One of the first things you notice upon arriving in Kamchatka is that there are very few old people. The harsh climate is partly to blame, but it is human influence, rather than natural forces, that shortens the lifespan of local residents. Despite its unspoiled appearance, the peninsula is filled with toxic pollutants. This is only the beginning of the problem, however. The most frightening aspect of pollution in Kamchatka is that no one is really sure how contaminated the peninsula might be.
Under Soviet rule, when the state owned everything and employed everyone, there was no one to keep watch over the environment. The state was concerned with increasing production and maintaining its military might. If doing so required polluting the environment and threatening the health of its citizens, then so be it. The scientific community- entirely dependent on the states for funding- simply wasn't allowed to investigate government pollution. As a result, areas of the Soviet Union that had a substantial industrial complex (nearly everywhere, since the Soviets sought to industrialize every facet of life) or military presence (anywhere along the Soviet frontier)were drenched in pollutants.
Located on the farthest eastern frontier of Russia, Kamchatka is immensely important to the Russian military. So important, in fact, that the peninsula was closed to all outsiders (including Russians who did not have explicit permission to be there) until 1990. Kamchatka is home to the Soviet Pacific Submarine Fleet, several major airbases, and is an important testing ground for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missles (fired from western Russia, these missles are aimed at uninhabited regions of Kamchatka in order to test their precision, as well as to test systems for tracking them and shooting them down).
This substantial military presence has contaminated the landscape with heavy metals, radiation, and other pollutants. A large naval base across from Petropavlovsk bobs with poorly maintained nuclear submarines; while I was living in Kamchatka a few years ago, one of the submarines sank at its mooring due to a lack of maintenance. No one has any sense of how much radiation may have been released during this accident, and no hard figures exist as to the level of pollution on the peninsula in general.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought the Russian people a corrupt, autocratic government which cares surprisingly little about its people- scant change from what they had under the communists. What has changed, however, is the coercive power of this government- the state no longer has total control over the populace, and the populace has taken full advantage of this, forming literally thousands of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs, or non-profits) devoted to working outside (and frequently around) the government in order to improve their society.
During my time on Kamchatka, I worked with two NGOs. Kamchatka Children's Communications (KamCC) is an organization that provides free computer education to the children of Petropavlovsk, few of whom have access to a computer at home or at school. After being introduced to the general workings of a computer, the children are taught to program. They are also taught about the internet, though a lack of funds prevents them from actually surfing the net (internet access in Kamchatka costs ~$7/hour for an excrutiatingly slow connection, while median per capita income is around $200/month). Through a partnership with TIES, an organization in Minnesota (USA), the childrens' web page creations are available on the net. For a region as isolated as Kamchatka, this is incredibly valuable- through their web pages and the email that they generate, the kids of Kamchatka have gotten to know children the world over.
The Kamchatka Independent Ecological Group (KIEG)was founded by a group of concerned scientists who wanted to use their scientific knowledge to better their community. Their important work has two components, scientific and social:
Click here to learn how you can help.