This is the 7×7 team on the line. This newsletter has been written by Oleg Gradov. What inspired the environmental protests at Shiyes and why there is no mass protest nowadays is the subject of our newsletter today.
Approximate reading time: 4 minutes.
I’m sorry if you’re from Moscow and our headline hurts your feelings. No one will be scolding the residents of the capital in this newsletter. The quote “Moscow lost its fucking mind” refers only to the leadership of that city and our country, but we will talk more about this later.
One of the few successful cases of protest in Russia’s recent history is Shiyes. In 2018, the authorities decided to construct a landfill in the Arkhangelsk Region to dispose of the waste produced by residents of the Russian capital. The locals did not like it, they started holding protest rallies, and eventually the landfill project was canceled. For this newsletter, I spoke with Dmitry Sekushin, one of the participants and coordinators of the Shiyes protest movement. Marina Feldt, an ex-staffer with the Navalny organization in Arkhangelsk, spontaneously joined our conversation.
What is Shiyes?
Shiyes is a small railway station in the southeast of the Arkhangelsk Region on the border with the Komi Republic. Protests against the landfill took place between 2018 and 2021. The protests at Shies were heavily supported by residents of the Arkhangelsk Region: [according to a poll by the Levada Center] 95% were opposed to the landfill, while 25% were willing to attend unsanctioned protest rallies. The activists were supported by both Russian and foreign journalists, as well as by residents of thirty Russian regions who were concerned about environmental problems and held protests in their own cities.
“The metropole does what it wants”
Where does such support for a regional protest come from? “The landfill itself would have made only a few people want to fight back,” says Dmitry Sekushin. “You have to understand how people feel about this. In our case, it was the feeling that we are a colony, and the metropole does what it wants with us. The idea that Moscow had lost its fucking mind united people.”
Realizing that you were part of a whole, not a splinter, was an important piece in the protests at Shiyes. People were aware of their responsibility for their native land and were proud of their background. “If someone in 2017 in Arkhangelsk had said that he was a Pomor, people would have thought that he was a freak. But in 2019, everyone was already proud to call themselves Pomors. This does not mean that we want to see Pomorye separated from Russia. It was just a unifying factor,” says Dmitry.
People can unite without becoming a homogeneous mass. The protests at Shiyes were environmental, not political: the activists’ demands had to with the basic human right to a decent environment. “One shouldn’t see the mass of protesters who defended Shiyes as ants,” Dmitry says on this score. “They were completely different people. I don’t see anything surprising about the fact that many of the protesters turned out to be fascists [i.e., they now support the war or are involved in it — 7×7]. They were like that in the first place.”
The goal makes all the difference
An achievable goal defines the methods of protest. “We had a goal — getting the [Shiyes landfill] project canceled. Not overthrowing Putin, not overthrowing Orlov, our [regional] governor. The goal was to shut down the project,” Sekushin emphasizes. Politicizing the protests at Shiyes could have a negative impact on the movement.
However, every day the activists were approached by people who argued that they were “protesting the wrong way.” “Some were dissatisfied with the fact that we did not talk about politics and did not chew out Putin,” says Sekushin.
To preserve the environmental component of the protests, Dmitry had to partly abandon media publicity from the opposition. “In the first few months of our protest, around December 2018, I wrote to Leonid Volkov asking Navalny not to say anything about Shiyes. I understood that the authorities would hold Navalny against us,” he says.
If you hang out on VK, you’ll go down on criminal charges
The activists used social networks to unite the protesters: they ran accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as a group page on VK. In Russia’s regions, VK remains one of the primary social networks even now, despite all the security risks. “We used VKontakte for contact with the outside world. It is wildly popular in the Arkhangelsk Region — 85-90% of social media users are on it. But for internal matters, we used only Telegram, which is a more secure network,” says Sekushin.
Why are there no mass protests now?
Whereas, during peacetime, activists tried to separate environmental protests from political protests, it is almost impossible to do so now. On 26 February 2022, the Pechora Rescue Committee published a post on its VK group page demanding an end to the hostilities. “Protecting social, environmental and other human and civil rights is impossible in conditions of war,” the activists wrote in their statement. Movements that were originally focused on the environment began to make political demands, and the environmental protest movement was politicized.
Fewer people showed up for the anti-war rallies in 2022 than for the  rallies in support of Alexei Navalny. Dmitry argues that the reason for people’s passive behavior is fear.
“Last year there were no mass protests in Russia because people are afraid,” he says. “Because they’ve learned to be helpless. This is the result of the yearslong destruction of critical thinking and political competition, and the yearslong implicit social contract [between the Putin regime and the Russian people]: ‘You don’t meddle in politics, and we don’t interfere with your lives.’ This agreement is no longer valid, but it’s too late to change anything.”
At this point, Marina Feldt, an ex-staffer at the Navalny organization’s office in Arkhangelsk, joins my conversation with Dmitry. She argues that people in Russia support the war because it gives them positive emotions.
“The main idea of the protests at Shiyes was ‘Moscow is fucked in the head,'” she says. “This is the idea of disconnection: there is Moscow, and and then there is us — Pomorye. But the war in Ukraine is driven by the idea of unification. People in the regions often lack a sense of involvement with the rest of Russia; it seems to them that that they are unwanted. But this war is where people can feel needed by their Motherland. The government has humiliated people so much that now they can rejoice in something that would not be considered decent under normal circumstances.”
Dmitry Sekushin argues that any country can be brought to such a state: “If you propagandized a European country like this for twenty-two years, it too would become fascist.”
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Source: Oleg Ogradov, “The idea that Moscow had lost its fucking mind united people,” Focus (an email newsletter produced by the online regional news and analysis magazine 7×7), 28 January 2023. Translated by Thomas Campbell