My Russian Story
Philip B. Williams, an Englishman abroad, is sharing his memories with us. It’s a look at the world at the End of the British Empire, full of class consciousness. The British crime novel – and not only the British . surely wouldn’t exist without it. Here are his musing No# 4.
Anyone who has read Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn suspects there are seldom happy endings to Russian stories.
My Russian story starts with an awkward introduction to a famous Soviet author, Valentin Rasputin, at a formal reception in Moscow in the spring of 1990.
I had been asked to be co-leader of a delegation of American environmentalists by the Center for US-USSR Initiatives. Our overt mission was to meet with and share common experiences with Soviet environmentalists as ‘citizen diplomats’. Our covert mission was to assist them in whatever way we could. One of my tasks was to carry $10,000 US cash across the border in my underpants, to pass on to their fledgling organizations.
We arrived in Moscow at an opportune time, in the year before the communist world disintegrated. In the previous two years, glasnost and perestroika had broken the communist monopoly on political expression, resulting in the spontaneous formation of hundreds of environmental activist groups across the USSR. People were now allowed to speak out freely and vigorously about the appalling scale of environmental destruction they had witnessed; caused by brutal enforcement of 13 successive Soviet Five-Year Plans. Plans intended to transform the USSR from an agrarian nation to the greatest industrial power in the world, greater than the USA.
My persona in Moscow was President of the International Rivers Network, an NGO I had founded in Berkeley California four years earlier to halt the damming of the world’s rivers. Inthe 80’s the pace of dam construction accelerated, but while many knew about the destruction of the rainforests, few had heard how river ecosystems, and the communities that depend on them, were being destroyed on a similar scale.
Our delegation’s first meeting in Moscow was with our counterparts at the Socio -EcologicUnion. SEU had been set up the previous year by members of the Moscow’s progressiveintelligentsia to coordinate political action amongst the emerging environmental groups.
I was immediately impressed that the impacts of dam construction and water pollution were among the most pressing issues Russian environmentalists wanted to discuss. Efforts to protect Lake Baikal and the Aral Sea, stopping mega dams in Siberia for example, Katun in the Altai Mountains and Bogachany on the Angara River were high on their agenda. For many Soviet activists, the Moscow meeting was their first opportunity to find out firsthand how citizens groups in the US had dealt with similar issues; the consequences of rapid industrialization under capitalism. They distrusted the reports of all official media in both countries.
At the evening reception that followed our first official day of meetings I was formally introduced to many eminent Moscow Academicians, professors and activists. As the evening flowed on and more vodka was served, I engaged in an animated discussion in interpreted English with Sergei Zalygin, who was then editor of the progressive magazine Novy Mir. Before this assignment and since 1962, Zalygin had courageously led internal opposition within the soviet technocracy against the most grandiose hydraulics engineering project conceived in the Soviet Union; the Northern Rivers Reversal, a plan to dam the immense rivers flowing into the Arctic, , sending part of their flow through a fifteen hundred-mile-long canal into Soviet Central Asia.
This was a project similar in scale, to the contemporaneous proposal by the US Army Corps of Engineers to capture the flow of Alaskan and Canadian rivers and divert them to the deserts of the Great Basin and California called the NAWAPA project. Both plans envisaged an innovative use of nuclear explosions to excavate their canals.
Zalygin was delighted to discover, that like himself, I was a hydraulics engineer. During the Soviet era, the role of engineers was exalted and a ticket to the highest echelons of power. Civil engineers like Boris Yeltsin were heroes, but if you wanted to ascend to the very top in any communist country the highest credential was to be a hydraulics engineer like Ion Iliescu, president of Romania, or Li Peng the premier of China, who in 1991 overpowered party opposition to complete the world’s largest hydro dam on the Yangtze at Three Gorges. I had come to the USSR with the right credentials.
During our intense conversation, I noticed a shabbily dressed middle aged man hovering nearby. It seemed like he wanted to join in. Eventually Zalygin turned to introduce him, but he seemed shy, and with my inability to speak Russian, and our interpreter’s flagging energy, I didn’t catch his name. I shook his hand, exchanged business cards and brief pleasantries. Caught up byZalygin’s enthusiasm I quickly turned back to him and the topic of Soviet and US obsession with what he aptly called ‘Gigantomania’ projects. Embarrassed from being excluded from the conversation this fellow drifted away. Only later when I looked at the card he had given me did I realize I had been less than polite to Valentin Rasputin.
Valentin Rasputin1 had been born in Siberia in 1937. All his life he lived close to the inspiration of his writing, the majestic rivers and taiga landscape where he had grown up. Many of his stories centered on villages like his own Atalanka, a small 17th century Russian village on the banks of the Angara River downstream of where it flows out of Lake Baikal.
Starting in the late 1960’s Rasputin had become the pioneer of a new style of writing that told stories of how rural Russian people lived and responded to the drastic changes in their environment occurring in the 20th century. This was an evolution away from the more cynical‘Urban Prose’ that had flourished in the Soviet Union after Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin liberalization of the 1950s. In dramatizing the how the culture and values of Russian village life was being eroded, Village Prose was diametrically opposed to the orthodox Stalin-era literature of socialist realism, that was required to laud the virtues of ‘progress’ and man’s ‘triumph over nature’ in support of Soviet 5-year plans. Rasputin’s writing became very popular, winning him the State Prize for literature in 1977.
As preparation for this trip I had read Rasputin’s book ‘Siberia on Fire’ which had beentranslated into English the previous year, and knew him to be the leading voice in Russia advocating environmental protection for the wilderness of Siberia. His writing played a similar role in the Soviet Union to that of David Brower in the USA. David Brower, former head of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth had led an impassioned fight against dams in the Grand Canyon that eventually turned public opinion against them. Rasputin’s passion was preserving the beauty and ecology of Lake Baikal degraded by industrial pollution and logging.
Rasputin’s most important novel is ‘Farewell to Matyora’, the tragic story describing the last days of the community of an old 17th century Russian Village on the banks of the Angara River about to be submerged forever by the rising reservoir of the newly completed Bratsk hydro-dam; the same fate inflicted on his beloved Atalanka. In explaining what started him on his writing career, Rasputin has said ‘I am one of the drowned’.
Ten years after that encounter with Rasputin in that SEU reception in Moscow, I was standing on the banks of the frozen Angara in the shadow of a rising new dam that was threatening to repeat the story of his Matyora.
Only a few weeks before I had had a phone call from David Martin at the Pacific Institute, an environmental NGO based in San Francisco, that worked on Siberian environmental issues. He had been asked to coordinate an international expert review panel to advise on environmental questions concerning the possible completion of the Boguchany Dam on the Angara River. Would I be willing to serve as one of its members? It would require a visit to the dam site next month before the spring thaw made ice roads impassable.
On March 20th I flew with David from San Francisco to Moscow, then an Aeroflot flight to Novosibirsk, Siberia. Here we met our guide and travelling companion for the next ten days, Valentin Zabortsev, from the village of Boguchany. Zabortsev was one of the leaders of the Yenesei and Angara Rescue Association, an organization of local people who lived along the Angara and whose lives were being transformed by the construction of the Bogachany dam, downstream of the Bratsk Reservoir. The two other members of our expert panel were David Wegner, an environmental engineer who had overseen the US Bureau of Reclamation’s studieson how to mitigate the impacts of the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River; and Alfred Olferts who was an ecologist with European Rivers Network working on plans to restore the Elbe River.
I was never very clear on what responsibility and authority our panel had, and we never had a formal briefing about our assignment. Many years later, reading Josephson’s ‘An Environmental History of Russia’ I understood what we had gotten into. In 1988 General- Secretary Gorbachev recognized, after the Chernobyl disaster, something had to be done to arrest the accelerating scale of environmental destruction in the Soviet Union. In the previous two decades, faced with similar environmental degradation, the US and most Western European countries had adopted a legal process of environmental impact reports in an attempt to ensure all environmental costs and benefits were considered, before major projects like nuclear power plants and dams were approved for construction. 1
Instead of adopting Environmental Impact Reports in this way, Gorbachev’s perestroika reformdesignated an ‘expertiza’ process of review panels. Usually these were a group of scientists and academics who would meet, discuss, and agree amongst themselves what the significant impacts of a project were and what should be done about them. Subsequently, citizens groups had won the right to commission their own expert panels to advise the government’s decision process. This is what Zabortsev’s Association had done, and our panel’s findings were intended to compliment the findings of a separate 20-person Russian science panel, examining the same question – but we never met with them nor saw their findings. It appeared that our report would be an important test case for how well this new Russian process would work.
On the overnight Trans-Siberian train from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk we started to hearZabortsev’s story. He was 64 years old, with a weather-beaten face and reserved, skeptical manner, possibly because he had never had to talk this intimately to foreigners before. Alfred was an able translator; his family were Volga Germans who had been deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin during WW2. As soon as the Berlin wall came down they moved to Germany and quickly became German citizens, even though their ancestors had migrated to Russia two hundred years before. This meant that Alfred had grown up in the Soviet Union and could interpret not just colloquialisms but some of the oblique cultural references, whose dark humor we would otherwise have missed.
Zabortsev had been communist party Secretary for his local district before it all fell apart in 1991. It later became apparent that unlike many higher level communist functionaries, he had maintained credibility as a local community leader in the catastrophic economic conditions villagers along the Angara endured in the 1990’s. The problem was that his party experience had conditioned him to be overly deferential to authority. He trusted the expertiza process would make the right decision and stop the dam or at least provide fair compensation for his community. This put quite a burden of responsibility on us who had a more skeptical view of how political decisions on dams were really made.
The year 2000 was close to the nadir of Russia’s post-soviet economic collapse. Zabortsev told us that in his community many people who had jobs were not being paid, social services were disintegrating and as we would soon witness, infrastructure was falling apart. These were problems inflicted on all of Russia in the immediate post-soviet years by the rapid imposition of‘Shock Therapy’ that slashed government budgets and privatized Soviet enterprises. This was referred to in Russia as imposition of the ‘Chilean Model’ inspired by General Pinochet’s drasticprivatization of public institutions after the CIA installed him as dictator in 197; overseen by the‘Chicago Boys’, economists trained at the University of Chicago. In Russia in return for what turned out to be unfulfilled promises of substantial loans from the IMF and western countries,Yeltsin’s Minister of Privatization Anatoly Chubais, 2 downsized and cut, and opened the door wide to predation of Russia’s capital assets by a newly formed class of oligarchs.
The vigorous application of neo-liberal economic ideology hit rural areas particularly hard. As well as losing healthcare, pensions and welfare to budget cuts and accelerating inflation; people in the Angara valley bore the additional burden of still living in the target area for Stalin’sgrandiose 4th Soviet 5-year plan. This was the 1948 plan that Stalin had termed ‘The Plan for the Transformation of Nature’. Its centerpiece was an ambitious long-term program to ‘turn rivers into machines’ by building 30 massive hydroelectric dams on Siberia’s rivers -starting with the Angara. An ancillary purpose was propaganda, to demonstrate to the world how Soviet industrial power would quickly supplant the USA’s.
In 1964, on schedule, the world’s largest hydro dam [3.0GW] was completed at Bratsk on the Angara-using Gulag slave labor, flooding Rasputin’s native village Atalanka. Up until that timethe world’s largest hydrodam had been the USA’s Grand Coulee on the similarly sized Columbia River in the State of Washington, with a generating capacity of 2.3GW.
Completion of the Bratsk dam was one of the most important industrial achievements of the Soviet Union and was publicized to Soviet citizens and the world as an exemplar of the triumph of progress under communism. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet Union’s most famous poet atthe time, was commissioned to write an epic poem to celebrate the occasion. ‘Bratsk Hydro Station’ is considered one of his best works, and is surprisingly bittersweet, acknowledging the price of progress through allusions to the role of slaves building the pyramids. To celebrate theGrand Coulee dam’s completion the US Bureau of Reclamation had previously commissioned Woody Guthrie to compose his famous eponymous simpler song, uncritically claiming the damas ‘The mightiest thing built by man’.
After Bratsk Stalin’s plan continued its long march. Soviet prestige was further amplified with the completion of the nearby Krasnoyarsk Dam 6.0GW in 1972. This was worthy of commemoration on the Soviet 10-ruble note.3
At Krasnoyarsk station we disembarked the trans-siberian express and dragged our bags into the freezing station concourse. Here we were to take a branch line train north into the snow-bound taiga. While we were waiting to buy our tickets, I admired the grandiose but dilapidated waiting hall built in the time of the Romanovs. It was interesting to see how communist iconography had been superimposed on tsarist monumental architecture. I noticed many of the ornate stained- glass windows were broken, but one caught my eye. A window commemorating the Bratsk dam had been inexpertly repaired. It was evidently still a symbol of local pride.
Then, I noticed there was a nervous feeling to the crowds shivering in the ice cold waiting hall.Queues at the ticket window were being told ‘Nyet’, no tickets for sale.
Zabortsev, knew what to do. Taking a bundle of cash from David he went out of the station hall to the goods yard out back. There I saw him negotiating with some characters wearing the ubiquitous long black leather jacket and blue jeans. Free enterprise had come to the Russian railway system.
On the overnight train north Zabortsev told us of more problems facing his community. Since the Angara valley was settled in the late 17th century villages there had relied on fishing, farming and the forest’s resources. The Angara River, a tributary of the Yenisei, flows for 1100 miles out of Lake Baikal, and had sustained an abundant salmon fishery with eleven species or runs, likethe Columbia River’s abundant salmon fishery before it was decimated by the staircase of dams completed by the 70’s. Villagers also relied on farming the rich floodplain soils, growing fruits, vegetables, alfalfa and grasses during the hot summer to sustain themselves and livestock through the harsh winter. People used the resources of the productive forest ecotone where it merged with floodplain meadows and provided mushrooms, berries and deer. Many had jobs in a logging industry that relied on easy access to the river to float log booms to the arctic during the summer when the ice melted.
Zabortsev explained how this had all changed with the completion of Bratsk Dam upstream, and then with the start of construction in 1974 of the next step in the Angara dam staircase, Boguchany. But within a decade, the project was running out of money, and the pace of construction slowed down.
The soviet economy could not sustain the huge investments each of these megadams like Bratsk, Krasnoyarsk and Boguchany required. They could no longer rely on free slave labor since the gulag system had been abolished by the 60’s. Despite their grandiose reputation, massive expensive hydroelectric dam projects in USSR -and the USA, never really made much economic sense at the time they were planned. There was little initial demand for their electricity in such remote locations as central Siberia or eastern Washington. In the case of Grand Coulee this problem was fortuitously resolved by the advent of WW2, needing electricity for energy intensive aluminum production to build B17 bombers in Seattle, regardless of cost. 4 For the Bratsk, Krasnoyarsk and ultimately Boguchany dams it was going to be harder to justify their cost, because until heavy industry was constructed nearby, the largest electricity demand centers were in European Russia, 3000 miles away.
In the previous decades a policy war had been going on within the Soviet planning authorities. Under the control of the colonels of the NKVD a vast powerful dam building bureaucracy had been created in the 1930’s to oversee gulag slave labor’s implementation of Lenin’s dictum:“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. Starting with its dams on the Dnieper in the Ukraine, and then the Volga in Russia, their planning agency called‘Gydroproject’ developed self-perpetuating ambitions to build dams on every major Soviet river.
Soon after Khrushchev took power, he recognized funding for all these expensive mega projects could not continue and tried to cancel them, but was unable to overcome the influence ofGydropoject’s powerful internal lobby. President Jimmy Carter tried to do the same when he assumed office in 1977 about wasteful US spending on multibillion-dollar dam projects planned by the colonels of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the engineers of the US Bureau of Reclamation. He too was frustrated by the self- interested dam building lobby that had beencreated in the 1930’s as an outgrowth of the New Deal’s dams on the Columbia and Colorado.
At my NGO, the International Rivers Network, we had seen many examples in different countries of how dam building lobbies were created. We jokingly referred to these cabals of construction firms, banks, bureaucracies and local politicians as the ‘hydromafia’ because they were the ones directly profiting from dam building leaving the people living in the valley, the taxpayer, and the river ecology to bear the cost. Later we found out this name was not a joke.
Eventually, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and collapse of the economy, funding for Boguchany dried up completely. In 1994, with the dam supposedly 25% complete, construction was officially halted.
Zabortsev described the dilemma this created for his community. There were 12,000 people whose homes would be flooded, who Had been living in the Boguchany reservoir zone. Some riverside villages had already been dismantled and a new resettlement town was under construction. About 7000 people had already been relocated but the reservoir had not filled. These people had already lost their farmland, their fishery had been decimated, but the only work they could now find was helping complete the dam that had destroyed their way of life. ValentinRasputin’s writings had vividly described the plight of the thousands of people forced from their homes in the 1960’s by the rising water of the Bratsk Reservoir. His story had been about to be repeated at Boguchany, but then history had been suspended.
It was hard to digest what Zabortsev was telling us. It all seemed surreal. Our bunk-bed compartment in the train from Krasnoyarsk was crowded but warm, with free tea always bubbling in the samovar at the end of the corridor. During this conversation we watched the endless forest drift by. The perfect way to see the snows of Siberia, if only you could forget all the tragic stories buried under the ice.
Early next morning we woke up when the train juddered to a sudden stop. We were ejected out into a snowbank in what seemed to be a vast logging yard. There was no platform or station here, the rail line just ended in the forest. Eventually we were loaded into a jeep and driven out on the ice-road to the frozen Angara and the village of Boguchany.
In 1890 Anton Chekhov had travelled along the Angara here on his journey across Siberia to Sakhalin. In a letter to his family he described the scenery as ‘picturesque’ and ‘just like Switzerland’ – he seemed to be comparing it to the arcadian beauty of the smaller High Rhine River Valley where it flows out of Lake Constance. What we saw was a wild snowbound landscape.
My first impressions of the village of Boguchany had been primed by Rasputin’s nostalgic description of his doomed semi-fictional Matyora. I was expecting decay and dilapidation. Instead, I saw an old village of solidly built log wood houses with their own yards, fretwork decorations and window boxes, nestled comfortably in the snow. Boguchany was more fortunate than Matyora, because after initial planning Gydropoject had decided to move the dam which took its name 65 miles further upstream.
The only accommodation for us in Boguchany was the dilapidated airport hotel in which we were the only guests. It overlooked an airfield that had been closed due to budget cuts. There were two abandoned Ilyushin Aeroflot jets skewed across the runway, buried in snow. I had to turn my room radiator up to the maximum because the window would not close.
The next day we drove up the Angara Valley on the ice road to the headquarters of Boguchanystroy the privatized company now responsible for the dam site. Here we were courteously greeted by Boris Yesimov, the chief hydraulics engineer of the project. As we sat down at his conference table I noticed behind his desk a picture of a wild un-dammed Siberian river. Later I asked him to pose for a photo. Maxim Gorky had exhorted Soviet dam builders to‘make mad rivers sane’; in the US the dam builder’s slogan was ‘tame the wild rivers’. I had a picture of a wild California river behind my desk in in my office just like this.
As a consultant to environmental groups questioning dams in the US I had participated in many meetings with the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation and was expecting obfuscation reinforced with soviet style denial. Instead, until a later meeting when Yesimov’s boss gotinvolved, the engineers who briefed us were frank, sometimes even cynical in their explanation on what was happening at the dam. Yesimov kicked off our meeting by explaining why they seemed to be so cooperative. ‘Without a positive environmental assessment, we will not be ableto build the dam’. He was hoping that the expertiza process would recommend his proposal for completion of a cheaper smaller dam that would generate electricity to pay for the larger project.
This is what it looks like when an attempt to build a dam about twice the size of Bonneville is halted. I could see derelict cranes and rusted reinforcing bars poking out at odd angles from the half-finished concrete. At first, I thought it was all abandoned. Then I noticed a small group of men below us, huddled against the wind, mixing concrete by hand and pouring it into 5-gallon buckets before dumping it into an infinitely large formwork box. Work at that rate would take thousands of years to finish the dam.
As soon as we could we got out of the wind and headed for a workman’s hut with a welcome bubbling samovar. On our way in we were accosted by two women who had been waiting for us bundled up against the cold. It was hard to translate what they were telling us. It seemed that they were from a village upstream that had already been demolished and burnt. They had been moved to a temporary settlement but they found there were only basic services there. They desperately wanted us foreigners to do something about it.
After our visit to the dam site we headed for somewhere warmer, the community center in Kodinsk, where we were going to be based for our work. Kodinsk was the new town where most people from the valley were supposed to be eventually relocated.
Young people in Rasputin’s semi-fictional Matyora had looked forward to leaving their old way of life behind and moving to a modern town that had apartments with a cinema, electricity and indoor plumbing. This is what Kodinsk provided. The town itself had been laid out by Moscow planners as a chequerboard of ten-story apartment blocks. Russians were very familiar with this type of Le Corbusian architecture5. You could see it everywhere in the Eastern bloc, constructed as fast as possible to rehouse millions of people dispossessed after WW2. They called them‘Kruschchyovkas flats’, blaming Nikita for buildings that were so shoddily built that sometimes they crumbled before complete; as we could see happening in the rust streaks and exposed rebar in the flats in Kodinsk..
The new town was located on the ridge top to try to avoid the endemic freezing fogs that would be drifting off the nearby reservoir after it was filled, but this meant it was also fully exposed to winter winds and driving snow. People there told us that at these higher elevations the soils in the surrounding cleared forest were too thin and poor to grow the vegetable gardens that sustained the villages on the valley floor. These were the same complaints made by Rasputin’ssemi-fictional Matyora villagers about the soils around their new resettlement town.
Before construction was halted, about half a billion dollars had been spent on the partially completed dam. In post-soviet Russia responsibility for the project had been handed over to an agency called United Energy Systems, whose chairman was the same Antatoly Chubais. His roleat UES was to privatize Russia’s electricity system.
UES had provided no further capital to complete the dam. What little money that had been made available over the previous decade was supposedly being spent on trying to prevent the partially built structure deteriorating. Like so many other dam projects I had reviewed, construction had been started before the economic rationale, environmental impacts, and even key design questions had been analyzed. One Boguchanystroy engineer told me ‘we first build, then decidewhat for”.
We were told that while UES was seeking capital to complete the dam, the project itself was being redesigned by Gydroproject -even though the Krasnoyarsk Provincial government refused to renew its building permit. The dam did not meet Word Bank approved safety standards for spillway capacity, so to qualify for international funding the massive concrete spillway slabs would have to be demolished and rebuilt. Foundation stability problems had been discovered on the right bank after concrete had been poured, requiring re-excavation and new tunnels to be dug into the hillside. Yesimov said he estimated it would cost another billion dollars to complete his smaller dam.
Over the next few days we drafted our report. We decided to focus on the social and environmental impacts of completing the dam as well as commenting on the planning process itself. 6
On the road to the Boguchanystroy offices Zabortsev had pointed out what looked like a shanty town, a cold climate favela, in a ravine upstream of the dam site. There was an official sign onthe road with the name of the settlement. It was called ‘Temporary’ and had been there for 20 years populated by people who had been moved off their villages. This was the new home of the women who intercepted us at the dam site.
There were still several thousand people who one way or another had not moved from their villages upstream. We were scheduled to travel up the valley to interview them but then at the last minute were told, true or not, the spring thaw had made the road impassable. We were notable to directly verify Zabortsev’s stories of how these people’s compensation funds had been siphoned off for surreptitious dam construction.
Three years before, the Krasnoyarsk provincial government had declared further construction of the dam illegal because no analysis of environmental impacts of the dam had been carried out. Yesimov acknowledged that even though the Angara River supported 22 economically importantfish species and was categorized as a Russian ‘First category’ fishery resource, there had been no fishery impact studies even though the dam would block migration to 150 river miles upstream. He told us there was no money available for environmental studies, but we later learnt that Gydroproject had been awarded a contract to prepare an environmental impact assessment the following year.
On our visit to the dam site we had seen how the flow of the entire river, about the size of the average flow of the Columbia, had been constricted by the partially completed dam into a narrow slot. Massive logs and ice flows were crashing against the concrete walls. This created an awe- inspiring rapid that no salmon could fight its way through to spawn upstream.
We reviewed Gydropoject’s updated financial plan, translated to English. This told prospective foreign investors that the dam had no significant environmental impacts that needed to be accounted for. Then we looked at the economic rationale. It referred to Boguchany as the linchpin of a vaguely defined Lower Angara River Development Program that itself would be the first dam of 30 new hydroprojects in what was called the Angara-Pacific Energy Bridge. This allsounded familiar, it was little different from the ‘build it and they will come’ rationale of Stalin’soriginal 5-year plan. The economic analysis did not include costs for transmission lines, social and environmental mitigation or even operation and maintenance or liability costs for what was supposed to be a privatized company. It was clear that UAS expected its junior partner, the Russian Government, to provide most of the money for covering these costs and for completing the dam. Nowhere was there any consideration given to alternatives like electricity demand management or energy conservation, for example, fixing the windows of the Boguchany Airport hotel.
Dave Wegner took the lead in drafting our report; he knew the language of dam building bureaucracies. Then we took the train back to Krasnoyarsk and went to the Krasnoyarsk Provincial Government offices to present our findings to Yuri Maltsev, the official responsible for environmental review and permitting of the dam. Nothing in our report surprised him. He confirmed what we suspected, that construction on the dam was continuing illegally, diverting money intended for environmental and social mitigation. He told us that none of the documents Boguchanystroy had submitted were adequate, but that he was powerless to enforce the law. Hetold Zabortsev, ‘If you want to stop this dam you have to go to Lebedev -he gives the money’,referring to the former KGB economist and billionaire Alexander Lebedev who had ended up owning the country’s largest financial institution at the time, the National Reserve Bank. Thenhe asked us ‘Show me a country where projects are not built like this?’ With my own experience of how dam builders lied or bribed to get their projects built regardless of their true costs: in Brazil, India, Australia, Spain, Turkey, Canada and California, I could not.
How does my Russian story end?
While we were in Novosibirsk we had noticed election posters outside the railway station. Ihadn’t paid much attention and we were in Boguchany on March 26th election day. On our way back to Krasnoyarsk, Alfred told me he had heard the communist party had been making a strong showing. Before I said my farewell to Zabortsev I asked the old communist how he had voted.‘Putin of course! Russia needs a strong leader to deal with these crooks who are stealing the country’
Within a few weeks of the ratification of Putin’s election he abolished citizen led expertizapanels like ours. He required Russian environmental groups receiving funding or support from other countries to register as foreign lobbyists, and then he stripped provincial governments like Krasnoyarsk’s of its decision making authority on projects like Boguchany..
I don’t think our report ever left Maltsev’s desk.
The Boguchany dam was completed in 2015, 41 years after the start of construction at a cost of $3billion. Chubais at UES had eventually found a market for its electricity, the aluminum smelters owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, referred to in western media as ‘Putin’s favorite industrialist’. Profitable aluminum production relies on the availability of government subsidized cheap and copious amounts of electricity, like that originally provided at Grand Coulee. In the chaotic privatization era of the 1990’s the aluminum industry was one of the richest plums sought by the emerging oligarch class. Competition for control led to what isreferred to as the ‘aluminum wars’ waged by different Russian mafia gangs on behalf of theirpatrons. More than 100 executives were murdered according to British court testimony by the oligarch Roman Abromavich. Eventually Deripaska, who had started out as a 25-year-old commodities trader in 1993, came out on top. His company Rusal grew to become the largestaluminum producer in the world, finally fulfilling Stalin’s goal of outcompeting America.Deripaska described the reason for Rusal’s success: ‘cheap Siberian electricity provided an unbeatable advantage’. In 2008 Deripaska had become the 9th richest person in the world.
Deripaska’s methods in wealth acquisition haunts him. In 2006 he was refused entry to the USA because of his association with money laundering and Moscow mafia gang leaders. In 2005 he had retained as his advisors Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who in the summer of 2016 managed Donald Trump’s election campaign, and are now under indictment for money laundering and conspiracy against the US.
While the oligarchs were making money, Valentin Rasputin’s reputation plummeted. His eloquent defense of Siberia’s nature and community had proved ineffective. Lake Baikal is stillbeing polluted, more dams on Siberia’s rivers are being promoted by a new self-perpetuatingdam building bureaucracy, China’s Three Gorges Dam Corporation; and the dictators of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have not given up the dream of persuading Russia to construct the Northern Rivers Diversion, now with China’s support.
Rasputin’s political beliefs were deeply conservative and his idealization of Russian village life lent support to advocates of xenophobic Russian nationalism, who saw Russian identity threatened by western consumer culture, immigrants -and as always, soviet jews. For example, disgusted by the rampant corruption of the privatization era he refused to condemn the activities of Pamyat, meaning ‘memory’, a neo-fascist party that in the 1990’s had evolved out of apreviously innocuous organization set up to preserve culturally significant historical artifacts. Later, Rasputin lent his support to the reconstituted Communist party of Russia, that was also deeply conservative, advocating a return to a soviet form of government. This meant that outside of Russia Rasputin has now been identified with reaction and anti-semitism. It has overshadowed what motivated his earlier writing, illustrated by his description of his childhood memory of his view of the Angara from his native village of Atalanka .’….with the islands across the water from me and the sun setting on the opposite shore. I’ve seen many objects of beauty both naturaland man-made, but I will die with that picture before me which is dearer to me than anything inthe world… It is my homeland’
Rasputin died one month after the Boguchany Dam was completed and its reservoir filled.Two more dams are now being planned downstream of Boguchany. Russia intends to convert the whole Angara River into a staircase of stagnant reservoirs -in the same way the US has already done to the Columbia River.
1 In the 1970’s I had been involved in these formative days of environmental impact reports as a Founding memberof the Association of Environmental Professionals, and had been an expert on several test cases on their application. I once spent two weeks in federal court as a witness questioning the rationale of what was then proposed to be the largest concrete arch dam in the world, the never-completed Auburn dam above Sacramento in California.
2 this time advised by US economists from Harvard University
3 This achievement was soon deflated by a US propaganda victory of the Cold War. In 1974 Grand Coulee’s powerplant was reconstructed and expanded, boosting its production to 6.8GW. In 2012 big dam bragging rights were conclusively won by communist China with the completion of the 22.5GW Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze.
4 It took 30 years for energy generation at Grand Coulee to become profitable, and only if you ignore the costs of destruction of the salmon fishery and dispossession of 3000 native-americans, never compensated for the loss of their land.
5 Le Corbusier had been an advisor to the Bolsheviks on the original design template for the ‘socialist city’
6 At first, I was acutely aware how presumptuous it seemed for an American, a German and a Brit to arrive here and opine on questions we knew nothing about a few weeks before. What would it be like if Americans asked Russian experts to come and review big US water projects like California’s proposed Peripheral Canal? Fifteen years beforeI had taken under my wing an émigré Russian hydrologist from Odessa, Mikhail Rozengurt, an expert on estuaries. At that time, I was reviewing the impacts of massive water diversions from California Rivers on the ecology of the San Francisco bay estuary. At State government evidentiary hearings Rozengurt testified, that based on his studies of the estuaries of the Don and the Dnieper, diversion of more than 50% of the flow would cause the ecosystem tocollapse. Thirty years on Rozengurt’s prediction has proved correct.
Phil Williams‘ articles with us:
My Class. Gulf impassable, breach indescribable. On the feelings of class inferiority and resentment. (CrimeMag June 2018)