The Bolsheviks declare all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, and so available for use. Faced with excessive logging, forests are divided into exploitable sectors and protected ones. In 1921 natural preserves, or zapovedniki, are established, where vast portions of the country are set aside for ecological study and commercial development, including tourism, is banned.
In Stalin's rush to modernize, factories and heavy industry are celebrated, but attention is paid exclusively to output, not ecological impact. The zapovedniki come under pressure as nature becomes viewed as an obstacle to be tamed, conquered, and overcome. The party argues it can control nature rationally through planning, and that pollution is a byproduct of capitalism.
Building projects are launched in previously pristine environments: dams, mines, and industrial cities -- the bigger the better. Millions of people are moved to the cities, with little consideration for the effects of urbanization. The command economy plans industrial activities in massive clusters which result in extraordinary concentrations of pollutants and with them ecological disaster zones.
The USSR passes some of the earliest laws on toxic substance levels, but all environmental laws bow to the agencies that run the military, utilities, mines, and chemical industries. Russia tests its first atomic device at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, in 1949. Hundreds follow, here and at Novaya Zemlya, in the Arctic. The race for nuclear weapons results in significant localized contamination.
Radiation sickness appears at the Chelyabinsk nuclear reactor in the Urals. In 1951 waste is discovered to have contaminated the local water, and 10,000 people are evacuated, the area isolated. An explosion six years later forces officials to erase contaminated villages from the map. Total accumulated radiation in the region is pegged at one billion curies, 20 times that produced by Chernobyl.
To meet targets, planners increase inputs of land, energy, and labor, but do not use resources more efficiently. Khrushchev launches the Virgin Lands Campaign to cultivate Western Siberia and Kazakhstan's vast steppe, previously used by nomads for grazing. The wheat harvest soars, but overexploitation soon leads to soil erosion, and much of the land turns to huge dust bowls.
The Party mounts huge irrigation projects to support Central Asia's planned cotton monoculture, leading to the catastrophic drying up of the Aral Sea and desperate shortages of drinking water. Faced with increased pollution and the costs of large-scale waste, resolutions are passed outlining the protection of land, water, air, and wildlife, but the commitment exists almost entirely on paper.
To meet the oil boom, oil pipelines are built across the permafrost or acid peat soils of Siberia. They frequently corrode and discharge. In East Siberia alone, three to 10 million tons of crude oil are estimated to leak each year, damaging fragile ecosystems that have limited ability to purify themselves.
In 1981 a law is passed requiring all new enterprises or those that modernize to ensure air emissions comply with established norms. A lack of adequate and available technology and the reluctance of ministries to sacrifice output for pollution control hamper the effort. The start of a huge shift from coal and oil reliance to natural gas leads to a sharp drop in emissions.
The explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power disaster in history, bathes half of Europe in radioactive fallout. Gorbachev waits 18 days before addressing his nation. Before then, information about environmental pollution had been strictly classified, but with the advent of glasnost, Russia's ecology becomes a topic for open discussion. A new green movement begins.
Gorbachev goes further than any predecessor in acknowledging the environment and the need for a new approach. The numerous state commissions and ministries that had shared responsibility for the environment are consolidated into the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Goskompriroda). Soviet environmental groups also concentrate their forces, uniting into the Socio-Ecological Union (SEU).
Environmentalists' demands begin to have a significant impact. More than 1,000 production plants are closed or forced to scale back for violating environmental laws. But there is still little enforcement of regulations in the face of the Party's demand for growth. Penalty fines are paltry, and it remains cheaper and easier for enterprises to dump waste than use pricey purification equipment.
Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush sign a treaty for the destruction of chemical weapons stocks. Russia announces it has 40,000 tons of poisonous substances, including 32,000 tons of phosphorous organic compounds. Arguments rage over the building of a factory on the Volga River to destroy these chemical weapons, and financing to this day remains beyond the reach of the state budget.
President Yeltsin signs an ambitious environmental law that sets out the regulation of everything from electromagnetic radiation to the maintenance of health resorts. It sets out the standards of waste management and emissions and mandates criminal liability for environmental damage. But the environment remains a low priority in the face of severe political and economic problems.
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members agree to cooperate on environmental protection, stating that because political borders do not coincide with natural ecological boundaries, economic activity in one state must not damage the environment or quality of life in other states. In 1993 former President Gorbachev founds the environmentally minded Green Cross International.
President Putin abolishes the State Committee for Environmental Protection and the Forestry Administration and gives their duties to the economic-minded Natural Resources Ministry. The municipal environmental police are eliminated. An official report finds that environmentally unsound conditions affect 60 percent of Russians and kill 300,000 per year. Drinking water is unsafe in half the country.
back to top