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The Valley of Geysers in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve

Far-fetched charges in the Far East How the Russian authorities gave Kamchatka conservationists a cleanup grant — and then jailed them for it

Source: Meduza
The Valley of Geysers in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve
The Valley of Geysers in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve
Alexander Petrov / TASS

Story by Anna Evdanova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

On July 15, a court in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky sentenced multiple high-level employees of the Kronotsky Nature Reserve to prison terms ranging from three to five and a half years. The conservationists were charged with stealing over 450 million rubles (approximately $7.5 million) earmarked for cleaning up trash from the reserve. Journalists and other conservationists immediately noted several gaping holes in investigators' story — for example, they never conducted an inspection to see whether the trash had actually been picked up or not, and video evidence shows that it was. Russia’s federal Natural Resources Ministry has cautiously supported the employees, as has Kamchatka Governor Vladimir Solodov. Meduza tells the story of how Russian authorities portrayed a team of environmentalists as an organized crime group — and how Russia’s conservation community has rallied together to defend them.

If you picture anything when you hear the word “Kamchatka,” you’re likely picturing the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. Located just north of regional capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the reserve is home to the Kamchatka Peninsula's most well-known sights, including volcanoes, geysers, and an enormous freshwater lake, Lake Kronotskoye.

The land was first set aside as a reserve in the early Soviet period, but when the choice had to be made between protecting nature and meeting the country’s economic needs, the authorities usually chose the latter. In the 1930s, surveyors searched the area for oil reserves, and between 1951 and 1967, its protected status was officially lifted. That allowed the authorities to build villages and military bases on the territory, continue their search for oil, and even begin construction on a hydroelectric power station (though the project was never completed). Since then, sections of the reserve have contained industrial amounts of petroleum products, abandoned equipment and vehicles, and the ruins of buildings.

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In early 2013, then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instructed Russia’s Natural Resources, Finance, and Economic Development ministers to clean up Russia’s polluted territories. The ministries decided to begin the cleanup with the Kronotsky Reserve, where the contrast between nature and pollution was especially noticeable. In 2014, the government allocated 252 million rubles (about $4.2 million) to cleanup efforts in the reserve; in 2016, they set aside another 207 million rubles (about $3.4 million).

The tender to conduct the actual cleanup operation was won by a business called Ekologia LLC, which belonged to local entrepreneur (and Kamchatka Krai Boxing Federation President) Vitaly Drozd. According to Kronotsky Nature Reserve employees, Ekologia workers carried out extensive cleanup operations in 2015 and 2016. There's photo and video evidence that the work was done, and the reserve’s management had no qualms about its quality. They planned to keep working with Ekologia.

Unlikely suspects

In 2018, three criminal cases were launched against Ekologia director Vitaly Drozd simultaneously. The charges had nothing to do with the Kronotsky Nature Reserve; Drozd stood accused of extorting land from his former business partner, embezzling almost 29 million rubles (roughly $484,000), and attempting a hostile takeover of the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky automobile market. Drozd’s business interests extended far beyond environmental protection — he was the founder of 16 companies and the head of eight.

Lawyer Alexander Andreyev, who represents one of the reserve's employees, told Meduza that Drozd was pressured by investigators. The media outlet Kamchatka-Inform found that in 2019, Drozd declared a hunger strike in a Petropavlovsk remand prison — allegedly to protest the lack of television in his cell. While he was in pre-trial detention, a new case was opened against him — this time for allegedly defrauding the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. According to a police press release, Drozd stood accused of deceiving the reserve’s leadership, providing it with false reports about completed work, and stealing 28 million rubles (about $466,000).

But after Drozd concluded a pre-trial cooperation agreement with investigators, the fraud case, as well as the three other cases against him, took a sharp turn. The earlier cases were effectively forgotten, and, according to the site of the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky city court, they were all closed in 2020.

The Kronotsky Nature Reserve was then brought to the fore — now with a new narrative. Suddenly, investigators were claiming that instead of Drozd deceiving the conservationists, the reserve’s leadership had created a criminal group to embezzle public funds and had dragged Drozd into the scheme. In addition, the size of the damages suddenly grew: investigators now claimed that the group had stolen almost all of the money that had been allocated to clean up the polluted territories — 454 million rubles (roughly $7.56 million) — and that no work had been completed.

Workers from Ekologia LLC clean up the Kronotsky Nature Reserve
Kronotsky Nature Reserve press service

At first, investigators only accused a few people of being involved in the scheme: Drozd himself; two other businessmen, Ruslan Oshurov and Dmitry Lagutkin; and the former deputy director of the reserve, Alexander Ilyin, who served as chairman of the acceptance commission for the work done in the park by Ekologia LLC. Before long, Ilyin, like Drozd, entered a deal with investigators — and after that, the list of reserve employees who allegedly belonged to the “crime group” grew significantly. The final list included (among others):

  • Former reserve director Tikhon Shpilenok, who took over the reserve in 2009 and promptly turned it into one of Russia’s most widely acclaimed nature reserves, in part by cracking down on poachers. In 2016 (three years before the embezzlement case was opened), Shpilenok died of cancer at 36 years old.
  • World-renowned geographer Anna Zavadskaya, who served as the Kronotsky Nature Reserve’s conservation specialist. In the reserve, she studied the effects of tourism on the environment. In 2020, Zavadskaya, who had not yet been notified that she was a suspect in a criminal case, traveled to Italy for personal reasons. She was put on the international wanted list.  
  • Darya Panicheva, head of the reserve's research department. Panicheva studied red tides in the Pacific Ocean, worked on a project aimed at restoring the reserve’s reindeer population, and successfully advocated against the construction of a fish passage canal on the reserve.

During the investigation, Vitaly Drozd, whose testimony now lay at the heart of the entire case, did not mention the names of any of the reserve’s employees except for Shpilenok. According to lawyer Alexander Andreyev, who represented Roman Korchigin, Drozd himself didn’t understand why all of the park employees were on the defendants' bench at one of the hearings.

I ask him, "Did you know that these people were part of an organized crime group? That they received illegal money that they had stolen from [funds to] eliminate accumulated environmental damage?" He goes, "You’re kidding! I’ve never seen them before!"

Soon after Vitaly Drozd and Alexander Ilyin entered into the pre-trial cooperation agreement with investigators, they were released from remand prison and put under house arrest. Their sentences were handed down in 2020; both were given probation.

On July 15, the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky city court sentenced Kronotsky Nature Reserve employees Darya Panicheva, Roman Korchigin, Oksana Terekhova, and Nikolai Pozdnyakov to prison terms ranging from three to five and a half years. Ruslan Oshurov was sentenced to eight years. The court found them all guilty of embezzling the 454 million rubles (roughly $7.56 million) in state budget money that had been allocated to clean up the reserve. In addition to their prison sentences, the defendants were required to return all of the money that had allegedly been stolen.

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The court’s ruling, which left the reserve without four of its top employees, provoked outrage in the wider conservationist community. A group of over 60 ecologists published a letter to Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov requesting that he take over the case and try to get the sentence overturned. Kamchatka Governor Vladimir Solodov also expressed support for the reserve employees, while Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov said that his agency would insist on appealing the sentence.

After the sentence was handed down, Kronotsky Nature Reserve director Pyotr Shpilenok — the brother of the late Tikhon Shpilenok — resigned. “With all of this insanity happening to our people, I can’t continue putting my soul into the reserve like I did before. Right now, my main job is to save people; everything else has receded into the background,” he said.

The sun setting over the Kronotsky Bay
Dmitry Sharomov / Greenpeace

'You cross a moral barrier'

In 2019, when the new suspects (Panicheva, Terekhova, Zavadskaya, Korchigin, and Pozdnyakov) were added to the case, it was reclassified as a case of “embezzlement by an organized group” rather than simply “fraud.”

“This [the ‘organized group’ designation] is quite convenient when a case involves embezzlement of funds within organizations where the crime can be carried out by workers who often don’t even suspect that their actions are breaking the law in any way. The presence of a criminal group allows investigators to ‘splice together’ various disparate and uncoordinated actions by employees to paint a picture of a crime when the employees were just fulfilling their work duties,” said lawyer Alexander Andreyev.

The massive increase in the amount of money allegedly stolen — from 28 million (about $466,000) to 454 million rubles (about $7.56 million) — also made investigators’ job easier. Initially, investigators’ case was built on the idea that the Ekologia workers had failed to remove some of the trash from the reserve and had instead just buried it. But to establish the exact amount of buried pollution, a complex inspection would have to be carried out.

“Surveyors [were] supposed to go out [to the reserve]; it [was going to be] a very expensive examination. Everything would have to be done in coordination with the Natural Resources Ministry; this is a protected area, and every last insect would have to be accounted for. They would have to find the area where the trash was buried, dig it up, and find the equipment necessary to transport it all. Investigators thought, ‘Why would we do all this?’ and took the simpler path,” Andreyev explained.

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The lawyers insisted on conducting the examinations, but the court ultimately refused, ruling that it would damage the soil cover and interrupt natural processes. The court didn’t take into account the photo and video materials attached to the case, which showed the cleanups being conducted.

The investigation was ultimately based on testimony from Vitaly Drozd and former reserve employee Alexander Ilyin, who, according to Andreyev, expanded the alleged criminal group based on unclear criteria. By concluding the pre-trial agreement, they were potentially making themselves susceptible to outside influence from investigators:

“As a rule, when you sign a pre-trial cooperation agreement [with investigators], you always cross a certain psychological and moral barrier,” said lawyer Alexander Andreyev. “Sometimes you even betray your own comrades, friends, and partners, and on the basis of your testimony, people can be sent to prison.” And if a person refuses to amend a testimony at investigators’ request, Andreyev said, they risk the prosecutor ruling that they didn’t fulfill the pre-trial agreement and refusing to reduce their sentence.

Investigators also pressured witnesses. According to Ekologia employee Artyom Ladygin, a hazardous waste management specialist, he testified because he was detained by people with machine guns who threatened to put him in jail for 15 years.

A grim calculation

After the sentence, some parts of the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, including the Valley of Geysers and Kurile Lake, had to be closed for research and excursions; without the convicted employees, there was nobody to lead either one.

The ruling also led to a number of high-profile resignations in the Kamchatka conservation community. In addition to Pyotr Shpilenok, Kamchatka Volcano Park director Lyubov Timofeyeva quit, saying she couldn’t continue working in a system “that rewards people for working to conserve nature with a prison sentence.”

Kronotsky Nature Reserve employees created a petition in which they demanded their colleagues’ exoneration; by August 19, over 40,000 people had already signed it. Even the Russian division of Greenpeace has spoken out against the dubious sentence. 

According to lawyer Alexander Andreyeva, an appeal hearing is slated to take place in October 2022. The convicted reserve employees weren’t fired; they’ve continued doing their jobs to the best of their abilities from prison, and they’re worried about their suspended research studies. “This year, at least two pivotal projects have fallen through: one on the restoration of the wild reindeer population, and one on surveying Karaginsky Island. Everything was ready: the experts, the resources, and the logistics,” wrote Darya Panicheva.

Other regions and nature reserves in Russia who might once have been happy to receive grants to clean up their land will likely now have second thoughts, according to Dront Ecological Center director Askhat Kayumov:

One day you apply [for a cleanup grant], and the next they throw you in jail for five years. A lot of [reserve managers] are now going to stop and think, "We’d better not [participate in that program]. It’s better to have trash rotting and polluting [nature] than for us to get involved: they would give us money, we’d spend it, and then they’d put us in prison." It’s a real, serious threat to Russia’s entire nature protection system.

Story by Anna Evdanova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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