MOSCOW - Who would want what’s possibly Europe’s largest landfill in their own backyard?
That question lies at the center of a protest against construction of a massive garbage dump in northern Russia — an environmental issue that has come to symbolize growing frustration towards Moscow’s sway over Russia’s far-flung regions.
The fight over Shiyes — a remote railway outpost in Russia’s Arkhangelsk province that is to play host to the landfill — first erupted a little over a year ago after local hunters came across a secret construction site in the region’s swamp-filled forests.
It didn’t take long for locals to learned of the dig’s true purpose: to house a 52-square-kilometer storage area for refuse shipped in from Moscow, some 1126 kilometers away.
Government officials say Shiyes was chosen based on its remote location — with the new ‘Ecotechnopark’ a cutting edge example of innovative waste storage.
They also point to cash and incentives — such as a computer lab, annual New Year’s gifts, and healthcare access to top Moscow hospitals for nearby locals — as a smart investment for regional development.
But anger over the landfill has united a diverse swath of citizens across northern Russia — with many saying they see it as a threat to natural resources that define a way of life in extreme climate.
“Of course we’re against it,” says Antokha, a construction worker who travelled some 800 kilometers away to join the camp from the city of Arkhangelisk.
“The area’s swamps feed rivers that extend throughout the region and feed into the White Sea. Poison Shiyes with garbage and you poison the entire north,” he added, while declining to provide his last name.
Welcome to the Resistance
Antokha is just one of many Russian northerners who have joined a hundreds-strong protest movement that spent the past year locked in a standoff with authorities over construction of the landfill.
In that time, ‘The Republic of Shiyes’ has emerged — a tent commune just outside the dig site with its own anthem, flag, infirmary, as well as a makeshift kitchen and bathhouse.
While ‘The Republic’ even has a stage for concerts and announcements, this is no Woodstock. Among the camp’s strictest rules? No drugs or alcohol.
Yet Shiyes has attracted the eclectic mix of an ‘anything goes’ event: liberals share soup casually with nationalists, peaceniks with military vets, small business owners alongside eco-activists.
All have committed to rotating shifts into the camp — through a frigid winter and mosquito-infested summer — in an effort to keep the protest going.
“This really is a war,” says Anna Shekalova, a shopkeeper from nearby who’s emerged as one of the leaders of the movement.
“And if we stay together, it’s a war we win.”
Beyond the immediate environmental concerns, the battle over Shiyes has also exposed simmering resentments about a top-down system of governance that centralizes power and critical regional revenues in Moscow’s hands.
There’s widespread feeling that Russia’s regions give their resources to the capital while getting little — or, even worse, garbage — in return.
“It’s an example of Moscow chauvinism against the rest of the country,” says Ksenia Dmitrieva, 33, who grew up swimming in the area’s rivers as a child.
“Moscow thinks just because they have the money they can put their trash where they want. They’re not better than us.”
The Shiyes strike continues amid a year of growing discontent with Russia’s government — with complaints about a sagging economy affecting the regions disproportionately.
Recent elections saw whole swaths of territory — such as the Khabarovsk Province in the Far East — send stinging defeats to the United Party in local races. The public has also condemned the government response to the spread of massive wildfires across wide swaths of Siberia. Meanwhile, smaller cities surrounding Moscow have long complained about the overflowing dumpsites poisoning air and water quality.
But more alarming for the Kremlin? President Vladimir Putin is no longer immune.
After years of sky-high ratings, Putin’s support numbers have fallen in the wake of unpopular pension reforms and falling living standards. Recent polls show trust in Putin has fallen to just over 30%. Meanwhile, a majority now think the country is on the wrong track.
“They ask: ‘why wasn’t that done?’ And when they don’t find an answer of course they become opponents of Putin” says Ilya Kirianov, an engineer who traveled to Shiyes from Severodvinsk — where the public was still reeling from a mysterious explosion that released radiation into the air this past July.
“You see people who just a year ago voted for Putin are now some of his harshest critics,” he added.
Count Liliya Zobova, a business owner, is among those who’ve lost patience with the Russian leader.
“I loved Putin and voted for him,” she says.
That changed after seeing Putin weigh in — briefly in an answer in May 2019 — to say authorities should take public opinion into account.
The result? Construction paused — but only briefly.
“It means Putin supports it,” says Zobova. "I don’t know who to believe anymore.”
Helicopters and Blockades
For now, protesters have blockaded old logging roads that provide the only access for equipment to the build site. Even getting to the camp involves a hike through dense sticky swamplands.
In turn, authorities have started using helicopters to ferry in diesel and supplies for a force of masked private security contractors and regional police who guard the site.
In a show of force against the Shiyes camp, several protesters have been arrested and face the prospect of criminal prosecution. Police regularly post signs warning a raid is imminent.
It’s natural to be afraid,” says Irina Leontova, a 28-year-old filmmaker from Syktyvkar, a 3 hour drive away. “Anything can happen — arrests, fines — but still people keep coming.”
Surveying the camp, Vera Goncherenka, a retired accountant from the nearby town of Urdoma, marveled at how life had changed since she got involved in the Shiyes uprising a year ago.
“I should be on my couch at home but look at me now,” she said —- adding that her experiences in Shiyes had convinced her that something was stirring in Russia’s regions.
“How do we know something like Shiyes isn’t happening somewhere else in Russia? Have you ever heard them talk about us on television?”
With that, a passing train blew its whistle in support — and the protesters waved back.
A sign that news — like the region’s water — always finds a way out of the swamp.