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"I want to show you something horrible," says Gosman Kabirov, and he doesn't disappoint. The 50-year-old activist, who works for a local green group called the Movement for Nuclear Safety, greets me in a mesh vest and a battered Greenpeace baseball cap. He's leading an early-morning auto tour of the metallurgical plants that surround his home in the central Russian city of Chelyabinsk, where a rising sun can barely cut through plumes of sickly smoke. Chelyabinsk was created for industry the city earned the nickname Tankograd for its role in arming the Soviet military and the air in the metallurgical district on the outskirts of the city burns the nostrils and tastes of corroding pennies.
But we're not just here to choke on Chelyabinsk's polluted air, an experience that could be had in almost any industrial Russian city. Kabirov drives us away from the factories, through rolling grasslands and past enormous lakes, toward Muslumovo, the village of Olga and her sick daughter, perched above the sluggish Techa River. Muslumovo's sky is as clear as Chelyabinsk's was filthy, but the pollution here isn't visible. Kabirov and his colleague Natalia Mironova step out of the car, Geiger counters in hand, and descend toward the river. Stinging black flies compete with the crackle of the counters, and both increase as we near the water. Though the Mayak nuclear facility is believed to have stopped dumping waste directly into the Techa decades ago, and cleanup efforts have been made, sediment at the bottom of the river remains contaminated. Mironova waves her counter above a murky patch of water and registers readings that rise to 45 times above background radiation levels. "Young people cross the river every day," she says. "It's very risky to live here."
Around 3,500 people still live in Muslumovo, though their numbers are dwindling. As we walk down the village's sparse single street, Kabirov, who was born here, tells us where his former neighbors have gone. "Those people died of cancer," he says, pointing at a ruined house, before turning to another pile of rubble. "They died of cancer too. Last June Sasha here died from cancer as well. The graveyard is more crowded than the village." Blood and bone cancer rates in the village, like those in much of the Chelyabinsk region, are far above normal; Muslumovo residents are estimated by Greenpeace Russia to receive a radiation dose of 280 millisieverts (mSv) over the course of their lifetimes, and older natives absorbed far more. The British government recommends that people receive no more than 1 mSv a year. Igor Konuishev, an official with the federal agency for the nuclear industry, insists that Mayak no longer dumps radioactive waste into the Techa. (Officials at the Mayak plant did not respond to an interview request.) In any case, the damage already done is lasting. "People here think it is connected to God," says Mironova. "They believe that God remembers the mistakes of past generations."
In Muslumovo, the mistakes of the past are impossible to forget. Turn off a dirty coal plant and within days the air will clear, but the effects of a nuclear accident linger, spreading to generations unborn. Muslumovo and other sites contaminated by radioactivity are among the worst of the Soviet-era polluted sites that dot Russia. These include the closed chemical-weapons graveyard of Dzerzhinsk, where the life expectancy for men is just 42 years. Such legacy pollution was once common throughout the developed world, a physical reminder of the dirty path to industrialization. Russia has been far slower to clean up than it was to industrialize, but it has a unique excuse. The state that ran plants like Mayak the Soviet Union is no more, while the businessmen who bought the enterprises for kopeks on the ruble in the early 1990s understandably say they're not to blame for pre-existing pollution. Taking responsibility wouldn't be cheap a World Bank report estimates that it could cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up Russia's old pollution. "Everyone pretends this issue does not exist," says Vladimir Tsirkunov, a senior environmental engineer for the World Bank. "But there is a suffering population that has to deal with the legacy issue in real life."
In the mid-'90s, when Russian environmental enforcement was at its peak, citizens could turn to the courts to defend their rights. In 1995 Anna Ilyina, an attorney in Chelyabinsk, took the case of a young child from the area born with malformed legs and fingers, and sued Mayak for compensation. After several years she won $2,000 for "moral damages" but similar cases have stalled. "Nowadays people do not believe the state will help them, and in despair they don't even sue," she says. Environmental lawyers, who say the courts have stonewalled pollution claims since Putin took over, echo her complaints. "In the 1990s judges supported the citizens," says Vera Mischenko, president of Russia's first public-interest environmental-law firm. "Now we bring the same cases, on the same legal basis, to the same judges, and they decide differently."
That leaves Russians at the mercy of the state and industry. Half a century after the Mayak nuclear explosion, the government is finally evacuating people from Muslumovo. Residents will be able to move to a new settlement, or sell their houses to the state for $39,000. But the program is flawed. Though the move was meant to begin this spring, the government has yet to finish a single house in New Muslumovo, which will be only a few kilometers further from the river not far enough to escape some contamination, according to Mironova. Residents complain that collecting compensation has been a headache, though local officials note that the population of the village rose suspiciously after the resettlement program was announced last year. But what lingers is the sense that whatever the state or Mayak does now, it's too late for Muslumovo. "I think all the people who lived here will die, and the village will die," says 70-year-old widow Raja Khamatova, who won't bother to leave. "They were waiting to move us until we died, and now we die like flies. There is no point in moving."
Such fatalism is the enemy of change, which is why it is all the more important to celebrate those who, against the odds, are working to clean up Russia's dirty land and water. One evening in Rudnaya Pristan, I watched Petr Sharov raising his glass to the team that has strived to reduce the city's lead contamination, and toasting "those who labor in a hopeless cause." While the toast was heartfelt, the words were wrong. Russian environmentalists needn't feel hopeless. Oil money, and plenty of it, is flowing into the Kremlin's coffers, giving the lie to the argument that Russia can't afford to clean up. "Now that we're healthier economically, we can start solving our ecological problems," says Amirkhanov. For Alexey Yablokov, who fought for the environment from a seat in the Soviet parliament and fights for it still, the time to start is now. "I cannot understand why people aren't more motivated," he says, shaking with frustration. "I think about my children. I think about my grandchildren. And I cannot, cannot, cannot be silent.