The Shies camp: How Moscow’s trash became treasure for a group of environmental protestors

Environmentalists at the Shies camp.

Publish date: January 21, 2020

Early this month, Irina Andrianova, one of Bellona’s writers, spent three days with a camp of environmental protesters who were blocking construction of a landfill in Russia’s Northwestern Arkhangelsk region. The landfill is meant to house trash from Moscow, and the camp has inspired a nationwide movement against the Russian capital’s plans to export its garbage to poorer and less populated areas in the Russian hinterlands.

Early this month, Irina Andrianova, one of Bellona’s writers, spent three days with a camp of environmental protesters who were blocking construction of a landfill in Russia’s Northwestern Arkhangelsk region. The landfill is meant to house trash from Moscow, and the camp has inspired a nationwide movement against the Russian capital’s plans to export its garbage to poorer and less populated areas in the Russian hinterlands.

The landfill, which was slated to process 500,000 tons of Moscow trash per year, is being built near a railway station called Shies. Over the course of a year, the Shies camp has attracted thousands of protesters from across the political spectrum, marking a rare moment of unity for Russians in an ever more fractured social landscape.

On January 9, the activists scored a rare environmental victory. The Arkhangelsk region’s arbitration court ruled that the construction at Shies is illegal, and ordered the contractors that were building it to tear it down.

Such a victory was hardly preordained. Throughout their year of protest, the activists were routinely harassed, often violently, by private security firms hired to guard the construction site. They braved bitterly cold weather and official reprisals in order to be heard. Authorities in distant Moscow – 1,125 to the south – were long unmoved by their pleas. Corrupt interests behind the landfills construction had too much to gain. But the days our writer spent with the protesters offer a look at how the environmentalists managed to succeed in court against staunch opposition to get the landfill project halted.

The first thing that catches the eye of new volunteers in the environmental camp is the near military standard of organization. The camp’s daily tasks, like standing watch, ensuring a supply of food, water, fuel and electricity and building and repairing temporary huts all fall to the members of the Shies camp.

The camp itself was officially constituted by a charter drawn up by its members, who attend daily meetings to reach common decisions. The military analogy is not accidental, and the camp mirrors the discipline of the private security guards hired to guard the site of the landfill. Those guards live in wagons have their orders and code of discipline. The protestors have the same.

The two camps – the security guards and the protestors – are opposing structures that vigilantly monitor each other. As I move between posts, I hear their radios squawk behind me, announcing my presence. The only difference between the two camps is that one is working for money, the other for an idea. The security guards, incidentally, make a little over $1,000 a month just for keeping watch. But if there were a clash between the two camps, their salaries would go up to about $1,700. In the Arkhangelsk region, this is a lot of money. In other regions, too.

I would venture to suggest that, because of this organizational flare, the defenders of Shies had already long won their battle. The court victory simply cemented it. The enemy grudgingly respects such serious resistance. The time when the protesters were considered freaks and outcasts is no longer. It’s hard to believe, but donors from all over the country funded the entire infrastructure of the protest.

Of course, you can’t say that anything here was easy. It is enough to regard the tired faces of the camp coordinators, who have been dragging a heavy organization load for more than a year, to understand. But what is so hopeful is that so many people are participating. I, myself, having participated in large and small protest movements, could not have dreamed that so many people would be involved. Activists are constantly arriving. Most of them pass through Madmas railway station in the neighboring Komi Republic – which, after Russian Railways canceled stops at Shies station last summer, became the main hub for arrivals.

Please note that in Madmas, whose population is 700, people are always ready to meet the volunteer activists and escort them to the checkpoints surrounding the protest. Transport to and from the protest is synchronized. At the checkpoints there is an exchange of people – those who have been on duty at the camp are relieved by fresh arrivals. Such exchanges occur daily.

These synchronized exchanges are facilitated by walk-talkies. The airwaves are filled with negotiations between various posts. Who then will say that the Shies protesters are less organized that the security structure that opposes them? Perhaps the protesters are even more effective because their protest is fueled not by money but the patriotism of the local residents. Not the fat, lazy, bloated patriotism that sticks on bumper stickers and considers itself righteous, but the kind that requires a real sacrifice of strength, time, health and career. The activist who led me from the checkpoint to the camp – who had himself done time in the protest camp ­– had become a father only four months ago. Like other residents of the rebel village, he is torn between family and his “partisan” detachment.

The involvement of the local population is of special note. In the village of Urdoma – which, like Madmas, is a settlement nearby the camp – nearly half the adult population of 4,500 has at one time or another helped out with the protest. Participants come from across the political and educational spectrum, from pagan nationalists to new left-wingers in the Western sense. I emphasize this not by accident. Agree that in large cities, protest movements are traditionally recruited from the intelligentsia. But in the outback, the percentage of intelligentsia is, by definition, smaller than in the capitals.

Therefore, everyone is involved in the protest, and this informs camp life in the specifics. For instance, there are far more men than you would usually see in a protest movement in large cities. The Shies camp is about 60 to 70 percent male, thanks to which most of the technical tasks and heavy lifting are taken care of. There’s always an electrician or someone who knows about diesel generators, or motorcycles, or plumbing, or carpentry.

During my stay at the commune there were about 50 to 60 people, and staff rotated continually. Today 20 come and 10 leave. The day after, another 10 come and another 10 leave. And so on. Some live continuously for more than three weeks while others, although they stay for shorter times, have come and gone as many as 10 times during the camp’s existence.

The camp has a clear daily routine. Early in the morning, a new shift of kitchen staff shows up and takes up its post in the dining room. Breakfast is prepared. Dishes are washed in basins because the shed – which also serves as a gathering place for the commune’s evening meetings – is too small for dishwashing alone. The night watch is replaced by the day watch. Life in the camp goes on round the clock.

At night, you also need to feed the volunteers who sit two-hour guard shifts on “the mountain” (as they call the snow-capped crest of rubble built by the camp’s residents; towering above the site of the landfill, the mountain allows the guards a good vantage point to track movement and avoid possible provocations). During the day the usual business of supporting life in the camp gets underway: repairing buildings; delivery of water for drinking and plumbing; preparation of firewood, and so on. After breakfast comes lunch, followed by dinner. During the day, kitchen staff can change more than once – often informally in the manner of friendly assistance.

At 6 pm, the commune begins its general meeting, where duty lists are drawn up, program documents are voted on, and issues are resolved. Aside from duty on the mountain, the meeting serves to appoint participants to postings in several distant branches of the camp. These include “bonfire,” “bathhouse,” (these are situated to block access of construction equipment to the landfill itself; one of these sites provides a bathhouse for the volunteers), as well as the “Brest Fortress,” which protects the water supply. At this time, things are calm. The security guards are behaving politely. The last time any construction equipment got through the activists’ blockades was in November. But according to the activists, the fuel for that equipment would soon run out and the camp needs to be on the lookout for another attempt to break the blockades.

The calm life at the camp encourages some observers who are far from the action to conclude that the conflict has been resolved and that there remains nothing to protect. But those who say that don’t know – or don’t want to know –- the cost of the current equilibrium. It is not because the honorable Igor Orlov, the governor of the Arkhangelsk region, suddenly announced that construction has been cancelled and that the uncaring officials in Moscow suddenly started talking about new ideas for garbage disposal. Nothing happens just like that. All good is achieved through hard work. And the memory of that work still lies, dusted by snow, near the Bathhouse post: A trailer burnt down by the enemies.

Here stands a grove of birch trees marred by red paint: an excavator scarred them when, last winter, it tried to break through to the construction site and drove straight into the people forming the blockade. Another post is guarded by the boyfriend of the volunteer who, last spring, was nearly suffocated when the trailer was burned. The security guards had been trying to force the trailer out, and in doing so had dislodged its exhaust pipe. Had it not been for the activist’s shouts from inside, she could have died.

Incidentally, one more very important observation: The camp observes a strict no-alcohol policy. Attempts to clear the activists’ speech of profanity have so far been unsuccessful (as such, camp rules state that profanity is “not recommended,” but the refusal of alcohol in the northern countryside, especially in the winter, speaks volumes. Imagine my surprise when I learned the dry law was adopted as a temporary measure in Urdoma itself; residents there supported a call to boycott a local store that had collaborated with the landfill. And it just so happened that the store sold alcohol.

As I have already said, volunteers and activists from all regions of the country have come to Shies. Not taking into account journalists, bloggers and various “friendly” delegations, all the activists are ordinary people who decided to spend their savings and their vacation time to volunteer at the environmental camp. When I was there were people from Moscow, St Petersburg, Vologda, Nizhny Novgorod, and Tver. And of course there were more from nearby cities towns like Arkhangelsk, Syktyvkar, Kotlas and Severodvinsk.

What draws all of these people here? I think they came for the same reasons I did – namely, the desire to join a miracle. To see with their own eyes what until now seemed impossible. Some come with the intention of feeling the experience of resistance. Just a couple of years ago, the idea of stopping a harmful project run by the oligarchic state seemed a fantasy. Today, it has become not just a reality, but a proven technology. First, you do this. Then you do that. And then you get this.

And people want to feel the amazing spiritual uplift of unity again and again. Here in the camp, people show their best qualities. Feeling right with yourself – and, in the end, just feeing that you are a good person – is important for everyone. If the Shies camp hadn’t happened, many of the people here would have led less meaningful lives. No one would have know they were capable of such friendships and mutual usefulness, that they can do so much, that they are loved and missed. The dream of communism – with all the negative connotations of the word – will not leave humanity.

“I have no idea what we will do when we are victorious,” said one of the elders of Shies at the evening meeting. “How will we live without our camp, without each other?” Of course, the authorities are unlikely to give us such happiness. The planet’s resources are limited, and those who are stronger will always strive to rob others of their land, their nature, their forests, their coasts. Because of that, there will always be a need for a new Shies. And perhaps someone somewhere will be able to recreate the unique set of factors that made the current success possible. But, of course, that won’t be Shies, but something else. A miracle, by definition, cannot be replicated. The Shies camp will forever remain a wonderful memory for those who were there ­– and a symbol of hope for everyone else.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get our latest news

Stay informed