Could the Rich Save Russia's Environment?

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Pavel Kassin / Kommersant

Dead forest in the nuclear polluted zone.

Provisions for a leisurely summer camping trip on a lake in Russia's Ural mountains: Good brown bread; salami and cheese; tomatoes and cucumbers; bottled water (always carbonated). Also, nerve gas-strength mosquito repellent, and vodka (of course). And Geiger counters.

Okay, you won't find the last item in every Russian picnic basket, but Natalya Mironova and Gosman Kabriov aren't your average picnickers — and the sweeping lakes that surround the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, 1400 km (870 miles) southeast of Moscow, aren't your average fishing holes. In fact, Mironova and Kabriov are anti-nuclear activists. Chelyabinsk isn't far from the massive Mayak nuclear complex, which processed materials for the first Soviet atomic weapons. During the 1940s and '50s, Mayak pumped nuclear waste directly into the rivers that ran through villages in the area, exposing hundreds of thousands to dangerous levels of radiation. Though dumping has been since halted, many of the region's waterways remain at least faintly radioactive, and residents still suffer from elevated cancer rates.

Mironova and Kabriov record radioactivity as ornithologists note the comings and goings of birds. On a tour of some of the remaining hotspots near local towns and villages, they dip their buzzing Geiger counters into one still-contaminated river where we'd later see kids wading ankle-deep. At day's end, instead of returning to Chelyabinsk to spend the night in the grim Soviet surrounds known as "Tank City" for its role in equipping the Red Army, we headed for a holiday camp Kabriov knew on the shores of the massive Lake Uvil'dui, not far from where the Mayak facility's waste is now stored, more or less safely ensconced in concrete. Why let a little radioactivity spoil a beautiful July evening?

That sentiment seems to be shared by many of the region's nouveaux riches, who have flocked to build summer mansions along the region's lakes. Indeed, with basic infrastructure failing to even come close to keeping pace with development, the garbage produced by the holiday-makers may pose more of a threat to the environment than does the Mayak nuclear waste. Kabriov drives me to one of the illegal trash dumps that have grown up in the thick trees around Lake Uvil-dui, where a stream of waste runs from the water's edge deep into the forest. The nearest legal dump is nearly 40 km (25 miles) away. "Rich people build mansions and they use the forest as their trash can," says Kabriov, poking through a pile of empty bottles. "That's Russia today."

Russia's wild-west capitalism has not exactly encouraged conservation, or even planning for the future. Guiding a motorboat around Lake Uvil'dui, Kabriov points out a series of increasingly elaborate lake houses whose style mimics 19th century Russian castles. "That one belongs to the deputy governor of the region," he says. Pointing to the next one, he adds, "That one belongs to the head of the local duma [legislature]." What of the owner of that half-finished mansion? "He was shot," says Kabriov, his failure to elaborate a reminder that such a fate was not uncommon in the rough-and-tumble race to get rich in communism's wake.

Still, although Russia's natural resources are offered little protection from the predations of businessmen, the environment around the lakes of Cheylabinsk is showing signs of improvement — and those new tycoons are playing a surprisingly positive role.

Alexander Krupin, a brusque, fatigue-wearing regional environmental official is quick to blame the new rich tenants for ruining his lake. But, he says, in his patrolling to watch for illegal dumping, he's noticed a change recently. Instead of throwing their trash behind the nearest clump of trees, they're pushing to bring a new, legal waste dump closer to their lake. "It's because they understand that they don't want to live in a garbage pile," he says. "They've spent all that money for the lake and they want to enjoy the clean nature."

It's a small victory in a massive environmental war, one that Russia is generally losing. But it offers a bit of hope that as Russia's wealthy elite stabilizes after more than a decade of explosive, often lawless growth, they may come to realize that they don't want to trash their own backyard.