‘Like prisoners of war’: North Korean labour behind Russia 2018 World Cup


A test opening of St Petersburg’s Zenit Arena in February treated 10,000 spectators to car racing, motorcycle tricks, dancers and a performing bear introduced as “Russia’s greatest hero”. But the patriotic ceremony failed to note that the stadium, in which Russia kick off the Confederations Cup in a fortnight in preparation for next year’s World Cup, was built mostly by immigrant workers from Asia, including from one of the world’s most repressive countries, North Korea.

A subcontractor who asked to remain anonymous said at least 190 “downtrodden” North Koreans had worked long hours with no days off between August and November last year and that one, a 47-year-old, had died on site. “These guys are afraid to speak to people. They don’t look at anyone. They’re like prisoners of war,” the subcontractor said.

An employee of a North Korean state company that brings workers to Russia told the Observer at a St Petersburg construction site that the men often worked long hours and had to give part of their pay to the regime in Pyongyang to “facilitate the country’s defence”, which includes its nuclear weapons programme.

Read on at the Guardian

The reindeer herder struggling to take on oil excavators in Siberia


Sergei Kechimov, an indigenous Khanty reindeer herder, lives in a one-room cabin with no running water more than 20 miles from the nearest village in Western Siberia. But his home is not as silent as you might think.

Across the swampy woodlands the beeping and rumbling of excavators are audible as they search for oil to prop up Russia’s slumping economy. Environmental protection for indigenous lands has recently been abandoned.

Kechimov, who has been appointed by his community as the guardian of holy Lake Imlor, remembers the lakes and rivers being so packed with fish that he could catch them by hand, but he believes that oil drilling has severely damaged the ecosystem.

The compensation the regional oil giant Surgutneftegas gives to the reindeer herders can’t make up for the harm done to their traditional way of life, he said. “They poison us with this filth and trick us.”

Read on at the Guardian

Russia’s rare snow leopards find protection in camera traps


The snow leopard is so rare and elusive that it’s commonly known as the “ghost of the mountains”. But researchers in the Altai mountains, where the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China converge, are increasingly coming face to face with this endangered animal through a growing network of camera traps.

On a recent day in Sailyugem national park in Russia’s Altai Republic, rangers in ski goggles and huge parkas were retrieving footage from a high-altitude camera trap – a black box holding a dozen AA batteries, a memory card and a motion-activated lens – nestled among a cluster of dark burgundy rocks covered with orange and green lichen. Such windswept ridges are where snow leopards typically travel in search of prey such as ibex and musk deer, sneaking down from above to break the victim’s neck with one crunch of their powerful jaws.

“When camera traps appeared recently it was a huge boost because scientists got their hands not just on footprints but on photographs of the leopard itself, so we can identify individuals and their area of distribution,” said the park’s assistant director, Denis Malikov.

Russia Wants North Korea’s Money, Not Its Refugees

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MOSCOW, Russia — A stocky 39-year-old Korean man in a white sweater with a snowflake pattern bustled around the kitchen, adding vinegar to a seaweed salad and spices to a pot of soup. He bowed and shook hands with everyone who entered, smiling and repeating “Hello!” and “Thank you!” in broken Russian.

It was the last night in Moscow for “Kim” — a pseudonym he uses to avoid retaliation against the relatives he left behind in North Korea — and the end of a saga that began during his native country’s great famine in the 1990s in which millions of his compatriots starved to death. Kim fled not once but twice. The first time he tried to defect, he made it to China, but was sent to one of Kim Jong Un’s infamous labor camps. The typical sentence for a defector was 10 years, essentially a death sentence, given that it meant 18 hours of hard labor a day, on three spoonfuls of rice each meal. But he managed to escape, this time to Russia, where his life became a constant struggle to avoid again being deported, to an almost certain death …

But there are many other North Koreans in Russia, and few are likely to be as lucky as Kim. As political and economic ties have improved in recent years between Moscow and Pyongyang, the two neighbors have signed treaties promising to repatriate criminals and all those “who have illegally entered and are illegally located” in each other’s countries.

Read on at Foreign Policy

Slow-motion wrecks: how thawing permafrost is destroying Arctic cities


At first, Yury Scherbakov thought the cracks appearing in a wall he had installed in his two-room flat were caused by shoddy workmanship. But then other walls started cracking, and then the floor started to incline. “We sat on the couch and could feel it tilt,” says his wife, Nadezhda, as they carry furniture out of the flat.

Yury wasn’t a poor craftsman, and Nadezhda wasn’t crazy: one corner of their five-storey building at 59 Talnakhskaya Street in the northern Russian city of Norilsk was sinking as the permafrost underneath it thawed and the foundation slowly disintegrated. In March 2015, local authorities posted notices in the stairwells that the building was condemned.

Cracking and collapsing structures are a growing problem in cities like Norilsk – a nickel-producing centre of 177,000 people located 180 miles above the Arctic Circle – as climate change thaws the perennially frozen soil and increases precipitation. Valery Tereshkov, deputy head of the emergencies ministry in the Krasnoyarsk region, wrote in an article this year that almost 60% of all buildings in Norilsk have been deformed as a result of climate change shrinking the permafrost zone. Local engineers said more than 100 residential buildings, or one-tenth of the housing fund, have been vacated here due to damage from thawing permafrost.

Read on at the Guardian

The town that reveals how Russia spills two Deepwater Horizons of oil each year


The Komi Republic in northern Russia is renowned for its many lakes, but sites contaminated by oil are almost just as easy to find in the Usinsk oilfields. From pumps dripping oil and huge ponds of black sludge to dying trees and undergrowth — a likely sign of an underground pipeline leak — these spills are relatively small and rarely garner media attention.

But they add up quickly, threatening fish stocks, pasture land and drinking water. According to the natural resources and environment minister, Sergei Donskoi, 1.5m tonnes of oil are spilled in Russia each year. That’s more than twice the amount released by the record-breaking Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The main problem, according to the natural resources ministry, is that 60% of pipeline infrastructure is deteriorated. And with fines inexpensive and oversight lax, oil companies find it more profitable to patch up holes and pour sand on spills — or do nothing at all — than invest in quality infrastructure and comprehensive cleanups, according to activists.

Read on at the Guardian

Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Actually Care About Saving Leopards


SOCHI, Russia — Three Persian leopards dashed back and forth along the far side of the enclosure, emitting low, forbidding growls. Suddenly, one charged at a Russian cameraman with a roar and a crash, 180 pounds of sleek muscle colliding with an increasingly flimsy-looking chain-link fence.

At the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center in the foothills above Sochi, scientists funded by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry plan to begin reintroducing the cats to their native Caucasus Mountains this month. These scientists work under the patronage of President Vladimir Putin, who styles himself as a defender of rare animals — especially large, picturesque, lethal ones. Before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin visited the center with journalists and was photographed petting a leopard as if it were a house cat. With his endorsement, a leopard was voted one of the official mascots of the games.

The leopards became a symbol of Russia’s supposed commitment to mitigating the environmental harm caused by the Olympics, which saw wide-scale destruction of the surrounding habitat: The protected Imeretinskaya Lowland, a marshy area populated by endangered bird species, was filled in with gravel to build stadiums, and the Mzymta River was so polluted that endangered salmon stopped spawning there. As compensation for environmental damage, the organizing committee promised to place a section of the upper Mzymta River valley, a key part of the leopards’ future habitat, under UNESCO protection, among other measures.

Read on at Foreign Policy

Stalin, Russia’s New Hero


Penza, Russia — AT School No. 58 in Penza, a regional capital that is an eight and a half hour drive southeast of Moscow, the jury is still out on Joseph Stalin.

“He was a great man, unique in history,” Zhenya Viktorov, an 11th grader, told me on a recent visit. His classmate Amina Kurayev was more circumspect: “It wasn’t as terrible as they say.”

And what about the millions of Soviets who were shot or sent to the gulags? “No one was repressed for no reason,” Zhenya said. When I asked him how many political opponents Stalin killed, he told me “thousands,” and argued that the purges weren’t as “big or inhumane as the media likes to say.”

At least 15 million people were killed in prisons and labor camps under Stalin and his predecessor Vladimir Lenin, according to Alexander Yakovlev, who led a commission on rehabilitating victims of political repression under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Estimates vary, but Stalin’s victims alone certainly number in the millions. And yet views like Zhenya’s are becoming more common in Russia.

Read on at The New York Times

Russia’s Reality Trolls and the MH17 War of Misinformation


MOSCOW — Every time more evidence has emerged that Russia-backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, someone in Moscow has called a press conference to throw smoke over the claims. It’s a tradition going back to the days after MH17 crashed on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board, when the Russian Defense Ministry held a briefing suggesting, improbably, that a Ukrainian missile or fighter jet had shot down the plane.

So it was little surprise when Almaz-Antey, the Russian state-owned maker of Buk missiles, held a press conference on Tuesday to shift the blame off Moscow and its separatist partners in eastern Ukraine. A report by the Dutch Safety Board released the same day found that MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile fired from an area near the town of Snizhne, which at the time was under rebel control. “It’s always special when people already know that they don’t agree with a report that’s not even published yet,” Dutch Safety Board chairman Tibbe Joustra told reporters when asked about the Almaz-Antey presentation, which took place hours before the Dutch findings were announced.

Read on at Foreign Policy

Belarus president shows how to win five elections – without even trying


In a school hall on the outskirts of Minsk, an unusual event is taking place. It’s a week before Belarus’s presidential election and voters are questioning an opposition candidate about the legitimacy of her campaign.

“I came here to make sure you’re not a KGB agent,” says one woman in the audience of about 50 people. Then a man asks why he should vote at all when the results are sure to be falsified.

The candidate’s reply does little to instil confidence. “The regime counts the votes for itself,” says Tatyana Korotkevich, the only presidential challenger claiming to represent Belarus’s democratic opposition. “If a different candidate wins it will know, and it won’t be able to ignore us. Then I will be able to continue agitating for peaceful changes,” she adds.

The event is unusual in Belarus because there are few government critics standing for election – and there is not much campaigning going on. There was one televised debate, but President Alexander Lukashenko, who no one doubts will emerge victorious after Sunday’s vote, did not take part. He doesn’t hold rallies, answer questions or go out of his way to meet voters at all.

Read on at the Guardian