SEASON TWO | EPISODE NINE
WHO ASKED YOU?
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Amy Martin When I arrived in St. Petersburg, the streets were full of music. As I walked down Nevsky Prospekt, one of the city’s main arteries, musicians were busquing on every corner.
St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, with block after block of gorgeous old buildings, and the wide Neva River winding through the center.
That first night I arrived, I wandered around for hours, soaking in the sound of people speaking Russian and watching the crowds sing and dance to the pop-up concerts happening everywhere. I kept thinking: wow. I’m in Russia.
The next day was May 5, 2018: two days before Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration. And, wow. I was in Russia.
Amy Martin OK, I think I’m seeing the protest now. There’s lots of police cars and ambulances gathering, and there’s people carrying a flag. Yeah, this must be the protest group. Here they come.
Protestors Putin vor!
Amy Martin What are they chanting?
Amy Martin Putin, what?
Protestor Putin is our president, vor, thief.
Amy Martin Ah, thief.
Protestor I don’t like Putin.
Amy Martin Why not?
Protestor Because our country is so, bednaya (poor), poor.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I didn’t come to Russia to report on Putin, or these protests. I was on my way north, to learn about the environmental issues playing out in and around the Arctic’s largest city, Murmansk, more than a thousand kilometers away.
But to get there, I had a layover day in St. Petersburg, and that happened to fall on the same day that one of Putin’s strongest opponents, Alexei Navalny, had called for nationwide protests. About a half an hour before I recorded this, Navalny had been arrested in Moscow.
Amy Martin Are you at all afraid, protesting, that you might get in trouble?
Protestor No, I am not afraid to protest. I think all people is not afraid of this.
Amy Martin Several protestors said this – that they weren’t afraid – but they had reason to be. Prior to Putin’s inauguration in 2012, the protests had become violent. Dozens of people were injured, hundreds were arrested, and some of the people detained were held for years.
So the fact that several thousand people were now walking down St. Petersburg’s main drag and shouting anti-Putin slogans was a really big deal. The vast majority looked to be younger than 30. Many were hesitant to talk to me, and those who did wanted to keep it short.
Amy Martin Why are you out here today?
Protestor Because I want democracy not authority, or how do you say, when there is no freedom in country. That’s the main reason.
Amy Martin Yeah. How old are you?
Amy Martin So Putin first came to power when she was just 2 years old, and he’s either been president or prime minister ever since.
Protestors Rossiya bez korruptsii!
Amy Martin As the protesters walked down Nevsky Prospekt, dozens of police cars were constantly zooming past them in both directions, blaring their sirens and flashing their lights. They weren’t stopping anyone, yet. It was just to create a sense of fear and confusion. But the protestors walked on until they arrived at the Palace Square, a huge open area next to the Hermitage, which was once the winter residence for Russian emperors, and is now the city’s biggest tourist attraction.
[MILITARY BAND IN PALACE SQUARE]
A rehearsal was underway in the square for the Victory Day celebration which would happen later in the week. That’s one of Russia’s biggest holidays, marking the end of World War II. Massive red banners were being hung up behind sets of bleachers, while hundreds of soldiers lined up in formation in time with the military band. And on the edge of the square, the protestors gathered, chanting “army with the people, not with the monsters.”
[MILITARY BAND IN PALACE SQUARE AND PROTESTORS SHOUTING: Armiya s
narodom; ya sluzhil c roda. (Армия с народом, не служи уродам.)]
I felt the tension rising. They were now concentrated into one area, facing the soldiers in the square, breaking into chants. This one was especially popular:
Protestors Doloy tsarya.
Amy Martin “Down with the tsar.”
Protestor People means he is like king, and say, “go away.” Yes, and it’s very much, corruption, I don’t know how…
Amy Martin Corruption.
Protestor Corruption, corruption is very much in our country. And we must change this! I think so.
Amy Martin It’s probably obvious already, but I should say here that I can’t speak Russian, so when I heard someone shout something –
– and then everyone start to run, I just ran too, with no idea of what was going on.
Amy Martin Why are people running?
I asked that to the person running next to me, he didn’t understand at first --
Amy Martin Why are people running?
– but then he pointed back behind us, and when I turned to look
Amy Martin Oh!
There were lines of policemen in riot gear moving toward us. I saw them start to grab whoever they could get their hands on, and drag them away.
Amy Martin Over the next hour or so, the protestors and the police engaged in what seemed to me to be a very frightening game of chicken. A phalanx of police would suddenly burst in from one side of this area, and the protestors would run to the other, and wave their flags, and shout things through their megaphones:
Protestor ...ne pervyj, ne poslednij mecyats nashej zhizni I my budem vykhodit’, poka Rossiya ne stanet svobodnoji. Ya prav?
Amy Martin He’s saying: and this is not the first, nor the last month of our lives, and we will continue to come out until Russia becomes free, am I right?
Amy Martin And then another group of armed policemen would appear from another side, and everyone ran again. I kept feeling like I should leave, and like I had to stay to document this. What if someone got beaten, or killed? But when I saw the police grab two people very close to me, maybe 20 yards away, and hurl them to the ground, hard, I felt a surge of panic. I had no support network in the country yet, and if I got locked up, I’d be pretty lost – I needed to get out of there.
As I was about to cross the street, though, a young man approached me wearing a hoodie and jeans like a lot of the protestors. But unlike them, he was eager to talk to me and had perfect English. Where are you from, he asked? Why are you here? I’m from the U.S., I said. Well, what do you think of this, he asked. I don’t think anything, I said, I’m just trying to get out of here. Well, these are good people, but such a brutal government, don’t you think? I felt the hairs go up on the back of my neck.
This guy was clearly trying to provoke me into saying something controversial. I don’t have an opinion, I said, I’m just trying to leave. Where are you going? he said. Where are you staying? I’ll walk with you. No, no, that’s OK, I said, and I hurried away from him, my heart pounding. The Russian Security Forces, called the FSB, almost certainly had undercover officers in this crowd, and this guy was almost certainly one of them.
Amy Martin I found out later that more than 1,600 people had been arrested that day, not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but all across Russia. So, Putin had won his rigged election, and he would be inaugurated a few days later, but some people, many people, had risked everything to come out into the streets and shout, “Down with the czar.”
Amy Martin I wouldn’t normally put so much of my own personal experience into a story, but I’m choosing to share all of this because I think it is very relevant to the larger story here, in two different ways. First, it was a rare opportunity to witness a direct expression of dissent by a group of Russian citizens. And to witness how the state responds when people here dare to speak their minds. Most of these protestors were released within a week, but the consequences of taking this kind of public stand can last much longer than that. It gets you on the radar of the FSB. For instance, one activist I met later told me her family had been questioned after she participated in a demonstration years before.
And secondly, this protest actually has a direct connection to the Arctic. To understand why that’s the case, we have to rewind to the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, and vast quantities of state-owned resources were privatized. Many of those resources were in the Arctic – huge deposits of minerals, metals, oil and gas – which at least on paper belonged to the Russian people. Privatization was supposed to move these resources out of state control and into the free market.
But according to many analysts, there was nothing free or fair about this process. I would say that the foxes were guarding the henhouse, but that doesn’t go nearly far enough – it was more like the foxes were invited in to eat as many hens as they could. Assets were sold well below market value to a group of wealthy tycoons, most of whom had connections to the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin.
This group of opportunists came to be known as “the oligarchs,” and when Putin was elected president in 2000, he essentially made a deal with them: you do things my way, and I’ll let you keep robbing the country. The oligarchs keep huge sums of money hidden in offshore accounts, where it’s making them absurdly rich instead of being taxed or reinvested at home. One recent study says there is more Russian wealth stashed abroad than is held by the entire Russian population inside the country. And many of these people made their billions through investments in companies that extract resources in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, public infrastructure is crumbling in many parts of Russia. Health care is subpar, and the state invests very little in education. The average income per person is about $9,000 a year – compare that to tiny Estonia, a former Soviet republic right next door, where people are making twice as much on average.
And if you dare to question any of this, you’'re putting yourself in the crosshairs of the authorities. Journalists, activists, or anyone who speaks out might get smeared in the state- controlled media which dominates the airwaves, or much worse. Russia’s leading human rights organization says there more than 200 political and religious prisoners in the country right now, and that’s a conservative estimate. Many others who’ve been persecuted have left. Just to give two examples of that: Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading opposition politician, has been poisoned, twice. Masha Gessen, a journalist and gay rights activist, was beaten up outside of parliament after she spoke out against homophobic laws that were passed in 2012. Both fled the country.
So the protest I happened to witness was not a sidebar to the stories I came to report on. It was an initiation into Russia current system of “authoritarian capitalism” – a blend of state oppression and unfettered greed. People here just call it “the regime.” It’s a giant, mostly faceless force that worms its way into almost every aspect of life, including and perhaps most perniciously, the life inside people’s own minds. And it’s growing stronger, by fomenting division and distrust at home and abroad, and trying its best just to frighten people into silence. This has become normal in Russia, and it affects everything here. Including the future of the Arctic.
We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and here are a few things that I did in the Russian Arctic that might surprise you. I had multiple meals at an amazing sushi restaurant. I bought a pair of sunglasses in a shopping mall. I took the city bus every day, and sometimes I took a cab, which is what I’m doing right now with my interpreter for the week, Anna Kireeva.
Anna Kireeva My name is Anna Kireeva, and I live in the Russian Arctic, in Murmansk.
Amy Martin This is the world’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle. It has about 300,000 people. It’s a port city and the governmental center for this region, and Anna has lived here most of her life.
Amy Martin People in my world when I said, yeah, it’s like a city, there’s public transport, they were just like shocked.
Anna Kireeva Ah, so they think of Arctic as, ah, white tundra with reindeers?
Amy Martin Exactly.
Anna Kireeva OK.
Amy Martin Igloos, tiny villages.
Anna Kireeva Well, what can I say, it’s a pity to disappoint people. But no, guys, it’s just the same style of life as you have, but it’s pretty cold here in winter.
Amy Martin So, quick geography orientation here: Russia is the biggest country in the world by a long shot – it’s almost twice the size of Canada, or the United States – and it also has more land in the Arctic than any other country. The eastern-most point in Russia is well east of Japan. Murmansk is eleven time zones to the west, just about 100 kilometers from Norway and Finland. In fact, Anna works for a Norwegian environmental organization. It’s called Bellona, so in addition to serving as my interpreter she’s helping me get educated about the environmental issues in this part of the Russian Arctic. And there are a lot of them.
Anna Kireeva First of all, it’s nuclear and radiation safety because Murmansk is so special in this matter.
Amy Martin By that she means nuclear power plants, a military base for nuclear ships and submarines, and lots of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. But that’s just item number one on her list.
Anna Kireeva It’s Arctic and everything about the Arctic, from the oil and gas to the Northern Sea Route and climate and everything. It’s the renewable sources of sources of energy and green energy technologies. And of course, it’s industrial pollution.
Amy Martin That last item, industrial pollution, is what I wanted to focus on, in part because it runs so counter to our notions of what the Arctic is. We like to think of it as this pristine, untouched place, but Murmansk is a military and industrial hub.
Anna and I stop at the port, and watch massive cranes loading and unloading ships. We cross a footbridge over a maze of train tracks, most of them full of coal. This region is rich in copper, iron, nickel, and many other minerals and metals. And the mining and processing of those resources has resulted in a lot of toxic stuff going up into the air and down into the soil and the water. So that’s partly why Bellona has a presence here: this is a border region and pollution doesn’t need a passport to cross into Norway or Finland.
But there’s a deeper reason why this and other international organizations have a staff in Russia: they’re trying to fill a gap. It’s been very hard for Russians to build institutions that might challenge the state. Human rights groups, a truly free press, and environmental watchdogs, devoted to tracking and publishing all of the various issues playing out up here. Anna said she didn’t really know that much about this stuff until she started working for Bellona, but now she’s gotten informed, and she loves her job.
Anna Kireeva And, if you have asked me about that I don’t know some three, four years ago, I would say it’s a lot of fun. That’s why I’m there for like 16 years. But now, with all this foreign agents and this very difficult situations for NGOs at the moment, you spend much more time trying to do trying to be careful about doing something.
Amy Martin She referring to something called the Foreign Agent law, which was passed in 2012. It requires all non-profit organizations in Russia that receive funding from abroad to be registered as “foreign agents,” and gives the authorities more power to intervene in their affairs, or just shut them down entirely. A look at the list of groups affected by the law says a lot about its intent: it includes Russia’s Committee Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, and many other organizations dedicated to science, media freedom, and open government.
Anna Kireeva You learn how to survive being very critical and wanting to solve the problems without offending decision makers. 10 years ago, I wouldn’t care how they would feel about my criticism. And now I care. Now I try to be, we try to be more diplomatic. But still pushing.
Amy Martin But, the question of how to push, and how much to push, can be pretty dicey. There are journalists who cover environmental issues here – simply writing one critical article isn’t going to cause you too much trouble, probably.
But if you’re too bold too often, you might get slapped with a huge fine on some trumped up, unrelated charge. And if you’re thinking all of this sounds like Soviet times, well, that’s the authoritarian part of authoritarian capitalism.
And the population here has really known almost nothing but authoritarian rule of one kind or another. Anna was born in 1979, which means she spent more than a decade as a Soviet. I wanted details about what that was like. So, we decide to take bus across town, to her old neighborhood.
Anna Kireeva I was a child and I had a very happy childhood. I liked everything, I liked to be Pioneer, I liked all this, ah, school things when you put on the uniform, like for the parade. I don’t know. It was childhood. It was fun.
Amy Martin There’s quite a bit of nostalgia for Soviet times in Russia right now; in fact, there’s a lot of all-out propaganda, promoting that nostalgia. But that is not where Anna’s coming from. She is by no means long for a return of the Soviet Union. But she says it really was a classless society in some ways, and people did feel more unified because of that.
Anna Kireeva Sometimes I behave as a Soviet, because I love everything I learned to love when I was a kid. Like picking up mushrooms and berries, doing pickles, mayonnaise.
Amy Martin Who doesn’t love some mayonnaise? I mean, come on.
Anna Kireeva But no, of course I’m Russian. No no no, I don’t want to go back to the Soviet Union. For sure.
Amy Martin It’s just that as a kid, there was a lot to enjoy about Soviet life. Sometimes even the hard stuff about was kind of fun. As we walk around her old neighborhood, she tells me that at the end of the 1980s, there was a big economic downturn, and sometimes there wasn’t enough food for everyone in the grocery stores.
Anna Kireeva There were big lines of people. Waiting for, I don’t know, cheese or ham or something
Amy Martin She says you could almost always find staples, like cereal or potatoes.
Anna Kireeva But if you want to buy chicken or ham or, l don’t know, cheese. It was a deficit.
Amy Martin So, to get those items, you had to wait in line. Anna’s parents made sure she always had money when she left the house in case something they needed suddenly showed up in the store.
Anna Kireeva So, l think I was 12, I always had the money. If I go from school I passed this supermarket. And every day I go inside to see if they have anything like special. And if they have I was buying it.
Amy Martin The rule was you waited in line and got one of whatever was being sold. But there are rules, and there’s reality.
Anna Kireeva And it was a very interesting thing, because people were trying to buy as much as possible straight away. So there was a rule like – half kilogram of cheese in one hand. And people were queuing several times, in the line, so it was like if you were a kid, you get used to it very fast. Like you say, well I will be after you and then some. I don’t know, another ten meters, you come there, saying, “I’m after you,” and you go back and forth there. And then you come from school two hours later but with cheese and ham.
Amy Martin So you would go up and get some and then hop back in the line.
Anna Kireeva Yes. Yes.
Amy Martin But obviously everybody was doing this, so they knew it was happening.
Anna Kireeva Yes, yes, but come on, the shop assistants, they were also people. But their task was to cut cheese into pieces as fast as possible, so they were not even watching who was taking it. Their task was to watch one hand take one piece.
Amy Martin So would you feel kind of proud when you came home and you’re like, look, I scored four pieces of cheese and a chunk of ham!
Anna Kireeva Yes, yes I was proud.
Amy Martin We cross the street and head towards the apartment where Anna grew up – her mother still lives there. On the way, we pass a big shopping area, with a McDonald’s in it – there are several in Murmansk now – and a building with huge Soviet murals painted on the outside walls. So, in one glance, you can see the golden arches and the hammer and sickle.
Anna Kireeva Oh God. I came back to my childhood.
Amy Martin The predominant architectural feature of Murmansk is definitely the apartment block. In fact, I didn’t see one free standing individual home in the city, although Anna told me there are a few now, out on the outskirts. But the vast majority of people live in these hulking concrete buildings, usually nine or ten stories high. They’re mostly grey, and often quite run down on the outside.
Anna Kireeva We used to play here, and my mom was watching us from in the balcony. Come in.
Amy Martin I ended up going in and out of several apartment buildings during my stay in Murmansk, and the outlines of the experience were always the same. I’d come into a dingy, poorly lit, common area, take a rickety elevator up several flights, and then step out into another dark space, sometimes so dark that I couldn’t see my hand if I held it in front of my face.
But then, I’d find a door into a shared hallway and everything would become cleaner, and brighter. And when I arrived at my destination, and someone opened the door, there was always a warm, spotless, inviting apartment waiting there, and whoever lived there immediately wanted to feed me, and give me tea. It almost seemed like people gave extra care to their private spaces, the part they have some control over, to compensate for the way so much of the public space has been neglected.
Anna Kireeva This is my mom, Gallina.
Amy Martin Amy, nice to meet you.
Anna Kireeva (translating) Nice to meet you too. Please come in.
Amy Martin Thank you. Who’s on television here, Anna?
Anna Kireeva Our president.
Amy Martin It was inauguration day for Vladimir Putin, and the ceremony was on TV.
Anna Kireeva Since it’s his fourth time, he can pronounce the oath by heart.
Amy Martin We switched off the television, and started looking through some old photo albums from Anna’s childhood. In a lot of the pictures, she’s wearing the signature red scarf of the Pioneers, a huge Soviet youth organization, which she describes as kind of like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. There were levels you moved through: first you were an Oktyabryonok, then a Pioneer, and later, in high school, a Komsomol.
Anna Kireeva This was a parade uniform.
Amy Martin OK, and did you have to buy those, or were they like – ?
Anna Kireeva Yes, you are buying it. Absolutely.
Amy Martin But everybody bought them, it wasn’t like anybody said, oh, I don’t want it, or I can’t afford it or whatever. You just bought it if you were supposed to buy it.
Anna Kireeva No, you was obliged to buy it and wear it, regardless to if you want or not. Nobody was thinking in such direction, like, “I don’t want.” Huh, who asked you?
Amy Martin [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin Anna and I had lots of moments like this where I would ask a question, and she would look at me quizzically, and we would realize we’d stumbled upon a cultural difference. Playing the role of the independent American, I, of course, was thinking about individual preferences. But this was the Soviet Union. Personal preferences were not relevant. Like Anna said, who asked you?
Amy Martin Was the Pioneers focused on like outdoor, ah, like was it focused on like being able to start a fire, and put up a tent, and that kind of stuff, the way the Boy Scouts –
Anna Kireeva No no no, it was not. The Pioneers were more about ideology, not something else.
Amy Martin What, so what would be some things that you would learn, in terms of ideology. Like what, what did they teach you?
Anna Kireeva [SILENCE, LAUGHS] No it’s, it’s different. It’s not like if they taught us something special. It was just, they were teaching us this feeling of pride, being a Pioneer.
You know I remember, when we were like younger, Oktyabryonok, with this badge, the best students were the first to be Pioneers, and then they bring you to a classroom, and then there are high school kids and they are Komsomol already, and they ask you there’s some tricky questions and you’re not prepared to it, and I remember we were answering the questions until someone asked – why do you want to be a Pioneer? And then it was such a silence, and then it was a question – why the hell do I want to be a Pioneer? And we were just looking at each other and we didn’t know what to answer. And then the teacher started to help, like, “you want to be a leader of Oktyabryonok….” Yes! We do want to be a leader!
Amy Martin You didn’t really know why you wanted to be a Pioneer. [LAUGHS]
Anna Kireeva No no, they didn’t tell us! They didn’t tell us why we should want it! It was very honorable to be.
Amy Martin You just knew you should want it.
Amy Martin What you learned in Pioneers was that you were proud to be a Pioneer, and by extension, a Soviet. Like Anna said, this was about ideology, not something else. Of course, most young kids in any country would probably have a hard time explaining why they want to be part of any organization, but throughout my week in Murmansk I kept remembering this little story because it was echoed by other people, in different contexts: people talked about being trained to join and follow rules, not to question, or reflect. And they weren’t talking about the Soviet past. They were talking about now.
Amy Martin We say our goodbyes to Anna’s mom, and head back across town on the bus.
Amy Martin What’s your biggest dream? Do you want to go work in a diplomatic position?
Anna Kireeva No no no no, we’re in Russia, I will never – I would love to, but we’re in Russia. I will never be a diplomat after being a foreign agent.
Amy Martin Ahh….
Amy Martin Because Anna works for an environmental organization based in Norway, she’s now tainted. And she is not a revolutionary type; she doesn’t go out and shout slogans in the street. But that doesn’t matter. Her career prospects are forever changed, and all of her communications are monitored. She just assumes the FSB can read any email or listen in on any phone call, if they choose to do so.
But I have to note that is so common in Russia that Anna didn’t even seem to think it was a very big deal. She told me about it casually, over drinks one night. But I was appalled. You don’t have any privacy, I said. She kind of chuckled, and said, “privacy is a very American concept.” But I couldn’t let it go – it’s not fair! – I kept saying. And she looked at me in a way that told me we were having one of those moments again, one of those cultural gaps. “You Americans have this thing where you say, “It’s not fair,!” she said, “and maybe in your country then you can go change something and make it fair, and everything’s fine. This is Russia. We don’t think that way here.”
We’ll have more from Russia, next time.
Nick Mott Production partners for season two of Threshold are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World. Our reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, and by our community of listeners. Make your contribution today at thresholdpodcast.org.
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, Olga Creimer and Alice Harris. Our music is by Travis Yost.