Hakai Magazine

Tikhaya Bay, Sakhalin Island, Russia
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the remarkably biodiverse ocean, rivers, and forests of Sakhalin island have been vulnerable to large-scale oil extraction, mining, and commercial fishing. Photo by Dmitry Serbin/Shutterstock

Dmitry Versus Goliath: Environmentalism in Russia’s Far East

Once branded a foreign agent, a Russian activist has worked for 24 years to protect the island of Sakhalin from industrial development.

Authored by

by Yana Skorobogatov

Article body copy

From a car window, I watch as the scenery changes. Over the course of three hours, urban asphalt morphs into unpaved dirt and concrete infrastructure into mountainous woodlands. And finally, ocean, a sign that we are approaching our final destination. But then a crowd of cows, leaderless and loose, stalls our progress. They’ve spilled onto the road from their pasture, and all we can do is wait.

Environmental activist Dmitry Lisitsyn is behind the wheel on this drive along the coast of Sakhalin, a sturgeon-shaped island just north of the Japanese archipelago.

A landmass roughly the size of Massachusetts, Sakhalin is remarkable for its biodiversity. Many endangered species call the island’s waters home, including western gray whales, Sakhalin sturgeon, and the world’s third-largest salmon population. The cows sprawling across the two-lane coastal highway are emblematic of summer on this island off Russia’s east coast, a brief moment of bounty in a place where scarcity is the norm. In addition to the cattle grazing along the road, you’ll find wildflowers erupting in the fields, and plump vegetables, fat fish, and giant, barnacled Kamchatka crab in the local markets. They arrive seemingly all of a sudden and simultaneously.

But in recent decades, Sakhalin has become the site of intense development, from oil extraction to mining to commercial fishing. In the weeks leading up to our trip, Lisitsyn had received reports of commercial fishing malfeasance off the coast of a beach town called Krasnogorsk. Locals had told him that fishing nets cast across swaths of the adjacent bay were getting too long and too far out into the bay, violations of regional and federal regulations. So that’s where we’re going, a 200-kilometer drive from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin’s largest city, where Lisitsyn lives and works.

Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, Russia

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is the largest city on the remote Russian island of Sakhalin. Photo by Sputnik/Alamy Stock Photo

Once in Krasnogorsk, Lisitsyn, two volunteers, and a couple of employees will spend the day gathering evidence to see whether these reports are true, and if so, they will publicize the data on the website for Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW), the NGO Lisitsyn heads. Finally, they will file complaints with the island’s environmental regulatory agencies. By translating local rumors into verified data, Lisitsyn and his team are instrumental in stopping Sakhalin’s ocean, rivers, and forests from turning into an unregulated playground for industrial exploitation.

The workday is like any other for Lisitsyn. He traverses the island’s rugged landscape to collect data on environmental abuse, speaks at local town hall meetings, and confronts industrial polluters in court, just as he has done for the past 24 years of his life. Now 52, Lisitsyn continues to dedicate himself to conveying the message that Sakhalin, contrary to prevailing assumptions, is not entirely open for business. In the process, he’s received dozens of awards from international environmental advocacy groups, been labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government, and become a self-taught field researcher, all on account of his work on a little-known island in the Russian Far East.

Lisitsyn arrived on Sakhalin with his family in 1989. He moved from his native Siberia, where he had served in the Soviet military, to a post in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where his aging and ailing mother-in-law lived. Lisitsyn had never been to Sakhalin before, and planned to live there just until his mother-in-law returned to health.

“At first I didn’t like Sakhalin at all,” Lisitsyn remembers. “More than anything, I was shocked by how small the trees were.” He was used to the towering trees of Siberia’s boreal forests and mountains. Over time, however, he got used to the smaller trees and developed an affinity for Sakhalin’s multifaceted natural environment. He stayed on even after he completed his military service. Sakhalin was where he first saw the ocean, where he caught his first wild salmon, and where he had his first encounter with a grizzly bear.

Since his arrival on Sakhalin, Lisitsyn had dreamed of moving out of the city of around 200,000 people and building a home deep in the island’s conifer taiga, a setting more similar to the boreal forests he grew up around. But in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The result was the creation of 15 separate nations, including Russia, and a painful economic collapse that preceded the country’s realignment to a market economy.

Plans of moving into the forest evaporated; Lisitsyn had to stay in the city, the only place on the island where he could find manual work. It was during these years that he first got involved in local environmental politics. “I eventually realized that rather than run away from the problems around me, I had to meet them face to face and find a way to solve them,” he says.

Dmitry Lisitsyn, the founder of Sakhalin Environmental Watch

Dmitry Lisitsyn, the founder of Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW), was labeled a “foreign agent” for accepting funding from a US organization in 2015—money he subsequently returned. Photo by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo

Russia immediately opened Sakhalin to large-scale industrial harvesting of its natural resources: crude oil buried deep in the seabed, herring swimming in the ocean and rivers, and coal locked in the inland bedrock. The 1990s witnessed a parade of multinational companies, such as Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell, march into the space. Since 1991, Sakhalin, along with Moscow and St. Petersburg, has received more investment than any other place in Russia.

The impetus to launch an environmental organization came early during the construction of Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2, the region’s two most productive offshore oil and gas developments. In 1996, years before the developments became functional, Lisitsyn had joined forces with the British environmental researcher and consultant Emma Wilson to form SEW. Their goal was to monitor the consequences that Sakhalin-1 and -2 and similar development projects would have on the island’s natural environment.

Wilson met Lisitsyn, who goes by Dima among his friends, in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union’s collapse meant NGOs from around the world could work in Russia for the first time. Wilson came to Sakhalin to lay the foundation for a locally run organization that would commit itself to environmental protection. “I still remember, we were on the bus with his friend Sasha, and Dima was standing there,” Wilson says of her first encounter with Lisitsyn. They were squashed together and just nodding and saying hi, nothing much in the way of real conversation. Off the bus, Sasha urged Wilson to talk with Lisitsyn. “I said, ‘Okay, why?’” Wilson recalls, “and he said, ‘Well, I think he’s the guy you’re looking for.’”

Wilson listened. And as impressed as she was with Lisitsyn then, she today admits that she could have never imagined that SEW would accomplish all that it has over the past 24 years. “If I say what is my biggest achievement in my career, it’s finding Dima,” Wilson reflects. “That is actually the biggest impact I’ve had on the world.”

Despite Lisitsyn’s limited training in geological science—he had begun pursuing a degree in geology back in the 1980s, only to drop out after being drafted into the Soviet army—he knew the environmental impact that projects as ambitious as Sakhalin-1 and -2 could have. In 2016, Sakhalin-2 alone produced 11 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas, the equivalent of 100 megatonnes of emitted carbon, or one-seventh of the total amount of CO2 emitted within Canada that same year.

Sakhalin II project's Lunskoye A platform

The Lunskaya-A drilling platform is part of the Sakhalin-2 project, Russia’s first liquefied natural gas plant. Photo by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo

“The first time I met Dmitry, he was a carpenter for a local museum,” says Doug Norlen, an environmental activist at Friends of the Earth International who first met Lisitsyn on Sakhalin in 1997. “So we met him in the carpentry shop, and Dmitry took his forearm and wiped off a bunch of sawdust off his worktable and plopped his laptop down on it.” The scene is emblematic of Lisitsyn’s approach to environmental work—sweep aside any barriers and get to work. “He was really doing a lot of work by the seat of his pants,” Norlen remembers.

Since cofounding SEW with Wilson, Lisitsyn and his small team of two full-time employees, one part-time employee, and a rotating pool of volunteers have served as watchdogs overseeing the ecological consequences of various development projects on Sakhalin. With the help of Wilson, Norlen, and other seasoned environmentalists, Lisitsyn and SEW staff have learned the practical and political ropes of environmental activism. And they’ve enjoyed many great successes. They led efforts to pass legislation banning waste dumping in the Sea of Okhotsk, halted the construction of an oil pipeline through a major gray whale feeding ground, and secured protection for the Vostochny wildlife refuge, a regional nature sanctuary known for its bear and salmon populations, which spans 670 square kilometers of ancient forest and coastal lands in northern Sakhalin.

Wins aside, SEW faces a somewhat unique challenge as an NGO on Sakhalin.

I meet Valery Krimpa, public and government affairs advisor for Exxon on Sakhalin island, at an upscale seafood restaurant in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Krimpa and Lisitsyn have known each other for years, and communicate enough that they have each other’s numbers programmed in their phones.

Krimpa is in the process of devouring a sea urchin when I ask him to share his thoughts on Lisitsyn’s activism. “He believes really strongly, he’s very passionate about saving the environment, and, in this sense, I agree with him completely,” he pauses to stab some sea urchin flesh with his fork. “But there comes a point where you need to separate passion from the science.”

Krimpa has hit on one of Lisitsyn’s biggest challenges. Unlike his colleagues in North America, Europe, and mainland Russia, Lisitsyn has a very thin network of marine biologists, geologists, and environmental scientists to rely on to do field research, take samples, and conduct lab tests to provide the scientific evidence SEW needs to prove that environmental abuses are taking place.

There are several reasons for this. For one, Sakhalin is home to a single university, Sakhalin State University, limiting the number of research and employment opportunities available to scientific researchers. Second, its remote location comes with a prohibitively high cost of living, one that rivals that of Moscow. Sakhalin’s nearly 500,000 residents rely on planes to deliver the perishable foodstuffs—from milk to bananas to beef—they do not produce enough of on the island year-round to fill their grocery store shelves. High prices on everyday items reflect this premium delivery method and push people to pursue careers in industries that pay well.

Which is why the vast majority of Sakhalin’s relatively few researchers seek out jobs in the private sector. According to Lisitsyn, “All of the top scientists have ties to the oil industry.” To do his work, Lisitsyn has had to forge close ties with the few researchers and laboratories on Sakhalin that don’t have business or financial ties to the oil industry.

Map of Sakhalin, Russia

Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

SEW has trouble competing with oil companies for talent because it has limited funding. Like many of his peers, Lisitsyn is constantly preoccupied with finding ways to attract revenue to keep SEW’s lights on. But unlike many of his peers, Lisitsyn can’t count on grassroots philanthropy for funding. Charitable giving is far from the norm in Russia where, less than three decades ago, people relied on and expected the socialist state to provide them with public services including healthcare, housing, and even environmental protection. To overcome this funding vacuum, Lisitsyn has had to rely on international organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, to remain solvent, a pursuit that has become politically fraught in recent years.

In 2015, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation donated US $150,000 to Lisitsyn to help him further his environmental campaign. Yet the donation came at a politically inauspicious time. That year, the Russian government, responding to foreign sanctions imposed by Western nations, began to target Russian organizations that accepted large sums of money from individuals and companies abroad, affixing to them the label of foreign agent.

What may sound like a moniker out of a James Bond film carries profoundly negative implications in Russia. To be branded a foreign agent is tantamount to being called anti-Russian and unpatriotic. For Lisitsyn, the label misrepresented everything he has been working toward for over two decades. “For me, what we do is extremely patriotic,” he says. From his standpoint, the SEW team has dedicated their lives to protecting a biologically diverse, economically valuable, and environmentally at-risk corner of Russia’s natural environment. He sees SEW as an organization whose many missions include guaranteeing that current and future generations of Sakhalin residents need not travel off-island or outside the country to enjoy nature in its purest and most native form.

The foreign agent designation attracted so much negative publicity that Lisitsyn returned the $150,000 grant to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and pledged never to accept money from foreign organizations. Today, SEW’s operations depend on donations from Russian private sector philanthropies and a small pool of individual contributions, sources of funding that have come under threat since late 2015, when the ruble crashed and the Russian economy suffered a downturn from which it has yet to recover.

Not far from where the herd of cows stopped us in our tracks, we arrive in Krasnogorsk and unload gear from Lisitsyn’s SUV. The plan for the day is simple: head out in a boat to find out if commercial fishing companies are breaking government fishing regulations.

The cavalier attitude of the companies is one more blow to the community. During the Soviet period, Krasnogorsk thrived. Mining, shipbuilding, timber, farming, and commercial fishing industries drew people to the city during the second half of the 20th century. After 1991, the town suffered the same fate as did its counterparts on the Russian mainland. Factories and ports shut down. Jobs disappeared. People moved. By 1997, the town veterinary clinic, movie theater, kindergarten, and primary school had all closed down. In 2004, the government downgraded Krasnogorsk to village status. In 2012, the village was home to around 3,000 people, down from a high of 7,000 in the 1970s. The local economy revolves around forest management and restoration, not enough to sustain a large population. Locals continue to fish, but their catches are small compared to what their industrial counterparts are capable of reeling in.

At the shoreline, just two kilometers from Krasnogorsk’s little downtown, we all pull on rubber boots, walk into the waves, and hoist ourselves onto an inflatable boat. The ocean treats us to cold but calm conditions, swaying us with just enough might to remind us we are in its embrace. We steer the boat about one kilometer from shore, to where the fishing nets rest submerged in half a dozen clusters. We work around each net’s perimeter, stopping at each buoy to mark its coordinates with the help of GPS.

satellite image mapping commercial fishing nets

A satellite image of a beach outside Krasnogorsk on Sakhalin shows commercial fishing nets, identified in red, spread far past the 1,500-meter legal limit, marked in green. Image by Sakhalin Environment Watch

The team will later map the collected data onto a satellite image showing fishing nets extending long past the allowable 1,500-meter mark. By casting longer nets, commercial fishing companies increase the chance of trapping protected fish like pink salmon, all to satiate the global demand for wild-caught fish. The practice has inspired some local residents to engage in poaching, yet another abuse that Lisitsyn and SEW are dedicating to curbing.

We head back to shore after two hours on the water. It’s early evening, but before driving back to the city, we sit around a campfire to eat—a tradition at the end of each outing. We dig into the hot dogs, tea, and spinach picked fresh from the garden this morning.

During the drive back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, we pull over a few times, to enjoy a sunny break through the clouds or roam through a field of beachside wildflowers. We’re mostly silent, almost solemn, observing—and maybe even honoring—the generous beauty that the natural environment has gifted to us on an otherwise gray day.

Our final stop is on a small bridge. A narrow river flows beneath us. Two men dressed in faded army fatigues are chatting and fishing, their flimsy fishing rods dangling over the railing. Lisitsyn suspects that they’re poaching taimen, an endangered species of salmon native to Sakhalin. He approaches the men, his manner friendly.

“Lots of fish today?” Lisitsyn asks.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty good day,” one man responds with a smile.

Before Lisitsyn can press for more details, the other suspected poacher looks up, does a double take, and interrupts.

“Hey! You’re the guy from Sakhalin Environment Watch!” he exclaims, signaling to his partner to keep quiet.