MOSCOW - Contemporary Moscow can often seem a glittery city of dreams — the Russian capital arguably more efficient, clean and well-run than many of its Western counterparts.
But behind the glamour lies an uncomfortable truth: Russia’s largest city is choking on garbage.
The city’s 12 million residents produce more than 7 million tons of waste per year — 20% of Russia’s entire output — according to government figures. Industrial waste raises that number even higher, and only a fraction of that amount is currently recycled.
For now, most ends up in places like Alexandrov, a picturesque historic town just a few hours’ drive from the capital that’s home to one of several dozen landfills that surround Moscow.
Locals say they’ve watched as trash shipped illicitly from Moscow has formed an unwelcome mountain on the town’s outskirts in just the past few years alone.
“I come here, and my eyes water, my face gets puffy,” said Vladimir Saunin, 80, a Soviet-era judo champion who moved to Alexandrov with his wife a few years ago.
Saunin says they’d imagined an idyllic retirement of long walks in the nearby forests and inside a fortress that once held court to Czar Ivan the Terrible.
“Instead, my wife can’t leave the house,” he said. “It’s a catastrophe. Everyone who lives here thinks the same.”
Whichever way the wind blows really matters
A sudden shift in the wind in Alexandrov and suddenly, the acrid odor is inescapable.
Residents told VOA that “like radiation,” Alexandrov’s landfill is ultimately something most residents see more than feel.
“You can smell the landfill from miles way. You can’t breathe at all, ” said Alexander Kuyum, a father of two young boys who recalls growing up in an area that once looked like a 19th century pastoral painting.
“The worst thing is, they’ve shipped all this garbage, and now want to ship even more,” he said.
Growing concerns over the landfill’s risks to public health led to the largest protest in recent memory in Alexandrov last December. About 5,000 people filled the local square and demanded the site be closed.
Similar scenes are playing out in dozens of towns across the country, as Russia confronts a trash crisis that has yet to develop effective garbage and recycling programs.
Yet public ire has focused on Moscow, in particular, for imposing its will — and waste — on poorer communities that are finally saying, enough.
“I don’t want to leave,” Julia Gribnova, a young mother, said in an interview with VOA. “I’m not saying Moscow should have to live in squalor. I’m just saying that I don’t want them to ship it here.”
Local activists fighting the landfill say they’re pegged as troublemakers, harassed by police and smeared on social media for merely wanting clean air in their own backyard.“
“I don’t want to run and join some protest movement,” said Vitaly Katasov, a young designer and father who joined in the movement. “But I’m not sure there are other options left. The authorities here don’t listen to us.”
The lesson of Shestun
One need only look at the story of Alexander Shestun to understand why.
Shestun, former head of the Serpukhov region south of Moscow, joined local residents to oppose forces pushing to expand another landfill just miles from their homes.
In subsequent private meetings, high-ranking FSB generals warned him that the landfill decision had the backing of Moscow’s new regional governor.
Instead of heeding their warning to back down, Shestun released surreptitiously recorded tapes of their conversations online, documenting the pressure campaign against him in what he claimed was an appeal to President Vladimir Putin.
Within weeks, dozens of masked and armed FSB agents swarmed Shestun’s home, taking him to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison on bribery charges that his family and supporters say were clearly fabricated.
“It was a message to other local leaders: ‘Do you want the same to happen to you as Shestun?’” Yulia Shestuna, the former mayor's wife, told VOA. “It was done to intimidate, and for now, it’s a form of intimidation that’s working.”
In the ensuing months, her husband went on an extended hunger strike, which ended after he was forced-fed by prison officials.
He is expected to go to trial next month.
Reduce, recycle, reform
The Kremlin is under growing pressure over the trash wars.
Putin introduced new waste and recycling reforms this year, acknowledging widespread dissatisfaction with an issue that has been a constant feature of the Kremlin’s often stage-managed interactions with Russian voters.
How serious the reforms, and Putin’s intentions, remain a point of debate.
New government measures call for more incineration rather than recycling — a quick but pollutant-heavy solution criticized by environmentalists.
Moreover, the measures exempt major waste-producing cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg for now.
Trucks bearing urban waste continue to run to neighboring towns and municipalities.
Yet Moscow is, in its own way, pitching in.
The city recently unveiled new blue recycling bins at standard waste collection points near apartment buildings around the city.
As with much in the new Moscow, locals acknowledge the bins are stylish, but questioned their practicality.
“I watch people recycling, but without sorting out anything,” said Natalya, a Moscow resident. “And I am not at all sure that my recyclables will go where they’re supposed to.”
“The bins are there, but the labels aren’t exactly informative,” noted Ivan, another resident.
For now, Sobirator, a volunteer recycling center in one of Moscow’s industrial zones, is one of the few places where Muscovites can learn to recycle responsibly.
“The problem we face is that there’s no trust from the residents that one can really put the recyclables there, and they’ll go where they’re supposed to,” explained Tatyana Vasilyeva of Sobirator.
“The first time I came here, it was such a feeling of relief to know that this garbage won’t occupy someplace, somewhere in the ground, but will be recycled,” added Elena, a local photographer.
Back in Alexandrov, a few rare businesses like Brigantina see commerce in manufacturing products from recycled plastics and bottles.
“I could employ 20 times the people if the government gave us support,” said Vladimir Nizamov, the company’s owner.
Until then, Moscow’s trash mountains continue to grow, dragging Russians to the frontline of a fight it seems everyone wishes they could wipe away.