«We don’t want Moscow waste here»: successful ecological movement in Shies, Arkhangelsk region
Residents of Urdoma, a small town on the border of Arkhangelsk region and Komi republic, started a protest movement against a huge landfill for waste from Moscow, initiated by the Moscow government and supported by regional elites. Mobilization resulted in the project closure. How could they succeed? How was the movement organized? What social effects did mobilization bring about? Alexandra Barmina conducted a case study of the Shies protest and now answers these questions.
Жители маленького поселка Урдома на границе Архангельской области и республики Коми добились закрытия проекта мусорного полигона, инициированного правительством Москвы и поддержанного региональными элитами. Как у них получилось? Как было организовано движение? Какие социальные эффекты движение имело? Об этом рассказывает Александра Бармина, которая провела кейс-стади протеста на Шиесе
It is July 2018. A resident of a small town Urdoma in the southeastern part of Arkhangelsk region was hunting by the Shies railway station, his usual place. Suddenly he stumbled upon a plot of forest with all the trees cut and several workers operating construction equipment. The strangers told him that this area had been chosen to become a large landfill for waste from Moscow. The construction work had been already in progress. Indeed, in early July land around the Shies station, located 1200 km away from Moscow and rented by the Russian Railway Company, was subleased to the company “Technopark”. “Technopark” was an enterprise subordinate to the Moscow Housing and Utilities Department.
The man returned to Urdoma and immediately shared the story in a local online community in the most popular Russian social media platform – VKontakte. Soon the news about the landfill construction reached all Urdoma residents, then the residents of the Lensky district, and later on the entire Arkhangelsk region. Local residents’ discontent turned into a protest mobilization very quickly. By the end of 2018 the landfill drew attention of the federal media, as well as population of other regions. The other side of the conflict was represented by Arkhangelsk Region government, Moscow government and “Technopark.”
In summer 2019, after the first stage of construction work was finished, construction site was frozen and most of the equipment units were removed from the spot. In January 2020, the Arkhangelsk region’s arbitration court had claimed the buildings at the Shies station were illegally built and ordered “Technopark” to demolish them. Despite appeals from “Technopark”, the project was closed. As by summer 2021, re-cultivation of the territory around Shies station was coming to the end.
Moscow authorities’ decision to move waste from the capital region to the periphery corresponds with the tendency towards uneven distribution of environmental damage, reproduced both at the national and global levels (Peet and Watts, 2004; Heynen et al., 2006; Smith, 2010). Communities living on the periphery are less recognized and, therefore, more exposed to environmental burden and negative externalities. In cases of opposition to “strong groups” – big capital or high-level political elites – local residents often fail to successfully challenge plans for territorial development and protect their interests (Christiaens et al., 2019; Martinez-Alier, 2002).
Here is where the case of Shies stands out: the movement against the landfill ended up with a positive outcome for the protesters. I explain this case of successful mobilization of local residents against the strong interest group based on short ethnography (2,5 weeks), interviews with 14 participants and activists and analysis of media coverage of the conflict (local and federal media as well as social media).
In explaining the successful outcome, I rely conceptually on a synthesis of two approaches in social movement studies – resource mobilization approach and political process theory. In order to perform protest activities and reach a goal, social movements require a set of necessary elements: (1) organizational structure, (2) leaders and (3) resources of several types. These three elements constitute the “movement infrastructure” (Andrews, 2004). In addition, the movement unfolds within the framework of specific political and social contexts that determine the structure of opportunities and barriers for protesters (McAdam 1982; McAdam 1996; Meyer 2004). The movement and the political system mutually shape each other in a temporal perspective (Giugni, 1998). To observe the transformation of the movement infrastructure within a specific context that resulted in landfill project closure I divided the process into phases.
Each of the three phases (graph above) characterizes by a peculiar localization in space, movement infrastructure configuration and dominant repertoires of protest actions. Besides, the political-institutional response to the unfolding movement also varied from one phase to another. Further on, I briefly summarize the salient features of these three phases, focusing on the movement infrastructure and political-institutional context.
Phase one: 3.8.18 – 26.8.18.
People of Urdoma don’t want Moscow waste here
Scene of action at the first phase was the town of Urdoma. The organizational structure of the movement started taking shape, albeit it consisted of two elements only: the activist group “Clean Urdoma,” whose members remained the leaders of the entire movement till the very end, and deputies of the local municipality of Urdoma. The alliance between the activist group and local authorities distinguishes this movement from other cases of mobilization against the unwanted land use projects in Russia. Due to the “power vertical” established in Russia, in most cases “local decisions cannot be made without approval from above” (Shevtsova, Bederson, 2017). I assume such an alliance might be explained by the non-urban localization of the conflict: the structure of local governance in Urdoma is distinguished by a higher autonomy and dense involvement of deputies in the local community.
The repertoire of actions at the first phase was located primarily within the framework of “formal civil infrastructures” (Zhelnina, Tykanova 2019: 166). These actions included sending enquiries to regional and federal authorities and regulatory bodies; raising awareness about the landfill project; holding an authorized protest on August 26, 2018.
Given the local scale of action during the first phase, mobilization of the necessary resources (first of all, material resources for the needs of the protest organization) was not a serious challenge for activists. Generally, the activists I had talked to described Urdoma as a “prosperous” and “affluent” town. The town-forming enterprises, which employ more than half of the adult population, are big Russian oil and gas companies – Gazprom and Transneft, therefore the level of well-being in Urdoma is higher than in neighboring settlements:
Half of Urdoma residents are wealthy retired people. For example, they worked at Gazprom for all their lives and now they receive additional Gazprom pension. They have richly decorated houses.Interview with a movement supporter
This explains high willingness to invest resources in the movement across the population. In addition, the leaders of the movement effectively converted their social capital into the missing resources of various kinds.
The political system did not impose significant restrictions on the development of the repertoire of actions applied in the first phase. First, support of the activist group by the local deputies indicates the early form of division within political elites of Arkhangelsk region, leading to vulnerability of the political system to a challenge. Second, the enforcement system is poorly developed in the district – the police staff in the entire area includes only a few officers – so that protesters did not consider repressions a likely option, even though protests are frequently dispersed with force in Russia. Thus, the activist group and local people managed to fulfill all the actions planned. Still, landfill construction progressed (and gained momentum – more and more heavy equipment for executing construction tasks arrived at Shies station). It was necessary to expand the repertoire of actions and the movement infrastructure.
Phase two: 27.8.18 – 20.12.18.
Little Urdoma was supported by two federal regions
During the second phase the movement scaled up both geographically and organizationally as a reaction to political context change. While at the onset of the conflict regional elites’ strategy was silence and neglect of the activists’ demands, later on political system started to respond to actions of the locals. On October 18th the first official presentation of the landfill project took place at the Arkhangelsk Region government session. The project was granted a “regional priority” status. At the same session, a new law which transfers the authority to change site plans from the municipal level to the regional one was initiated (and three weeks later – implemented), thereby narrowing the window of political opportunities for the protest coalition. Earlier, the municipality intended to change the site plan and include territory around Shies station within Urdoma boundaries; with the new law, the municipality no longer had formal control over the contested land. Yet, despite the legal response to the activists and pressure from the regional government, division within political elites continued: more and more deputies of different levels supported the movement.
After the official presentation and new legislation enactment, the organizational structure of the movement included two important actors as a reaction to project implementation gaining pace: a group of ex-members of Alexei Navalny regional office in Arkhangelsk (the group took a name “Pomorye is not a dump”) and a team of scientists from the Komi Scientific Center. In addition, multiple local activist groups were formed in other parts of the region.
Inclusion of “Pomorye is not a dump” in an organizational structure made it possible to expand significantly the scale of the movement and the resource basis due to the accelerated diffusion of information about construction. The members of this group were experienced in working with social media as well as in organizing and coordinating protest events. Most of the regional protests on the second and third phases were coordinated by “Pomorye is not a dump”. The first mass rally took place on December 2nd with more than 30 000 protesters in 30 towns. Thus, functional expansion of leadership in the movement took place. Still, general representation, strategy setting and sending enquiries remained the task of “Clean Urdoma.”
After the project was recognized a regional priority a group of scientists from the Komi Scientific Center of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences joined the movement. Membership of the scientific community in the organizational network was represented by my informants as providing a significant cultural resource that can increase the legitimacy to the collective demands of the movement:
When your arguments are scientifically unfounded, no one will listen to you. But you have serious academic work supporting your idea, it is a different story.Interview with an activist.
Phase three: 21.12.18 – 15.6.19.
We stood against until the project was closed
The third phase started with innovation in action repertoire: a protest settlement was created at the Shies station. During the second phase “Clean Urdoma” members, residents of Urdoma and neighboring settlements traveled to the station to monitor the construction progress to note all the violations to prepare evidence for official enquiries. By December 2018, activists decided to establish a permanent camp. Very quickly its functions had expanded beyond construction monitoring: the activist group included “direct action” to physically stop the construction. People at the protest camp started blocking fuel supplies. Several times, such blockages turned into confrontations and clashes with Private Security company workers and later state security.
Creation of the protest camp required scaling up the resource base – both human and material resources. Initially resources for the camp infrastructure were provided by Urdoma residents: they donated a lot of money as well as personal items (blankets, tents, warm clothes, heaters) and volunteered in the camp. Later, when the information about the fundraising campaign for the camp was spread by members of “Pomorye is not a dump”, supporters of the movement from the entire Arkhangelsk region, the Komi Republic and other Russian regions also began to invest resources. The number of protesters volunteering at the camp reached 600 people.
With creation of the camp, the movement’s leadership structure became more complex. While “Clean Urdoma” remained the key leader of the movement, and “Pomorye is not a dump” continued to organize mass rallies and conducted an information campaign, several Urdoma residents settled in the camp and took a lead in coordinating activities there.
Expansion of action repertoire and the resource base was a response to the closing window of political opportunities and the intensification of repressive mechanisms by the government of the Arkhangelsk region. Regional elites did not authorize protest activities anymore, including mass rallies, clamped down on the protests by filing charges against activists and physically beating them. Moreover, the regional governor used a tactic of symbolic suppression – in public utterances he referred to the protesters as “political speculators” and “shelupon’” (trash). Though scholars of social movements tend to consider open political system as facilitating to social movements development (McAdam, 1996), the third phase events demonstrate that its closure might also provoke protest activities escalation and innovations in protest repertoires (on reversed effect of repressions on mobilization – see Davenport, 2005).
In defining the end of the third phase of movement infrastructure consolidation I rely on my informants’ narratives on a moment when the movement “began to decline”. Most people referred to the departure of heavy construction equipment from the site in June 2019. Although “Clean Urdoma” publicly announced total victory in January 2021 and a few people remained in the Shies protest camp until early 2021, protest actions came to naught after summer 2019, and struggle continued predominantly at the court.
Scientists as experts in the Shies movement
Although scientists entered into a coalition with “Clean Urdoma” only on the second phase, the need to include them in the organizational network of the movement was discussed by activists from the moment “Clean Urdoma” was established:
This idea […] was recurrently repeated – we need to involve scientists. Nothing can be done without scientific expertise – they must provide a justification for what is going on.Interview with an activist
Environmental scientists from the Komi Scientific Center “took this very seriously, so seriously, I didn’t even expect” (interview with an activist) and created a working group to conduct research on the construction site. Since it is impossible to pick samples and do measurements in the frozen ground, the fieldwork was done in spring-summer 2019. Hence, the report with their analysis and findings was published only after the decision to close the project was announced. This case demonstrates that the way scientific practice is organized – in terms of fieldwork requirements and speed of analysis – might constrain scientists’ participation and role in environmental movements.
Nevertheless, people of Urdoma I talked to had considered scientists’ role in the movement as very important. Albeit people of Urdoma had local expertise on the specificities of the nature of the area, scientific expertise and support was presented by protesters as a necessary resource. Such a high value of scientific expertise is based on two reasons. First, as sociologists of scientific knowledge argue, both ordinary people and political elites are subject to “conservative technocratic normativity” (Jasanoff, 2005; Wynne, 2007). It is particularly the certified scientific opinion that is considered legitimate by the decision-making elites. For this reason, the activists believed that it might be the work of scientists speaking on behalf of nature – in our case, swamps, rivers, plants and fish – that could become an important resource and potentially affect the future of the territory. Secondly, scientific knowledge, especially produced by scholars from natural sciences, is treated as objective, therefore it is the scientists who can provide unbiased solution in a politically tense situation. Thus, the presence of scientific expertise in the organizational structure of the movement was represented as supporting relevance and legitimacy of the movement demands.
So what? Lessons of Shies for the environmental movements in Russia
To sum up my findings, the following conditions had contributed to the overall success of the Shies movement:
- Broad mobilization
- Resourcefulness of residents
- Ramified leadership structure with functional task distribution
- Extended organizational network, including heterogeneous elements
- Beneficial structure of political opportunities in the region and reversed effect of repressions on mobilization
Environmental movements like the one on Shies can trigger significant transformations both on a regional and the federal level and therefore are of interest to social researchers. The successful movement against landfill on Shies had, among others, the following effects.
First, the Shies movement has triggered the process of transformation of Russian civil society in peripheral regions. Before 2018 movements against unwanted land use projects were concentrated predominantly in major cities, whereas only a few cases of successful mobilization in rural areas are known. Yet, following the example from Shies, several environmental movements have emerged in different regions, primarily against landfills. Some movements even used the hashtag #NewShies. Several of the movements’ leaders contacted Shies activists for advice. Since the end of the Shies story its leaders organized a community “We Live Here” – an association that advises movements on the fight against locally unwanted land use projects. Case of successful struggle against interests of such a «strong group» – Moscow government and regional governor – gave confidence that contesting local land might be fruitful elsewhere.
Second, political orientation of the population in Arkhangelsk region (and Lensky district in particular) and the Komi Republic changed radically in the course of the movement:
[before Shies] 10% of the population here were against Vova [short for Vladimir] Putin and 90% supported him. Shies profoundly changed the situation. Now 10% still support Vova Putin and 90% oppose him. That is the Shies effect.Interview with an activist
Activists I talked to named the official presentation as a major turning point, when residents reconsidered their political views very quickly. As one of them put it,
Then [after the presentation] we began to understand that Moscow was only exploiting us […] that Moscow is a metropolis, and all the other subjects of the Russian Federation are colonies […] at first we did not understand this, then we began to notice.
As a result, Lensky district residents demonstrated high level of protest voting during the Constitutional amendments of 2020 vote: more than 50% voted against amendments. This highlights the possible serious political externalities of environmental distribution conflicts.
Finally, the Shies case raised environmental consciousness in the district. Couple of years before the construction started one local resident launched a project on separate waste collection and a few people joined the initiative. However, based on the project leader’s assessment, more than a third of all households in the town started recycling waste after the Shies case. Classes on conscious consumption were also introduced in a local kindergarten of Urdoma.
Alexandra Barmina holds an MA degree from CEU (department “Sociology and Social Anthropology”, ’18) and EUSP (department of sociology, programme “Science and Technology in Society”, ’21). She wrote her MA thesis at EUSP on mobilization against Shies landfill project in Russia.
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