Arkhangelsk, Russia – It was June 2018 when hunters traversing the forests of Russia’s barren north noticed that thousands of trees had been cleared around Shiyes, a former village and railway station 1,125km north of Moscow.
A few weeks later, a regional official arrived at the nearby village of Urdoma to announce plans for an industrial zone spanning more than 50 hectares, including a waste plant for garbage transported from the capital of Russia.
“The plans are currently under discussion,” he told the inhabitants, promising that work would begin only once expert appraisals were complete.
But work on the Shiyes landfill soon commenced. In a futile effort to thwart it, residents of Urdoma and nearby towns began blocking roads and pitching tents at the site, only to be dispersed by an army of security guards patrolling the area. Across the Arkhangelsk region, protests erupted.
On May 19, people once again took to the streets, demanding that plans for the landfill be called off. In Arkhangelsk, the regional capital, thousands gathered outside the city centre holding posters that read, “No to Moscow’s Trash!” The city sent over 100 police officers to fence off the area and control access to it.
The rally organizer, 23-year-old Aleksandr Peskov, echoed a fear about the landfill that was widespread among participants. “Illnesses will spread, and people’s health will be put at risk,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Arkhangelsk lies more than 800km from Shiyes, with the land that separates the northern city from the landfill site stretching larger than the breadth of Sweden. But despite their distance from the proposed location, residents fear that toxic waste will spew into the river Dvina, part of a waterway that spills into the White Sea at Arkhangelsk.
Concerned residents have been spooked by events elsewhere. In Volokolamsk, outside Moscow, dozens of children became ill last summer from what their parents allege were the effects of poisonous gases from a local landfill pushed to its capacity after another waste site in the area closed.
Volokolamsk is no outlier. Ecologists say 90 percent of Russia’s rubbish is discarded to rot and decompose at landfills that often lie dangerously close to urban settlements, and the amount of waste produced is increasing by some three percent annually.
Authorities are portraying Shiyes – where 500,000 tonnes of waste will be delivered each year from a sorting facility outside Moscow in the form of compressed bales wrapped in plastic – as a modern waste-processing plant of the kind that will solve Russia’s trash problem once and for all.
A slick presentation published on the Arkhangelsk region’s investment portal portrays it as a catalyst for the country’s transition to standards long applied across the European Union – and eventually for a revival of the whole Arkhangelsk region, with 500 new jobs promised and a $14m injection into the regional budget.
But Alexey Kiselev, head of Greenpeace Russia’s toxics program, is not convinced.
“In Moscow, nothing is planned beyond shredders and an awful din,” he said. “The mixed waste will be minced, wrapped in plastic and taken to Arkhangelsk region, where it will be buried in the mud.”
Over time, he said, the bale wrapping will disintegrate into microplastics that will enter the water system, and the remaining waste, exposed to the elements, will release gases into the air.
According to Kiselev, there are more than 300 private recycling companies in the Moscow region alone, though they often rely on people scouring dumpsites for minimal pay in a country that has virtually no recycling culture.
“Moscow could handle all its waste inside its own region, if it only wanted to. So I have no clue why the government is doing this,” Kiselev said of the Shiyes proposal.
In Arkhangelsk, none of the protesters appeared to believe the official version of events, either. And none had apparently seen a single page of the ecological assessment due for release before construction began.
“Where’s the expert appraisal? Where are the documents?” asked Yekaterina Kiseleva, a beauty salon owner and mother of two. “The construction began in silence, and it continues in silence too.”
Arkhangelsk is emerging from months of subzero temperatures that are almost synonymous with the region, and the latest protests there mark the culmination of a winter of discontent across Russia.
Five years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine produced a wave of patriotism, the government’s approval rating is slipping amid widespread fatigue with foreign escapades and a growing demand for the resolution of problems at home.
Real incomes have fallen in that period by over 10 percent, while sales taxes and utility fees have risen. And a reform to the garbage-disposal system, introduced at the start of this year, has left people suspicious that an opaque, monopolised industry is ripping them off. Most controversial of all, a hike in the retirement age by five years last October – to 65 for men and 60 for women – has fueled anger over official corruption.
For Elena, who at 67 is forced to continue working as a cleaner because her 20,000-ruble ($310) pension falls short of covering the utility payments on her three-room apartment, the vast landfill being built in her native region is symbolic of its accelerating decline.
“Our city’s falling apart,” she said of Arkhangelsk, where potholed roads run alongside gleaming new malls and Orthodox churches, while the two-storey wooden buildings so typical of the region are left to decay.
“All the factories are closing. Young people are leaving because there’s nothing left here,” said Elena, who declined to give her last name out of fear for being targeted under legislation introduced in March that bans speech offending public officials and government bodies.
In early April, regional governor Igor Orlov was told during a meeting with the residents of Severodvinsk, a city 32km from Arkhangelsk, that 96 percent of the local population opposes plans for the landfill.
“I know what I’m doing and I know I’m right,” Orlov responded. He went on to describe his critics as “a rabble with no status here”.
At the rally on May 19, protesters played on those words in the mocking slogans that decorated their banners.”We know Orlov doesn’t give a damn about us,” Elena said. “But why make a dump out of our region?”