Nadezhda Kutepova is born in the secret Russian city of Ozjorsk, a ‘heavenly’ place that, for a long time, could not be found on any map. Men, women and children live behind barbed wire and under the gaze of armed guards. When Kutepova learns the truth of her city, however, she decides to bring the truth out and help the people of Ozjorsk in the fight against the Russian state.
Nadezhda Kutepova grew up in a place that many Russians dream of. It is a green city with theatres, museums and good schools. Almost everybody is well educated, and people of all ages can find a sports club they like. It is so secure that children can safely play outside at eleven o’clock at night because in this small place there is no crime at all. But Nadezhda knows that this perfect image comes with a cost: the secret town is heavily polluted with radioactive materials.
Ozjorsk, also known as City 40, was founded in 1946 to build an atomic bomb for the Soviet Union. Political prisoners had to build a factory and the best physicists of the country were brought to the town. One of these physicists was Nadezhda’s grandmother, after whom she was named.
The people of this secret city were living a wonderful life. In exchange, they were forbidden to talk about what happened there. The first eight years they were not even allowed to leave the town or tell where they came from. The citizens of Ozjorsk were taught that they were the heroes of the country and that they helped in creating the protection of the USSR. Life was good there. “We lived like well-fed animals in a zoo," one resident says.
What most of them did not know was that their city became heavily polluted with radioactive material. Explosions of nuclear material were covered up. People who worked in the factory did not wear protective clothing most of the time. More and more people became sick and died at a young age. Nadezhda's grandparents also succumbed to cancer.
Although many people now know about the pollution and nuclear hazards, most of them remain silent and hardly anyone leaves Ozjorsk. Some of them still feel proud and ‘chosen’, others are simply too scared. But not Nadezhda: since she found out about the scandals, she has been fighting ceaselessly, as a lawyer and environmental activist, for the rights of Ozjorsk’s citizens. Time and again, she reminds the state of its responsibilities and sues it.
Her actions were not appreciated. The harassment began in 2004 and returned in 2008 and 2009. In May 2015, Nadezhda’s organisation Planet of Hopes received the as libellous experienced label ‘foreign agent’* from the Russian authorities (this designation is for many Russians synonymous with ‘foreign spy’ or ‘traitor’ – see below). A local tv station started a smear campaign in which Nadezhda was accused of wanting to start a ‘Colour Revolution’ with foreign money. Eventually, Nadezhda was even accused of ‘espionage’, after which she decided to flee Russia in fear of persecution. She received help from FIDH and Amnesty to flee to France. There she lives to this day. However, her organisation Planet of Hopes continues to operate from Ozjorsk.
The ‘foreign agent law’ of 2012 is part of the increasingly repressive Russian policy towards civil society organisations that the Kremlin has implemented after the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president. The law requires a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to register as ‘foreign agent’ when it receives financial support from abroad and engages in – the vaguely worded – ‘participation in political activities’. NGOs that do not comply with this law risk hefty fines or being shut down. The leaders of an NGO may be subject to fines or even imprisonment for up to two years. The law seems designed to put Russian NGOs in a bad light in order to thwart the development of a strong civil society and to silence the regime’s critics. Often the media lend the authorities a hand by demonising the organisations, making the Russian population increasingly distrustful of them.