On 18 September 2013, 30 Greenpeace activists who attempted attempted to scale a drilling platform to protest against Arctic oil production, were arrested by the Russian authorities, and their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, seized. Here’s an account of the ‘Arctic 30’s ordeal in a Russian jail, which raises questions about the future of the environmental movement.
Almost from the start of the international oil boom of the late 19th century, Russia was a major player. The city of Baku, now in Azerbaijan but then a southern outpost of the empire, was producing half the world’s oil in 1900, and though it lost market share during the years of revolution and civil war, Russia remained an oil power through the Soviet era. Soviet geologists discovered oil in the Volga-Urals basin and then, most rewardingly, in western Siberia. The Samotlor field, discovered in 1965, was one of the largest in the world, and its oil would subsidise Soviet military and social programmes throughout the period of late socialism, right up until the collapse of world oil prices in 1985. In a lesson about oil dependence that was quickly forgotten, the price collapse was followed by the collapse of the entire country.
Since 1991, two things have happened to Russian oil. First, as the Russian economy was opened up to global competition, hydrocarbons became not less but more important: no one wanted Russian cars or electronics or Russian shoes, but Russian oil was pretty much as good as any other. And so the great post-Soviet fortunes were largely oil fortunes. It was oil that paid for Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea football club, and it was oil that paid for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s attempt to mount a challenge against Vladimir Putin. Most important of all, it was oil that paid for the Russian economic “miracle” of the Putin era, when oil prices rose steadily for years on end, and Russian living standards with them, and Putin got all the credit.
The second thing that happened was that the western Siberian oil fields started to run dry. In fact many of them were past their prime by the late 80s, and it was only aggressive western specialists in “tight oil” (light crude oil found in shale and rock formations), hired by people such as Khodorkovsky, who managed to get everything out of them that they could. Nonetheless, the resource was finite.
One thing that failed to happen was any major new discoveries. In the uncertain legal climate, if you happened to gain control of an oil company, you’d have to be crazy not to pump all the oil you could from existing wells before someone came and took your company away from you. What’s more, the Soviets had done a good job of covering the country. There may not be another western Siberia or Baku.
The one exception – the bright spot for Russian oil – was the Arctic. Thanks to global warming, the Arctic was no longer as forbidding as it had once been, and oil companies could start exploring there. In 2007, the state-owned oil and gas giant Gazprom announced that it had found oil in the Pechora sea, a small stretch of water between the Russian mainland and the archipelago Novaya Zemlya. And in 2011, Russian oil company Rosneft, which is majority owned by the Russian government, announced that it was going to start exploring for oil even further north, in the Kara sea, with its new best friend, Exxon Mobil. Arctic oil was the Russian regime’s best hope of staving off an oil production decline and the untoward political consequences that could follow.
Into this cauldron of national hubris, hope and jitters plunged a brave crew of Greenpeace activists, determined to try to stop Gazprom from drilling in the Arctic. Their plan was to climb on to the massive Prirazlomnoye oil platform in the Pechora sea, set up shop, and communicate their message to the world: “Save the Arctic.”
It didn’t work out as planned. The Russian coastguard was aggressive in preventing more than a brief sortie at the platform, and the Russians didn’t stop there. They demanded to be let aboard the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise (painted green, with a pretty rainbow running up the prow), and fired warning shots when the Sunrise’s captain refused. Eventually, masked Russian commandos abseiled on to the ship from a helicopter. They took control of the Sunrise and brought it to nearby Murmansk. There, the activists and crew of the ship, plus a photographer hired by Greenpeace to document the direct action, were thrown in jail and charged with piracy, a crime carrying a potential 10-15 year prison sentence under Russian law.
Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg by Ben Stewart, the head of media for Greenpeace, is a fast-paced account of these events and the months in jail that followed. Based on interviews with the activists and told in a “you are there” style, in the present tense and with reconstructed dialogue, the book does not make you want to go to jail in Russia. The “Arctic 30”, as the crew and activists were dubbed by Greenpeace, were held mostly in Murmansk’s SIZO‑1 detention centre, where they were scattered among the local prison population. The prisoners themselves were pretty nice, but the food was bad and the interrogators were sadists. The fact that most of the Greenpeace activists spoke no Russian didn’t help.
At the same time, the international outcry spurred by the arrest of 30 peaceful protesters brought more attention to the issue of Arctic oil drilling than Greenpeace could ever have hoped. Members across the globe kept up the pressure: in Germany, activists chained themselves to pumps at Gazprom-branded gas stations, shutting them down for a day; in Basel, Switzerland, they climbed on to the roof of a football stadium with a huge Greenpeace banner during a Champions League match to protest against Gazprom’s sponsorship of one of the teams. “Free the Arctic 30,” read the banner. “Gazprom. Don’t foul the Arctic.” The match was temporarily halted. If people, including football fans, did not previously know that Gazprom was drilling in the Arctic, now they knew.
After three months of intense international pressure, the activists were released on bail and granted amnesty alongside Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky just in advance of the Sochi Olympics. Stewart’s book ends with several of them trying to stop a Russian tanker from docking in Rotterdam with the first batch of oil from the Prirazlomnoye. Here they are confronted by some Dutch commandos, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as Russian commandos. Stewart doesn’t say whether the activists were successful in stopping it, but he doesn’t have to. No doubt the oil was delivered, taken up into the bloodstream of global capitalism, and quickly used up and forgotten.
Was the original Prirazlomnoye action a failure, then, and did the activists spend three months in a Russian jail in vain? This is a difficult question to answer. Though you can’t expect Greenpeace’s head of media to spend too much time dwelling on it, Stewart acknowledges that some activists felt Greenpeace had not adequately thought through the possible repercussions of an action against a Russian oil platform. Either that, or Greenpeace knew exactly what was going to happen, and believed, without consulting the activists themselves, it was worth it.
Whatever one thinks of these doubts, they bring up a much knottier question. Historically Greenpeace has chosen western targets: the US military and its nuclear testing, western oil majors, Norwegian whalers. Unsurprisingly, some of these organisations have not been happy about it. Greenpeace has been harassed, attacked, smeared, sued and worse. In the best-known incident, in 1985, the French secret services planted two mines on a Greenpeace ship, killing a photographer who was on board.
Nonetheless, over time, certain ground rules have been established. Funding a thinktank to call for an IRS audit of Greenpeace, as Exxon Mobil recently did, is within the rules; outright violence is not. The question is what happens when, because of technology transfer and changes in the world economy, some of the worst environmental offenders are to be found in places that don’t really acknowledge these rules. The Greenpeace office in India is increasingly under siege, and there is still one in Moscow, though it’s hard to imagine that it will be around for long. Oil powers Saudi Arabia and Venezuela do not currently host offices of the international environmental organisation. Neither does Iran.
Given this situation and their experience in Russia, Greenpeace could decide to pull back again to the west – there are certainly enough environmental criminals here to keep them busy. They could also decide, more problematically, to become the kind of NGO that tries to push less democratic governments into a more strenuous dialogue with their citizenry, in which case in the coming years we are likely to see more arrests, and more pleas for the release of the South China Sea 40 or the Kaziranga 15.
The mistake that must not be made is to think that the story of the Arctic 30 is primarily a story about Russia. It’s not. There are many people interested in drilling in the Arctic, and even more people interested in consuming what’s drilled there, and only a few of them are Russian. An interesting subplot in the story of the Arctic 30 underlines this, because one of the leading activists was Dima Litvinov, the son of the well-known Soviet dissident Pavel Litvinov (and great-grandson of Stalin’s first foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov). In 1968, when the Soviet Union sent tanks to Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, Pavel Litvinov and a small group of friends went out into Red Square to protest. They were quickly arrested, and Pavel was eventually forced out of the country. Speaking to Stewart nearly 50 years later, he compared his son’s activism to his own.
“We both wanted to speak up for somebody who was attacked … In my case we spoke in defence of a small country, Czechoslovakia, which was suddenly oppressed by its big neighbour. And in the case of Dima he was speaking for the Arctic, which also didn’t have its own defence, and to some degree the defence of the Arctic is a metaphor for the defence of humans and human rights. It is our life, because if the Arctic cannot survive then neither can we.”
Meet the Arctic 30
The crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise took part in a peaceful protest at Gazprom’s oil rig to call attention to the threat of oil drilling and climate change. The ice is retreating and oil companies are moving north to drill for the same stuff that’s driving that melting in the first place. It’s madness. These brave activists looked at the scientific evidence of man made global warming and the threat it poses to the Arctic, and decided to do something about it.
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