Skip to main content

No right to rock the vote Scientists in Siberia decide to conceal pollution research ahead of September’s elections, fearing a ‘political bombshell’

Source: Meduza
Andrey Gordeev / Vedomosti / TASS

The Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SO RAN) recently decided to withhold public access to new research on atmospheric and soil pollution in cities throughout the region, according to journalists at who obtained streamed footage of the conference where scientists shared their findings. The academy later hid the video on YouTube, after several senior Presidium members cited political concerns about influencing election outcomes this fall.

On March 25 in Novosibirsk, SO RAN Atmospheric Optics Institute director Igor Ptashnik presented a paper that drew on open sources, including data from Russia’s Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Federal Service. In one slide during his presentation, Ptashnik stated that 78 percent of the 20 worst-polluted cities in Russia are located in Siberian Federal District, where 23 different cities have high air-pollution index scores, including nine cities in the Irkutsk region, five in the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and three in the Kemerovo region. A whopping 99 percent of the people who reside in the Taymyr Peninsula are living in high air pollution, scientists concluded.

The most common pollutant in 14 of Siberia’s worst-affected cities is a compound known as benzopyrene — a highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon. Scientists detected the highest concentrations of benzopyrene in Norilsk, Novokuznetsk, and Krasnoyarsk, and levels exceeded permissible concentrations by 116 times in the city of Kyzyl and 88 times in the city of Abakan.

The new research also describes extensive soil pollution throughout Siberia. For example, 68 percent of the surface runoff in the Tomsk region is polluted. In the Novosibirsk region, this figure is 82 percent. Siberia’s most polluted soil can be found in Svirsk and Norilsk, where the earth is littered with heavy metals like lead, zinc, nickel, and copper. In Novokuznetsk, the ground has high concentrations of nitrates and fluorides. 

More about life in Norilsk

Life in Norilsk Welcome to one of the most isolated cities on Earth. A photo essay by Elena Chernyshova

More about life in Norilsk

Life in Norilsk Welcome to one of the most isolated cities on Earth. A photo essay by Elena Chernyshova

Researchers also found high incidences of disease among residents in Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Novokuznetsk, and Irkutsk. For example, scientists linked pollution to cancer in Krasnoyarsk, congenital developmental defects in the Kemerovo, and children’s diseases in the Altai Territory. 

After Ptashnik’s presentation, members of the RAN Siberian Branch’s Presidium briefly discussed the findings before deciding not to publish the research. “There’s no need to act like alarmists. The Hydrometeorology Service doesn’t have enough accurate instruments, and their results could be incorrect,” said senior scholar Valentin Parmon. 

Other Presidium members expressed political concerns explicitly. Alexey Kontorovich, who founded the branch’s Oil and Gas Geology Institute, cautioned against “riling up” locals “with unnecessary questions.” “Imagine if we published these reports with such dense information — it would be like dropping a bomb just ahead of the elections! Then what would happen? The results are hard to predict. We haven’t the right to do this,” argued Kontorovich.

Asked about the decision to withhold the new pollution research, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Monday that the Putin administration played no role in the process. “This was the scientists’ own decision, so go ask them,” Peskov said.

Later this year, in early September, Russia will hold nationwide parliamentary elections. In roughly half the regions across the country, there will also be down-ballot contests for local offices.

Meduza is working for you And we need your support

Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock