As Greenpeace activist sits in Russian jail, family waits and worries

The irony is cruel for Lara Litvinov.

Nearly half a century ago, she and her brother, Dima Litvinov — children in a family with a long history of civil disobedience — were living in exile with their parents in Siberia. When the family emigrated from the country in 1974, they believed they had left Russian oppression behind.

Now, Dima sits in a Russian jail along with the nearly 30 other Greenpeace activists for protesting oil drilling operations in the Arctic. He has become the third generation in his family to be imprisoned in Russia.

"I didn't expect this in my life again," said his father, Pavel Litvinov, 73, who was banished to Siberia for protesting the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. "When I took Dima and Lara out of Russia, I thought I had taken them away from that country so that this could never happen."

Dima, 51, has been a Greenpeace activist for nearly 25 years. "He wanted to make a difference in the world," Lara said in an interview at her home in Torrance. "Money was never important to him. He was just interested in doing what is right."

In September, Dima and other Greenpeace activists attempted to stage a demonstration against what is said to be the world's first ice-resistant oil platform. Russian authorities acted swiftly, arresting them — and two journalists — as charges are investigated.

The family is trying to stay optimistic, but Lara is scared. She has seen photographs of her brother in handcuffs and in a courtroom, standing inside a metal cage. She hears he's being kept in a 12- by 24-foot cell for 23 hours a day with only an hour outside. It's cold, and it's dark.

"There is so much that is unknown, and the Russian government is so unpredictable," she said.

Charged first with piracy and then with hooliganism, Dima faces the possibility of years in prison with a substantial fine.

Lara thinks back to last year's trial of the Pussy Riot defendants, punk performers imprisoned for an unauthorized concert protesting Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," they lost their case and are serving a sentence of two years.

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Dima Litvinov joined Greenpeace in the late 1980s, working as a door-to-door fundraiser on the streets of Boston. His first campaign, in the Arctic, was a protest against Russia's testing of nuclear weapons. He was detained for nine days and eventually released by order of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

"He was aware of his family history but not afraid of it," friend Steve Shallhorn said. "He felt that as a U.S. citizen he wouldn't be at risk. Of course, he was aware of the irony of having been expelled from the Soviet Union and then coming back to protest."

Dima has fought whaling in the Antarctic Ocean, demonstrated against bottom trawling in the north Atlantic and championed the boreal forests in Scandinavia. In 2009, he was jailed in Denmark during the Copenhagen international climate summit.

He and his wife, Anitta, and their three children live outside Stockholm. When not focused on Greenpeace's Arctic campaign, he would exercise, cook and play "World of Warcraft."

Anitta and Lara talk frequently and take solace in knowing that Dima, who speaks Russian, might be having an easier time adapting to prison than the other detainees. During a recent phone call — his second to Anitta since the arrest — he sounded in good spirits, but she couldn't tell whether he was just trying to save his family from worry.

They try to track down the truth behind the rumors, one of which said Dima was being held in a punishment cell for three days for not following protocol when communicating with others outside the prison.

But little can be confirmed — including details of the Greenpeace action that led to the arrests.

Dima boarded the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace icebreaker ship, in late August. Eager to preserve the Arctic, he believes that the harsh conditions of this environment would make an oil spill there impossible to contain. With the Arctic ice shield shrinking, Putin, now Russia's president, has targeted the region for $500 billion worth of investment in offshore energy development over the next 30 years.

Sailing east, the Arctic Sunrise soon encountered the Russian coast guard. The ship had been denied permits from the Russian government to enter the Northern Sea Route, but its captain and crew maintained their right to stage peaceful protests.