Russia’s Southern Ural mountains, in the Republic of Bashkortostan, are known for their picturesque landscape. Shihans – limestone mountains – are the remnants of reefs of ancient seas. They are very different from the surrounding steppe landscapes and unique communities of plants and animals have formed here. It’s a sacred place for local residents, and every mountain has a personal lyrical name. Legend says that the mountains protect the landscape and the residents from big shocks and upheavals.

Unfortunately a decision to extract limestone here was made in the 1950s by soviet authorities. There were four shihans in Bashkortostan but the industrial development of one of them, Shakhtau, completely destroyed it for the production of baking soda, in which limestone is the raw material. Now the work at Shakhtau is almost finished, there are three shihans left and the company has begun to look for a new source of raw materials.

View from Kushtau, Southern Ural mountains, Russia. Credit: © Ivan Zhilin, Novaya Gazeta.

The Bashkir Soda Company plans to continue mining limestone at Kushtau, the neighboring shihan. But technology that uses limestone for soda production is outdated and not nearly sustainable. 

“Limestone is needed only for one thing – it is burned to obtain carbon dioxide that’s used in the soda production process, but there are newer technologies in which limestone is not used at all,” said Mikhail Kreyndlin, expert on nature reserves at Greenpeace Russia. 

“At first, the company wanted to mine at another shihan, Toratau, because it is closer to the plant. But Toratau has the status of a natural monument, so their plan was rejected. The Bashkortostan authorities made a decision that they considered a compromise: to give up Kushtau by issuing a development permit,” he added.

Thousands of people peacefully protested the mining activity in Kushtau. Credit: © Ivan Zhilin, Novaya Gazeta.

Residents of the republic have been striving to shift the status of Kushtau to a specially protected natural area for several years. Unlike its neighbours – Toratau and Yuraktau – Kushtau has no conservation status. Last year Bashkir scientists conducted a study of the mountain and found over 40 animals and plants listed in the Red Book, which should in itself prohibit any mining on this mountain. The list of rare and endangered species in Kushtau is as long as 44 pages. Biologists appealed to the leadership of the republic, but the Bashkortostan head Radiy Khabirov chose to ignore them and the relevant Russian legislation (Federal Law “On Environmental Protection”, Federal Law “On Wildlife”) which expressly prohibits actions leading to the destruction of the habitat of the Red Data Book species.

On 3 August strangers in camouflage arrived in Kushtau. They started to cut down the trees and constructed a fence in the territory preparing for their next activities. Police appeared alongside these company workers. Local villagers and the residents of the nearby town of Sterlitamak formed a human chain to prevent big tractors from entering the place. As the workers didn’t leave, the activists organised a camp and asked the media to help to spread the message. Police from the outset protected the industry, not the local residents and peaceful protestors. 

Police violently ended peaceful protest activities in Kushtau. Credit: Supplied by activists.

On 15 August the activists’ camp was raided by police and by a private security company hired by the company. By now there were thousands of people protesting. For over eight hours police tried to remove people from the area. Finally the activists’ camp was demolished by heavy tractors and someone punctured all the water tanks in the camp, so the activists would no longer have water. Protesters were severely beaten and dragged into police wagons. Eighty activists were detained. Local residents were injured in the severe confrontation. In the evening the mining company rebuilt the fence with barbed wire and continued cutting down the trees.

Journalists who had come to the area to cover the story and bear witness to what was happening had their equipment grabbed and damaged: phones were snatched from their hands and several cameras were smashed. Pro-government media and even some journalists who had been unbiased previously, began spreading misinformation on the situation.

Greenpeace Russia has filed a legal complaint: “According to the Russian forest legislation (the Forest Code) it’s prohibited to limit public access to the Russian forests (only if the activities are dangerous for people). This work is illegal and any restrictions on public access are illegal too. Greenpeace Russia has filed a complaint to the General prosecutor’s office and is waiting for the reaction,” said Mikhail Kreindlin. 

Nefteyugsnsk workers taking part in protests across Russia in solidarity with the people at Kushtau. Credit: Supplied by activists.

Single-person pickets and online strikes to support local activists protecting Kushtau were organised in Sterlitamak, Ufa, and other Russian cities as well as abroad. Despite protesters in Russia standing alone with their placard, mask and gloves, the police repeatedly checked documents and tried to detain individuals, citing violation of Covid-19 restrictions.

On Sunday 16 August, the worst scenario began to unfold. Fresh police forces arrived, in bigger numbers, and began detaining activists who had returned to their demolished camp to clean up the mess police and company workers had left behind the night before. Phone signals were jammed so reporters and activists could not broadcast news from the scene. Blood was spilled and peaceful people were harmed.

But the protestors stayed strong despite fierce pressure from police, security services and the industry and finally achieved a great success: the Head of the Republic of Bashkortostan Mr. Khabirov visited the site and promised to stop all activities on Kushtau until a compromise is found. He promised a dialogue with people.

Greenpeace Russia believes that the final victory can only come when the government grants special protected areas status to Shinhan Kushtau and the Bashkir soda company and industry as a whole ends the use of limestone and shifts to sustainable technology for its production. 

Local activists in Kushtau need your support to spread the word about their courage and hope! Your interest will put additional pressure on the local government to keep their promise. Greenpeace Russia is calling for all the activists to be released. We defend their rights to protest peacefully, for a healthy environment and civilised dialogue. What happened in Kushtau was an outburst of police violence that we can not stay silent about! 

Vasilisa Yagodina is the Media Coordinator at Greenpeace Russia