In September 2013, 30 Greenpeace activists from 18 countries protested Russia’s drilling in the Arctic. In response, their ship, Arctic Sunrise, was seized by masked commandos, and these men and women were charged with piracy and thrown into the Russian prison system. Read their story in Don’t Trust Don’t Fear Don’t Beg, yours to own with a donation to Truthout. Click here to order this gripping book today!
Truthout recently interviewed Ben Stewart, who heads media relations for Greenpeace International and is the author of Don’t Trust Don’t Fear Don’t Beg.
Mark Karlin: What was the action that members of Greenpeace on the ship Arctic Sunrise undertook in 2013?
Ben Stewart: It was September, and the codename we gave this action was Azeroth. The plan was to sail the Arctic Sunrise towards the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and do something to stop its drilling and simultaneously draw global attention to what was happening up there. At that point the Prirazlomnaya was the most controversial oil platform in the world; it was trying to be the first rig to pump oil from the icy waters of the Arctic. It was at the vanguard of the new Arctic oil rush.
There were 30 people on board our ship – 28 activists and two journalists. The plan was to scale the side of the rig and hang a one-ton survival pod off the side. Some protesters would live in the pod, tweeting and Skyping from it. It would stop the drilling and allow them to communicate why they were there.
Why was the activist effort to stop Arctic oil drilling by the giant Russian oil and natural gas company Gazprom so urgent?
We felt we had to take a stand against Arctic oil drilling. You can’t clean up an Arctic oil spill – if a Deepwater Horizon-style disaster struck, it would be a calamity. It took 6,500 boats to “clean up” the Gulf of Mexico; that kind of deployment is not possible in the polar regions. And if there was a blowout, the return of winter ice could very quickly stop the drilling of a relief well. That would mean oil spilling for months, gathering under the ice and circulating around the pole.
Then there’s the irony of drilling for oil there. It’s only possible because climate change has caused the summer sea ice to retreat. We’re drilling for the fuels that caused the ice to melt, and when we burn it we’ll cause the ice to melt more, letting them drill for more oil. Most people see the melting ice as a warning for humanity. The oil companies see it as a chance to drill. It’s insane.
What is the status of Gazprom’s exploration for oil and natural gas in the Arctic as of June 2015?
Gazprom ended up pumping oil in 2014, and delivering it to Rotterdam. Sanctions against Russia have affected their ability to fully exploit the Arctic this season, but the company (and Putin) are determined to push deep into the Arctic region.
How did the Russian government respond to the protest?
Minutes after the protest was launched, these guys in masks tore in on speedboats. They waved knives then guns; they fired shots; an armed coastguard ship fired its cannon over the Arctic Sunrise. It was chaotic and terrifying for the people involved. Our teams retreated. Then the next day a helicopter took off from the coastguard ship. It hovered over the heli-deck on the Sunrise, then heavily armed, masked commandoes began abseiling down. They seized the ship at gunpoint then towed it towards the mainland. It took five days, and in that time the commandoes cleared out the Greenpeace crew’s stash of Sailor Jerry rum, so the Russians were drunk, bouncing down the corridors in their masks, cradling their guns, stinking of booze.
When they arrived in Murmansk they were taken to court and told they were accused of piracy. It carries 10 to 15 years in jail, in a country where 99 percent of trials end in a verdict of guilty. Suddenly this was an international incident. Our guys were Putin’s hostages.
How did you become involved in the international effort to release the Arctic 30?
I have worked for Greenpeace for many years, and led the first expedition to challenge Arctic oil drilling off Greenland in 2010. When the crew were seized I was asked to lead the global media campaign to free them. There were hundreds of us involved around the world, with seven or eight of us in the London hub headquarters. We existed on a diet of candy, coffee and fear. We felt we were playing geopolitical chess with Putin; it was a question of who would blink first.
Your book sheds a lot of detailed light on the Russian prison system. Can you describe a few of the degrading experiences of the Arctic 30?
To be honest, their experience wasn’t as degrading as the conditions faced by the normal Russian prisoners. The Arctic 30 were in a sense protected. The mafia bosses who controlled the prison decided that the Arctic 30 had been the subject of a gross injustice, and they let some of the Greenpeace prisoners know they would be safe there.
The Greenpeace prisoners were given access to a remarkable prison communications system. It was called the doroga – the road. Every night the prisoners made ropes, then slung them through the windows – up, down, left and right. And prisoners at the other windows would catch them. So on the outside walls was this rope network – like a physical prison internet. They used it to share contraband and messages. So it was like email. You could write to your friends. This was a vital network that allowed the activists to get the provisions they needed and to stay sane.
The eight women were kept in solitary confinement, but they developed a code to communicate. They tapped spoons on the radiator pipe that connected their cells, and by this method they had long, involved conversations. It kept them from losing it.
The prison governor was a psychopath, and in the book there are lots of stories about his maltreatment. One time he told Dima from the Arctic 30 that his inspiration was the Gestapo. He said, “They stand at the very apex of penitentiary science. We learned everything from them.” How Dima deals with this guy is one of the most interesting parts of this story.
Greenpeace was formed in 1971 and has frequently engaged in high-profile protests that have enraged oil companies and governments. In 1985, the French government was responsible, for example, for the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, a bombing that killed one crew member.
What impact do you see the high seas engagement of Greenpeace having on the unchecked expansion of fossil fuel extraction?
Well, the bombing of the Warrior was a disaster. French commandos planted limpet mines to the hull of our ship. When they exploded they killed one of our colleagues. It was state-sponsored murder. The captain that day was Pete Willcox, who was also captain of the Arctic Sunrise when it was raided. He’s an extremely interesting figure for me, committed and very sharp. He allowed me to quote extensively from his Russian prison diary.
I think the bombing of the Warrior had a huge impact. The French program of nuclear testing in the Pacific was ended, in part I think because of the huge pressure they suffered after their role in the bombing was exposed. I think something similar has happened after the Arctic 30. The saga focused global attention on Arctic oil drilling. Our opponents often overreach. Since the Arctic 30, it has been harder for oil companies to drill there without encountering huge opposition. Look at Shell in Seattle. There was a great coalition of groups taking action as the Shell rig waited to sail north.
Gazprom has an official relationship to the Russian Federation, including shares owned by the state and Vladimir Putin himself. However, is it much different in terms of the collaboration of the US government, for example, with oil companies?
I actually think there is. Gazprom is a state-owned company. Putin is Gazprom is Russia is Putin. It means when you’re going up against Gazprom you’re challenging Putin. In the States, the relationship between corporations and government is strong. It’s a real challenge to democracy – sometimes (often) the government is acting on behalf of corporations. But we’re not quite at the stage where they’re the same thing – although it feels like it’s going in that direction sometimes.
What is your reaction to the innovative and large protest against the Shell Arctic oil rig that had been temporarily anchored at the Port of Seattle just this past month?
Ah yes, that was remarkable. Inspiring. It gave me goosebumps. I was at the Cannes Film Festival when it happened (the book is being made into a film by David Puttnam and he was announcing it there). I went to the shop in Cannes and saw those kayaks on the front pages of European newspapers. It was exhilarating to see. Those people are heroes.
What do you say to individuals who, out of despair, have given up trying to challenge the earth-destroying profiteering of the fossil fuel giants and their government supporters?
Change happens quickly. Look at marriage equality. In 2004 it was a GOP wedge issue; now it’s a killer for them. Something is happening out there on climate change. A movement is stirring. If we can beat them in the Arctic, if we can draw a line in the ice and say, “You come no further,” then we can roll south and challenge their dominance across the globe. But it needs a movement. The Keystone XL campaign inspired people across the world. It showed that we can win this thing. Come back, sign up, join in, join up. You don’t have to go to jail in Russia.