March/April 1995 Issue #32

Citizens Assess Risk: On the Margins of Power and Information A Russian Activist Responds to Proposals to Destroy Chemical

Weapons in Chuboksary by Randy Kritkausky

After the signing of the 1992 Chemical Weapons Treaty with the United States, the Yeltsin government quietly decided to transport all of Russia's chemical weapons to Chuboksary and two other cities where they were to be incinerated. But their plans were to be dammed, like the Volga River, at Chuboksary. The obstacle was a green movement led by Venera Pechnikova.

Venera Pechnikova spent much of her early adult life working on the banks of the great Volga River in the Chuboksary ChemProm factory. This installation produced a variety of chemicals, including chemical weapons from 1972-1987. ChemProm is located just below a sixty five meter high hydroelectric dam on the Volga. Venera was the head of the division of Technical Documentation in ChemProm. She was shocked that workers accepted inadequate safety measures without protest. Instead of working in disposable suits for two hour shifts, like their American counterparts, Russian workers wore rubber gas masks, rubber gloves and hot rubber suits for a four hour shift. At the end of a shift, workers poured the sweat out of their suits and washed them. Protective clothing was reused as many as fifteen times before being discarded, or else it would be discarded when it failed an air pressure test.

Evidently this method of identifying equipment failure after the fact rather than preventing failure resulted in frequent chemical exposures. But medical treatment was difficult to obtain. The factory's chemical weapons mission was top secret. Workers had to sign a pledge of secrecy. Doctors signed non-disclosure agreements which prohibited them from giving a diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons. Since nerve gas was produced at ChemProm, many of the exposed workers suffered neurological and even brain damage. The latter victims' diagnosis was often given as schizophrenia, a label which allowed their complaints to be ignored. Consequently only a few workers, nineteen, were referred to a special facility in Leningrad for treatment. Tellingly, after the chemical weapons issue was discussed publicly, over two hundred workers were treated.

Venera Pechnikova's familiarity with chemical dangers, and her empathy with the chemical workers, is based on her own experience. As a university student, she was involved in a laboratory chemical accident when three liters of 250 degree Fahrenheit acid exploded over her hands and face. Doctors did not expect her to live. Venera credits her survival to the fact that she is a very determined woman and also that she was an athlete with a strong heart. Her recovery required a year in the hospital, eleven operations, radiation and liquid nitrogen therapy, and plastic surgery.

The pain and disfigurement of an acid accident and the subsequent treatment could discourage most people from engaging in public life. Venera remembers walking in public with her beautiful young daughter and hearing comments to the effect that the child must be adopted. But this woman, who was called "the iron woman" in her local press, became involved in community activities such as the Women's Council, Anti-Alcoholism Council, and Memorial Protection Society. In 1987 she was nominated by the Women's Council to run for office on the Chuboksary City Council, and was elected. In 1990, she was nominated to the Supreme Council of the Republic of Chuvashia. Residents of her City Council district organized a broad based campaign and went door to door seeking votes. Vera simply promised to work for their interests and to seek laws protecting them. She defeated her opponent, the Deputy Mayor of Chuboksary, who had made ambitious promises to the voters.

Once in the parliament, Venera became a member of the environmental subcommittee. She sought this position, before she became a dedicated green activist, because of rumors that chemical weapons would be disposed of in Chuboksary. Such information did not come from local officials, who were negotiating in secret. In fact no public decision making was planned; no environmental impact assessment was to occur. Fragmentary information came from Moscow News, from individuals in Russia who risked prosecution for disclosing secrets, and from Russian and foreign non-governmental organizations who described chemical weapons destruction problems in the United States.

While Chuvashian governmental officials met secretly in Moscow to arrange for the incineration of chemical weapons in Chuboksary, they blocked Venera's attempts to raise the issue in Parliament. However, Chuvashian law requires that an issue be discussed in Parliament if 10,000 signatures of support are gathered. Local greens gathered 17,000 signatures. Venera Pechnikova, the only speaker, was granted just twenty minutes to address the sensitive issue. She explained how the weapons would be transported, stored, and incinerated. She explained that in the United States chemical weapons destruction had taken place at the Johnson Atoll, far from population centers, and reminded her colleagues that Chuboksary was one of Russia's most densely populated regions. Following Venera's speech there was a vote. Of the one hundred and sixty parliamentarians who voted, one hundred and forty five voted against the chemicals weapons disposal plan.

Despite the vote, Chuvashian officials continued their negotiations with Moscow. In January 1993 Venera arranged to travel to Moscow in an effort to present her case to the Russian Parliament. She was allowed to make a formal presentation to a Parliament subcommittee. The hearing room was packed with ten front rows of military officials. During her Moscow visit, some sympathetic Russian Parliamentarians told Venera that the plan to dispose of weapons in Chuboksary would have been abandoned had it not been for the continued support of high level Chuvashian officials from the executive branch of government.

Chuvashia's Supreme Council, the republic's parliament, soon thereafter proposed a new environmental law including a provision banning importation of chemical weapons into the region. In response, Moscow officials began to argue publicly for weapons disposal and to offer economic incentives to Chuboksary. Nevertheless the law opposing importation of chemical weapons was passed, with one hundred thirty in support and forty opposed.

At this point the KGB became interested in Venera's work. Her telephone began to act strangely, but KGB agents kept a low profile until Venera began to have routine contacts with foreign journalists. Then the KGB explained to her that this was not an issue for outside involvement.

When President Yeltsin visited Chuboksary and ChemProm, chemical weapons negotiations were not mentioned as a reason for his visit. But local greens greeted him with banners announcing, "We know why you are here. We are against the destruction of Chemical Weapons here."

During her struggle, Venera began an association with the "Eco-Parliament". It is an unofficial intergovernmental coordinating organiza-tion founded in 1991 and is centered in Volgograd. It includes representatives of the governments of 25 republics and is interested in promoting environmental issues. In July of 1993 they voted to ban chemical weapons destruction as it was then proposed. While unofficial, the action marked a high point in the mobilization of public opinion against the chemical weapons incineration proposals in Russia.

As a result of the work of Venera Pechnikova and other green activists, a Russian Chemical Research Institute is now examining safer means of transport, storage and disposal of chemical weapons in Russia.

Author's Post Script

I met Venera Pechnikova in Atlanta Georgia, in February 1995. She was a participant in the workshop on Chemical and Nuclear Contamination in the Former Soviet Union, held at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My enduring memories of the Atlanta conference will be my encounters with Vera and another activist, neither of whom hesitated in the face of uncertainty or even risk to their own lives.

My second encounter with an activist occurred a mile from Atlanta's skyscraper urban core in an African American (Black) neighborhood. I met an old memory a few hundred meters from the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his career as an activist. I first encountered Dr. King twenty seven years ago, at an anti Vietnam War demonstration in New York City where he passed on the way to the speakers' platform some thirty feet from me, an anonymous college student. As I stood once again thirty feet from Dr. King and his tomb, I was thankful that there are such individuals who place a high premium on the concept of social justice.

Walking back to the conference center in the middle of Atlanta I was reminded of the difference between those who live in "the main stream" and have the luxury of acting only when they have absolutely determined all of the pertinent facts, and those who lack power and must act or even risk their lives while acting upon incomplete and uncertain information.

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