‘Black Snowballs’ An essay by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on the ecological crisis in her hometown that inspired Pussy Riot's new music video
On July 9, Pussy Riot released a new music video for the song “Black Snowballs.” The group conducted a series of protest actions by the same title from January through March of 2019. The primary objective of the campaign as a whole is to shed light on the operations of Russia’s corporations and on the country’s ecological crisis. Alongside the new video, Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of an essay on the same topic by Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. She was born and raised in Norilsk, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Pussy Riot sent the essay to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the form of an open letter.
Note: This video contains uncensored obscenities.
I was born and raised in Norilsk. Norilsk is an industrial city located above the Arctic Circle and built on human bones: it was the labor of the Norilag camp prisoners that built the city. More than 500,000 people passed through Norilag between 1935 and 1953, and one out of three of them did not survive. It’s -50 degrees Fahrenheit in Norilsk, the wind blows at 45 miles per hour, and winter lasts nine months every year. Those winters bring blackout blizzards, perpetual frost, and snow that starts on the first day of school. That alone would be enough to break through the immune systems of Norilsk’s residents, but in fact, it’s only the beginning: our icy hell is also fatally toxic. Just search for “Norilsk: they won’t show this on television” on our dear old YouTube.
As a child, I played with slag. What else was there? Our yards were piled with gigantic mountains of processed slag with timid blades of grass poking through, and my six-year-old self would rake away the slag to help the grass grow a little better. I would carry water from inside and pour it on the three clusters of grass that fell under my tutelage.
The trees in and around Norilsk are dead. They are black sticks that pierce the sky exactly like the trees in postapocalyptic films. Their leaves have grown necrotic from the sulfuric acid rain.
Meanwhile, the headlines in my hometown read something like this: “River in Norilsk once again turns to ‘blood’”; “Norilsk covered in ‘bloody rain.’” On the Internet, people say the redness might be residue from the Norilsk Nickel factory — or maybe it’s that the radiation levels are off the charts. (Here are two Instagram posts about the red rain: one, two).
Here’s a short list of the things that get dumped into the rivers near Norilsk: iron, nickel, petroleum products, lead, copper, chlorides, nitrates, calcium, magnesium, phosphates, zink. And here’s a list of what gets dumped into the air: sulfur dioxide, nitrates, sulfates, phenols, industrial waste, heavy metals. Norilsk Nickel puts two million tons (!!!) of sulfur dioxide into the air every year. It increases sulfur dioxide concentrations in every country in Western Europe. That’s 11 tons of sulfur anhydride (also known as sulfur dioxide) annually for every resident of Norilsk.
Sometimes, in Norilsk, you can’t see the buildings next door because the air is blue-gray with gas. The northern lights? I haven’t seen them. The sky is smog.
When you leave your house in Norilsk, you pull a scarf over your face — not just because of the blizzards, but because the sulfur anhydride burns your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your lungs. When combined with drops of water, sulfur dioxide forms sulfuric acid. If that can make the Boreal Forest necrotic, then what can it do to the wee tender alveoli in your lungs?
In the morning, Norilsk trudges along to school. One of my classmates sticks her head outside and immediately begins coughing — she says the air burns her lungs. This means that, once again, the industrial air pollutant levels in Norilsk have exceeded the regulatory maximum by dozens of times, sometimes hundreds. Like many Norilsk residents, my classmate has had asthma since childhood, and asthmatics struggle to make it through the pollution surges. Doctors say that residents of Norilsk are twice as likely to get cancer. The average life expectancy is 10 years less than the Russian average.
Norilsk Nickel’s headquarters is located (surprise!) not in Norilsk but in the Moscow International Business Center, in the Mercury City Tower. The company’s owners are: Vladimir Potanin, 30.4%; Oleg Deripaska, 27.8%; Roman Abramovich & Alexander Abramov, 4.2%. (These individuals are all well-known oligarchs. Potanin now owns 34.6% of Norilsk Nickel, Deripaska owns 27.8%, and Abramovich and Abramov have decreased their share from 6.4% to 4.7% — Meduza)
Nineteen billion dollars — Vladimir Potanin’s net worth (according to Forbes, Potanin’s wealth is estimated at $18.1 billion — Meduza) — was made on the backs of human beings who have to live in one of the dirtiest cities in the world, a city that some data indicates has higher levels of dangerous contaminants than Chernobyl itself (!).
Corporations — especially those that use natural resources — cannot exist without social control. Every one of us must have the ability to verify exactly what happens in these corporate empires — and every one of us must have the ability to affect what we find there.
I do not mean to say we should immediately close absolutely every plant and shut down every factory. I am only saying that humankind has two possible paths: either stick to business as usual — and go extinct as the entire planet turns into Chernobyl or Norilsk, or strain ourselves and imagine how we can build a developed technological civilization while using renewable energy sources for manufacturing.
The uncontrollability of corporations isn’t just a Russian problem, and activists from all over the world are calling on corporations to answer for their actions, but in Russia, corporate freedom has simply reached indecent heights as the hellish scope of corruption has deprived the law of any power. What can help us? Returning power and influence into our own hands, which, of course, requires a certain degree of insolence. We must behave as though we have already won and we live in the clean Russia of the future; we must vote and run for office; we must create independent media sources; we must create alternative ecological monitoring organizations that are not under government control; we must support Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future; and we must go out into the streets and be organic kittens.
Tolokonnikova’s essay can be read in full in Russian here.
Translation by Hilah Kohen