Who speaks for Siberia?

Author:Kane, Hal

Russia's resource-gouging kleptocracy is gorging itself on Siberian forests, fish, and minerals. It's opposed by a little army of nonprofits whose vision is, by local standards, revolutionary: They believe that siberia should be managed in the interests of those who actually live there.

On August 30, 2000, about 10 masked policemen wielding automatic rifles burst into the office of the Glasnost Foundation, a nonprofit human rights organization in Moscow. The police forced the dozen people they encountered to lie facedown on the floor. They spent 40 minutes rummaging through the office, then they left without a word of explanation. The Foundation's staff never learned what exactly the police wanted--assuming they had anything more specific in mind than intimidation. But the larger significance of the raid was never much in doubt.

It was yet another skirmish in the political war over the world's largest remaining undeveloped natural area outside of Antarctica--and over the social rights of the people who live there. Siberia, the vast realm at the top of Eurasia, contains vast stores of timber, oil, and metals. The oil and gas deposits off the Siberian Arctic and Pacific coasts are by far Russia' s most important source of foreign exchange. Siberia is also a place of extraordinary natural and cultural wealth. It's home to such indigenous cultures as the Udege, who live along the rivers that run through the forests of the Siberian far east, and the Inuit, who inhabit the tundra to the north. Its southeastern forests are the last remaining range of the Siberian tiger, the largest of the world's great cats. Its northern tundra is the breeding ground of the once common and now highly endangered Siberian crane, which winters as far south as India. The rivers that pour from its Pacific coasts receive the largest surviving salmon runs in the w orld.

This is what the cops and the people on the floor are fighting over. The cops take their orders--although usually indirectly--from the oligarchy that inherited the crumbling industrial apparatus of the old Soviet empire. On the other side is Russia's fledgling civil society. I went to far eastern Siberia to meet some of the people who are constructing this movement. I found them in the offices of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in cities like Vladivostok, on the southeastern tip of Siberia. (See map, page 16.) Vladivostok's spectacular Pacific coastal fords would have made it more beautiful than San Francisco, had it not been mostly composed of massive, decrepit cinder-block buildings. I found other activists in Khabarovsk, which lies to the north, along the Chinese border--a city that is home to many whose parents or grandparents were condemned to the Soviet-era gulags. And when I met these activists in their cramped apartments, their destitute universities, or the offices of their start-up magazines, I heard much that was encouraging: clearly, they are winning some of their battles.

To be sure, they have not patched the leaks that are too numerous to count in the corroding Soviet-era oil pipelines. Nor have they found a way to cope with Siberia's abundant nuclear waste, or to reverse the region's declining life expectancy, which has fallen to around 70 years for women and only 57 years for men.

But they have managed to secure licenses for their own environmental inspectors, who now monitor logging operations and chemical factories. And on the edge of a newly recognized World Heritage Site in Kamchatka, the vast and relatively unspoiled land that faces Alaska from the other side of the Pacific, they have blocked the opening of a gold mine that lacked adequate environmental controls. Compared with the problems, such victories may seem small, but they mark an enormous advance over Soviet times. Soviet Kamchatka, for example, was off limits not just to NGOs, but to all civilian visitors. It was primarily the domain of the military. Throughout Siberia, the new civil society is establishing itself, but it is still struggling with various ghosts from the Soviet past.


Gennady Devyatkin, the governor of Bystrinsky, a large district in central Kamchatka, sits in his office in the early afternoon of a crisp, bright summer day. The governor is a short, pale man with brown, disheveled hair. He appears to be in his mid-50s. And he is most definitely drunk. Very drunk. He rises and warmly greets the five of us--a delegation of three Kamchatkan environmentalists and two American colleagues.

Bystrinsky contains some of the world's largest volcanos. The big chunks of lava on the roadsides look like illogically shaped boulders. The district also has the world's best remaining salmon runs. When the salmon are running, fishers spread their nets into these immense rivers and haul them back without the slightest pause, straining to retrieve an overflowing load of coho, chinook, king, and several other, much rarer salmon species, like masu, which is also known as Japanese "cherry salmon," although it has largely disappeared from Japan.

Why don't we all go to the restaurant, asks Devyatkin...

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