‘We Cannot Breathe’

Coleman Sherry reviews Dan Szetela’s piece on trash protests in Moscow.

In “ ‘We Cannot Breathe’: Moscow Region Trash Protests in the Context of Russian Environmentalism and Civil Society,” Dan Szetela takes as his point of departure a series of 2017-18 protests centered in Volokolamsk to explore modern Russian environmental activism. The protests erupted in response to anger over government response to gas leakages from a nearby trash dump, which had long emitted gases threatening to public health in the town less than 130km from Moscow. Expanding on the narrative of these protests, Szetela challenges the popular and academic notion that Russian activism is stymied by a weak civil society, tracing a rich history of environmental protest and action. 

In developing his case study, Szetela reviews the literatures of both civil society and protest, the latter of which proves particularly compelling. Szetela builds from earlier work that provides a taxonomy of Russian political protest, dividing activism broadly into two categories: issues of principles (human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms), and of everyday quality of life (prices, public health crises, etc.). Environmental (ecological) activism interacts with this schematic in interesting ways, presenting as both a challenge to basic rights and the moral structures of the state, and to the everyday health of citizens. Szetela convincingly demonstrates that the academic literature tends to dismiss the activities of Russian civil society, embedding an absence of Russian protest in a political culture of historical subjectivity. It is against this dominant narrative that Szetela positions his analysis, taking pains to demonstrate an active and longstanding tradition of environmental activism. 

Drawing on historical writing and selections from Russian-language newspaper sources, Szetela provides a highly-readable history of Russian ecological activism, following its origins to 1960s opposition to large Soviet infrastructure projects. But the most useful historical analog for the Volokolamsk protests is opposition to so-called “Ecocide in the USSR” during the period characterized by the glasnost and perestroika policies of the Gorbachev era. Contemporary eco-protest follows many key thematic features of these movements, especially the seemingly “a-political” nature of environmental activism. In a particularly-fascinating contribution, Szetela categorizes eco-protest as political, but non-ideological, arguing that while it challenges bureaucratic and state institutional structures writ-large, it does not present specific partisan objectives. This analysis situates eco-protest amongst broader Russian political life in interesting new ways, potentially as a topos of political activism outside of authoritarian suppression. 

Szetela’s work invites several interesting questions and areas fertile for future research. For instance: how do taxonomies of political protest limit analyses? how might a-political environmental protest take on partisan significance? what does environmental protest against waste-management practices reveal about Russian internal geographies, regionalisms, and borderlands? and so on. 

Szetela’s writing is highly-readable, engaging, and entertaining. Students of Russian environmentalism, activism, and local politics will all appreciate his cogent and flowing analysis, and those new to the topics will benefit from the paper as a helpful and unintimidating introduction to the field. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.