘Kill the Jews and the Yids!’ at a recent protest,’ recalls Khabarov, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real dilemma for me to attend such protests. On one hand, I’m against any nickel mining, but on the other hand, do I really want anything to do with such people?’
But a smear campaign in both national and regional media has steered largely clear of demonizing the movement over the involvement of nationalists, choosing to focus instead of the figure of Rubakhin, an unpaid assistant to opposition MP Ilya Ponamaryov. Critics claim, variously, that Rubakhin is being financed by Norilsk Nickel, the company that lost the 2012 tender to UGMK, to discredit the project, or that he has been receiving money from Western-funded NGOs (‘foreign agents’ as such organizations have been ordered to label themselves under a new law).
‘Rubakhin has chosen a straightforward, but effective and dependable strategy – to brutally frighten the local population with [the prospect of] fatal and serious illnesses. It’s a method that has been applied in many countries, for example, North Korea, where millions of people bow down to a leader purely due to their fear of being conquered by ‘capitalists from the outside world,’’ read a recent article in the Voronezh Time online news portal.
Comparisons to North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty are probably the least of the anti-nickel movement’s worries. A number of environmental activists have been brutally beaten in recent years after standing up to Kremlin-backed projects, something Rubakhin is all too aware of. (’I’ve taken steps to defend myself,’ he tells me, flashing a traumatic pistol, a handgun that shoots rubber bullets at high velocities.)
While activists admit UGMK is unlikely to back down over the project — unless, of course, nickel prices fall — many of them pin their hopes on Putin seizing the chance to make himself look good in the Voronezh region. ‘He could do with some popular decisions right now,’ says Rubakhin, pointing to the president’s slowly falling nationwide approval ratings. And there is precedent for a presidential about-turn. In 2006, Putin ordered changes to the planned route of an oil pipeline which would have passed close to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world's deepest body of fresh water, after local protests
But not everyone is optimistic that history is about to repeat itself. ‘What do you think?’ asks Oksana, a middle-aged housewife-turned-activist, as I set off to catch an early morning bus. ‘Do we have a chance of stopping the project?’
I tell her that if they can bring the issue to wider public attention, and get national – and even international – opinion on their side, then they have every chance of forcing a U-turn. After all, I assure her, Russia’s fragile democracy may be ‘managed,’ but the authorities are still relatively sensitive to public opinion.
Oksana doesn’t look convinced. ‘I’m not sure,’ she sighs, as she tidies up the dishes and bottles left over from another night of heated eco-debate. ‘Perhaps, if Putin was different. But he’s so stubborn. We all know he really hates to be seen to back down.’