Opinion | A Toxic Alien Is Taking Over Russia

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The plague could not be contained. While some regional governments now try to spray problem zones with pesticides, Moscow hasn’t paid the problem any attention or sought to understand its scope. Tatarstan, the only region to monitor its spread, has pleaded for federal help, saying that the area overtaken by the hogweed grew tenfold in the past eight years, with thousands of burn victims and even fatalities.

Some activists and scientists are experimenting with solutions, ranging from hogweed-eating snails to moonshine production.

One evening I joined an activist, Maria Popova, on a hogweed raid outside the Russian capital. We equipped ourselves with gloves, goggles and large kitchen knives on the edge of a field that is part of the popular Losiny Ostrov National Park — a large nature area close to Moscow.

“If you don’t interfere, the hogweeds multiply at a crazy rate and soon there is nothing but them,” she said as we hiked through the tall grass. Ms. Popova started patrolling the nearby fields when she came across “plantations” of hogweed on one of her walks. The national park, which is tasked with protecting biodiversity, has ignored the problem, she said. She called hogweed “a symbol of neglect.”

“At the national level, the government does nothing,” she said, rising up on tiptoes and hacking off giant umbrella-like flowering structures on stalks three meters in the air. It’s a trustworthy method to prevent the weed from seeding — one activist in a hogweed-fighting social networking group confessed to arming herself with a machete on cycling trips.

But urban activists are more likely to mobilize online, while in the provinces, there simply aren’t enough people who care, said Darya Grebenshchikova, a writer living in a shrinking village in Tver region.

“The hogweed is not perceived as a problem because there is no population here to perceive it as a problem,” she told me. “I have lost hope in some kind of renaissance of the village. The government has decided it’s too much hassle to keep the rural areas alive, so they are turning it into a desert.”

Maria Antonova (@mashant) is a Russian journalist who writes on science and culture.

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