Fifteen years ago, I was the recipient of a Sara’s Wish Foundation grant at a turning point in my life. I was a graduate student at NYU, getting my master’s degree in public service with a concentration on international development, and had decided to take a semester off in order to work with an exciting foundation in Siberia. The Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center (SCISC) nurtured grassroots activists and nascent non-profits across a vast and breathtakingly diverse swath of Asiatic Russia, a terrain that differed dramatically from the capital city of Moscow, or the intellectual hub of St. Petersburg, where most of the resources for civil society groups were focused. I was drawn to Siberia for reasons that I find hard to explain. I was born in Soviet Ukraine and came to the U.S. with my family as political refugees. Geologically speaking, Siberia was as foreign to me as China or Borneo, but I think something about growing up in America during the cold war and the unshakeable feeling of outsiderness this experience left me with, had much to do with it. The vast majority of Siberia was, after all, originally populated by outsiders: victims of Stalin’s purges, political dissidents, iconoclasts, religious non-conformists and fortune seekers. But the harshness of the climate and sheer remoteness of Siberia, forced these seemingly disparate groups together; people to rely on their friends and neighbors to a far greater degree than in other parts of the world. So Siberia developed this unique culture, a cocktail of rebel spirit, personal toughness, surprising warmth and boundless hospitality. The first time I experienced it, as the administrator of a small program that sent English teachers to formerly-closed city of Chita, I was hooked.
I used the money from Sara’s Wish to purchase a camera and computer gear for the project I had developed together with SCISC: to document how grassroots groups across Siberia were putting micro-USAID grants to use. I traveled across Siberia, documenting the work of these groups in words and photos, and built a comprehensive website for SCISC that demonstrated how small, but strategic, investments were transforming communities across the region. After graduation, I got a job as a consultant and continued to work mostly in Siberia, which by now, truly felt like home to me.
After my daughter Zoe was born in 2011, I decided to leave my consulting job, realizing the heavy international travel schedule wasn’t very compatible with the family life. I turned to journalism instead. Throughout this time, I kept in close touch with my friends and former colleagues in Siberia, and wrote numerous stories about Russian politics and culture. I maintained a keen interest in what was happening in Siberia and often checked the local language news to keep up with current events. Then, this past summer, I stumbled across a story that I just couldn’t put out of my mind, about residents of a remote Siberian coal-mining city who had asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to grant them asylum from Russia as environmental refugees. They had filmed their appeal on a cell phone and uploaded it to YouTube. Standing in a barren field with their voices barely audible above the wind, they explained an abandoned Soviet mine shaft had caught fire beneath their neighborhood, pushing toxic gases into their homes, yet the local government refused to resettle them. My mind exploded with questions. I learned that the source of the mysterious video was a woman named Polina, the city’s only independent journalist, and that by merely reporting the truth, she was exposing herself to dangerous pressures.
Within the past ten years, environmental journalism has become one of the profession’s most dangerous beats. Unraveling the chain of accountability behind environmental abuses invariably leads reporters to the thresholds of the powerful and the wealthy, and in countries where the rule of law is weak at best, exposing the truth often comes at a perilous cost. In Russia, journalists and activists who investigate the secretive and powerful mining industries responsible for providing much of the nation’s wealth face the gravest risks. And coal is an industry that Russia wants to protect at all costs.
Most Western countries have pledged to phase out coal — aside from the hydra of health and environmental ills it spawns, coal is the single greatest contributor to Co2 emissions on the planet and one of the largest drivers of climate change — yet Russia, the world’s third largest exporter of coal, is doubling down on it. Putin has vowed that coal production will increase by at least 25% over the next fifteen years, from 440 million tons to 550-670 million tons.
Six weeks later after my first conversation with Polina, I was on a plane back to Siberia for the first time in nine years, only this time my goal was to make a documentary film. I am so gobsmackingly proud and grateful to announce that Sara’s Wish Foundation recently became the very first funders this film about ordinary Russians determined to wrest back control of their land and one journalist’s quest to expose the truth about a city on the brink of environmental catastrophe before it’s too late.