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On Lake Baikal, Russia's hockey greats play 'last game' for threatened environment


LAKE BAIKAL, Russia - The Lake Baikal ice was the real star even among a gathering of some of Russia's hockey greats.

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The ice in the Siberian UNESCO World Heritage site is famously clear, with cracks weaving through the deep blue depths like white veins. Small air bubbles below its surface are visible. During Russia's winter months, cars can safely drive on it for hours.

On Monday, Baikal hosted a hockey match, called the "Last Game" intended to bring awareness to climate change and also how to safeguard the lake itself with its unique ecosystem.

Weekends draw throngs of visitors to the clear ice of Russia's Lake Baikal. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Elena Anosova

But the event was met with some eye rolling from local environmental activists. The Russian government - which backed the hockey event - also has rolled back regulations this year protecting the lake. Now allowed are development projects that pose a risk to previously untouched areas among other actions.

"People in our country have woken up, and they're worried about [the environment]," said Viacheslav Fetisov, a Hockey Hall of Famer and the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Environment Programme. "But what we don't need is to engage in extremism either." | Along with Fetisov, the Baikal game featured former Russian hockey stars Valeri Kamensky and Alexei Kasatonov. Other notable guests included British and Portuguese diplomats as well as local government officials. Fetisov's team won.

"I think this was the best game of my career," he said with a chuckle. "Most importantly, the rink was made with love."

Russian hockey stars take to the ice on Lake Baikal for the "Last Game" It was intended to bring awareness to climate change and also how to safeguard the lake itself with its unique ecosystem. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Elena Anosova

The playing surface was outlined with a clear ice wall. Like many days on Lake Baikal - about 2,700 miles east of Moscow - it was sunny, but the wind made it feel like 14 degrees. The ice occasionally crackled under the weight of a crowd that had the afternoon off for International Women's Day, a national holiday in Russia.

"The ice is speaking," said Alyona Trubnyakova, a volunteer who works as a tour guide in the region.

Once the game was over, people frolicked far across the frozen. Some set up picnics of hot tea and snacks while others took their dogs for a walk across the ice.

Tourists all over the region wonder at the lake's clarity. Some camp on it. Others take long walks or bike rides. Wagons, called bukhankas, transport up to eight passengers at a time along a makeshift road on the ice, stopping to peek inside the many ice caves on the way.

Monday's game was a mostly local crowd, the very audience that cares most about the lake's future.

"Everyone today has to work on the very important issue of preserving this great Lake Baikal," Fetisov said before the game.

Published : March 10, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Isabelle Khurshudyan