The road from Irkutsk to the resort town of Listvyanka curls for about an hour through a white forest frozen under thick snow. My driver, Sasha, turned down his favorite techno music: “Here it is,” he said happily and slowed the car, pointing at the wonder of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It is the oldest and deepest lake in the world and sits at the southern edge of Siberia, near the Mongolian border.
Icy cold northern sunshine poured through the trees at this town at the mouth of the shiny Angara River, powerful, turbulent and never freezing as it flows out of the enormous lake. Puffs of white steam rose from water of Father Baikal, as people here lovingly address their precious lake.
For centuries, ancient Baikal has inspired art and religion among all ethnic groups living peacefully around Baikal—Shamanists and Buddhists here tie up colorful ribbons to trees in gratitude, with wishes whispered; Orthodox believers build churches on the lake’s banks. Some residents pray to the planet’s holy jewel, to preservation of their Siberian sea.
Others do not care whether the lake will stay clean for thousands of years, and have taken to dumping sewage into it. The road to Listvianka ended suddenly at a cliff, outside a red brick, multi-story hotel called Gold, of dubious reputation. Last February, locals watched a disgusting scene: yellow liquid was running right out onto Baikal’s ice from a hose that stretched from the hotel. This time, it was dirty laundry water. “Washing powder that contains phosphate is very dangerous for the lake’s species,” Marina Rikhvanova, a senior ecologist from Irkutsk told The Daily Beast. “The pollution causes overwhelming growth of Spirogyra algae, which pushes out Baikal’s endemic sponge, the key cleaner of Baikal’s water, and destroys invertebrate organisms, the main food for Baikal’s fish.”
Today Lake Baikal, like a huge mirror, reflects Russia’s core challenges of indifference to human rights, disregard for a threatened environment, and the power of corruption and authoritarian pressure on independent voices that are crucial for increasing public awareness.
Five years ago, the Russian Justice Ministry listed 29 environmental groups as “foreign agents” for working on foreign grants and being a threat to Russia’s security. Conservationists, previously working on increasing public environmental awareness, became tied up with solving legal issues, struggling to prove that they were no harm to Russia’s security. As a result of the new law’s pressure, 14 green groups labeled as “foreign agents” have stopped their activity, Human Rights Watch reported last year.
One of them was Rikhvanova’s once well-known NGO, called Baikal Ecological Wave, a group of activists who had devoted more than two decades of their lives to supporting environmental education and organizing scientific expeditions to Lake Baikal. “The law spoiled our reputation, we spent time and efforts to defend our group in courts and eventually closed down the old Baikal Ecological Wave.” Rikhvanova, the co-founder of the NGO and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.
Winter days are short in Siberia. By 3 p.m. on my visit, the northern sky turns purple over the peaceful waves of Lake Baikal. Angela, a local street seller of smoked, salty fish and tea, gave her samovar a friendly look, as to an old friend. The tea ceremony looked shamanic. Pursing her lips in the frosty air, Angela put cranberries in the teapot, then black tea and in the end a pinch of Sagan Dalya, a native herb growing on the hills around the lake. Angela lifted her eyes to the horizon, where gentle clouds puffed over the lake’s turquoise surface in fresh frosty air: “See, Father Baikal is steaming, like my samovar,” she joked and then grew serious. “This tea will revive you, but first try some of my omul, it might be the last fish on sale,” Angela offered her smoked Omul, a salted, fatty delicacy that tastes like fishy salami.
Until recently, omul created business opportunities for local residents, and lots of gastronomic pleasures for Baikal visitors. Every morning, in spite of icy winter wind, fishermen in their waterproof gear walked towards the shore and fishmongers set up their oily, black fish smokers along the road, so visitors like us could have omul for lunch. But due to poaching violations and increasing pollution, the population of omul in the lake has dramatically dropped in the last few years. The harvest fell from 50,000tons down to 10-13,000. So, since October, authorities restricted omul fishing to 5 kilos or about 11 pounds of fish per person—a crucial change for locals largely dependent on the Omul industry.
“Posledny,” or the last one, is the word you often hear around Baikal these days. “We have many concerns about Baikal getting sick: Omul disappears, dozens of Baikal seals die, tons of Spirogyra algae rots on the shore in summertime,” Maria Moreva, a guide at Baikal Museum at Listvianka told The Daily Beast.
Spirogyra always existed in the lake but not in the disastrous volumes of the past two or three years. Expeditions organized by Irkutsk Limnological Institute in 2017 discovered foul smelling heaps of dirty, dead algae washed by the waves onto the shore on the northern coast of Baikal.
But new hotels grow as mushrooms after the rain in Listvianka. Local families living near one new hotel said when they boiled water from their well it smelled strongly of ammonia.
“Chinese entrepreneurs arrive in large numbers and develop the hotel businesses, even on Alkhon Island. Authorities should oblige every hotel to construct and use sewage treatment plants,” Moreva told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, the lake is ringing its alarm bells: In late October, 132 Baikal seals died and washed ashore, to be found by locals on the beach. Some seals were pregnant. It is still unclear what could have caused such a mass disaster – some scientists suggest that it was a natural process, that the seal population is too large, others insist that there is not enough food for seals in the lake. But nobody denies that the lake is in danger.
Pollution of Baikal was a core issue at a recent meeting of Vladimir Putin’s supporters, All-Russia People’s Front, in the republic of Buryatia. “The scale of violations - worn down cleaning facilities, illegal dumps, cutting down trees just amazes,” State Duma deputy Nikolai Buduyev said at the meeting, adding that all ships sailing in Baikal dump the waste into the lake. The participants agreed to work on a legislative project to stop violations. To watch the implementations of such legislation around the 395-mile-long lake, the region would need an army of environmental groups for protection. But the number of independent activists is shrinking in Russia faster than the Omul.
“The worst danger is people’s unwillingness to self-organize, to form communities for protecting Baikal’s purity,” Rikhvanova said. In Russia today, the newest danger is one of indifference.