Report — From the June 2014 issue

Northern Exposure

Protest, petroleum, and Putin’s dream of a Russian Arctic

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If ever there was a person born to end up in a Russian prison, it was Dima Litvinov. The grandson of one of the most eloquent writers to emerge from Stalin’s gulag, and the adopted son of a dissident, he got his first taste of the Soviet penal system when he was six years old. In 1968, his stepfather was exiled to Siberia. Litvinov joined him there, spending the next several years in a remote mining village.

The family returned to Moscow in 1972 and was soon forced to emigrate to the United States. Here Litvinov grew up, got a master’s in anthropology, and eventually landed a job with Greenpeace. In 1990, he joined the crew of a Greenpeace ship sailing to the Arctic to protest the continuation of nuclear testing near the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. The ship was seized by the Russian Border Guard as it approached Murmansk. Litvinov’s grandfather, Lev Kopelev, then living in Germany, told journalists the boy was maintaining a proud family tradition: he was the third generation to go to jail for a good cause.

Illustrations by John Ritter

Illustrations by John Ritter

As it happened, Litvinov and his shipmates did not go to jail. The matter was resolved quickly, following a burst of international protest, and everyone was released to a triumphant round of handshakes and media interviews. This is how it usually works with Greenpeace. There are, of course, exceptions: in 1985, French intelligence bombed and sank the organization’s flagship, Rainbow Warrior, while it was docked in Auckland, New Zealand. One crew member died. Yet the ship’s captain, an American named Peter Willcox, recently told me that he had been more energized than traumatized by the attack: “A bunch of hippies in an old boat had scared a First World government so much they wanted to bomb us.”

Willcox went right back out to sea for Greenpeace, and for nearly three decades the worst thing he suffered in this line of work was his disappointment at failing to get the environment cleaned up as efficiently as possible. Then, last September, the organization’s Arctic Sunrise was seized off Murmansk. All thirty people aboard, including Litvinov and Captain Willcox, were detained. This time, the initial wave of international protest did not dislodge the team from custody. Instead they were dispersed to an assortment of chilly cells and threatened with sentences of up to fifteen years.

And there they might have remained, had it not been for the Sochi Olympics. Vladimir Putin, seldom one to fret over bad publicity, was uncharacteristically eager to clean up Russia’s image in advance of the games. At his behest, a parliamentary amnesty was declared and all charges against the so-called Arctic 30 dropped. On December 27, more than three months after the ship was seized, Litvinov returned home to Stockholm, Willcox headed for Maine, and the rest of the Greenpeace prisoners rejoined their families. It was, to be sure, a happy ending. Yet it shouldn’t obscure the fact that more than two dozen people had been held hostage by the Russian state after being kidnapped in international waters, that only a lucky confluence of pressure and politics prevented the ordeal from lasting years, and that no such luck is in store for the Arctic itself.

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is the author of six books, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.

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