Twenty years ago this summer, a small environmental agency founded by an accused spy opened its doors in St. Petersburg Russia. Alexander Nikitin, a former navy captain, had yet to beat his rap as a traitor for stating the facts in a report he co-authored with some plucky young Norwegians from Bellona – facts that showed the once-mighty Soviet nuclear submarine fleet was in a state of irreversible, ecologically lethal decay.
The beginning was modest. The office, an old communal flat in rustically crumbling central St Petersburg, barley had running water – and when it did run, it tainted the basins with a metallic stain. The plaster peeling off the walls lay in dusty piles. There was a musty smell.
But the world beyond Russia’s borders was already taking notice of what the office was accomplishing. Nikitin, crassly accused of espionage by agents of the former KGB, had won the 1997 Goldman Prize – the Nobel for environmentalists – and he used that as seed funding for his group, though in the midst of his ongoing trial, Moscow forbade him from attending the awards ceremony in San Francisco.
The government fought to shut the group up. The report Nikitin and Bellona authored was banned in Russia. Copies sent from Oslo were seized at the border, and those who dared possess it saw it confiscated. Journalists who quoted it were accused of spreading state secrets. Yet despite this, the report was fast becoming a must-read among western governments who were worried about radioactive threats left after the Soviet fall.
The picture Nikitin and his colleagues painted was stark. Its pages catalogued nearly 200 dilapidated nuclear submarines floating neglected near Murmansk, their reactors still laden with spent nuclear fuel. If left to rust at dockside, the threat of contamination was unprecedented — a Chernobyl in slow motion. Further from shore, under the waves, lurked other submarines and nuclear waste intentionally dumped by the Soviet Navy. Still more radioactive spent fuel was piling up in storage tanks and open-air bins on military bases and in shipyards throughout the Russian Arctic.
The Russian Navy, meanwhile, had to publicly beg its countrymen for potatoes to feed its sailors. Moscow had no hope of coping with this nuclear graveyard alone. But those in the West who wished to help had little to go on. In the proud throes of its lost empire, the Kremlin was loathe to expose how humbled it was. The once-feared Soviet navy was now its Achilles Heel.
The report provided a bold to-do list for the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, the non-profit organization Nikitin and Bellona finally opened in 1998. But Nikitin’s 11 months in FSB custody and his naming as a Prisoner of Conscious by Amnesty International proved there were questions beyond radioactive contamination at stake.
Credit: Courtesty of Sergei Grachev/The St. Petersburg Times
Newly freed by the work of his lawyer, the legendary Yury Schmidt, and the crusading rights activist and former political prisoner Boris Pustyntsev, Nikitin found himself in an unfamiliar role. A career military man, his trial now thrust him into the limelight as a dissident, pitting him against the authoritarian state he once so faithfully served. It was Schmidt and Pustyntsev who were his guides in this new terrain.
As co-founders of ERC Bellona, Schmidt and Pustyntsev insisted that a safe environment was a fundamental human right – and that achieving it meant the country had to throw off old Soviet shackles and demand the openness promised by the Cold War’s end. The group understood that a healthy environment required the rule of law — a daring proposition during the corrupt chaos of the late 1990s.
But somehow the tactic worked. It took five years, but in 2000, Nikitin was acquitted of the charges against him, becoming the only person in modern Russia to beat the security services in court. In the meantime, ERC Bellona flourished, becoming an oasis for not only environmental activists, but rights lawyers, scientists, journalists and teachers as well. The office grew. The plaster was replaced. The smell had long ago faded away.
More remarkably, however, so too have many of the radiation threats detailed in the initial Bellona report. In the last 20 years, the western governments who read it set about committing tens of billions of dollars to help Moscow track them down and secure them.
Gone, for instance, are those 200 nuclear submarines that bobbed neglected at dockside near Murmansk. Each has been decommissioned, their waste sent on to safe reprocessing within Russia’s nuclear industry, thanks to cooperative efforts among Moscow, Western Europe and the United States –none of whom, including Moscow, had a clear picture of how dire the dangers were until ERC Bellona thrust Nikitin’s report into view.
Gone, too, is the Lepse, a nuclear waste storage ship so contaminated that Moscow planned simply to scuttle it in high seas of the Arctic. But thanks in large part to Nikitin’s report, and the atmosphere of openness stubbornly forged by ERC Bellona, the massive vessel, which spent 30 years at sea refueling nuclear icebreakers, is being carefully dismantled, the waste it held onboard packaged for long term storage.
And not yet gone but going are the dangers posed by 22,000 radioactive fuel assemblies that had piled up since the 1960s in a nearly forgotten submarine base called Andreyeva Bay. Through decades of neglect and inadequate government funding, tanks storing the assemblies began to crumble and decay, threatening to spill a stew of plutonium and uranium into the Barents Sea. But, now, thanks to a tireless two-decade crusade by ERC Bellona, these fuel assemblies are now being hauled out of the Arctic to secure storage elsewhere.
And ERC Bellona has left local mark as well, training and supporting legal professionals in their fight for ecological justice; leading negotiations with Russia’s nuclear industry for safer nuclear power plants and handling of radioactive waste; detailing industrial pollution near St. Petersburg and Murmansk; pioneering the use of electric cars in Northwest Russia; publishing independent, reliable environmental news on its website as well as in the pages of its magazine Ecology and Rights; leading recycling drives and bringing the lessons of ecology into Russian classrooms.
Yet for all the clear good it’s done, ERC Bellona hasn’t always had an adoring audience in the Kremlin. In fact, it still faces the same kind of spy-mania paranoia that dogged Nikitin while he was still on trial all those years ago.
In 2015, ERC Bellona’s sister organization Bellona Murmansk closed down after being targeted by the “foreign agent” law — a repressive Putin-era tactic to silence non-profit organizations. The group’s apparent sin was publishing a report on pollution coming from a government-connected factory on Northwest Russia.
That was followed up in January of 2017 by an accusation of “political activity”against ERC Bellona – the cardinal offense under the foreign agent law. Russia’s Justice Ministry, which is responsible for blacklisting offending non-profits, charged that ERC Bellona’s work was geared toward “forming socio-political opinions and convictions” about the state of Russia’s environment.
Well, no kidding. But the ludicrous accusation was enough for ERC Bellona to disband as a non-profit, going the same route as hundreds of other rights and environmental groups that were sunk by the Kremlin’s foreign agent crusade.
But the group persists.
In 2013, Schmidt, Nikitin’s crusading lawyer, died after a battle with cancer at age 75. The next year Pustyntsev succumbed long illness at age 78. Neither of them lived to see the government’s attempt to unravel the work they started with Nikitin – but it wouldn’t have surprised them a bit.
And neither of them would have flinched. Nor has ERC Bellona. Nikitin and his colleagues in Oslo reformed the organization along new bureaucratic lines, and it continues as before.
In the 20 years since Schmidt and Pustyntsev greeted Nikitin on the jailhouse steps, the Russian environment has become immeasurably safer. Weapons of nuclear war have been put safely to rest. The nuclear industry itself – once the temple of so many Soviet secrets –has begun, slightly, to open. And ERC Bellona has been there, nudging the door.
But in many ways the organization’s work is incomplete. There are more doors to open. It’s particular alchemy of ecology and rights is still too potent brew for the Kremlin to swallow. Perhaps another 20 years will help sweeten the mix.