Atypical Activist Ready for Field or Courtroom

MTIvan Blokov said that environmental activists can sometimes work within the system.
On the wall above Ivan Blokov's desk hangs a collage of environmental protest posters, bumper stickers and photographs.

One urges in bright yellow lettering to save polar bears from Arctic drilling; in another, a Power Ranger cartoon character aims his gun at a radiation sign.

Berkeley, California? No, Greenpeace Russia's cluttered offices, where campaign director Blokov, 41, works to create and preserve national parks, monitor oil drilling, stop overlogging, save rare animals and keep nuclear waste imports out of the country.

Blokov led the Leningrad Green Party -- which later became the Russian Green Party -- in the early 1990s and represented the country at UNESCO's World Heritage Bureau, which works to conserve historic and natural sites.

Since joining Greenpeace, he has organized a signature campaign that nearly forced the government to hold a national referendum on importing spent nuclear waste. He also helped draw up a bill later passed into law allowing companies to label chlorine-free products with a special symbol. And his work has brought him to many a courtroom.

Blokov does not look like a typical environmental activist -- he is the only member of the office who wears a suit. "I might be called away quickly to a meeting at the [State] Duma," he said.

Blokov is not responsible for the wall, either.

"Those posters are all Masha's," he said, gesturing at a co-worker clad in jeans. "The only one that's mine is that picture of a brown Kamchatka bear that my colleague photographed when we were on a trip."

Blokov calls Kamchatka "one of the most beautiful and moving things I have seen in Russia" and said the far eastern peninsula's beauty encouraged him to defend the environment. He used to take off a month each year to travel, but now Blokov is too busy working behind his laptop or in a courtroom.

"Mainly I'm managing now. The original staff of four people has grown to 25, and the issues at hand are getting wider and wider," he said. "At the same time, the government and business have been getting more sophisticated about finding [legal] loopholes, so I am needed in the office."

Blokov became interested in the environment when he joined a movement in 1979 called the Student Brigade, which spoke out against overlogging and poaching. "Now it seems like that movement was really the only way to be a part of civil society. But, of course, we didn't know that then," he said.

Blokov graduated from Leningrad State University in 1985 with a degree in theoretical physics and later joined a scientific research institute. While working there in the late 1980s, environmental issues began to grab the country's attention, he said.

"From 1989 through 1991, statistics show that environmental issues were important to people," he said. "For instance, in polls they ranked around the fourth-most important issue to average Russians. Now it's something like 11th or 12th, and public protest is down, too."

In 1991, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the government announced that political parties could compete in elections, Blokov and some fellow environmentalists formed the Green Party.

Blokov chaired the Greens until 1994, when, worried that the environment was no longer a major issue for voters, he left to head Greenpeace's campaign department.

Since Blokov's arrival, Greenpeace has taken a hands-on approach to the environment, he said, spending more time cleaning up oil spills and garbage, measuring radiation and taking ground samples from polluted areas.

Blokov's pet issue, though, is overlogging. Public involvement in forestry is important because woodlands cover such a huge part of the country that environmental activists cannot monitor them alone, he said.

Old-growth forests are a priority, he added. Such forests -- which originated through natural succession and are almost untouched by human impact -- constitute less than 15 percent of European Russia's woodlands and less than 30 percent in Siberia.

Greenpeace helped create the Kalevalsky National Park, an old-growth area, last year after pushing the government to cordon off the land since 1994.

Spent nuclear fuel is another important issue, Blokov said.

President Vladimir Putin in 2001 signed a law allowing spent fuel to be imported for reprocessing. Supporters of the law say the imports could earn the country $20 billion over 10 years.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups joined up and collected 2.5 million signatures in an effort to force a national referendum. But the Central Elections Commission and regional election commissions rejected 600,000 of the signatures, and they fell short of the 2 million needed for a plebiscite.

Blokov believes the spent nuclear fuel bill's cons outweigh the pros. "It might be quick money now, but the problems begin later," he said. "We can't even deal with our own spent fuel."

Blokov said his work brings him into direct conflict with the government, but he is not afraid to take on officials.

"I know the government doesn't like Greenpeace," he said. "The Duma is always talking about what troublemakers we are, but that is because they are afraid of us."

But not every action has to be a confrontation, Blokov said, recalling a peaceful day in 2001 when 50 Greenpeace activists gathered in the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district to clean up an oil spill.

Sometimes activists should work within the system, he said. They can even wear suits and meet with government officials and corporate executives -- and take them to court if need be.