Suren Gazaryan didn't intend to be an activist. The Russian zoologist's goal was to study wild bats, but chiropterology brought him to the Black Sea coast, an area flush with oligarchs' money, and in front of the bulldozers. The 39-year-old, who was awarded the $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize this year, drew international attention for his campaign to prevent then-president Dmitry Medvedev from building a huge residential palace in the protected Utrish Wildlife Refuge. Subsequently, Gazaryan brought attention to the environmental devastation that was the hidden cost of the Sochi Olympic Games. His protests were followed by many Russians on social media and angered the Kremlin.
Today, Gazaryan lives in Estonia, which granted him asylum after a guard at a billion dollar palace being illegally constructed for Vladimir Putin on the Krasnodar coastline (less than 100 miles from Crimea) accused him of threatening his life. He was lucky to escape the country: His close friend and fellow activist Yevgeny Vitishko is serving a three-year jail sentence for allegedly spray painting a fence at a construction site near Sochi.
Men's Journal spoke to Gazaryan about the Russian government's strange attitude towards conservation and the ways in which a privileged few are government's increasingly draconian silencing of dissent, and whether or not he'll ever be allowed to go home again.
As an environmentalist, do you think that Russians care about taking care of their homeland?
The modern Russian elite do not see Russia as a place to live. They see it as a way to make money. Their children, homes, and bank accounts are all abroad in Europe or the United States. Therefore, they look at Russia as a colony where they get to exploit natural resources. There is no other way to stop this other than to change the political system in the country. But that is even beyond the abilities of environmental organizations to do.
Environmental protection is not a priority for Russian society because of history. During industrialization – and for the 70 years following – people felt like nature didn't belong to them, it belonged to the government and thus they are not responsible for its protection. For groups and movements in Russia trying to protect the environment, there is an immense amount of government propaganda against them. The propaganda portrays activists as anti-Russian development and representing the interests of the West. The propaganda is very strong and informs the way the uneducated part of society views grassroots environmental protection.
You would say that the Kremlin is being environmentally irresponsible?
There is an interesting dichotomy in Russia when it comes to the environment. Russia has some of the strictest environmental laws for protecting nature and land, stricter than the United States. But none of that matters if the government elite decide they want to build a palace or vacation resort in the middle of protected land. Ultimately the laws benefit the governing elite, not the environment.
The most serious problems began when we got involved with the palaces of Medvedev, Putin, and other top bureaucrats in 2011.
In keeping with that, you became a known figure in 2011 when you criticized the government for environmental violations during the construction of the massive mansion it built in the popular vacation area of Krasnodar.
When we were carrying out the inspection of Putin's palace, a security guard outside the gates of the palace grabbed my camera and began to take me away. To protect myself, I picked up a rock and told them not to come closer to me. And that was it. All of this happened on the coastline of the Black Sea, which by law is open to the public.
Two weeks later, I got a call from the police who said the security guard wrote a complaint to the police that I threatened to kill them. After that, I was arrested and brought in for questioning and named as an accused person in a criminal case – my second. The first case was when I had done graffiti on the fence of a governor's palace on protected land. I was told that the security guard was asked by powerful people to write this complaint in order to convert my probation from the graffiti case into a jail term. And for me, this was a clear sign that I would be facing a real prison term which was my reason for leaving the country.
The government has never officially acknowledged the incident.
That said, you did manage to stop Medvedev from building a similar mansion inside the protected Utrish Reserve, which is nearby. How did you manage that?
During our campaign to protect the Utrish Reserve, authorities were much milder in how they treated environmental activists under Medvedev. Now such a campaign would be impossible. I'm sure everyone would be arrested. In part because of new laws that fundamentally prohibit public demonstrations.
You were not able to do anything to stop the development of Sochi for the Winter Games. Was that as damaging as you thought it would be?
Our organization, Environmental Watch North Caucuses, issued a report in advance of the Sochi Olympics detailing the environmental corruption that was taking place. We chronicled illegal waste dumping, threatened wildlife, and other environmental destruction such as landslides, erosion, and mudslides.
The end of the Olympics also ended the government interest in Sochi because foreign media is no longer reporting on it. There have been no efforts to remediate the negative impacts of construction. Corruption is well-known, but the environmental destruction has not been reported in foreign media.
Before the games, your fellow acitivist Yevgeny Vitishko was detained for protesting illegal logging.
The worst thing was the jailing of my colleague Yevgeny Vitishko. Yevgeny is in a penal colony where he shares a room with 115 other inmates. He is charged with sweeping the floor every day, from sunrise to sunset. This is a man with advanced degrees and a lifetime of peaceful activist achievement. Despite the conditions, he is still carrying himself with the pride and respect for others he has always had.
Are you concerned that the same sort of environmental devastation and corruption will happen in Crimea?
The same environmental destruction and corruption could happen in Crimea and anywhere else in the world where Putin has power. The corruption extends beyond the borders of Russia and will infiltrate wherever it is allowed to.
Do you think you'll ever be able to go back to Russia? What would it take for you to be allowed, or want to, return?
If I were to return today, I would be arrested on the spot. I would like to return one day, it is my home. It is where my children and my family live. But there is no way that I will be able to return with the current government in place. I hope not just for the sake of my return, but for the people of Russia, that we will one day have a democratically elected government and we will be a free people.
What do you think is the biggest environmental problem facing your homeland?
The biggest environmental issue we have is the inability for activists to act in defense of the environment. Without this activism, there will be nothing left to protect.
What do you tell other activists?
Don't give up, but be careful.