Stepan Chernogubov, 26, an environmental activist motivated by his deep feelings for Russian tradition, stands by the Bolshoi Zlatoust church in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on June 6. The church was recently reconstructed on a site where a statue of Lenin and Stalin once stood. He was severely beaten by police when he tried to take water samples near a chromium plant there. (Will Englund/POST)

After three men in this heavily polluted city beat Stepan Chernogubov unconscious, fracturing his skull and knocking out three teeth, criminal investigators took him, still bleeding, to a police station, where they questioned him for four hours and then threatened to bring charges against him.

Chernogubov had been set upon as he was trying to document the pollution streaming from a chromium plant here, effluents that occasionally turn a marsh feeding the Chusovaya River dark red, next to a waste pond that’s bright green. At least two of those who assaulted him turned out to be plainclothes police officers, Chernogubov said in recounting the May incident.

The 26-year-old student knew the risks. Environmental activism in Russia attracts serious trouble. A forest advocate in southern Russia, Suren Gazaryan, criticized a governor, was thrown in jail and has since fled the country. An editor who campaigned against a highway project through a forest near Moscow, Mikhail Beketov, suffered brain damage in a 2008 beating and died this spring from his injuries.

In the southern region of Voronezh, three activists organizing against the opening of a lead and nickel mine were hospitalized in May after private security guards attacked them.

In all of these cases, the root of the conflict is fairly straightforward: perceived environmental degradation for the benefit of powerful and wealthy interests.

Allegations of pollution at chromium plant (The Washington Post/Source: Staff reports)

Russia requires no environmental impact statements on new development, and activists can’t turn to the courts for relief because the legal system here reliably serves those in power.

So the only recourse for environmentalists is to stage protests and other forms of personal action. And that invites danger.

Chernogubov said he had gotten a tip from a government worker that a discharge would be taking place at the chromium plant. He had recently joined a volunteer council, organized by a Yekaterinburg lawyer named Vassily Rybakov, to monitor the government of this small industrial city in the Ural Mountains. That’s not work for the fainthearted, as Chernogubov’s wounds attest.

“It’s like a little kingdom out there,” Rybakov said. “When you go there, it’s like returning to the 1990s — gangsters, crooks, rackets.”

Chernogubov had been warned off once, after he posted a blog entry on pollution at the plant, called Russian Chrome 1915. An aide to Mayor Yuri Pereversev called him, he said, and asked him to take down the post. Pereversev did not respond to requests for comment.

But the activist persisted, until, on May 9, he found himself at a police station, dazed and bleeding profusely, and under interrogation.

Chernogubov is typical of a large number of Russian environmentalists. He is a strong believer in the values of traditional Russian culture — so strong that in contemporary multiethnic Russia, his beliefs can come across as intolerance toward others.

In the Voronezh mine protests, for instance, environmentalists were joined by Cossacks, among the most nationalistic of Russians.

So when investigators ransacked Chernogubov’s apartment and found a Cossack uniform, an academic history of the Third Reich and cartoons about Muslim migrants, they told him it looked as if he could be charged with extremism and inciting national hatred.

Chernogubov said he is not a neo-Nazi but is proud of his roots. His family settled here in the early 18th century to work at one of Russia’s first iron smelters. Members of a persecuted sect called Old Believers, they were escaping the official hostility they faced in western Russia.

The settlers called their village Shaitanka, a Tatar word that means devil, but they lived peaceable, well-ordered lives. The Soviets renamed the town Pervouralsk and proceeded to build the huge factories that for decades have blighted the environment, creating a sort of hell in a shallow mountain valley.

Eventually, authorities decided not to proceed with charges against Chernogubov.

Chernogubov and the man who was named as his primary attacker, Anatoly Grishin, have filed criminal complaints against each other. The prosecutor’s office said there is insufficient reason to move forward but has left the file open.

The other two men in the fight, identified by the prosecutor’s office as police officers, have been exonerated. The Sverd­lovsk regional police department has not commented on the case.

Russian Chrome 1915 emerged from bankruptcy several years ago and is controlled by a holding company registered in Cyprus. Production is way down and the workforce has been slashed.

The site, however, contains 7 million tons of unprocessed chromium waste, Rybakov said, which the company claims is the government’s responsibility. The company, on its Web site, says it obeys Russian environmental statutes.

The day after Chernogubov’s beating, Greenpeace activist Rashid Alimov arrived from St. Petersburg to do soil testing around the plant. He wrote on the environmental organization’s Web site that he found levels of chromium pollution nearly 100 times the accepted maximum. He noted the presence of a large pipe factory upstream on the Chusovaya and suggested that it might be contributing to the pollution.

Chernogubov was hospitalized twice after the attack. But last month he was well enough to take exams, and he recently saw a dentist to get new teeth.