One Life to Protect Nature
On the way back from a public inspection of an illegal construction in a protected area on 28 December, 2017, strangers attacked and brutally beat Andrey Rudomakha, a well-known Russian environmentalist from Krasnodar region. Rudomakha’s life was in danger and his recovery was predicted long and difficult, but even in the worst of the times, facing death, he is not thinking of giving up.
Andrey is an environmental activist with over thirty years of nature conservation experience in the southern regions of Russia. He is head of the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC). EWNC’s work has long provoked the interest of the Russian authorities – they have repeatedly tried to close the organisation, declare it as a “foreign agent”, and searched the homes of EWNC activists. In a conversation with Ksenia Vakhrusheva, he reveals the secret that makes him continue the fight.
How do you feel these days after you were attacked on 28 December, 2017?
It is much better now. I have almost gotten back to my work regime, but I’m still on sick leave. On my last visit the physician told me that my blood samples had shown an inflammatory process and again prescribed me some antibiotics. But I think I will soon get back to active work.
You are now under the state victim protection scheme. Do you feel safe?
No, I do not really have state guards. The question of victim protection was initiated by my lawyer, Alexey Avansyan, in connection with the attack and after I and my colleague Dmitry Shevchenko on 9 January received threats demanding us to “leave the country”. Until 12 January, the investigator who was in charge of the criminal case approved his request. But it is not enough. The process of providing state protection involves two stages. During the first stage the investigator decides to provide such protection. This stage has passed. And then – the immediate implementation of the safety measures for me and Dmitry Shevchenko should be undertaken by the interior authorities. In our specific case – from the respective subdivision of the Head Office of the Ministry of Interior in the Krasnodar region. And this division has so far not taken any action, although the announcement of the victim protection decision was published almost a month back. So naturally I do not feel safe. We – my friends and myself – have to take our own safety measures, as far as we can.
Will you continue insisting on the investigator’s decision to be enforced?
Yes, of course. After the investigator has satisfied the request for granting us the state protection, the Ministry of Interior is obliged to provide it.
Media circulates different motives of the attack. The most likely version relates to the illegal construction you discovered in a forest near the vineyards in the Krasnodar region. Do you also share this view?
Yes, I think the attack is most likely to be related to our investigation. Why else would the attackers try to take away all of our photos and cameras. But this version is not the only one. In any case, for me personally it is obvious that officials of the Federal Security Service in the Krasnodar region, who have long been involved in suppressing EWNC activities, have been somehow involved in organising this attack. No other body could organise our tracking, tapping our phones, controlling our bank card movements, or know when and where we would be arriving. This body has criminals in masks who can carry out the “dirty” work.
Are there many such expensive illegal constructions in the forests on the Russian Black Sea coast?
Unfortunately, construction of Black Sea residences for high-ranking people has become a real disaster for the Black Sea coast in Krasnodar region. One of the cases, which we have exposed in Krinitsa, is a continuation of the long-established criminal practice of appropriating public land to the benefit of the “masters of the Universe”. Among such constructions there are: the palace in Praskovevka built on the initiative of the Department of presidential affairs, and which is now in a private property of “Complex OOO”; the chateau-style residence near the village Divnomorskoe, located on the site owned by “Lazurna yagoda OOO”; the summer residence of Patriarch Kirill near the same village; the so-called “Tkachov’s Villa” in the Blue Bay of the Tuapse region and the residence, located at the same place, which belongs to Zhana Arefijeva, a sister of an MP Remezkov. The so-called “Beta holiday complex” owned by a company with the same name, which is connected to the well-known Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is situated near the residence of “AKSIS Investments AO”. All those sites are parts of the forest land. I can name more similar constructions. The highest number of them are located around Gelendzhik, the resort town.
What purpose do you pursue, revealing these “palaces” of our officials in the woods? As far as I understand, confiscation of such property is a very complicated process, and no one has ever lost his post because of it.
Our goal is at least to ensure public access – everyone should be able to walk freely through those territories. Not always, but in many cases this is what we are achieving. And by giving publicity to these facts, we make other bureaucrats and oligarchs think twice about whether they would like to deal with such problems.
According to you, what are the main environmental problems in the southern regions of Russia, where you are currently working, and in Russia as a whole?
I would not talk about Russia as a whole or about the southern regions because I do not know the picture enough. But regarding the Krasnodar region and Adygea, I would mention the extension of oil drilling in the deep-sea shelf of the Black Sea conducted by “Rosneft”; the barbarian usage of land located in the nature protected areas and destruction of unique natural ecosystems around Krasnaya Polyana, carried out by the company “Roza Khutor”; the mass acquisition of and constructions on the public sites, including forest lands, coastal areas and green areas in towns.
According to Wikipedia, your environmental activities began in 1987 with a protest against the construction of a nuclear power plant. What keeps you motivated for so many years to continue protecting nature, especially in such difficult conditions?
It’s hard to tell what motivates me. Since my childhood I have established a special relationship with wildlife; I feel myself at home when I am in nature, and its protection is crucially important for me. So, when I manage to protect it from various offences, it is very stimulating. One can say that this is my life’s mission. If a person does not have personal fulfilment, he slowly dies out. Nature protection and the fight for a favourable environment has become my own personal fulfilment.
You said that this attitude to nature is rooted in your childhood. How can we develop a love for nature in children?
I grew up in a small village on the border between the steppe and mountains in the Krasnodar region, and I spent many of my free time in the woods. There I felt at home; it was very natural. I think that’s why I started to be actively interested in nature protection later on. And to this day, one of my favourite hobbies is to travel in the wildlife. Of course, it is very important to make children understand the importance of nature from an early age. The best way to do so, I think, is to go hiking with them in the mountains and forests and to involve them in nature protection. In my youth, when I was still thinking of what to do in my life, it could have happened that I would have chosen to be a teacher. I was influenced by a famous pedagogue, bard and theoretician of informal education Vladimir Lanzberg, who at that time lived in the Krasnodar region. I even worked for one year as a leader of the “Candle” Youth Club at the Soviet pioneer home in Krasnodar. However, my potential pedagogical career was interrupted, as KGB officials intervened in the process (this was in 1988). They forced the director of the pioneer home to fire me because I had organised and held an informal meeting in the forest at the Hot Spring, gathering representatives of various informal movements. The meeting was illegal, and my pupils from the “Candle” club played the role of guides, welcoming the participants in an agreed-upon place and taking them through the forest to the venue.
Would you list the most important successful campaigns that you initiated or in which you have actively participated?
Protecting Wildlife Campaign in the area of Big Tkhach mountain, campaign against Lagonaki-Dagomys road construction, campaign against the construction of the road to Lunnaya Polyana resort, campaign to protect the Lagonaki plateau, campaign to protect Utrish, campaign against the conversion of the mountains in the Abinean region in the development area for the cement industry.
How come these campaign became successful?
Each of these campaigns had their own “recipe”. In some cases, traditional methods have helped – wide public attention, big protests, help of public authorities. In other cases, the support of international bodies such as the UNESCO Education, Science and Culture Organization was helpful, as it was with the case against the ski resort on the Lagonaki plateau or against the road Chernigovskoe-Lunnaya Polyana. And sometimes it was helpful to cooperate with bureaucrats from state authorities. For example, there was one of our most paradoxical campaigns – the one against the construction of the Lagonaki-Dagosim road, which was actively lobbied by regional authorities of Adygea in the late 1990s. At that time we were environmental radicals. Within the campaign, we had repeatedly blocked the “White House” (the Krasnodar Parliament), held a number of different protest actions and gained this kind of reputation. However, from the very beginning we had the support (of course it was unofficial) of then the head of the “Adygeaavtodor” (the road construction company), Zaour Ashinov. He was a real advocate for a strong government. He found us himself and when we met, he told us that they were pushing him to build this road, but that it was complete madness technically, ecologically and practically, as it would be impossible to ensure the road could be used in the winter. Thanks to him we got access to hidden information on this project. Our next ally was even more unexpected for us – then the head of the Adygean FSB Anatoly Petrenko. When we met with him, he told us that the road was a threat to state interests, and his headquarters would not allow this construction. And then the regional Prosecutor’s Office also supported us. After all, this project, which was a threat to Caucasian nature, was buried.
Have you had positive or encouraging cases of interaction with state authorities and business?
With business we did not have any. Russian business, that does harm to the environment, has apparently not yet grown to enter into any constructive discussion with the nature protection community and to find acceptable compromises. The only thing some companies have tried to do, more or less “constructive”, was trying to bribe us in one way or another. But this technique cannot be used with us. Regarding the constructive interaction with individual state officials, this is quite a typical practice for us, as we also carry out some state functions – discovering legislation violations. I would not name acting officers in order not to hurt them. But I could share some names of people who are no longer working.
“Russian business, that does harm to environment, has apparently not yet grown to enter in a constructive discussion with the nature protection community and to find acceptable compromises.”
We had a very fruitful collaboration in the field of environmental protection with Nikolay Berezkin, former Adygean Minister of Ecology, Vladimir Cherpakov, former director of the Maikop branch of the Caucasian Natural Reserve, Pavel Polovinko, former director of the Cuban Nature Conservation Committee, Eugeny Zelenko, former chief forestry officer of the Krasnodar Forestry department, Yuri Gorlov, former director of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage in Krasnodar region and Adygea. Together we worked a lot on nature protection and a favourable environment, which is in fact one of the state’s major functions.
What should happen so that Russian authorities and society take environmental protection seriously?
People who understand that environmental protection, wildlife protection, is a basic need for building a normal life of the society and should be a priority, and not on a fiftieth place of importance, should get into government. I fear that with the current leadership in our country, this will not happen soon. On the contrary, Russia is getting worse in terms of environmental protection. The last “Year of Ecology” was a fake.
How can the international environmental community help eco-activists in Russia?
Diverse support is important to challenge the most pressing problems in Russia. It is very important to have broad international publicity of the facts of persecution and pressure on Russian eco-activists. Unfortunately, we have more and more of such cases. It is also important that respectful international structures influence Russian authorities so that they stop the pressure on environmentalists, as mostly this pressure comes from the government itself. The key body that messes with EWNC activities is our Federal Security Service, although we only work with environmental protection issues and defending people’s rights to a favourable environment, which is not in any way within the competence of this department.
The interview was originally conducted for Evromegdan.bg and published on March 1, 2018.
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