by Emily Sloan, ’05, ’06
Laura Williams got her first position in the Russian conservation field through an international program with SCA in 1991. Seventeen years later, she is still in Russia, married to a local naturalist and photographer, raising two sons, and devoted to a tiny community in the western part of the country and the nature reserve adjacent to it.
Laura has detailed her unusual story in a book, The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside, which hits the shelves this month.
Laura first went to Russia after her junior year at Cornell as a participant in an intensive language program in Leningrad. Given the prominence of the Soviet Union as a global superpower at the time, Laura was drawn to Russian as a language that would allow her to get involved in addressing the world’s most pressing environmental issues at the international level. After graduating with a degree in International Environmental Policy, she returned to Russia as a volunteer with SCA, which was recruiting Russian-speaking students to accompany four American land management agency professionals on a trip to Plesheevo Lake to help plan a new park.
She explains what attracted her to the program:
I was looking for an opportunity to get to Russia to work on conservation issues. In fact, I had already been offered a job at a think tank in DC, which I had accepted, and my boss wanted me to start immediately after graduation, but I insisted on taking advantage of this opportunity and going to Pereslavl-Zalessky (90 minutes northeast of Moscow) with the group…I liked the fact that conservation professionals were going on this trip as well, so it would give me the opportunity to interact with them.
During her month as an SCA volunteer, Laura joined three other American students and four Russian geography students in providing translation during meetings with Russian Ministry of Environment staff and residents from the area where the park was being created. She also contributed to a proposal for establishing the park, which was officially founded in 1996.
In 1993, Laura moved to Russia on assignment with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She managed the first WWF program in the country, based in Moscow. After four years there, during which she helped set up an environmental education center for the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve, preserve director Igor Shpilenok invited her to manage the center she had helped to establish. So in 1997, she transferred to Chukhrai, a remote village of 18 residents surrounded by floodplain oak and conifer forest.
The Storks’ Nest is a memoir describing the first four seasons Laura spent in Chukhrai, during which her identity as an urban American was transformed by her experience of isolated, rural life and all of its hardships and rewards. It recounts her encounters with poachers, a wild horse (which she managed to tame), and an orphaned moose (which she helped raise), as well as her relationship with, and eventual marriage, to Igor Shpilenok. Laura developed great respect for Russian land managers, who differ from their American counterparts in that they face extremely limited budgets and sometimes quite pronounced opposition from the public. Most Russians, Laura says, “are concerned with just meeting their basic needs… in many ways, nature conservation is a luxury for people who already have all they need and want to conserve parts of the earth for future generations.”
Although awareness of environmental issues among the public may be lacking somewhat, Laura points out that Russia’s protected area network is quite progressive. It boasts a system of 101 zapovedniks, reserves exclusively designated for conservation and research. Laura continues to advocate for stringent conservation in Russia, especially in light of pressure to expand oil and gas development and threats from pollution and poaching. Although Chukhrai is undoubtedly her home now, she still manages to travel throughout the country, most recently on a two-year field assignment for WWF in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East.
In addition to The Storks’ Nest, Laura has written nature articles for National
Wildlife, BBC Wildlife, Geo, and Russian Life magazines. Her next book will focus on Kamchatka. Her husband is an internationally recognized nature photographer, the recipient of an award in the 2006 BBC Wildlife Nature Photography Competition and a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
The Storks’ Nest, published by Fulcrum Books, is available at Amazon.com.  Go to Igor's website  to see some of his amazing photos and read an excerpt from the book.
Photos (courtesy Laura Williams and Igor Shpilenok): top - Laura Williams; bottom - Moosik the baby moose, waiting for milk from Trofimovna