Question: Over four years ago, you became Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society. How would you assess the Society’s activity during this period? What are its strategic goals for the coming years?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: The full-fledged revival of the Russian Geographical Society is a key event in Russia’s public life. The Society’s experience, great traditions, extensive research and intellectual potential can impress anyone who loves their country and wants to know and understand the various stages of its development. Geography is actually a very broad, multifaceted notion. It is linked inseparably with national history and with the lives of many generations. It is, of course, linked with nature and the environment, with the ethnic and cultural heritage and local studies, with scientific discoveries and creative initiatives.
In these past five years, the Russian Geographical Society team has managed a great deal. Primarily this is because they are focussed on reviving the Society’s traditions, which is their main objective. One of these traditions is the involvement in its activities of the public across the nation: young people, the academic and media communities and philanthropists. Historically one of the main priorities of the RGS has always been opening up new branches in remote parts of Russia. Today our Society is becoming the centre of attention for many active, passionate, creative and ambitious people.
We have an entire network of regional branches. There is also a youth section called RGS Pathfinders. I would like to stress that we attach special significance to involving young people in practically all of the Society’s projects. This is obvious: when you have the organisation’s future in mind you need to share responsibility for tackling the current tasks with the younger generation and support their initiatives. In a word, you need to work hand in hand, and RGS is doing just that.
We attach special importance to educational work. Our regional branches regularly hold educational expeditions for schools focussing on learning about their local areas, cooperate with school geography teachers, and arrange science workshops for young scholars. I consider these activities as important as major research. I would like to single out the book-publishing programme called the Great Russian Travellers and a TV series on national television called Geography Class. We expect the RGS’ educational, media and book-publishing projects to be used extensively as study support materials.
As for our strategic goals, we will continue providing every assistance to the development of geography and complementary sciences and bringing together people who initiate various projects in this area. We find it important to take part in nature conservation measures and to strengthen partnerships with organisations that support our agenda. I am certain that soon the RGS will be among the leading geographic societies of the world.
Question: Do you see the RGS as an instrument for developing domestic tourism?
Vladimir Putin: Undoubtedly, RGS activity should serve to promote tourism within the country, primarily by popularising our rich historical, cultural and natural heritage. This can be done not only through expeditions, but also by means of films, lectures, tours and on-site events.
This can also be achieved through the implementation of projects directed at the study of unique sites and entering them into the UNESCO World Heritage list. Russian sites account for only a few percent on that list. A meagre few percent – considering the vast opportunities offered by Russia’s long and rich history, its multi-ethnic people and its culture. A lifetime is not enough to see, experience and study all of it. This is where I see a broad scope for the Society’s hard work. We have to involve experts in various fields here: historians, biologists, ethnologists and landscape experts. There are great and exciting prospects.
Already now, RGS projects help open up the potential of environmental tourism. This work has to be developed in the regions where national parks and reserves attract both scholars and the public. These are places for recreation and for acquiring knowledge of these unique locations and their natural resources.
Clearly, the development of tourist routes should go hand in hand with nature preservation and environmental education. We already have examples of such efforts: these are the Sayano-Shushensky, Baikal and Stolby reserves. We need to spread information about their experience and local RGS branches could take an active part in this.
Question: Your interest in preserving and increasing populations of rare species is widely known. For example, the project to return the Persian leopard to the Caucasus, initiated with your support, became one of the most significant environmental initiatives within the framework of preparing for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. What future plans does the Russian Geographical Society have in store to protect animals?
Vladimir Putin: When we first began supporting projects to study and preserve rare species, we chose several, not just recognizable but, more importantly, “problematic” species. “Problematic,” first and foremost, with regard to the scale of the issues to be resolved.
For example, to preserve the Siberian tiger, we needed to work in various areas: research – research projects received significant support, and we introduced tiger population monitoring; international – we held the Tiger Summit; wildlife sanctuary – we set up the work of sanctuaries and increased their area; legislative – we introduced much harsher penalties for poaching and illegal hunted animal trade.
In a similar vein, we worked with other “participants” in environmental projects: leopards, snow leopards, polar bears, beluga whales and grey whales. We noticed positive changes quickly, and not just in terms of preserving those species. Most importantly, these programmes became the driving force that moved cooperation between the government, businesses and society in the right direction in three regions where these works were carried out.
In my view, this is the only right approach to nature protection activities. After all, it is no accident that we choose rare representatives of Russian fauna. It is much easier to use them as an example to explain the essence of the difficulties. That same tiger is happier living somewhere where there is prey, of which there cannot be too much. This way, we demonstrate that behind the problems of these rare species, there is a specific ecological system with specific issues of its preservation. And this becomes clear not just for experts, but for businesses and citizens as well.
When this role of a driving force played by the rare species became clear, we began to broaden the number of animals included in environmental projects, as well as their geography. Last year, they added the Atlantic walrus, the humpback whale, the eagle, and the Pallas cat; and this year, the European bison will join the list.
Concerning plans for the future, we plan to support studying species that represent not only the uniqueness of Russian nature, but also demonstrate the input of our nation into preserving Eurasia’s biodiversity. In this sense, I would include a species on the edge of extinction like the Saiga antelope – a symbol of the Asian steppes – as well as the sturgeon, whose preservation is of interest to all the nations in the Caspian region, and migratory birds that tie Russia to other nations in Eurasia.
Question: Major new projects being implemented every year under the aegis of the Russian Geographical Society; significant studies and expeditions are conducted, some of which you have personally participated in. What bright events can be expected this autumn?
Vladimir Putin: I suppose one of the main events this autumn will be the Russian Geographical Society festival in Moscow. This event is being held for the first time in the society’s history. The Central House of Artists will be showcasing everything the Society is doing, including each of its 85 regional offices. We would very much like for as many people as possible to strive to join this work, to share our values and aspirations. After all, generally speaking, the work of the RGS is aimed at instilling a sense of patriotism. It is impossible to work in the Society if you don’t love your Fatherland, your homeland. Formality and greed simply cannot survive here. On the contrary, this work values selfless devotion, initiative, knowledge and persistence. There are already many such people in the RGS. They inspire others not only with their passion, but also their devotion to their Fatherland.
Thus, we have increased the number of new expeditions, and the geography of our archaeological digs is increasing. We have more and more programmes aimed at attracting young researchers and enthusiasts ready to learn about our country to get involved in the RGS’s activities. After all, you do not have to travel beyond the seven seas to feel like a trailblazer. In St Petersburg, for example, an expedition is underway in the Gulf of Finland. It turns out that there are things to study just 180 kilometres from the northern capital.
Festival guests will be able to see not only the results of our projects but also, for example, try on professional explorers’ equipment and speak with legendary Russian researchers.
A ceremony presenting the Russian Geographical Society awards will be held for the first time. Awards will go to those who devoted their lives to studying Russia, discovering new pages in its history, those who actively promoted our nation’s cultural heritage.
Another important event will be the XV Congress of the Russian Geographical Society, which will be held on October 17 (*) at Moscow State University. In this forum, we will revise the Society’s charter and approve the results of the work carried out by its councils and commissions.
Question: This year, new regional offices of the RGO were added in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. What science and research priorities are you putting before them?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to note right away that the historical ties between the Russian Geographical Society and its members with scholars in Crimea and Sevastopol were never severed. The Crimean branch was founded in 1945. And from the very start of its work, it participated actively in the work of what was then the All-Soviet Union Geographical Society.
First and foremost, these were comprehensive expeditions that studied the peninsula’s mountainous areas, coves, shoreline, and marine area. This was important for economic activities and for developing scientific research.
Moreover, there were members from the society’s offices in other regions of our nation working in Crimea. And this joint work that lasted for many years resulted in some very strong professional and personal, friendly ties maintained up to this day. Thus, the Russian Geographical Society office in the Republic of Crimea was created on the initiative of geographers from Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University.
A research programme is currently being developed in those Russian regions with participation by leading experts, including members of the RGS, staff from Moscow State University and many other high-profile organisations.
Today’s priority is the environment. Crimea’s shoreline is about 750 kilometres long. About half of the peninsula’s residents live on the shore. The comfort of their lifestyles, the development of domestic and inbound tourism, health resort treatment for our citizens require a joint approach to issues of environmental safety and rational natural management. In the last 20 years, organisations involved in conservation of the coast have either been entirely closed or significantly reduced.
Our goal is to restore the coastal environment. And it will be impossible without the help of scientists and experts in the field of geography and related science. Sevastopol’s geographers are currently analysing the state of Crimea’s coastal zone. The project received a RGS grant in 2014.
Landscape studies and archaeology, plant geography and soil science, ethnography and regional studies are all equally important for developing Crimea. And naturally, it is critical to engage in extensive educational work on its history, the peoples living here, their traditions and culture. Indeed, all these areas of activity by the RGS have significance for every Russian region.
The Russian Geographical Society has a lofty, important mission, which was defined by its organisers more than a century ago: cultivating Russia’s geography. It cannot be said better or more clearly. Geography – both as a science and a practical activity – always aims for creation and promotes a humane, careful attitude toward the environment. And hundreds of examples of selfless service to the Fatherland that are preserved in the history of the Russian Geographical Society are an inspiring symbol for today’s active participation in the life of the country, for building its successful future.
* – The XV Congress of the Russian Geographical Society and the ceremony for presenting the RGO's awards were rescheduled for later dates after the interview's publication in the print version of the Vokrug Sveta magazine.