by Laura Williams, ’91
Last night I dreamt I was back in college at Cornell. I’d overslept and was late for Russian.
I ran into the classroom and everyone stared. I looked down to find that I had no clothes on. I dashed out the door and up the ivy-covered bell tower that stands at the head of the campus’ main square. I looked out over snowy Ithaca and the icy Finger Lakes and, for some reason, they resembled the frozen floodplain of the Nerussa River where I live today, in the buffer zone of the Bryansk Forest Zapovednik in western Russia.
I wake up; relieved my nakedness was only a dream. I think back to my first Russian class sophomore year. We began by talking about Gorbachev and his efforts to restructure the country, known as perestroika.
I looked blankly at the teacher and asked, “What’s perestroika?”
It was 1988 and although Gorbachev had been in power in the Soviet Union for three years, I was ignorant as to what was going on in the country.
“Why are you taking Russian?” the teacher asked.
He was right. If I knew nothing about Russia and didn’t follow current events, why would I bother to learn the language?
So I explained that I had always been interested in nature and wanted to work on global environmental issues. So, I figured, if I want to have an impact on global issues, I need to work with the world’s other superpower – the Soviet Union. That’s why I was taking Russian, I said, to build relationships between our two countries on environmental policy, global climate change, and nature conservation.
The summer after my junior year, I visited Russia for the first time, on a language exchange with ACTR to Leningrad State University. It was 1990 and the country was plagued by economic depression and food shortages, yet I fell in love with the people and the land. The next summer, after graduating from Cornell, I volunteered to go on a Russian-American park exchange trip with the Student Conservation Association. I traveled with three other American students and four US park specialists to work on a management plan for the Pereslavl-Zalessky National Park, two hours north of Moscow. While food shortages were still rampant, we were able to find plenty of strawberries and champagne to tide us over.
In 1993, after two years working at a think tank in Washington, D.C on energy conservation issues in Eastern Europe and Russia, World Wildlife Fund-US asked if I would be interested in helping establish a presence for the organization in Russia. I jumped at the chance and soon found myself living in a communal apartment in central Moscow, searching for a Russian compatriot to help me create a WWF office. I recruited a shrewd man named Vladimir Krever, who was then working for Glavokhota – the state organization charged with planning Russia’s nature reserves. It was Vladimir who first introduced me to zapovedniks and soon I began to admire the reserve system and its lofty goal of biodiversity conservation through total human exclusion. With the support of WWF US, Vladimir and I compiled a portfolio of urgent measures to save Russia’s zapovednik system, which many believed was on the verge of collapse due to the lack of political and financial support. Adopting our portfolio as the basis of its conservation work in Russia, WWF International approved creation of a Russian Programme Office on July 1, 1994.
The ten years since have seen enormous changes. WWF’s presence in Russia molted from a two-person project to an influential organization with 120 full-time employees and half a dozen field offices around the country, charged with implementing a wide range of conservation programs from the Caucasus to the Bering Sea. Hundreds of people have helped to make that happen, including Bill Eichbaum – the brainchild of WWF in Russia, who still serves as vice-president at WWF-US, and Russian supporters like Vsevolod Stepanitsky and Natalia Danilia, who ten years ago were key figures at the State Committee for Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources and who continue to be important conservation leaders today. I feel fortunate to have been a part of that process.
The past ten years have seen important changes for me as well. During my four years at WWF, I traveled to a number of zapovedniks and supervised dozens of projects, but one had an impact on me that would last a lifetime. In working to create an environmental education center in the Bryansk Forest Zapovednik in western Russia with funding from the Danish Government, I met zapovednik director Igor Shpilenok. In 1997, Igor invited me to head up the education center we had worked to create in the Bryansk Forest. Two months later, I left WWF and moved to the reserve. I am still here seven years since, now married to Igor and raising two sons in a remote village in the heart of the Bryansk Forest. I have transformed from city girl with a childhood dream to protect the global environment to country girl with horses, chickens, and a goat, committed to protecting the forest in my own backyard. And I have expanded my conservation efforts from carrying out concrete projects to building environmental awareness about Russia’s zapovednik system through my writings and Igor’s photographs, published in conservation magazines and on the internet for “Wild Russia,” a project of the Center for Russian Nature Conservation. Ten years ago, I never would have thought I would still be living in Russia today, but now I cannot imagine another life for myself.
Back in 1994, as a newcomer to the Russian conservation scene, I remember feeling fear and anger that the Russian Government didn’t value and support its zapovednik system and that the Russian people were unaware of their natural heritage. For a while, it seemed that things were beginning to change – from 1994 to 2000, 16 new zapovedniks (covering more than 2.6 million hectares) and nine new national parks (over 2.4 million hectares) were created. However, since Putin’s rise to power in 2000, not a single new protected area has been established. Financial and political support has continued to wane, and departments charged with managing zapovedniks and national parks have often been lost in cabinet and agency shuffles. While today I still fear that the future of the reserve system often depends on political whims, somehow, zapovedniks seem more engrained in the public mind – a part of society without which the country would not be whole. Moreover, I am confident today that any strike at the zapovednik system would be met with resistance from the capable and dedicated non-governmental sector and its international supporters.
Finally, the past decade has seen important changes for Russia. Food shortages are only bad memories, and now the only thing in short supply for most people (and conservationists) is money. Yet, many of my peers are now well established in careers that 10 years ago were only matters of speculation – real estate, marketing, business. And I am happy to see eager young biologists visiting our reserve each year for their field work, and to know that they will likely be at the forefront of conservation in Russia 10 years from now.
Looking back, I believe that my casual decision to take Russian was fate. The past ten years have proved to be the most exciting and dynamic time to live in one of the most exciting and dynamic countries in the world, particularly for someone interested in environmental issues. Suddenly vast swaths of land came up for grabs, and whether it was for development or protection was anybody’s guess, with the outcome in part depending on environmentalists like you and me.
Laura Williams lives with her husband, nature photographer Igor Shpilenok, in a remote village near the Bryansk Forest Zapovednik. A book on her first year in the village, called The Storks’ Nest has been published this month by Fulcrum Books.
Photos: top - Laura and Igor in duckweed-covered pond; bottom - Laura and Igor photographing from the UAZ jeep
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