Over the last few years, environmentalism has proven to be an increasingly pressing civil society issue and climate change concerns spreaded across civil society. However, Russian environmentalism hardly has common traits with its Western counterparts. While 2019 was the culminating year of Greta Thunberg and the youth movement Fridays For Future in the West, similar initiatives did not enjoy such popularity in Russia, they did not gain importance within the public discourse and they had virtually no influence on policy-making processes. Russian environmentalism can either represent a core part of political opposition movements, when contentious, or pragmatically side with the authorities in order to maximise efficiency, when non-contentious.
In fact, Russian environmentalism is strongly tied to sensitive matters of a territorial nature, such as centre-periphery issues. In recent years, social movements pushing forward openly contentious environmental initiatives against local and/or federal policies have sprouted all over Russia and reached mass participation. Among the greatest examples are the protests in the village of Shies, in the Arkhangelsk region. Here, the federal administration and the Moscow City Council planned to build a 5000-hectare garbage dump to fill with Moscow’s municipal waste, since the capital’s waste disposal system is no longer able to process garbage because it exceeds the local structures’ capacity. As a response, the locals have been organising demonstrations and uprisings for three years, which were often very violent and spared no injuries or casualties, but led to the partial halt of the construction process. Besides the environmental discourse in itself, as in the will to preserve a fragile ecosystem and the well-being of the land and its people, these protests featured a strong emancipatory localist attitude. In fact, Moscow’s plans are perceived as yet another colonialist-like attack of the federal centre on a remote territory, which, consequently, finds itself deprived of its dignity; its lands and peoples significantly endangered.
Similar narratives marked the 2019 protests in Komi, where an identical landfill was being constructed, and earlier in Ekaterinburg, where the main city park was about to be wiped out and replaced by an Orthodox church, as planned by the Kremlin-backed regional administration – in a city that is not an Orthodox stronghold and where Christians, Muslims and Buddhists coexist. In Bashkortostan, people insurged following the proposal to deforest a wide wooden area to build a baking soda plant, which was then postponed. A similar discourse is also coherent with the 2020 protests in Khabarovsk, which, despite not being environmentally oriented, can be considered a reaction to the blatant interference in local affairs that the Kremlin showed by arresting Governor Sergey Furgal and replacing him with someone who had never been to Russia’s Far East before. We see, then, how these protests feature a markedly socio-environmental trait, are inherently political and go beyond the environmental scope.
Non-contentious environmentalism also plays a significant role in Russia’s political and societal landscape. Russia’s major cities host a constellation of grassroots environmental social movement organisations (SMOs) and NGOs. They mostly provide environmental services and sustainable solutions to make up for infrastructural deficiencies, which are usually excluded from the institutional agenda. Such services usually include separate waste collection and recycling, education and training in sustainable practices, installation of sustainable infrastructure in private institutions, cleaning of public spaces and other similar practices.
In fact, despite playing a minor role in the public discourse, environmental sentiments are growing among civil society, and many civil groups tend to face such concerns with sharp pragmatism. In order to avoid harsh repression and to maximise their efficiency, the majority of environmental SMOs and NGOs adopt a non-contentious approach. They focus on service provision rather than on political activism, work side-by-side with the state within the boundaries of existing legislation, and often make use of the state’s resources. Their presence is convenient to the authorities as well, as these associations de facto make up for the state’s shortcomings without focusing on the political implication of such deficiencies. Instead, they meet the needs of environmental civic minorities, while relieving the authorities of such duties.
These NGOs and SMOs do not openly challenge the status quo, although their mere existence stresses the blatant inefficiency of state infrastructures in the field of sustainability. They markedly avoid politicised stances and rarely go beyond legitimate policy-oriented requests when addressing the people in power. Nevertheless, their role is politically and socially important for a number of reasons. Their intense lobbying activity with other organisations and institutions often results in fruitful alliances with (or direct roles in) public institutions, especially at the municipal level. Public institutions tend to be rather open to non-contentious environmental SMOs and NGOs as they do not represent a threat and, as mentioned earlier, their cooperation often brings about beneficial outcomes. This eventually results in the opportunity to influence local policymaking processes from within, but following a bottom-up approach. Moreover, their non-contentious and non-politicised nature makes them versatile and adaptable to a much larger audience. Lastly, these organisations are among the primary sources of information about environmental issues, practices and solutions among civil society, and have the opportunity to bring environmentalism much closer to citizens than the government’s agenda actually plans to do.
While the dynamics of contentious environmental action are clear-cut, non-contentious environmental movements are surely more ambiguous. Their action and strategy are the results of a conscious compromise between efficiency, ideology and the genuine risk of repression. While their action is to be praised as one of the most pervasive and capable remedies to Russia’s patchy and sloppy implementation of a sustainable environmental policy, their non-political position and their formal cooperation with a state upholding a strongly resource-oriented model foster disillusionment with Russia’s direction regarding environmentalism.