How 30 Greenpeace Protesters Got in the Way of Putin’s Dream of a Russian Arctic

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Greenpeace International activist, one of the 'Arctic 30,' Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel from Brazil, holds a poster in a defendant cage in a court in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 18, 2013.

Masha Gessen reviews the case of the Arctic 30, a group of Greenpeace activists arrested (video below) and jailed by Russian president Vladimir Putin and charged with piracy. Gessen explains that it’s dangerous to antagonize Gazprom, the state’s energy monopoly, and even more dangerous to challenge Putin’s dream of a Russian Arctic. The Arctic 30 activists were released just before the Olympics began in Sochi, but Gessen writes that their experience was an education in the brutality and corruption of Russia’s prison system. Her article “Northern Exposure: Protest, Petroleum, and Putin’s Dream of a Russian Arctic” is in the June issue of Harper’s.

Masha Gessen, on why the story of Arctic 30 is bigger than oil drilling in the Arctic:

“It’s really more a story about Russia’s national identity and Russia’s national ambition rather than the oil drilling.”

The Arctic 30 were charged with felony hooliganism, the same charge brought against members of Pussy Riot: “The way the charge…is worded is ‘a crude disturbance of the social order.’ So that’s what Pussy Riot did when they entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and sang there. And that’s apparently what Greenpeace did. It’s a little a more difficult to wrap your mind around because, of course, what social order there is in the open seas is sort of open to debate.”

On how the annexation of Crimea and the Arctic 30 story are connected:

“It is part of the same phenomenon. I had reported the entire story and actually submitted it before the Crimean invasion. But I realized that the story is so much easier to understand for Americans now that Crimea has happened.”

On why the Arctic 30 didn’t get as much global attention as Pussy Riot:

“I think it is absolutely mind-boggling that 30 citizens of 18 different countries, including two American citizens, are kidnapped by armed Russian men in international waters and thrown into Russian jails. And the United States media, United States activists and the United States government is not shouting about it on every street corner – I find that unbelievable.”

On what’s happened in Russia since the end of the Olympic Games:

“The crackdown has intensified significantly since the end of the Games, which coincided with the beginning of the war in Ukraine. And I think that the right way of putting it – it’s a war between Russia and Ukraine, at this point. And Russia is very much cracking down according to the rules of wartime. So cracking down on the opposition and cracking down on independent media. And I think a deathwatch is in order for independent media at this point.”

Greenpeace's video of the Russian Border Guard boarding the Arctic Sunrise: