Andrei Rudomakha. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page and the Moscow Times
On the Watch: The Story of Andrei Rudomakha, Russia’s Most Famous Environmentalist
Vladimir Prikhodko and Angelina Davydova
October 2, 2019
Protests against waste landfills, the clearcutting of parks, and illegally enclosed forests—the environment has been a frequent topic of regional protests in Russia. Persecution by the authorities, criminal cases, beatings, and even murders are everyday risks for environmental activists. Proekt tells the story of the persecution of the head of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EcoWatch), which has been going on for almost forty years.
They go to bed late in the private house on Kerchenskaya Street in Krasnodar. The place resembles a commune. This is the home and office of Andrei Rudomakha and Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus aka EcoWatch, perhaps the most famous grassroots environmental organization in Russia. Rudomakha has led EcoWatch for fifteen years.
At 5:55 a.m. on July 30, everyone was asleep. At that moment, Investigative Committee investigator Sergei Kalashnikov and an unidentified FSB officer in a mask rang the doorbell. Not waiting for the homeowner to open the door, they ordered Emergencies Ministry officers to break down the gate. Within a couple of minutes, officers in masks had flooded the house, and two masked men with automatic rifles had thrown Rudomakha to the floor. When Rudomakha attempted to get up, the officer holding the activist pepper-sprayed him in the face.
Enemies of the State
This was the fifth search at EcoWatch in less than three years, and the second in the last four months.
“That morning, I was supposed to go to court in Maykop to face charges that we allegedly broke the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ by linking to Open Russia’s website on our sites and social media pages. My trip was canceled because of the search, and no one from our group was at the court hearing. Naturally, we lost the case,” says Rudomakha, meeting with our correspondent at the selfsame commune-like house.
EcoWatch was the first nonprofit organization in Russia to be found guilty of collaborating with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia.
In recent years, the number of environmental protests in various regions of Russia has certainly grown—from campaigns against waste landfills in parts of European Russia to protests against coal dust in the port of Nakhodka, in the country’s Far East, says Svyatoslav Zabelin, coordinator for the International Socio-Ecological Union. The most turbulent environmental protests of the past summer were in the village of Shiyes in Arkhangelsk Region, where the authorities wanted to transport garbage from Moscow. It was in the village of Loginovskaya in Arkhangelsk Region where Rudomakha was born fifty-five years ago.
A 2018 protest rally in Severodvinsk against the Shiyes landfill. Source: activatica.org
“My father was a descendant of Kuban Cossacks. My mother is from Perm. That is where my parents met when they were at university. After their studies, they were assigned to work in the taiga in Arkhangelsk Region, on one of the local farms. Shortly after, we all moved to my father’s native land, the Taman Peninsula. I was still a very young child when my parents divorced. My mother raised me on her own. She worked for more than forty years in the village of Oktyabrsky in the Seversky District, where we relocated. The test fields of the Tobacco, Shag, and Tobacco Products Research Institute were located there.”
At the age of sixteen, Andrei set out for Cuba. He went to Moscow, supposedly to matriculate at the university, and along the way, he hopped a freight train in order to leave the Soviet Union—but he was found by frontier guards at the Romanian border.
“During the interrogation, the KGB guys thought long and hard about what to do with me,” Rudomakha says with a laugh. “After all, I had said to them, ‘Send me to Cuba, to a school for revolutionaries.’ The KGB officers reacted to this with their peculiar sense of humor and sent me to the Kishinev Mental Hospital. I was retrieved from there by my mother. From that point on I’ve never been out of the sight [of the authorities].”
Andrei Rudomakha and his mother
This was how the secret services, rebellion, and forests came into Rudomakha’s life.
“A military coup occurred in Chile in 1973. All of the news contrasted sharply with the reality in which I lived. Oktyabrsky was a very boring place. Books were my salvation. And the forest. I rather quickly got keen on hikes in the woods. Che Guevara was my idol and hero.”
Rudomakha studied Spanish and Greek, began playing guitar and formed a band. He calls his mid-1980s self a “rocker.” In 1987, immediately after his army service, Andrei was offered a job at the Krasnodar House of Young Pioneers, in the Candle Amateur Song Club.
Peaceful and troubled
Troubled and easy
What infuses the air
In the meadows around Pseushkho?
These are lines from a poem by the bard poet Vladimir “Berg” Lantzberg. In the 1980s, he was living in Tuapse, putting together amateur song festivals and establishing the first communes. It was then that Rudomakha first encountered the communard scene, whose principles he would later adopt. The Pseushkho of which Lantzberg sang is a mountain with an Adyghe name in Krasnodar Territory’s Tuapse District. In 2019, Rudomakha would protest against the construction of a limestone quarry there.
In the 1980s, however, the Kuban was fighting another construction project. A nuclear power plant was slated to be built in the Energetiki district of the village of Mostovskaya. In its waning years, the Soviet Union had planned to build dozens of such plants, from Crimea to the Ural Mountains.
Several Soviet nuclear plants whose construction was begun in the late 1970s and early 80s were not completed. After the breakup of the USSR, one of those stations, Krymskaya, came in handy anyway—not, however, for the nuclear energy industry, but for purveyors of electronic music: it became the venue for the Republic of KaZantip festival of electronic dance music.
“Back in the early 80s, the mammoth construction of a power plant similar to Chernobyl began. In 1988, I was one of the people behind a protest rally. We organized it near Goryachy Klyuch on Lysaya Gora. I remember how we went underground and hid from the KGB. It was then that I first crossed paths with the Nature Conservation Brigades (DOPs), which had been organized at the universities,” recounts Rudomakha.
During perestroika, university students were often certified as conservation, fishing, and hunting inspectors; these groups were then dispatched into the forests to arrest poachers. Later, alumni of the DOPs would become the backbone of the Russian branches of the WWF and Greenpeace.
Like nearly all the nuclear power plants whose construction kicked off at the turn of the 70s and 80s, construction at the Krasnodar plant was soon frozen. But Rudomakha’s career as a music teacher also came to a screeching halt: KGB officers showed up at the Young Pioneers House, and Rudomakha lost his job. His employment at the Candle Club would be the only entry in his official work record book.
Over the last nine years, four criminal cases have been brought against Rudomakha, and seven police searches conducted. He has been jailed on misdemeanor convictions more than fifty times. In the end, EcoWatch was even declared a “foreign agent,” although the decision was reconsidered last year.
In recent years, the growing physical and legal pressure on environmental activists has been as big a trend as the increase in the number of environmental protest rallies. Among the main methods of pressure are forcible dispersal of protests by police, pressure on activists at work, threats to relatives, court cases, straightforward violence, and even murder. In March 2019, environmental activist Denis Shtroo was murdered in Kaluga while participating in, among other things, a campaign against the building of a waste landfill near the village of Mikhali.
Intimidation of Russian Environmental Activists in the First Five Months of 2019
According to information from the Russian Socio-Ecological Union
1 activist murdered. In March 2019, environmentalist Denis Shtroo died of stab wounds in Kaluga. He was involved in a campaign against the construction of a waste landfill in the village of Mikhali.
5 cases of criminal prosecution.
7 attacks on activists, attacks on dwellings, property damage, and police searches.
110 cases of administrative prosecution. The total in fines has amounted to more than a million rubles [approx. 12,000 euros].
In 2019, cases of intimidation against environmentalists were most often recorded in Shiyes, Arkhangelsk Region, where illegal construction of a landfill for Moscow’s solid household waste is underway; in Yekaterinburg, where activists were defending the city’s green spaces; and, as in years past, against activists from Stop GOK, in Chelyabinsk, and EcoWatch.
When the New Russia of the early 90s dawned, Rudomakha was in the woods.
“I decided to build a commune at Kisha Station in the Caucasus Nature Reserve. It is a secluded place in Adygea’s Maykop District. Later, our base moved to Ust-Sakhray. In 1988, for a ridiculously small amount of money (the cost of a Zaporozhets car), we bought a house there. It was an area of abandoned villages that people were trying to leave, but we were doing the opposite. I lived in Ust-Sakhray until 1995. I won’t mention the names of the comrades with whom I started out. Many have their own lives and families now,” he says.
Andrei has his own way of viewing everyday life. Remembering those days, he says with regret that the communes fell apart because people started romantic relationships and left.
“We had a lot of ideas: we wanted to transform all of Sakhray and build a public school. My first daughter was born there, and my wife left — she preferred me to another. All of our ideas were shattered by the internal conflicts and disagreements that arose among the settlers. And, basically, I regret that we sat out perestroika in the mountains. It would have been better, of course, in the city,” he says.
The New Russia brought big money to the Kuban. With its sea, mountains, forests, and springs, the southern region attracted businessmen and politicians from Moscow. Some businessmen began to cut down wood on the unique Bolshoi Thach Mountain and haul it out with helicopters.
“And I came out of the woods. The times had drastically changed, as it turned out. Grassroots organizations were on the upswing,” Rudomakha says.
Soon Rudomakha would turn up in Maykop, where he lived in a small house at a weather station run by Vladimir Karatayev, leader of the Union of the Slavs of Adygea. There a branch of the Socio-Environmental Union would be opened, the first environmental organization founded by Rudomakha.
Rudomakha examines a forest clearcutting in the Caucasus Nature Reserve
“With money from western foundations, we bought a computer and a modem—and things took off. We organized protest rallies, spiked tree trunks, and stopped clearcutting. And, as a result, Bolshoi Thach was made part of the Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Rudomakha explains.
The planet in Ursula K. Le Guin’s cult science fiction novella The Word for World Is Forest is called Athshe. This planet would become the prototype for Pandora in the movie Avatar, and would also give its name to Rudomakha’s 1990s commune, from which EcoWatch arose. Le Guin grew up in leftist Berkeley and was interested in anarchism and environmental movements. In her novella, the kind forest inhabitants, called “creechies” by earthlings, defend their planet from the “yumens.” Athshe Commune was also focused on environmental protests. Commune members took names from the novella’s characters.
Today, activists would be jailed for many of the protest actions carried out then. Rudomakha’s commune took part in many of them alongside the Federal Anarchists of Kuban (FAK) and radical environmentalists from the Keepers of the Rainbow.
“We were always blocking or blockading something,” Rudomakha recalls. “There were tragedies, too. In 1997, we locked ourselves together with metal chains and blocked the road to Sochi. A crazy trucker drove at us, who knows why, and Anya Koshikovaya’s hand was torn off. In the late 90s, this sort of thing brought palpable results. We seriously considered the idea of creating a guerrilla environmental army, to waste everyone. The forests here are wonderful—one could be guerrillas endlessly. Theoretically, if the necessary contingent of people were found, all this would be quite feasible. To do that you would need to break with your usual life and go rogue. Basically, I’ve been ready for that since childhood. If I could find five people just as mad as me!”
An environmental protest involving Rudomakha, 1990s
In the finale of Le Guin’s novella, the creechies surround and kill almost all the earthlings. They are especially keen to hunt down the women to prevent new generations of humans from taking over their forests.
“Sanya [i.e., Alexander] is a thief”: in November 2011, Rudomakha’s comrades in arms spray-painted this graffiti, among others, on the fence of a luxurious estate on the Black Sea shore in Blue Bay, not far from Tuapse. The estate was officially called the Agrocomplex JSC Recreation Center, and it was owned by the family of Alexander Tkachov, former Krasnodar Territory governor and former Russian federal agriculture minister. For all of 2011, enviro-activists battled against this dacha, on whose premises rare trees were presumably being clearcut and access to the sea was illegally fenced. A protest action in November, during which one section of the fence fell, was the last for many activists. Agrocomplex soon filed criminal charges for property damage. Rudomakha’s comrade in arms Suren Gazaryan left the country after receiving political asylum in Estonia. (He now lives in Germany.) Yevgeny Vitishko, another EcoWatchman, was given a three-year suspended sentence, with two years of probation; in December 2013, the suspended sentence was replaced with a real one, and Vitishko served more than a year in a work-release penal colony near Tambov. Amnesty International recognized the activist as a prisoner of conscience.
“Sanya is a thief”: graffiti on the illegally erected fence in Blue Bay
“The constitution is in a noose, Vitishko is in prison,” Pussy Riot sang at the time. And, in fact, environmental protests against palaces owned by high-ranking officials and the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics were perhaps the main public issue in southern Russia in the early 2010s.
EcoWatch had taken on palaces practically from its official founding in 2004. There was good reason to work on the issue—the Kuban had become a favorite spot for both officials and businessmen.
Putin’s palace on Cape Idokopas. Source: navalny.com
The Kuban—Homeland of Palaces: Vladimir Putin’s Palace
In 2010, businessman Sergei Kolesnikov told the world about the construction of a luxurious palace for the Russian president. The site was located in the Kuban, not far from Praskoveyevka on Cape Idokopas. In 2006, the land plot was transferred from the Russian Federation to the Tuapse Vacation House of the Office of Presidential Affairs, and then to the Indokopas Company in 2010.
According to EcoWatch, during construction of the residence and the roads leading up to it, more than forty-five hectares of forest were clearcut; among them, parcels harboring the threatened Pitsunda Pine (Pinus pityusa) were destroyed. According to the calculations of EcoWatch and Greenpeace, the damage from illegal clearcutting came to more than 2.7 billion rubles. Inquiries to the authorities from EcoWatch about the illegal cutting on the palace territory went unanswered.
[Note: the original article in Russian also has short briefs on the Kuban “dachas” of Dmitry Medvedev, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Alexander Tkachov, Alexander Remezkov, Patriarch Kirill, and Anatoly Serdyukov. — TRR]
“Lots of federal officials have dachas on the coast. And basically, we don’t care who owns them. We’d like for those people not to behave like swine. It doesn’t matter whose they are,” says Rudomakha.
The first and perhaps most well-known victory was scored in 2009 when the Watchmen halted construction of a proposed dacha for Dmitri Medvedev in the tiny town of Utrish.
The campaign against environmental violations in the runup to the Olympics brought Rudomakha and EcoWatch international fame: foreign journalists flocked to them in droves. Rudomakha is now certain that the series of refusals by European cities to bid to host the Olympic games (for example, when residents of Munich voted no in a referendum on the city’s bidding for the 2022 Olympics) came about precisely because “we succeeded in creating an image of the Sochi Olympics as the most anti-environmental, expensive, and absurd in the entire history of the Olympic movement.”
“It was then that the authorities started to vigorously persecute us,” Rudomakha says about the time. “I understood that serious ‘winds of change’ had begun to blow. They no longer tried to sit down at the negotiating table with us, and cops chased us around the woods. It was kind of funny.”
“Andrei’s authoritarianism has always been my number one problem,” Yevgeny Vitishko now recounts. In 2016, he and another well-known EcoWatch alumnus, Suren Gazaryan, left the organization.
“From the outside, the Watch looked quite democratic, but in fact everything revolved around one person. His leadership style can be described in sociological terms as narcissistic,” says Gazaryan.
Vitishko and Rudomakha have since reconciled. However, for many, the head of EcoWatch remains a fanatic with autocratic manners.
For several years, local and even national media have been publishing stories about Rudomakha hinting that he is guilty of everything from pedophilia to cooperating secretly with officials. Rudomakha calls the reports nonsense, saying that the regional government is behind them.
“Gazprom is a murderer” / “Stop Blue Stream”: Kuban environmentalists protesting against Gazprom
Rudomakha does not separate the personal from his work life: he admits that his activism has not affected his family’s fortunes in the best of ways. The first floor of the rented house on Kerchenskaya is used as an office, while the second floor is home to Rudomakha and his second daughter, who, in the wake of her parents’ divorce, enrolled in university in Krasnodar and moved in with her father. Rudomakha had once hoped that his daughter would also become an environmentalist, but now he has lost that hope.
“I am quite pessimistic when I assess the evolution of Russia’s environmental movement,” says Rudomakha. “The population is very inert and severely intimidated, and the level of passionarity among people is at a minimum. People rise up, for the most part, only when they are personally affected. If there were organizations like ours in every region, it would be possible to change the situation in this arena and in the country as a whole. After all, a large number of such organizations would naturally make it necessary for them to unite.”
“I haven’t seen an influx of new people into EcoWatch,” notes Rudomakha’s former colleague Gazaryan. “Andrei’s lifestyle and views are on the fringe, and his office is also his residence. It’s hard to work in this environment. And there is no [broad environmental] movement in Russia. There are separate organizations and local groups, but they have no coordination or goals. They are not represented on the political level, and fall apart after a problem is solved,” Gazaryan says, but after thinking about it, he adds that he could be mistaken. “I haven’t lived in Russia for a long time.”
* * *
Late in the evening of December 28, 2017, Rudomakha, his colleague Viktor Chirikov, and journalist Vera Kholodnaya had just arrived at the commune house on Kerchenskaya. Rudomakha had just exited the car when three men ran up to him. Dousing him in the eyes with pepper spray, they knocked him down to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. He lost consciousness. Chirikov was beaten less, and Kholodnaya was only “blinded” by the pepper spray. After that, the attackers took several cameras and a GPS navigator from the car. The entire incident lasted no more than two minutes.
Doctors diagnosed Rudomakha with broken bones in his face and nose, a concussion, and pneumocephalus—the leakage of air into his cranial cavity. He spent three weeks in the hospital.
An investigation into the attack yielded no results. But the enviro-activists have their own theory. They had returned that day from a trip to the area around the village Krinitsa, a small resort in Gelendzhik. There, in the forest, construction had begun on a site resembling a wine-making chateau—such was EcoWatch’s assessment. A prefabricated chapel had also been erected there by order of Axis Investment JSC. The owner of this firm is Alexei Toth, a business partner of Nikolai Yegorov, who is a well-known Petersburg lawyer and a personal friend of Vladimir Putin.
Translated by Mary Rees. Except where noted, all photos courtesy of Proekt.