Grassroots activism in Russia: A conversation with Tatyana Kagina

I was having a quick review of my blog posts and realised I never put this one up from back in Moscow!

Environmental action at grassroots level is on the increase in Russia. Tatyana puts this down to a number of factors:

– Internet – use of social networks (and increasingly apps too) for generating support, finances, a team around you and publicity. It is used mostly by the younger generation, creating horizontal links and enabling initiatives to get off the ground through crowd funding.

– Disappointment in authorities – people are calling for change and taking action themselves

– Observation of and involvement in international movements – communication with colleagues in Europe and the USA means there is increased activity here e.g. 10:10:10, youth climate movement

– Fashion – being ‘eco’ is becoming fashionable in Moscow and St Petersburg so more people are getting involved

 

There are some fantastic examples of initiatives and movements that have been set up in the last few years and are achieving success:

– Save Khoper Movement (http://savekhoper.ru/) – campaigning against the development of a nickel mine, about 600km from Moscow. Its coordination has mostly been through the use of online social networks

– Development of recycling infrastructure – this is the kind of thing Musora Bolshe Net get involved in. There are many more examples too, as Denis had said – two girls here in Moscow organise an ‘eco yard’ once a month to collect signatures (and recycling) to call on the local administration to provide recycling facilities (http://ecamir.ru/news/Prazdnik-Eko-Dvor-v-Severo-Vostochnom-okruge-Moskvyi.html). Sergey Zogorobov created his own recycling system for his apartment block – he now has a grant from the city administration! (http://ecamir.ru/experts/Razdelnyiy-sbor-othodov-vozle-doma%E2%80%A6sdelal-SAM.html)

– Demand for bicycles as a transport alternative – ‘Let’s Bike It’ calls on the central administration in Moscow to increase the availability of cycle lanes and bike racks. Two years ago 5000 people took part in a festival to call on the administration to provide more facilities so that people can use it as a mode of transport in the city.

– Eco-communities – in Moscow a guy called Sablin Roman set up an eco-commune where many activists (including Tatyana) lived together for 3 years, which increased the level of activity and sense of community. It unfortunately no longer exists due to people moving on to other projects or life stages.

– Eco-events – a film festival is being organised for later this year in Moscow focused on grassroots initiatives; http://delaisam.org/ (which translates as ‘do it yourself’) is an annual ‘un-conference’ bringing together lots of initiatives e.g. environmental, social, street art, film making, all about sharing experiences, in Russia and internationally.

 

Tatyana has been involved in environmental action for the last 5 years in Russia, first with an NGO in Irkutsk, now with ecocamir (http://ecamir.ru/), a tree-planting initiative working across Russia, bringing local teams together, and championing those taking leading roles to get involved in other initiatives too. It is funded by a business man who owns a cosmetics company.

 

My conversation with Tatyana re-instils the difficulties associated with the political system for getting things done, but re-affirms how many individuals are finding ways around this, and still managing to make changes. To me, it seems there is a hopeful future and increasing numbers of people getting involved, which is starting to reflect in central and local administrations to some extent. My main concern/counter-point to this positive picture is the worry that if individuals are setting things up, it then means government doesn’t have to. Then again maybe that is actually democracy and active citizenship at its best, depending on how you look at it!

 

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Thinking back to Siberia…

I have just put up two profiles from my time back in Tomsk in Russia – one for the Siberian Ecological Agency and one from social entrepreneur Valeriy Koshelev. You can view them under the profiles tab or go to them here:

http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/siberian-ecological-agency/

http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/valeriy-koshelev-social-entrepreneur/

Back to Irkutsk…

The profile of Baikal Environmental Wave is up, from back in Irkutsk. Others from that meeting still to come… http://www.seekthechange.org/profiles/baikal-environmental-wave/ Currently in Datong, getting on an overnight train to Pingyao in 2 hours – haven’t been able to find out about environmental organisations here – these two places don’t feature amongst the areas where environmental action is more prevalent unfortunately.

Mongolian insights

I didnt meet with any environmental organisations in Ulaanbataar unfortunately. However, I was able to gain some insights from our tour, our tour guide and from a friend of a friend who has lived in UB the past year.

 

– the landscape is vast (I know I am stating the obvious but really, it is SO vast!)

– the country has 3 million people, 1-1.5 million of whom live in the capital. That’s a pretty low population density across the rest of the country!

– the nomadic culture still seems strong although it is declining as more and more people move to UB – the nomadic lifestyle is tough, just from the small, tourism-angled glimpse that I got, but moving to UB does not necessarily promise better – there is high unemployment, high pollution levels and other issues affecting city dwellers

– there are huge numbers of construction projects going up, to house all of the people moving to UB

– there is apparently a strong sense of oneness with nature amongst Mongolian people

– there is a lot of resistance to the large mining projects in the Gobi Desert, particularly the Rio Tinto mine to the south, which accounts for about 30-40% of Mongolia’s GDP. According to one person I met the Rio Tinto mine gets a lot of bad press but it does actually have stringent environmental standards which it does a good job at sticking to, and it has a far better record than many illegally operating mines in the country. Just depends who you speak to what story you get I guess…

– for so few people in the country, there seems to be a lot of rubbish scattered everywhere, which slightly contradicts the oneness and respect for nature. On the other hand, you can’t be much less impactful than by living the nomadic lifestyle so really the rubbish is probably the one harmful by-product they do have

– it was incredible to see the Przewalski (wild) horse – it really did look like they’d jumped out of cavemens’ paintings to be standing in front of us! It is gratifying to see the successful outcomes of a conservation reintroduction programme. After extinction in the wild in the 60s with just 42 left in various zoos, there are now over 320 horses in Hustai National Park and they are thriving!

 

 

 

Tomsk tour!

Had the most amazing day yesterday being shown around Tomsk by Valeriy, a social entrepreneur who lives there (the most wonderful host!). We were filmed for regional TV(!), met with Sergey from the Siberian Ecological Agency (green.Tomsk.ru), visited an ecovillage outside Tomsk and were treated to homemade tea, honey and cake there, then came back for an incredible puppet show which felt like stepping into a fairytale (www.2ky.Tomsk.ru). Back onto another train now for 31 hours!

The joys of travelling, and travelling with a purpose

It is not so in keeping with most of my blog posts which focus on people, organisations and initiatives tackling environmental issues, but I wanted to write on this topic because it is so important – one of the reasons I enjoy travelling so much is experiencing the support provided and friendliness shown by so many strangers along the way. It restores my faith in humanity and reiterates how differences between nationalities are only really superficial – human emotions are the same the world over in my experience, and stereotypes usually just that.

 

As a case in point, I have been struck by the helping hand of so many of the Russian people we have met on our journey so far. The UK stereotype of Russia and Russian people is often one of cold, unfriendly faces, corruption and hidden dangers, sometimes one of ‘other’, perpetrated by the media – it is definitely not seen as a place or people conducive to “can I help you?”s and friendly smiles, which has been my experience in innumerable cases now.

 

Right from the offset Russian helpfulness has made my journey what it is – I met Elena at the Judge Business School back in June, who is from Moscow but lives with her family in Cambridge while she studies for her Masters. She connected me with lots of her colleagues, who then in turn went out of their way to introduce me to people involved in environmental initiatives in different places I would be stopping.

 

When we got on the train from Vilnius to St Petersburg, the lady sat opposite us was so smily, warm and friendly and we managed to chat quite a lot despite not speaking each others’ languages. On our way back from Peterhof, the bus driver got out specially to show us where to go to the train station; and then as we got off the train in St Petersburg a young woman smiled as we got out our map, asked us where we were from and proceeded to show us exactly how the metro system works and gave us her number to call if we had any problems during the rest of the trip through Russia. The examples do not stop there…

 

On the train to Moscow, the man opposite me didn’t return my smile…until two hours in when he produced food out of his bag to share with us and then we chatted (with the help of my phrase book and google translate!) for a good couple of hours. The check out man in the supermarket started talking to us about English football clubs when he found out where we were from, and on three different occasions using the Moscow metro people asked us if we needed any help. The couple we were in a carriage with to Novosibirsk gave us a lift to the bus station. That still doesn’t cover the number of instances of help but you get the picture! Yes there are still some rather strict, unsmiling people around, like anywhere, but the help offered to us and the positive interactions we have had so far has blown me away.

 

Visiting a place, and going beyond that to meet the people who live and work there, does so much to help alter pre-conceived ideas and realise that people really are not so different, no matter where they are from or what their context. Especially now with the news of political relations between Russia and certain other countries, it has done wonders for reminding me that media and reporting of politics hides so much warmth, friendliness and common ground that becomes even more important to remember.

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A couple on holiday from Moscow who shared their meal with us the first night in Suzdal