Human rights conditions for environmental civil society in Russia: 2023 status update

Yet another year, bringing a human rights situation worse than the previous. Naturvernforbundet and our Russian partners are following the situation[i], as the conditions for civil society is of vital importance for possibilities for environmental protection.
In this article, we will present the main development of 2023 in civil society conditions in Russia, with focus on environmental groups and activists. The article is written by Vitaly Servetnik and Kjersti Album.

[i] Our previous reports can be found at
A general description in Norwegian can be found at

Article authors Vitaly Servetnik and Kjersti Album in St.Petersburg some years ago

1.Overall description of the 2023 situation

The main difference in 2023 compared to previous years, is an increase in use of legislation on “undesirable organizations”. This resulted in pressure on and then following closure of international environmental NGOs’ branches, because interacting with “undesirable organizations” is a criminal offense in Russia.

For comparison, the only environmental organization in the “undesirable” list was US based Pacific Environment, labeled in 2018. Five years later, in 2023 five NGOs was labeled. [i]

First Bellona, which already closed its offices in Russia in 2022. Greenpeace International was labeled “undesirable organizations” as well, which forced its Russian branch to close down. WWF in Russia was first labeled “foreign agent”, and some thought that this would allow their work in Russia, but soon after international WWF was labeled “undesirable organizations” as well. WWF Russia, which registered in Russia as a Russian NGO, declared a cease of cooperation with international WWF holding hope to maintain some work in Russia, but since then no public activity was seen.

With closure of Greenpeace and cease of active work of WWF there has been lack of national level advocacy. Throughout the recent year this function was mainly on the shoulders of these two big organizations, based in Moscow. Numerous regional and local organizations must now figure out how to do it and whether this is even possible.

Two more “undesirable organizations” – The Altai Project and Wild Salmon Center – are US based NGOs supporting work on specific issues in specific geographic areas – Altay and Far East.

This is the development we saw earlier with human rights groups: First Russian organizations was labeled “foreign agents” in order to cut them from the foreign funding. Then their possible donors are labeled “undesirable organizations”. The goal is the same – to cut international support and make it impossible to continue the work.

2. Changes in the legislation in 2023

This chapter draws heavily on information from OVD-info and Meduza[ii]

Most of the new repressive legislation aimed at those criticizing the war. For example, penalties have been introduced for “spreading false information” about volunteer formations, organizations and people who help the Russian army (from 10 to 15 years); penalties for assistance in the execution of decisions of international organizations in which the Russian Federation does not participate, or foreign government agencies. Decisions of international organizations should, in order to consider an action to be a crime, be related to the criminal prosecution of officials, military personnel, or “volunteers”, while officials should be prosecuted because of their official activities, and military personnel should be prosecuted for carrying out “tasks assigned to the RF Armed Forces” (up to 5 years).

Some penalties have been tightened. For example, for “discrediting” the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and government bodies (from 5 to 7 years), for crimes against public security and state power – this is the commission of a terrorist act, sabotage, participation in a terrorist community, treason (up to a life sentence). Also, multiple tightened liability introduced for violations related to military duties and mobilization.

At the same time authorities softened punishments for police officers: Now an intentional crime committed by a policeman is no longer considered an aggravating circumstance.

What could be related to the environmental work is introducing liability for participation in a foreign non-profit organization, information about which is not in the special register of the Ministry of Justice, as well as the organization of its activities on the territory of the Russian Federation. They will be held criminally liable for participation in such an organization if a person has been brought to administrative responsibility twice in a year under a similar article of the Administrative Code or already has a criminal record related to the activities of an “undesirable” organization and continues to “participate in the activities of an unregistered non-profit organization (up to 3 years). This is another step towards similar legislation in Belarus, where participation in any unregistered organization is criminalized.

More censorship for the media and spread of information. Introduced liability for failure to comply with orders or warnings from the Ministry of Justice. For example, a media outlet that does not indicate that a person has been assigned the discriminatory status of “foreign agent” risks receiving a fine of up to 300 thousand rubles.

The responsibility of the media and owners of audiovisual services for the dissemination of materials with “calls for extremism” or with its “justification” has become stricter. Previously, people could only be punished for distributing materials included in a special federal list. Now responsibility will come for the dissemination of “other extremist materials”, which are described in the relevant federal law. Punishment for legal entities is a fine of up to a million rubles or suspension of activities for up to 90 days with confiscation of equipment.

3. Increased use of psychiatric treatment to punish and silence activists

Although not new, we have seen in 2023 an increase in use of compulsory psychiatric treatment, so-called punitive psychiatry, known as a repressive practice in the Soviet Union. In 2023 we noted at least three such cases: Two against environmental defenders related to their environmental work, and one against environmental defender for his anti-war action.

Alexander Bakhtin, defender of the forest in Moscow region was sentenced to six years in a general regime colony and compulsory outpatient psychiatric treatment for disseminating “fakes” about the Russian army because of three anti-war posts on VKontakte.[iii]

In Krasnoyarsk court placed Yevgeniya Yelizaryeva in a psychoneurological dispensary for an examination of up to 30 days. Formally she was accused of insulting an official, which is a criminal offense in Russia. Yelizaryeva linked the pressure to her active civic involvement on issues including waste management and her opposition to the construction of a radioactive waste facility in the region by the state nuclear corporation Rosatom.[iv]

In Kemerovo region an investigator ordered an outpatient psychiatric examination for blogger Mikhail Alferov, a member of the initiative group “No to Krapivinskaya hydropower plant!”, he was charged under articles on the use of violence against a government official, inciting hatred or enmity and defamation of a judge. [v]

A similar tendency was noticed against other activists. For example, in the Moscow court in the case of Memorial co-chairman Oleg Orlov, the prosecutor demanded psychiatric examination. She said that Orlov shows “a heightened sense of justice, lack of instinct of self-preservation, posturing in front of citizens.” The court rejected this request.[vi]

This type of pressure is one of the worst, and the threat can pose an effective barrier to activism. There is a fear in society of ending up in psychiatric institutions, due to their closed nature and possible changes in the psychological state after using drugs. In fact, you will find yourself in a situation close to imprisonment plus involuntary medical intervention. In a closed medical institution, it is extremely difficult to exercise public control over a person’s condition and the possible abuse of his basic rights.

Additionally, portraying activists as mad also marginalizes their activism and activist groups they represent. The authorities make it seem insane to be an activist in Russia.  

4. Environmental issues interlinked with other issues

Environmental protest cannot be strictly separated from other issues. Reading stories about Russian activists, one might struggle to understand the connections between the different aspects of a situation.

The reason is that environmental issues are highly political and very interconnected with other issues, even if some activists do not want their environmental issues to look political. This is because of years of intended depoliticizing of the public sphere and repressions. And it goes without saying that environmental rights are human rights.

Some local activists would say that they just want to defend their park, forest or a river, or environmental experts focus only on flora and fauna conservation. But those in power, whose private economic interests are challenged by saving a park or a forest with a rare species and not allowing the building of another mall or a new mining site, clearly see environmental work as a threat.

In Bashkortostan the situation is more politicized, and the scale is bigger. They think of their environmental rights as an inseparable part of their indigenous rights. And the authorities look at it as nationalism and separatism.

In the case of Fail Alsynov, he is being persecuted for a speech on a demonstration against gold mining, and he is also known for defending Kushtau mountain from Bashkir soda mining company in 2020. The Russian state is well known for using all sorts of fake accusations to silence the activists: fraud, drugs, extremism.

This is one obvious link between issues: an unjust persecution of an activist sparks a bigger political protest. Also, we see that people start with solving their local issues and encounter an ignorant state, then they start questioning the unfair system.

5. The space for environmentalism

Several environmentalists have left Russia due to the war and the alarming human rights situation. What are the possibilities for those who choose to stay, in terms of environmental work?

As said earlier, a national level advocacy seems quite problematic in the current situation. But even here some work is possible if you frame it as a conservation effort, and especially if you frame it with patriotism.

For example, in absence of international environmental groups’ branches, the recently established (January 2023) “Expert council on conservation matters” (in Russian Экспертный совет по заповедному делу)[vii] now regularly examines federal legislation related to nature protected areas and comment or send requests on important conservation issues. As a result, the bill proposed to allow abolishment of protected areas has been withdrawn by its initiator.[viii]

At the same time, more is possible at the local and regional level than on national level. We also see local protests, even blockades. The number of persecuted activists during protests looks smaller in 2023 than in 2022, but bigger than in 2021.

Activists who chose to stay must censor themselves in order to be able to do their work. Public outreach is a minefield, because more and more laws are introduced that restrict any expression, but this is still a possible time for consulting and building relationships and coalitions.

Those who chose to leave can also contribute to the environmental work in Russia by assisting and consulting from a distance, or by being a voice of those who cannot speak freely to the outside world, to the banned media, and advocating against isolation of civil society.

But as we say, “resistance is not useless”, meaning that no one can guarantee a success in an environmental struggle in current Russia, but success is possible: either in defending the territory or defending the defenders.

For example, residents of the Poltavskaya village, Krasnodar Territory, achieved the closure of the landfill: the governor announced that the landfill would not resume operation and would be cleaned up. In the Mainsky district of the Ulyanovsk region, residents achieved a refusal to build a landfill, residents of Yaroslavl achieved the closure of a waste incineration plant.

Environmental activists in Vladimir and Mytishchi achieved the cancellation of the construction of concrete plants, and in Kursk – the ammonia plant.

Suzdal park in Kaliningrad received the status of a protected area, in Saratov activists achieved the relocation of residential buildings construction in order to preserve the nightingale grove, residents of Nizhny Novgorod defended a green alley allocated for logging, Pulkovo park was excluded from landscaping program, in Yaroslavl a birch grove defended, Ekaterinburg residents preserved Kalinovsky Forest Park, court prohibited the Novosibirsk mayor’s office from building a hotel instead of a park, the Shuvalovsky forest was excluded from the development zone, and in Kazan the Chaikovye lakes were recognized as a specially protected natural area.

Also in 2023, 2 sentences in criminal cases brought against employees of protected areas – the Kronotsky Nature Reserve in the Kamchatka Territory and the Samarskaya Luka National Park in the Samara Region – were overturned, and the cases themselves were sent for review.[ix]

6. About the war

Two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine, how do Russian environmental activists and groups relate to the war?

Some environmentalists abroad from the beginning devoted themselves to advocating for sanctions on Russian oil, gas and nuclear. And the Russian nuclear industry is still not under any effective sanctions. Others got involved in the monitoring of the environmental consequences of the war.

Environmental activists in Russia also protested the war and got persecuted for that. Regions on the top of the list with more environmental defenders persecuted for their anti-war actions are the same regions with the most active involvement in environmental activism. For example, Arkhangelsk region and the Komi republic are ahead of Moscow, which holds 1/10 of the whole country’s population. And those are the regions where five years earlier a mass mobilization.[x]

7.What can Norwegian authorities, environmental organisations and concerned individuals do to help Russian environmentalists?

According to Russian environmentalists we have talked to, Norway has so far has been the most reasonable European country in its reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the only open border and continuous support for civil society organizations.

We have asked what can be done in order to help Russian environmentalists, and Russian civil society in general. Here are the main inputs:

a) Know more, understand more, explain more to others

Russia is still the biggest country in the world with a lot of valuable nature and at the same time with a lot of dangerous facilities. It is very important to follow what is happening in Russia and understand both environmental and societal developments.

Differentiating corrupt militaristic elite from general public and brave activists is also a key. Keep sanctioning the elite and keep supporting the activists, not vise-versa. In contrast with the countries that keep buying Russian mineral resources and preventing Russian activists from entering.

b) Continue with visas, cooperation with civil society

Supporting Russian civil society is a contribution to the sooner fall of the regime and the fastest rebuilding of the well-functioning society, concerned both for the democracy and the environment. Therefore, maintaining support and cooperation, allowing Russian activists to travel (visas) and find refuge when persecuted (asylum), investing more in building bridges between societies, not less.

8. Into the future

Each year, the situation for civil society in Russia seems to get worse. What can we expect to happen in 2024?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “the same”: the situation will get even worse. Especially after the presidential election in March 2024 we expect the regime to reinforce pressure.

At the same time, environmental issues don’t go anywhere. They will remain and create more activists. Clean air and a green park are not the “western” values, and Russian authorities will have to react to people’s environmental grievances.

[i] List of NGOs labelled is available at

[ii] Article from December 2023: