Green Fades to Black

The Sochi Olympic Games spell the end of the rope for Russia's wilderness vigilantes.


SOCHI, Russia—The complex appeared like a dystopian desert mirage. A dozen buildings nestled on the mountain meadow, a sea of herbs and wildflowers interrupted by two lodges, grey utilitarian garages, and storage units. Phone towers, ropeways, and floodlights rose from the grassy slopes. Startling several horses, a cross-country vehicle moved through the green folds of the alpine cover, oblivious to the marked path. An excavator churned up soil. A heavy Russian Kamaz truck and two fire engines stood parked in the open mountain air.

The only way they could have made it up here, more than 6,000 feet above sea level and a day’s hike from the nearest forest road, would be aboard a Mi-26, the world’s most enormous cargo helicopter.

I had traveled to this exclusive ski resort, Lunnaya Polyana, together with four members of a regional environmental organization, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus. After a stomach-turning drive up a bumpy forest road followed by a day of hiking through the woods, weeds, and waterfalls, we looked upon these grounds incredulously. Ski lifts just underneath the imposing rock face of the Fisht Mountain rivaled those of Sochi’s Krasnaya Polyana about 25 miles away, where Olympic competition comes to a close on Sunday. But while Sochi’s resorts draw gaggles of middle-class skiers, Lunnaya Polyana — which translates as Moon Glade — is far more secretive. Its backers chose a secluded spot, where muscular guards patrol the walkway that branches from the hiking trail toward the resort’s main three-story building. Two helipads make it very clear that drop-in backpackers are not welcome.

Environmental Watch, or EWNC, has monitored Lunnaya Polyana for the past decade and argue that its main beneficiary is Vladimir Putin. A ski enthusiast, Putin reportedly needed a more private place to enjoy his hobby. Sochi’s popular slopes — both crowded and dangerously close to Georgia’s rebel region of Abkhazia — would not do. Starting in 2007, EWNC published documents showing that the resort, which was called a "Biosphere scientific center" in construction plans, was bankrolled by state oil giant Rosneft, whose executives are Putin loyalists. According to EWNC, no scientists have ever visited the project. The construction of the resort required the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to change the borders of the Caucasus Reserve, a nature sanctuary under strict federal protection and which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Western Caucasus." The documents showed that the agencies overseeing its development included the Office of Presidential Affairs, which manages properties belonging to the Kremlin and the federal government, and the Federal Guard Service — the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service.

Rumors have swirled around the estate since construction on the project began during the mid-2000s. Online forums devoted to Sochi featured stories of luxury sofas falling from their transporting helicopters into thickets of protected forest. As we journeyed up the mountains, the tall tales only got taller. Loggers staying along the road talked of snipers that would line its perimeter when VIP guests came by. It was even said that all the wild pigs in the area were exterminated — ostensibly to make sure nothing resembling hostile humans would register on the body heat scanners installed around the compound.

The goal of our expedition in August of last year was to hike along the local rivers Shakhe and its tributary Bushuika, which flow from the Lunnaya Polyana area to Sochi, and examine the construction of a road that EWNC suspected would finally link the resort with the region’s transportation network. It would do so by cutting through the reserve’s forests. We were to circumvent a ranger post and go over a mountain pass after dark and without flashlights, all while avoiding the huge lights that illuminate the mountain slopes like a football stadium on game night. Once we approached the resort, the organization’s coordinator, Andrei Rudomakha, a wiry, bushy haired 49 year old, dashed about the ski lifts taking a thousand pictures with his small camera, oblivious to the weight of his giant pack.

Six months remained until the Olympics would begin in Sochi, and this was just another day for the activists of the EWNC.

Before one of the group’s members, Evgeny Vitishko, was sentenced to three years in prison on Feb. 12 for damaging a forest fence, the world knew little about this group, a loose network of several dozen members spread out across southern Russia. Most of them share a love of the outdoors, specifically, the vast expanse of undisturbed wilderness — one of the last in Europe — at the western tip of the Caucasus range. The area falls on Russia’s Krasnodar and Adygea regions in southwestern Russia and sits on the Black Sea just across Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

A committed leftist, Rudomakha founded the EWNC in 2004 after a decade as a grassroots organizer. At 16, he tried to leave the Soviet Union and join the Greek revolutionary movement. He made it all the way to the Romanian border, where he was caught. He asked the KGB to send him to Cuba, but they refused. Instead, he was sent home and eventually drafted into the Soviet Army.

By the time perestroika arrived during his early twenties, Rudomakha realized that Russia could also be interesting. A hodgepodge community of anarchists, hippies, and environmentalists formed around him, and he became part of Russia’s green movement during the 1990s, fighting the encroachment of industry on wild beaches and mountain forest in the western Caucasus. One of his more memorable protests in 1997 featured a crowd of ecologists swaddled in white delivering a coffin containing the "Black Sea" to the Krasnodar offices of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, whose pipeline delivered crude oil from Kazakhstan to Russia’s southern port of Novorossiysk. Before delivering the coffin, they had blocked traffic in the city center while blaring a soundtrack of a saxophone rendition of Chopin’s funeral march.

A few years later, several activists, coordinated by Rudomakha and others, swam nearly half a mile out to an Italian vessel laying gas pipes in the Black Sea as part of the Blue Stream pipeline from Russia to Turkey. With days’ worth of clothes and provisions taped to their backs in waterproof packs, the swimmers chained themselves to the ship. Arriving coast guard gently unhooked them and let them off after a few hours with a reprimand.

"We lived in a democratic country then. Now they would put us into prison for a long time, without question," Rudomakha told me this month, describing some of the group’s early campaigns.

The Blue Stream project, built in the early 2000s, was the new century’s first threat to the Black Sea, Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist who studied bats in the region’s mountains, told me. Gazaryan joined up with Rudomakha in 2001 when out-of-control logging began to threaten a cave sheltering the world’s largest colony of a rare species of bats. "Putin’s coming coincided with the growth of oil prices, money appeared in the economy, along with the opportunity to spend it," Gazaryan said. "The area has a nice climate and is safe compared to the rest of the Caucasus."

Unfortunately, that meant more dachas carving up its territory with impassable fences.

In December 2010, Russia was a year from parliamentary elections that would ignite massive anti-Putin demonstrations. A nascent social movement in Moscow yearned for change and people like opposition leader Alexei Navalny, then known mostly as an anti-corruption blogger, were eager to expose the shady mansions of the elite. So when a little-known businessman named Sergey Kolesnikov leaked details of what he said was another palace for Vladimir Putin, he caught everyone’s attention.

"You can see the sprawling, Italian-style palace on the Black Sea in satellite photos. There’s a fitness spa, a hideaway ‘tea house,’ a concert amphitheater and a pad for three helicopters. It’s still under construction, but already the cost is said to total more than $1 billion," the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius wrote in describing the documents. "And most amazing of all, according to a Russian whistleblower named Sergey Kolesnikov, it was predominantly paid for with money donated by Russian businessmen for the use of [then-Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin."

Environmental Watch seized the opportunity to explore this once-wild beach some 90 miles up the coast from Sochi, where Italianate palace grounds replaced an endangered pine forest. Inexplicably, eight unobstructed activists drove up along the cypress-lined lane right to the main gate, which is adorned with the gilded Russian two-headed eagle. They took pictures of the mansion later featured in publications around the world.

The trip’s success prompted the group to focus on another serial-violator of the coastal forest, Alexander Tkachev, a conservative long-serving governor of the Krasnodar region. Activists believed he was responsible for the province’s transformation into a vacation haven for Moscow’s elite. After dispatching a series of official complaints about a fence that encircled a wide swath of public land near a plot public records identified as the governor’s, a group of activists unscrewed one section of the corrugated metal fence in November 2011 and took pictures of the damage within. Some also wrote angry slogans like "This is our forest" and "Enough."

Four months later police charged two members of EWNC, Suren Gazaryan and Evgeny Vitishko, with property damage motivated by hooliganism. The court decided that the fence had "lost its aesthetic qualities" and must be fully stripped, grouted, and repainted — work that experts hired by the prosecution said amounted to nearly $4,000 dollars. Both Gazaryan and Vitishko received suspended three-year sentences. By the end of 2012, Gazaryan fled Russia to escape prosecution following another outing to Putin’s dacha and an altercation with a security guard.

"The fence was just a symbol of corruption, of takeover of public forests and beaches, what Russians who live here notice every day. It was a simple way to bring attention to the problem," Vitishko said at a press conference in late December in Sochi. A professional geologist from Tuapse, a town near Sochi, the 40-year-old Vitishko had shunned Environmental Watch’s occasional radicalism, working with police to stop the illegal extraction of gravel from Sochi’s rivers to satisfy the cavernous Olympic construction sites. He refused to follow Gazaryan’s steps and leave Russia. Instead, he complied with the strict parole that came with his suspended sentence.

Yet here he was addressing the smallest imaginable press conference, called in secret at the shuttered offices of a local Sochi paper to evade city authorities. On Dec. 20, a court had ruled that Vitishko violated his parole and must serve what had been a suspended sentence in a penal colony. At the time of the press conference, Vitishko was still hoping to successfully appeal. But last week, on Feb. 12, an appeals court upheld the ruling, and he was sent to prison. In short, he has been sentenced to three years in a penal colony for participating in lightly damaging and defacing with political slogans a fence.  

Throughout December, EWNC worked on a report about the environmental impact of the Olympic Games, and Vitishko thought the authorities were trying to scare the organization into silence. "It’s not an action against me specifically," he said of the December ruling, but against critics warning that thoughtless development will irreversibly damage Sochi’s spa and natural park areas. "This infrastructure will be a huge burden on Russia," he said, arguing that hasty planning placed some venues in erosion-prone areas, skyrocketing costs.

Russian authorities worked with EWNC during the first few years of Olympic development, from 2007 to 2011. Gazaryan and Rudomakha met with experts from the mission of the U.N. Environmental Program, the IOC’s official partner on environmental issues. The group’s honeymoon period with the Russian government even required Rudomakha to put on a suit for the first time in his life — to meet Putin in 2008, when ecologists asked the president to move the bobsleigh complex from a particularly sensitive part of Sochi National Park.

During this period, activists took Olympic organizers to the areas that have been overrun with reporters seeking to cover the darker side of the Olympic Games. The mountain village that lost its drinking water. The illegal dumps in the national park. The forest cut down to make way for a road along the Mzymta River, where endangered trees formed unique river valley ecosystems.

"After a certain phase it became clear that everything is hopeless, that our energy is running out, that nothing we talk about leads to any effect," Rudomakha told me when I stopped by EWNC’s office on Wednesday last week, after a court rejected the appeal by Vitishko to avoid having to serve his sentence in prison. "In 2011, they stopped inviting us because it became clear that their promises fell empty."

When in December of last year I interviewed Gleb Vatletsov, the head of the environmental department at Olympstroi, the state company in charge of Olympic construction, I asked him what had happened to cooperation with environmentalists. He dismissed the EWNC as too "political," too involved with fences. He argued that Russia had done everything to meet environmental concerns.

The U.N. Environmental Program has stayed away from public criticism of the Russian government. Theodore Oben, the official who headed the organization’s monitoring missions to Sochi, left his job last year after a corruption scandal, but a Swiss expert hired to assist in Sochi and who met with EWNC said their concerns were warranted. "It is far too late to prevent most environmental effects of the Sochi Games, and it would be quite controversial to conclude that they meet the overall objective to be ‘in harmony with nature,’" Herve Lethier, an independent conservation consultant to UNEP and UNESCO, wrote in an email. He said that recommendations by UNEP experts to the Russian authorities about how to develop the area in a more environmentally friendly manner were met with a "lack of interest."

Boiling tea in his spartan office, Rudomakha delivered an abstract of the Olympics’ legacy. Most attempts to mitigate damage failed, and EWNC was under siege, depleted of two key members, and facing imminent shutdown. Lately, he has begun locking his doors from the inside. A camera registers visitors on the porch. A screen inside displays the image. The office was attacked twice recently. This month, masked men trashed an activist’s car parked outside. Moreover, police constantly detain the group’s members, often for days. Armed with a recent "foreign agent" law directed against NGOs receiving even a trickle of funding from abroad, the Ministry of Justice lurks constantly in the shadows. When Rudomakha goes outside, he shuts off his cellphone to avoid being tracked. "I’m not convinced that by the end of the games the organization will still exist," Yulia Naberezhnaya, a longtime member of the group and a Sochi native thrust into the media spotlight by Olympic coverage, told me. "The authorities may decide to take revenge and pluck us out one by one."

It has also become harder to protect the environment. "Right now the balance for me still tips toward action, but it’s like playing cards with a con artist," she said. Things that were illegal before the Olympics, like building infrastructure in national parks without environmental studies, are now allowed, she said, and parliament is keen to pass more laws opening up hitherto untouched and protected zones.

"We’ve always gotten on the authorities’ nerves, but with the Olympics it’s a new phase," Rudomakha said, deflated by Vitishko’s sentence. Radical protests have long receded into a distant past, and personal security is now the priority, he said.

"I think this will be a dark period," he said. "I don’t know for how long, but we will wait."

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