SALEKHARD, RUSSIA —
Icy blasts of water greeted Greenpeace protesters climbing Russia’s lone offshore oil platform in the Arctic.
Then, Russian police fired warning shots.
And then arrested 30 activists.Today, 28 Greenpeace activists and 2 journalists from the ship are serving 2 months detention terms in Murmansk, where their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, also is impounded.
Greenpeace Russia lawyer Anton Beneslavski says last year there were no legal penalties after Greenpeace boarded the same platform and unfurled a protest banner.
He said that last year, border police never reacted. This year, police are accusing Greenpeace of piracy.
But Russia is increasingly flexing its muscles in its vast Arctic region.
In September, Russia’s only nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser led a flotilla to the Novosibirsk Islands, where Russian soldiers reopened a military base that had been closed 20 years ago.
As Arctic ice melts more, the base will check on ships passing in summer.
Last summer, China’s first icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, made the Arctic passage. This summer, the first Chinese freighter passed over the top of Russia.
Last May, at a meeting in Sweden, the Arctic Council admitted China as an observer.
That meeting also drew Greenpeace protesters. They called for a ban on drilling and mining in the fragile Arctic environment.
Recently, at Salekhard, a Russian city on the Arctic Circle, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an Arctic Forum. He rejected Greepeace's protest tactics.
He said: "They are obviously not pirates, but formally, they did attempt to board the platform.”
After Putin spoke, Vera Orlova of the Russia Geographical Society told foreign reporters that their permits to visit the Russian Arctic had expired.
She said that it was an absolutely normal procedure for reporters to receive permits to visit Salekhard for only the two days of the conference.
No other nation restricts visits to its Arctic cities. But Putin’s Russia is taking the road of more and more government controls.
Salekhard, population 45,000, is the world's only city that straddles the Arctic Circle. This roadside monument marks this line that crossses the tundra. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Modern Salekhard has been built by Russia’ state gas giant Gazprom as a center for one of the richest oil and gas regions in the world. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Bright colors seek to cheer up residents in a city where snow falls in September and there are only two hours of daylight each day during December. (V. Undritz for VOA)
There as many as half a million reindeer in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, the world center for raising reindeer. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Nenets people cherish their traditions, which have survived 70 years of Soviet communism and two decades of Russian consumerism. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Nenets carve souvenirs from walrus tusks. Tourism is limited because Russian authorities now demand additional permits to visit the city, a three hour flight from Moscow. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Cossacks founded the city in 1598 on the eastern bank of it the River Ob, which flows north to the Arctic. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Brightly colored tower beckons are seen in Salekhard. (V. Undritz for VOA)
The road to the airport is decorated with static displays of airplanes and helicopters that pioneered polar aviation in the 20th century. (V. Undritz for VOA)
An old locomotive is a reminder of the period, from the 1930s to 1950s, when Salekhard was a gulag town. Thousands of prisoners died constructing what later became known as “The Railroad of Death”. (V. Undritz for VOA)