Report — From the June 2014 issue

Northern Exposure

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

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Everything comes together in the Arctic: oil, nostalgia, and the Russian frontier mentality. The flurry of symbolic gestures toward the nation’s frozen north began a decade ago. In 2004, Russia launched the Arctic Clean-Up Project, aimed at reclaiming the far-flung islands that had once been home to military airports and border outposts and now boasted only debris, abandoned airplanes, and thousands of empty fuel barrels, many of which were leaking toxic substances onto the ice. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov, a member of parliament and the country’s most celebrated explorer, descended in a three-man submersible to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a titanium flag directly beneath the North Pole. (It was a territory-marking gesture worthy of Cortés, and Chilingarov stated its goal without mincing words: “We must prove that the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass.”) In 2009, Putin himself became chairman of the board of the Russian Geographical Society, a 169-year-old organization resurrected and lavishly funded for the purpose of reclaiming what it calls the “Russian Arctic.”

On a barely more pragmatic note, Russia also has its eye on the region’s petroleum. In December, Gazprom Neft Shelf, a subsidiary of the state natural-gas monopoly, began drilling on an industrial scale. This gesture, too, is largely symbolic. Even if production reaches its projected capacity of 48 million barrels a year, it will represent a small fraction of all Russian oil — and a wildly overpriced one, since the estimated cost of extracting a barrel from the Arctic fields is as much as $700, or about seven times what that same barrel will currently fetch on the open market.

Preparing for this highly theoretical windfall, Gazprom towed a drilling platform off the coast of Murmansk in 2011 and anchored it in the Pechora Sea. En route, the Prirazlomnaya platform was technically classified as a ship. Once it arrived, however, it became an “ice-resistant stationary platform” — a distinction that would eventually have great legal significance — anchored in international waters. It was also in what is called the “exclusive economic zone” of the Russian Federation, meaning that anyone can sail in these waters but only Russia can engage in economic activity. This detail would also prove to be important, especially once Greenpeace showed up in the summer of 2012 to protest the planned drilling.

The activists’ first salvo lasted three days and involved scaling the platform to hang banners with slogans like save the arctic and generally making life difficult for the oil company. At one point Greenpeace chained its motorized inflatable dinghy to the anchor of a ship called, lyrically and oddly, the Anna Akhmatova. It was the maritime equivalent of a sit-in, since the ship couldn’t raise anchor without injuring the activists.

The Greenpeace message is simple. Of all the varieties of drilling, the offshore kind is most likely to cause accidents. Of all the countries that engage in offshore drilling, Russia is the most careless in its practices: Greenpeace estimates that about 30 million barrels of oil are spilled or dumped annually in Russia — seven times the amount leaked by BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. And of all the places to have an oil spill, the Arctic Ocean is among the worst, given the difficulty of cleanup and the detrimental consequences for the global environment.

Although eight of the people on board the Greenpeace vessel that summer spoke Russian, they made a point of communicating in English. “We are a peaceful organization,” the voice over the radio kept insisting. That voice belonged to Litvinov, who speaks American English with a perceptible Swedish accent, which colors his Russian as well: it’s as if all his words are passed through a consonant-softening filter. The activists had the distinct impression that their interlocutors did not understand much English. The Gazprom employees threw scrap metal at the activists climbing the platform, aimed water cannons at their boats, and finally called for the Border Guard. By then, however, Greenpeace was done with its first offensive and departed.

The activists, of course, had their own comprehension difficulties. They failed to grasp the nature of the oil workers’ dismay, and the fact that in 2012 Russian society was undergoing a profound transformation. It was the year the prodemocracy movement peaked and collapsed following Putin’s election to a third term as president. On the eve of Election Day that March, three members of the activist group Pussy Riot had been arrested in Moscow for performing what they called a “punk prayer” inside the city’s largest cathedral. While Greenpeace was carrying out its initial protest in the Arctic, the Pussy Riot performers were on trial in Moscow for “felony hooliganism,” and two dozen other Russians had been locked up on criminal charges stemming from peaceful protest. So aside from their puzzlement over Greenpeace’s English-language communiqués, the Gazprom workers were presumably stunned by their very presence. How could a bunch of punks possibly be staging an elaborate mockery of the Arctic oil effort, which was no less important to the Russian national idea than the Orthodox Church?

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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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