Soviet Union Table of Contents
In spite of a series of environmental laws and regulations passed in the 1970s, authentic environmental protection in the Soviet Union did not become a major concern until General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Without an established regulatory agency and an environmental protection infrastructure, enforcement of existing laws was largely ignored. Only occasional and isolated references appeared on such issues as air and water pollution, soil erosion, and wasteful use of natural resources in the 1970s. This lack of concern was prompted by several factors. First, after collectivization in the 1930s, all of the land became state owned and managed. Thus, whenever air and water were polluted, the state was most often the agent of this pollution. Second, and this was true especially under Joseph V. Stalin's leadership, the resource base of the country was viewed as limitless and free. Third, in the rush to modernize and to develop heavy industry, concern for damage to the environment and related damage to the health of Soviet citizens would have been viewed as detrimental to progress. Fourth, pollution control and environmental protection itself is an expensive, high-technology industry, and even in the mid-1980s many of the Soviet Union's systems to control harmful emissions were inoperable or of foreign manufacture.
Under Gorbachev's leadership, the official attitude toward the environment changed. Various social and economic factors helped produce this change. To maintain economic growth through the 1980s, a period in which the labor force had been declining significantly, intensive and more prudent use of both natural and human resources was required. At the same time, glasnost' provided an outlet for widespread discussion of environmental issues, and a genuine grass-roots ecological movement arose to champion causes similar to the ecological concerns of the West. Public campaigns were mounted to protect Lake Baykal from industrial pollution and to halt the precipitous decline in the water levels of the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and, most urgently, the Aral Sea. A grandiose scheme to divert the northern rivers southward had been counted on to replenish these seas, but for both economic and environmental reasons, the project was canceled in 1986.
Without this diversion project, the Aral Sea, once a body of water larger than any of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior, seemed destined to become the world's largest salt flat as early as the year 2010. By 1987 so much water had been siphoned off for irrigation of cotton and rice fields south and east of the sea that all shipping and commercial fishing had ceased. Former seaports, active as late as 1973, were reported to be forty to sixty kilometers from the water's edge. Belatedly recognizing the gravity of the situation for the 3 million inhabitants of the Aral region, government officials declared it an ecological disaster area.
With respect to air pollution, mass demonstrations protesting unhealthful conditions were held in cities such as Yerevan in the Armenian Republic. Official reports confirmed that more than 100 of the largest Soviet cities registered air quality indexes ten times worse than permissible levels. In one of the most publicized cases, the inhabitants of Kirishi, a city not far from Leningrad, succeeded in closing a chemical plant whose toxic emissions were found to be harming--and in some cases killing--the city's residents. Finally, separate, highly publicized cases of man-made disasters, the most prominent of which was the Chernobyl' nuclear power plant accident in 1986, highlighted the fragility of the manproduction -nature relationship in the Soviet Union and forced a reconsideration of traditional attitudes and policies toward industrialization and development.
As part of the process of restructuring ( perestroika-- see Glossary), in the 1980s concrete steps were taken to strengthen environmental protection and to provide the country with an effective mechanism for implementing policy and ensuring compliance. Two specific indications of this were the inclusion of a new section devoted to environmental protection in the annual statistical yearbook and the establishment of the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Gosudarstvennyi komitet po okhrane prirody--Goskompriroda) early in 1988.
Despite these measures, decades of environmental degradation caused by severe water and air pollution and land abuse were unlikely to be remedied soon or easily. Solving these critical problems will require not only a major redirection of capital and labor but also a fundamental change in the entire Soviet approach to industrial and agricultural production and resource exploitation and consumption.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents