ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 3/2023 The summer of 2018 marked the onset of a two-year-long protest campaign against the proposed landfill which aimed to accommodate Moscow's municipal solid waste (MSW) near the Shies railway station in the Southeast of the Arkhangelsk oblast’ at the border with the Komi Republic. The Moscow authorities decided to send around 2 million tonnes of its MSW 1200 kilometres away, promising to invest 8 billion roubles in Arkhangelsk oblast’ in exchange – a plan that provoked the ire of residents from both regions. They lamented that while the region contributes its taxes and profits from natural resources to the capital, it receives rubbish in return – a fact they found humiliating. Thousands of people took to the streets in dozens of towns in the Northwest of Russia and even in other regions, and after two years of contention the activists won, and the project was cancelled.
The Shies protest exemplifies environmental inequality – a situation in which environmental benefits and burdens are unevenly distributed based on various social, spatial and economic characteristics. In the Russian case, the central authority is reaping the benefits, while the periphery is bearing the economic and environmental burden. Despite possessing a significantly larger budget, Moscow opted to address its waste management issues at the expense of distant territories. When I interviewed activists from the region, they frequently drew comparisons between the treatment of the Arkhangelsk oblast’ and the Komi Republic and that of a colony of Moscow.
In the context of Russia, some researchers use a concept of ‘internal colonisation’, which Alexander Etkind defines as “culture-specific domination inside the national borders, actual or imagined”. Modern Russia is a federal state, but in practice it functions as a unitary one, with a disproportionally powered centre that enjoys more benefits than other regions. Seeing such contrast between the centre and the periphery, people living outside Moscow can experience deprivation and feel hostility towards the capital. Maybe dislike of Moscow was the reason why people across the country demonstrated solidarity with the Shies protestors.
As the Shies case exemplifies, the Russian state oppresses its own people, does not care about its nature and prefers to extract profit here and now without regard for future generations. Russia also does this to others in neighbouring states, as the war against Ukraine shows so grotesquely. An imperialistic mind-set can be found in the policies of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. The planned landfill made the Shies protestors realise that the centre exploits them, and they fought against it. This case opened the eyes of many to the inequalities inherent in the Russian political system. These inequalities are also visible in the fact that the poorest and most distant Russian regions drafted proportionally more people to this horrible war than Moscow and other more affluent regions. The asymmetrical power dynamic between the centre and the periphery, Moscow's tendency to solve its issues at the expense of others, needs to be broken.
Elena Gorbacheva works as a doctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute