Blame the boyars

THE stench hanging over Volokolamsk, a sleepy town west of Moscow, stings the nostrils like tiny needles. Downwind from the nearby Yadrovo landfill site, the noxious blend of sulphur, rot and methane becomes unbearable. Last month it sent at least 50 children to the hospital with respiratory ailments and rashes, and has brought thousands onto the streets in protest. In late March residents physically attacked the head of the local district. A ten-year-old girl in a pink hat became the movement’s symbol after making a throat-slitting gesture towards the regional governor, Andrei Vorobyov.

As the authorities struggle to snuff out the smell, unrest has spread. At least half a dozen districts in the Moscow region have seen garbage-related pickets in recent weeks. Residents have focused their rage on local officials, such as the mayor and Mr Vorobyov. They take pains to present their protests as apolitical. “What politics?” said Valery Karpinsky, a self-described “Orthodox monarchist” dressed in a Russia-branded tracksuit, during a protest last month. “We came for the children.” As is often the case in Russia, the good tsar Vladimir Putin is seen as part of the solution—if he only knew what his bad boyars had done.

The Kremlin has duly taken note. Ecological issues have a history of feeding wider dissent. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, environmental protests were influential in the late Soviet era. Protests against the destruction of the Khimki forest, part of Moscow’s green belt, were part of a wave of local activism that preceded the outbreak of huge protests in the capital in 2011-12.

Dealing with waste has long been a problem in Russia. But the trouble in Volokolamsk can in part be traced back to last summer, when residents near the Kuchino landfill, one of the Moscow region’s largest, complained to Mr Putin during his annual call-in show. Though regional authorities had hoped to keep the dump open until they could build new infrastructure, the president then and there ordered the landfill closed. So it was, and rubbish was diverted to other dumps in the region, including Yadrovo, pushing them beyond capacity. The can was kicked down the road; or rather, a huge heap of cans was. And it will probably now be booted again.