In Russia’s fertile Black Earth region, eco-activists struggle to protect their communities from a state-backed nickel-mining project.
NOVOHOPYORSK, Russia — It’s almost midnight when I arrive in the town of Novokhopyorsk, located deep in the bucolic heart of central Russia’s Black Earth region, so-called for its famously fertile soil. The curtains in a nearby home twitch as I step out of the car — late-night visitors are a rare sight in the rural community.
Surrounded by lush countryside and rolling fields, Novokhopyorsk, population 6,380, has become the unlikely setting of what is arguably modern Russia’s most stubborn protest movement.
The Kremlin may have quashed the mainly middle-class political demonstrations that rocked Moscow in 2011 and 2012, but environmental issues are stirring dissent in Russia’s heartland, creating new problems for the authorities as the war in Ukraine rumbles on and economic instability rises.
If Moscow’s relatively wealthy protesters were fighting for what opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny has called “abstract ideas, like freedom and a sense of worthiness,” then the environmental protesters in the Black Earth region, and elsewhere in Russia, are battling for something far more tangible. Their potential has the authorities spooked.
For the past three years, residents of Novokhopyorsk have been one of the driving forces behind a passionate effort to halt a dangerous Kremlin-sponsored nickel-mining project. “No to Nickel,” read the ubiquitous stickers, plastered across windscreens and fences. But these are hazardous times in Russia for any form of dissent. Two environmental activists involved in the case are already behind bars, facing long stretches in jail. More may follow them.
“There were so many people at the first anti-nickel protests, that it seemed the authorities couldn’t ignore us. We thought victory would be quick and easy, and that the project would soon be scrapped,” Oksana Lebedeva, 44, tells me over the kitchen table in the two-story house she shares with her husband, Yury, a fellow activist and local shop owner.
She laughs, bitterly. “We were so naïve back then. We simply had no idea what forces we would be up against.” Significantly, Lebedeva’s experiences over the past three years have resulted in a shift in her politics. “I’ve always voted for Putin,” she says. “But I don’t think I would vote for him again, if there was a real alternative.”
The Black Earth region contains some 400,000 tons of nickel, as well as thousands of tons of copper and cobalt. Locals have always believed the region’s agricultural significance, and the presence of the nearby Khopyor nature reserve meant its valuable deposits would remain untapped.
They were mistaken. In December 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, signed a decree calling for the development of the region’s Yelanskoye and Yelinskoye nickel deposits, first discovered by Soviet geologists in the 1960s, and worth an estimated $5 billion at current market prices. In 1977, the Soviet authorities abandoned plans to extract the metals, citing environmental and agricultural concerns, and placed them on the country’s list of strategic reserves.
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