MOSCOW — As he drives down a country road on the outskirts of Volokolamsk, a small town near Moscow, Sergei Zhukov says he is desperate to leave Russia.
“I’d leave here if I could and move to Western Europe,” said Mr. Zhukov, a 35-year-old farmer. “This is no place to live anymore, no place to bring up a child.”
The root of Mr. Zhukov’s dissatisfaction isn’t the economy, the level of political freedoms, or the quality of health care and social services.
The source of his unhappiness reared into view as he turned a bend: a sprawling landfill garbage site containing tens of thousands of tons of rotting, putrid waste. The noxious stench from the dump frequently hangs over Volokolamsk, causing coughing fits. Levels of hydrogen sulfide and chlorine in the air are so high that the town’s children routinely wear respiratory masks to school.
It may seem basic, but the issue could have a dangerous resonance for the government of President Vladimir Putin. With other parts of the country experiencing environmental-related protests, the unhappiness could be a rare avenue to challenge not just local authorities but also the Kremlin.
“When problems are hushed up and not solved for a long time, then people start to think that the authorities should be replaced, because you can only get rid of the dump by getting rid of the governor,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a prominent political analyst.
On one particularly bad day in March, locals say, toxic gases from the open-air landfill poisoned almost 200 people, including dozens of children. Those affected complained of nausea, dizziness and vomiting. When regional officials arrived in Volokolamsk to try to placate the angry crowd that had gathered outside the town’s hospital, tempers flared.
Yevgeny Gavrilov, the head of the district, was hit several times on the head, and Andrei Vorobyov, the region’s powerful governor, was forced to flee as snowballs and chunks of ice flew in his direction. A small girl named Tanya dressed in a pink coat became an instant internet meme after she was caught on cameras making a throat-slitting gesture at Mr. Vorobyov, a senior member of Mr. Putin’s ruling party.
The trouble in Volokolamsk that afternoon was the continuation of a series of grass-roots protests against the landfill. At the beginning of the year, the dump began accepting dozens of trucks a day full of garbage from Moscow and surrounding towns. “I’d never been on a protest before,” said Mr. Zhukov. “But no one was listening to us. Not Putin, not the regional officials.”
Activists charge that the landfill, and others like it in the region, are controlled by a “garbage mafia” with high-level connections.
Volokolamsk isn’t the only town near Moscow to witness ecological protests this spring. Residents of nine districts dotted around the Russian capital have regularly taken to the streets to demonstrate against mismanaged landfills. Unlike many other European countries, Russia recycles just 4 percent of its garbage. More than 90 percent of its refuse is simply dumped in huge landfills that are often close to residential areas. Germany and Sweden recycle almost 90 percent of their garbage.
The ongoing protests are a concern for the Kremlin because they have involved thousands of ordinary people, including many who traditionally support Mr. Putin. Some regional officials and Russian Orthodox priests have also come out in support of the protesters, who have called for the dismissal of Mr. Vorobyov as the region’s governor. At an April 21 protest against a landfill in Kolomna, a town 70 miles southeast of Moscow, police arrested a priest who was blocking a garbage truck delivering waste to a landfill.
Of particular concern to protesters is what they suspect are plans to put into operation what would be the largest landfill garbage site in Europe. Just 25 miles from Moscow and 500 yards from a village, the 158-acre Malinki landfill could pollute water supplies for a half-million people. Officials froze plans to open the landfill last year after public protests, but locals remain wary.
“If we don’t keep protesting, the garbage trucks will be on their way,” said Sergei Modestov, an environmental activist.
Stung by this unexpected show of dissent, authorities have started to hit back. Activists have been detained, beaten and had their apartments raided. On April 13, investigators carried out an early-morning search at the home of Pyotr Lazarev, Volokolamsk’s popular mayor.
“I have absolutely no doubt that this raid was a warning to me to stop supporting the protesters. I’ve been told by highly placed officials that if I don’t do so, then I will have problems,” Mr. Lazarev told The Washington Times in an interview in his office.
“I’ve also had threats from criminals linked to the landfill,” he said. “But I have no intention of abandoning the people of this town. I swore an oath to try my best to protect them from harm when I took office, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
Despite the pressure, Mr. Lazarev said, he continues to support Mr. Putin.
“If he really knew what was going on here, he would resolve things,” he said. It’s is an opinion echoed by many other people in Volokolamsk, including some of the most committed anti-landfill activists.
“Why would Putin do anything bad to the people who voted for him?” said Olga, a housewife who has been involved in all protests against the dump. “It must mean he is being lied to about the true situation here.”
Mr. Lazarev is not the only regional official to face threats over the landfill protests. On April 8, Alexander Shestun, the head of a district to the south of Moscow, said high-level officials had warned him that he faced trumped-up criminal charges if he did not drop his support for the environmental activists.
“This is how [highly placed Russian officials] usually communicate with lower levels of officialdom: in the language of commands, threats and ultimatums,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant. “This case is unusual only in that [Mr. Shestun] dared to record the conversation and make it public.”
In Volokolamsk, Maxim Konopko, the director of the landfill, said the environmental activists were all in the pay of a rival garbage disposal business. He also insisted that the dump had sickened no one.
“They faked all those illnesses,” he said while offering no evidence for his claims. Asked if he believed the landfill was a health risk for nearby residents, he replied, “Living is a dangerous business.”
Amid the gloom, there is one glimmer of hope for the people of Volokolamsk. The regional governor’s office has tentatively agreed to hold a public referendum on the future of the landfill. But no date has been set, and activists are uncertain if it will proceed.
Until it does, those who can leave town are doing so. But selling up and moving out isn’t so easy. Property prices have dropped by about 70 percent in Volokolamsk in recent months.
“We spend all this money on bringing Syrian children to Crimea,” said Mr. Zhukov, the activist, referring to a Kremlin project that recently saw the children of Syrian President Bashar Assad brought for a vacation to the Black Sea. “But what about our own children, who are choking on poison here? Why doesn’t anyone care about them?”