SEASON TWO | EPISODE TEN
NICKEL FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Amy Martin I’m on a road trip across the Arctic tundra, way up in far north-western Russia. The landscape is mostly wide open snowy fields, except every once in a while an industrial complex will sort of pop out of nowhere – a plant with a big smokestack, or a mine, and nearby, a small city with Soviet-style apartment buildings. These are company towns, built to support the mines and smelting plants dotted across this region, which is called the Kola Peninsula.
Anna Kireeva When it comes to Kola Peninsula, which is very, very rich in mineral resources, it has the whole periodic system behind the ground.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and this is Anna Kireeva, my interpreter for this trip. You met her in our last episode. We’re on our way to the town of Nikel, so-named because of the enormous nickel mine and smelting plant there, which have been in operation since the middle of the 20 th century. Smelting, by the way, is just using extreme heat to extract metal out of a larger chunk of rock. Every day for decades, workers there have been digging up nickel and blasting it with heat in giant ovens – and there’s still a lot more in the ground. The operations are owned by a company called Norilsk Nickel.
Anna Kireeva Norilsk is the name of the company, it has two branches in Russia, it has two working sites. One in Norilsk, and one in Murmansk region.
Amy Martin Let’s zoom out here for a minute and get oriented. The town of Nikel, where we’re going, is just seven kilometers from the Norwegian border. Norilsk, where this company was founded, is way east of here, over in central Siberia. And it has a very dark history. It started out as a prison camp, or gulag, as they were known in Soviet times. Between 1935 and 1956, more than 400,000 people were forced to work in the Norilsk mines in horrible conditions, and the majority of them were political prisoners.
This happened under the rule of the Soviet Union’s most infamous dictator, Josef Stalin. More than a million people died in his gulags. So that’s how this company, Norilsk Nikel, was built: on slave labor, essentially. It’s now one of the wealthiest companies in Russia, with an estimated worth of more than 16 billion dollars, and it’s also one of the Arctic’s biggest polluters.
Norilsk Nikel pollutes in a variety of ways, but probably the biggest problem is sulfur dioxide. It’s released into the air during the smelting process, where it reacts with water in the atmosphere, and then comes back down to Earth as acid rain, killing plants and damaging the soil and the water. For humans, sulfur dioxide is most dangerous before it bonds with water, right when it comes out through the smokestack. Just like the three smokestacks we can see towering over the town as we arrive in Nikel.
Amy Martin There’s a festival underway as we pull into town, a reenactment of some World War II events, and a celebration of Soviet music. A few hundred people have gathered to watch their neighbors take turns at the mic, singing the old Soviet hits.
There’s a whole lot that’s pretty surreal about this scene. The big red Soviet flag fluttering in the breeze over the stage area. The kids playing on the anti-tank gun parked nearby. And the behemoth of a factory in the background, spewing a dark cloud out of one of its three giant smokestacks. This town has been built right next to the plant – you could walk to it, easily. About 12,000 people live in Nikel, and almost every family has someone who works in the mine or the smelter. A group of friends are listening to the music on a park bench and we stop to talk. They say this community is a tight knit, tough group of people.
Man (Anna translates) We were born here. Our parents came to Nikel to rebuild the town, the settlement, after the Second World War. Because everything was destroyed. And the country needed nickel, and the production.
Amy Martin Nickel’s most common use today is in the production of stainless steel – it adds strength and resists corrosion. But experts say the nickel market is being transformed by demand for electric vehicles, because it’s a key component in the batteries for those cars.
Amy Martin Are you worried about the pollution coming from the plants? It looks like a lot of smoke coming out.
Woman (Anna translates) We are concerned about it. Sometimes very concerned about it.
Amy Martin This woman and her husband were pushing their eight month old baby in a stroller through the crowd. She’s a hairdresser. He didn’t want to say what he did for a living, and Anna had recommended that I shouldn’t press people for their names.
Amy Martin Can you do anything when you’re concerned, is there anyone you can complain to, to make it decrease?
Man and woman (Anna translates) No, we are not complaining about that. Actually this pollution and the decision to do anything about pollution depends on administration, not on people who live here.
Amy Martin Do you think most people are also worried, other, your neighbors and family?
Woman (Anna translates) I think that everyone who lives here is concerned about the pollution. But mostly because of kids. We’re grown ups, we are pretty much resistant, but the kids.
Amy Martin The effects of sulfur dioxide on plants and soil are pretty obvious. There’s a huge dead zone around Norilsk, the former Siberian gulag. Forests there have been degraded for more than a thousand square miles, and the Green Cross of Switzerland has twice listed it as one of the top ten most polluted places in the world. But sulfur dioxide is bad for people, too. One analysis in 2002 looked at about 400 studies that examined the health effects of sulfur dioxide around the world.
These studies came from sites like pulp mills, refrigerator plants and smelters – including Nikel – and the authors found that exposure to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide can lead to chronic respiratory issues. A more recent study also found dangerously high levels of heavy metals in people in the whole Murmansk region. And the closer you live to a smelter, the higher your risks, the study said.
Two older gentlemen are hanging out toward the edge of the crowd – one of them says he works in the mine, and when I ask him how it is, he says, “I don’t complain.” He’s also pushing a stroller with a baby inside. He says it’s his grandson.
Amy Martin What are your hopes for your grandchild?
Man (Anna translates) I want him to grow up a good person. And of course, I want him to live in a peaceful time.
Amy Martin Yeah.
Amy Martin So, what is up? Why has this company been allowed to spew pollution onto these people for generations?
Amy Martin Well, the president of Norilsk Nickel is a man named Vladimir Potanin. He’s a billionaire many times over, and he’s widely given the credit, or the blame, for devising the corrupt scheme of privatization in the early 1990s that transferred massive amounts of Russian resources into the hands of a small group of people with access to political leaders. And Potanin has kept himself in proximity to power: he’s on the so-called “Putin list,” a list of 96 oligarchs with close connections to Putin, created by the U.S. Treasury Department in response to Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. So Potanin has been allowed to become absurdly rich – he has multiple jets and yachts, ownership stakes in other companies – while the mines and plants he owns continue to pollute.
The company has recently closed one of its worst-polluting plants in Norilsk, and they say they plan to make improvements here in Nikel, too. Potanin has made statements about how he’s doing his civic duty now. But only someone deeply insulated from reality could congratulate himself over plans to clean up stolen assets, when he could have done it decades before and saved countless people from disease and untimely death. But, you know, he was busy. Lots of yachts to keep track of.
[SIDE OF THE ROAD BY THE SMELTER]
We’ve driven five minutes away from the town center and pulled over on the side of the road, next to the smelter. Anna points out one of the craziest things about it: a ton of the pollution isn’t coming out of the smokestack – it’s just billowing out of the factory building itself. It’s so old and run down that there are smoky clouds leaking out of every available crevice. We were there in May, and there was still a lot of snow on the ground, but where it had melted, we could see that the ground was black. Anna says, in the summertime, you can see a big ring around the plant where nothing grows. Another dead zone, like the one around Norilsk.
So, in a nutshell, the history of Norilsk Nickel goes like this: phase one, gulag. Phase two, ordinary state-owned company, but not a prison camp. Phase three, controlled by private investors, many of whom are the current authoritarian leader’s close allies. But through it all, one thing has stayed constant: power has remained concentrated at the top, with devastating consequences for the ecosystem and ordinary people.
We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold. I’m Amy Martin, and we’re going to broaden out from the pollution problems in Nikel now, because Norilsk Nickel is just one of many companies cashing in on the resources in the Arctic with little to no oversight.
Here’s just a small sample of some of the other environmental stories unfolding in the Russian Arctic: the world’s biggest liquefied natural gas plant has been built in north-central Siberia, threatening the future of the Nenets, an indigenous reindeer herding culture. [DING] There are huge oil and gas developments in the eastern part of the country, too. [DING] There’s the offshore oil drilling that we talked about a few episodes ago. [DING] There’s deforestation [DING] – that’s more in the sub-Arctic – and related habitat loss for creatures like the Siberian tiger. [DING]
And all the climate change stories we’ve been talking about throughout this season are of course happening in Russia too – permafrost thaw, sea ice loss [DING, DING] – honestly, the list of important stuff happening in the Russian Arctic just goes on and on. But we almost never hear about it. It’s a place that needs a lot more journalists asking a lot more questions. It’s a place that needs Thomas Nilsen.
Thomas Nilsen Yeah, I’ve been there more or less traveling in the northern part of Russia for the last 30 years.
Amy Martin Thomas is Norwegian, he lives in the town of Kirkenes, which is just over the border from Russia. He’s been reporting in the Russian Arctic for decades, and he’s currently the editor of The Barents Observer, an online newspaper which covers northern Scandinavia and north-west Russia. They publish in both English and Russian.
Thomas Nilsen We can help the rest of the world understand what’s happening up here. To go to the oil field or out to the areas and talk to the people living in the countryside or in the Russian Arctic, the indigenous peoples on the tundra and so on.
Amy Martin But, Thomas isn’t going back to Russia any time soon.
Thomas Nilsen I would love to go back to Russia tomorrow morning, but we had a situation a year ago in March 2017 when I was on one of my ordinary entries into Russia, this time with a delegation from the Danish parliament, but then I stopped at the border, taken aside, brought into a back room with a lot of officers who very politely but still very strong, told me that I am no longer wanted in Russia.
Amy Martin He was told he poses a threat to Russia’s national security. But, exactly what that threat was, was a complete mystery to Thomas – and, he thinks, even to the officers who detained him.
Thomas Nilsen I could read out of their faces that they, they didn’t know why, there was just a message coming up on the passport control computer when I tried to enter. So I had to hitchhike back a few hundred meters back to the Norwegian side of the border, and has not been in Russia since then.
Amy Martin You must have been shocked.
Thomas Nilsen Yes, I was surprised. I didn’t expect that, I have all, my papers in order of my journalist visa, my accreditation to work as a reporter in Russia. I’ve not even got a speeding tickets in Russia over this 30 years.
Amy Martin A few days after he was kicked out of the country, the Russian embassy in Oslo issued a press release, saying he was on the so-called “stop list.” But they still weren’t saying why.
Thomas Nilsen I haven’t violated any visa regulations or any other Russian laws or regulations, not, not one single time violated any of those. So I’m, I’m taking FSB to court trying to find out why I am denied entry to Russia. And secondly, to get back my right to do my job as a journalist on Russian territory.
Amy Martin The FSB is the Russian Federal Security Service. Much like its Soviet predecessor, the KGB, it operates mostly in secret, and it has a shocking amount of power to surveil ordinary Russian citizens. The head of the FSB reports directly to the president. So when an independent journalist like Thomas says he is suing the FSB, it’s so audacious, it’s almost funny.
Amy Martin How does one take the FSB to court?
Thomas Nilsen That’s the main, that was the first question. First of all, who denied me access to Russia?
Amy Martin Just finding that much out took three court cases. But eventually Thomas got confirmation, the FSB was responsible, and with help from a lawyer in Moscow, his case got a hearing. Of course, he wasn’t allowed to be there for any of it, since he was still banned from the country.
Thomas Nilsen The judge did a good job, they listened to both parties arguments and and so on, but then came the surprise. The ruling by the court was kept secret. I am not allowed to enter Russia, but the arguments and the reasons why I am not allowed to enter Russia is kept secret from my lawyer to read. So that, that is a clear violation of the Russian constitution.
Amy Martin Thomas appealed the ruling, and it went all the way to the Russian Supreme Court. But, the Supreme Court ruled that the FSB was right. Thomas does pose a threat to Russia, and the courts don’t have to turn over the FSB’s reasoning on what that threat is. But he’s not stopping. He’s now taking the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
So, what is this all about? Thomas has a hunch.
Thomas Nilsen Every society that has leaders who are on the paths of totalitarian systems are afraid of the freedom of speech. They are afraid of free journalism. So, I think that the main reason why the media in Russia and also the Barents Observer here covering cross-border issues with Russia is under attack is because they’re afraid.
Amy Martin Thomas says there are other European journalists who travel in Russia, and report on corruption and repression by the Kremlin – but very few publish in Russian, with the express intention of trying to provide independent journalism to the Russian people.
Thomas Nilsen We are the only newspaper in northern Scandinavia that is publishing in the Russian language, and we have thousands of readers on the Russian side of the border.
Amy Martin And even though The Barents Observer is tiny – they have a full-time staff of two – Thomas says this wasn’t the first time they’ve been harassed. In 2014, officials accused the Observer of being a mouthpiece for the Norwegian government. And that same year, the FSB directly requested that Norwegian officials close the paper down.
Thomas Nilsen This Norwegian officials responded that ah, that’s not the way it work in Norway. We have the media freedom and authorities never interfere into the media.
Amy Martin For Thomas, this fight is about a lot more than his own personal freedom to report in Russia. Putin began cracking down on independent journalism almost immediately after being elected for the first time, in 2000. And reporters who write stories challenging him or his policies have a tendency to die under mysterious circumstances.
As a recent example: in July of 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central African Republic while reporting on Russian soldiers being sent there to work for hire – a scheme with potential Kremlin connections. And when a Russian activist attempted to investigate their deaths, he was poisoned. He’s still alive, but many others like him are not.
The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Russia as number eleven on its Global Impunity Index, meaning when Russian journalists are killed or attacked, it’s rare for anyone to be held accountable. All of this has huge implications for Russians first and foremost, but Thomas says it also matters to anyone who cares about the future of the Arctic.
Thomas Nilsen We have to remember that half of the Arctic is Russia. And half of Russia is Arctic. And the majority of the population living in the circumpolar Arctic actually are on the Russian side of the border.
Amy Martin It sounds like it’s pretty difficult to actually tell the story of this huge, huge part of the Arctic. What do we lose by not knowing more? Like how can that affect, I don’t know, what decision making policy international relations, by just not having the information?
Thomas Nilsen I think the most untold stories that we really want to, to travel and do onsite reporting on are the consequences for the locals living in areas where big oil is moving in, or where the military start to rebuild their areas their camps, or airports, and naval facilities and so on. So the media’s role of being the voice of like, indigenous reindeer herders, that is what, what I’m most scared that we are we are we are lacking.
Amy Martin They could just get wiped off the map and we would never really–
Thomas Nilsen We will most likely not realize it before it’s too late for, for many of them. So. And that is that is what journalism is all about. It’s about being inside and being able to see a story from different perspectives and that is the more difficult to do today in northern Russia.
Amy Martin Being in Russia made me think a lot about the power of the gaze – who is the watcher, and who is the watched. The regime has eyes and ears everywhere; if they want to know what you’re up to, they will. And just the threat of that invasion is powerful – people change their behavior and even their thinking when they feel scrutinized. And that’s exactly why the authorities don’t want anyone watching them. And especially not people who are gonna bear witness and then share those stories with the Russian people.
Elena I’m a patriot. I think I love this place and I love this country. And I know it. That’s why I love it. So I know it’s bad sides and I know it’s good sides.
Amy Martin We’re going to call this person Elena: she didn’t want me to use her real name. I’m talking to her back in Russia.
Amy Martin Does this feel like a democracy?
Elena No, of course not. I think we are not free here, really.
Amy Martin When I ask Elena for examples of that lack of freedom, one of the first things she says is the regime’s control over the media. She says the silencing of journalists is only one part of the story; they have much more subtle methods as well. For instance, she believes they’ve created some channels that appear to sometimes challenge the authorities.
Elena But they’re not really opposed to Putin, so–
Amy Martin It’s like a show.
Elena Yes. It’s like a show for his purposes.
Amy Martin She says it’s all about giving the impression that opposition voices are tolerated.
Elena You know when when people realize that they have no choice and they have no right, they can become angry and to prevent it, they started to create something that is a bit different from the mainstream. And it gives a sort of feeling that there is some choice really, but it’s not actually a choice.
Amy Martin It’s the same scheme which many analysts say Putin uses in elections: make a list of candidates so that people feel like they have the power to choose.
Elena Well, this is what I believe, that it’s a kind of a marketing thing. Giving them a sense that they have a choice, but they really don’t.
Amy Martin Elena is totally opposed to Putin and she would like to go out to the street and make her voice heard, but–
Elena I feel that I really can’t go because if I go, it will have an impact on my relatives maybe or it can have an impact on my health and my well-being. So.
Amy Martin How could it have an impact on your health?
Elena Well..I don’t really know. I don’t really know. What are the conditions. For those people who were caught during the demonstrations. And I don’t really understand where these people are taken, and what are the conditions they’re kept in. Maybe they are not given food. I can easily expect it actually because authorities try to do their best to prevent people doing it again. So they just scare people to death, and they can beat people. So it’s a direct threat.
Amy Martin And she feels that threat in other ways, too. For instance, around the Victory Day parade that happened a few days before we talked. This is when the country marks the end of World War II, which they call the Great Patriotic War. More than 26 million Soviet citizens died in that war, and more than half were civilians. The suffering was horrific. No country lost more people. So it makes sense that Russians would mark this day in a big way. But Elena wants to mark it as a day of mourning, not celebration.
Elena Because this holiday remains a sad for me. It’s just it’s all about killing people during the war. It’s all about people who were lost.
Amy Martin But she feels like day has been co-opted by the Putin regime – it’s being turned into a showcase of military power, she says, and charged up with nationalist rhetoric – and she doesn’t want any part of it. But she works for a state-owned company, and she says it was made very clear that all employees would be going to the parade. And she was questioned about her attendance the next day at work.
Elena Somebody asked me, ”Well, were you there?” And I said yes, I was. “I didn’t see you.” And then I told, yes, I was standing over there. “Oh OK, and do you know that these people left?” So it was like, it was weird.
Amy Martin Yeah, how does that make you feel?
Elena Oh, I don’t know. Maybe just not free enough. We’re supposed to do something that we don’t really want, and we even don’t realize properly that we don’t want to do that. That’s a problem.
Amy Martin What do you mean.
Elena I mean we don’t ask ourselves sometimes whether we really want to do this or we just have to. And we go.
Amy Martin Because if you ask yourself and you discover you don’t want to go, then
you have a conflict.
Elena Yes. Then it would be even more difficult to go.
Amy Martin So you’re saying it’s almost like there’s internal censorship.
Amy Martin This is one of the effects of authoritarian power that I find the most disturbing: the way it messes with your head, and makes it hard to fully know your own mind, let alone speak it. Creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear is a powerful means of control, and it comes straight out of the Stalin playbook.
During his 30-year rule, Josef Stalin killed 20 million people – almost as many Soviet citizens were killed at the hands of their own leader as were killed during World War II. But lately, Putin has been trying to soften Stalin’s image in the country, and by many accounts, it’s working. When I asked one Russian man about his opinions on Stalin, he said, “Well, you know, this is a really big country. Maybe we needed a strong leader.”
Amy Martin Do you have hope for Russia?
Elena No, I think no. No, not for next 20 or 30 years at least. So I’ll be 66, and maybe I’ll have hope, my gosh.
Elena It’s too serious and too big to be changed quickly. Not for now not for this generation I’m afraid. Maybe, maybe a bit later.
Amy Martin Elena’s great-grandfather disappeared under the Stalin regime – he was living in a small village, and he just didn’t come home one night. He left a wife and three young girls behind, ages 5, 8 and 12. One of those girls was Elena’s grandmother, and her life was forever changed. She and her two sisters had to go to work in the fields to support the family, and they never saw their father again. I asked Elena why her great-grandfather had been targeted. Was he organizing the opposition or something? She said no. The problem was that he was smart. He had ideas for improvements, and he was becoming a leader in his small community. He had a mind of his own, and in the Stalin era, that was dangerous.
It’s increasingly dangerous in today’s Russia too. And that means some of the most important things happening in the Arctic are going unseen and unquestioned.
Nick Mott Season two of Threshold is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World. And by our listeners. You can support our show by going to thresholdpodcast.org and click “donate.”
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to Vitaly Akimov, Tim Andersson, and Olga Creimer. Our music is by Travis Yost.
And in our next episode, we travel to northern Canada to hang out with some Inuit rockstars.
James Life is too hard without music.
That’s next time, on Threshold.