Yablokov and Me

In addition to being on Long Island all my working life as a journalist, then later a journalism professor, I have also spent considerable time in Russia. But as Vladimir Putin grabbed more and more power and seized dictatorial rule, I wouldn’t go back there under any condition.The brutal invasion of Ukraine that he has had Russian military embark upon, as well as his declaration as it began that if any nation “tries to impede us…the Russian response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never seen in history is a brazen threat of starting nuclear war – and none of this is surprising to me.After the Challenger blew up in 1986, I learned that its next mission had been scheduled to loft a space probe fueled with plutonium, the most lethal of all radioactive substances. Had the plutonium probe been aboard that fateful 1986 mission instead, the impacts could have been horrendous. I broke the story in The Nation magazine, and that’s when my involvement with Russia began.I was contacted by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, the most eminent environmentalist in Russia, the former environmental advisor to Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. He was long concerned about the space nuclear activities of Russia and previously the Soviet Union. There were accidents like in the U.S. program including one in 1978 when a Cosmos satellite with a nuclear reactor onboard crashed to Earth, breaking apart and spreading radioactive debris over 500 miles of northern Canada. He invited me to Russia to share information on the nuclear-in-space issue.There would be many visits – seven in all – and presentations including one in 1998, in Voronezh, organized by Yablokov’s Center for Russian Environmental Policy on “Toward a Sustainable Russia: Environmental Policy;” followed by speaking in 1999 at the “All-Russia Congress on Protection of Nature,” in a packed sports stadium along the Volga River in Saratov; then in 2000, presenting at a conference on “Health of the Environment” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.Russia has been a surprise for me. For example, Tomsk in Siberia looks like Vermont with streams flowing amid woods of white birch. And the people I’ve met are lovely.I became friends with Yablokov and he stayed with us at our home in Sag Harbor. He enjoyed this area and was intrigued by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. I found through the years that not just Yablokov but the many Russians I connected with were remarkably warm and friendly.My last presentation was a keynote speech, “Parallel Atomic Universes,” at a “Russian-American Women’s Leadership and Nuclear Safety Activism” conference in Tomsk in 2002.Putin had become prime minister in 1999. And things were changing—quickly. There was repression of the press and a takeover of media by Putin allies. As to environmental progress, a huge reversal has begun. As Yablokov said from the podium at a 1999 environmental conference in Moscow: “The result of Putin’s politics is fascism.”In recent days, here in the U.S. and around the world, Putin has been compared to Hitler. The comparison is apt.The last time I was with Yablokov was 15 years ago. We met in New York where he had come to participate in a conference at the UN about whales. The plight of whales and dolphins had been an early research subject for Yablokov. He would go on to write hundreds of articles as well as textbooks on biology and ecology.When we met that last time, Yablokov had become leader of the Green Russia component of the Russian United Democratic Party and was also deputy chairman of the party—acronymed YABLOKO—which was challenging Putin. He told me of being followed and of living in an authoritarian state.When Yablokov died in 2017 he was eulogized as the “the towering grandfather of Russian ecology,” in one publication.The Putin reign is one thing; the Russian people another. This Hitler-like former KGB colonel who has amassed a multi-billion-ruble fortune in his rise to power, has brought Russia down – and if he is not stopped, what will he do to the world?