Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
W HEN I HEAR Russians vent about apathy, I always wonder what exactly they wish people
would fight for. And often the conversation turns nostalgic, revealing a determination not
to fight for something new but to preserve what made Russia special in the past. In Mo-
scow I met a thirty-three-year-old activist who leads the Baikal program at Greenpeace.
He scoffed at Putin's submarine stunt: “It's just plain stupid. You cannot see chemical sub-
stances in the water, like you can't see radiation. It's the same thing as standing near a
nuclear bomb and saying, 'Well, I don't see anything.'” I expected the activist, Roman, to
be most emphatic about the environmental damage the plant was causing and how he sees
this kind of pollution as immoral in our day—not that he doesn't believe that—but Roman
was most passionate about something else: how Russia may be letting go of something that
makes people proud. He remembered his teachers in the 1980s preaching about symbols of
Soviet pride, “And Baikal was one of them,” he said. He was disappointed that Russia was
not taking better care of a national treasure. Vassily Zabello, who worked at the polluting
paper mill for twenty-six years, told me he desperately wanted it to close. Like Roman, he
told me he was devastated by the idea that Russia might fail to safeguard a national treas-
ure. If the government can't find a way to bring jobs and support to a city—and if polluting
Baikal is the only answer—then a “great, enormous country [is] acknowledging its help-
lessness.” (At the time of this writing the plant had just been closed again. That, of course,
had happened in the past before the place was brought back online. A union boss from the
plant told the French Press Agency that the closing would create an “abyss of poverty and
S CIENCE was also always a source of Soviet pride. And I was moved by a story about pro-
tecting that legacy in St. Petersburg. Amid all the horrors of World War II, one of the worst
was the German blockade of the city—then known as Leningrad—which cut off food and
supplies and starved hundreds of thousands of people. At a place called the Vavilov Insti-
tute, a dozen scientists were holed up with a large supply of grain that was important for
research into food supplies. Rather than eat any of the grain, they starved to death protect-
ing it. Seven decades later, when I visited, there was a new and seemingly less potent threat:
The importance of these plants was emphasized to me by scientists in Britain and the Un-
ited States. And yet, under a law that allows the government to sell off neglected property,
local officials were considering selling the property to wealthy real estate developers. The
head of the institute's gardens, Fyodor Mikhovich, got wistful when I interviewed him, fo-
cusing not just on the potential loss for science but on what it said about the country. “What
will we, the Russian nation, have to be proud of if we ourselves destroy this?” Then he got
nostalgic, saying that Communist leaders in the Soviet era would never have let this collec-
tion come under threat.
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