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