After an Arctic Ocean protest against oil drilling landed him behind bars for several months, Greenpeace leader Dima Litvinov credited his resilience to his father and grandfather – a line of stalwart Jewish men with a habit for challenging Soviet authority.
“I grew up in a family of dissidents,” Litvinov told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday evening, over the phone from Sweden. “Certainly the experience of my grandfather and father and everyone around us played a very important role in my choosing to pursue this calling.”
The Russian-born, American- Swedish Litvinov, now a senior campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, has been working for the organization for the past 26 years, serving various positions in the United States, Russia and Sweden. Visiting Israel for the next few days to honor Greenpeace Israel’s 20th anniversary, he is to attend a public screening on Friday of the movie Black Ice – which documents the journey of Greenpeace activists who sailed to the Arctic Ocean in 2013 to protest oil drilling, only to find themselves spending months in Russian jail cells.
The spirit of dissidence is deeply rooted in Litvinov’s family, beginning with his great-grandfather’s revolutionary work with Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, he said.
Although his great-grandfather went on to serve Stalin as foreign minister, he was relieved from his position due to his Jewish background, when the Soviet leader began forging alliances with Adolf Hitler.
Litvinov’s grandfather served in the Red Army’s propaganda troops against the Nazis during World War II, but was eventually deemed a Soviet enemy after expressing horror at the looting and raping conducted by Russian soldiers. His father, meanwhile, was arrested by the KGB when Litvinov was six years old, sending the family for five years to Siberia before their move to America.
“The insight of what power is and how power is used and can be influenced is very important to any campaigner,” Litvinov said.
After studying cultural anthropology in the United States and doing field work in Latin America – where he met his Swedish wife – Litvinov spent time in Sweden and then moved to Boston, where he began working for Greenpeace in 1989. After the Soviet Union fell in 1992, Greenpeace sent him to the newly formed Russian Federation to coordinate campaigns there, until he and his family moved back to Sweden in 1995.
Although Litvinov is no stranger to legal battles – he has been arrested three times in the same Barents Sea area – the 2013 drilling demonstration aboard the MV Arctic Sunrise ship landed him in the hottest water.
In 1990, he was arrested aboard a ship protesting Soviet nuclear testing, and in 1993, aboard a vessel demonstrating against Russian nuclear waste dumping. During both of these incidents, however, the Soviet and Russian officials simply took over radio and ship operations and held the activists for a week, eventually releasing them, he said.
The 2013 Arctic Sunrise trip to Prirazlomnaya oil rig platform, operated by Russian government controlled Gazprom, was actually a repeat journey of a similar such protest in 2012, which occurred largely without incident, Litvinov explained.
“That whole trip was my project,” he said.
The year before, the rig operator had demanded that the protest be stopped, but the Russian government had responded that because the area was only in the country’s exclusive economic zone, and not its territorial waters, nothing could be done, according to Litvinov.
In the year that ensued, however, he described how the government had simply “gotten a notch worse.”
“It never occurred to me that they would do anything beyond what was done in 1990 and 1993,” he said. “Back then we clearly went in illegally inside Russian territory.”
Heading into the journey, Litvinov said he was looking forward to the trip, figuring that if the Russian authorities arrest the activists, only positive attention could come to their campaign. If no arrest occurred, they would have achieved their purpose of protesting against “the insane idea of drilling in the Arctic,” he said.
The activists arrived to the area on September 17, 2013, and the next day scaled the platform.
The ship’s members – eventually dubbed “the Arctic 30” – were detained on September 19, 2013, facing sentences of up to 15 years in prison. They eventually served varying amounts of time, ultimately receiving a pardon from President Vladimir Putin under significant international pressure.
The last activist was released on December 29, according to Greenpeace.
Litvinov said his own incarceration lasted from September 19 through December 26, with the first week spent in harsh conditions aboard a ship and the remainder of the time at prisons in the port city of Murmansk and in St. Petersburg.
Asked whether he felt that the campaign accomplished what the activists had intended, given the dire consequences, Litvinov stressed he had “no doubt” that since the protest “there has been a major change in the attitudes” regarding Arctic oil drilling. Many companies have either stepped away or frozen activities there for the time being, he explained.
“It’s about changing public perception, changing the atmosphere, so that the kind of political change or the economic change we want to achieve becomes not only possible, but also inevitable,” Litvinov said. “All of a sudden you see a paradigm shift, and the world is perceived in a different way than it was before.”
“This is something I’ve picked up very much from the dissident movement of the Soviet Union,” he added.
The Greenpeace Israel 20th anniversary event will occur at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque on Friday at 10:30 a.m., at which participants will view the Black Ice movie, hear a lecture from Litvinov and watch a “solar performance” from the NAMA band. The movie can now be seen online in full as well.
Among Greenpeace Israel’s activities in recent years have been demonstrations against shale drilling in the Ela Valley and conventional oil drilling on the Golan Heights, as well as fights against the import of Amazonian rainforest timber and the use of dangerous toxins in the fashion industry.
Most recently, in response to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s announcement of recommended targets in the greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy sector this week, Greenpeace Israel protesters slammed the government for failing to enable a solar energy revolution in the country.
“Israel has the technical potential, the intellect bank and the financial potential to become a leader in renewables and to follow countries with perhaps much less of an opportunity to go over to 100 percent renewables – like Denmark,” Litvinov said, calling renewables “the wave of the future.”
Not only does the transition to renewable energy serve environmental and climate goals, but such a move is also critical to the “economic reality,” he continued.
The question is, Litvinov argued, how quickly the global paradigm shift will occur and “where individual countries like Israel will end up – whether they will be on the winning or losing side.”
“This is not a question of tomorrow,” he said. “This is not a question of immediate survival. This is a question of choosing a particular path that you follow for the future.”