(Poster showing concern for the environment of lake Baikal, 1972)
When one thinks of the Soviet Union and the environment, much of what comes to mind is the polluted waters, slashed forests, and major environmental disasters like the loss of the Aral sea. To an extent, it is right to associate the Soviet Union with environmental disregard as they had many of the same problems that the U.S. had during industrialization. However, in the 1970s, the mood within the S.U. changed significantly and many rallied around one environmental cause in particular: Baikal. Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is a massive and deep lake that houses 20% of all of the worlds fresh water, despite having about 1/9 of the surface area of even the Great Lakes. During the early Soviet period, many thought the resources of Siberia were inexhaustible and that the ecology could handle an almost infinite population. This, however, was not the case. As time wore on and construction and industrialization and growing tourism of the area around Baikal continued into the 1970s, it became evident that major problems were arising as a result of human activities. Erosion caused by massive deforestation and discharge from factories on the shores were making the crystal clear water murky and inhospitable. Pollution caused by rail lines in near the lake was beginning to affect fish populations. Tourists and hunters were threatening many native species with extinction and dumping trash and waste throughout the area.
This was the state of the lake in the early 1970s and the people began to notice. Small at first, there were efforts to lobby the CPSU to protect the area from environmental decline. Early lobbying efforts were a success as the Soviet land management bureau approved the first temporary regulations on the environment in the area. These regulations added sweeping, though minimally effective, regulations on everything from forestry to fishing and tourism to clean water. However, this didn’t prove to be enough and more needed to be done. In 1975 as new railroads were planned, people protested the planned route as it passed very close to the lake and through threatened Taiga. They succeeded in changing the route so that it passed through the mountains instead at great cost. By this point, the environment and particularly Baikal had attracted national attention. In 1977, Soviet journalists for state-affiliated newspapers even began to pick up on the trend, publishing cover stories about the loss of animal life and the need for conservation, even calling for the whole area to be designated a nature preserve. Intensification of these efforts continued throughout the 1970s and still continues today. The lake seems to be recovering from its pre-conservation bout with humanity. The effort to clean and preserve Lake Baikal allowed for discourse about other major environmental concerns throughout the S.U. That the Soviet Union, a state that put industrial production and raw power above all else, it is incredible that this movement gained steam at all. The Soviets diverted a railroad through the mountains and were forced to dig tunnels at a much higher cost. This alone shows that Soviet citizens were involved on a large scale in environmental concerns and that the system was responsive to their criticism. It is also extremely interesting to me to see that environmentalism kicked off in the Soviet Union at roughly the same time it picked up in the U.S.
(Crystal clear Lake Baikal as it appears today)
V. Knody, “A Protective Charter for Baikal”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 26, 18 (December 1974), p. 24-25. Available: https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13641353
T. Gagina, “Protect the Taiga!”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 26, 15 (January 1975), p. 29-30. Available: https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13641587
V. Nosyrev, “Protect the Herring Gulls”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 28, 26 (January 1977), p. 7. Available: https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13636517
V. Ermolayev, “Keeping Lake Baikal Clean”, October 8, 1977 . Available: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/cleaning-up-baikal/cleaning-up-baikal-texts/keeping-lake-baikal-clean/
CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers , “New Measures to Protect the Environment”, December 1, 1978. Available: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/cleaning-up-baikal/cleaning-up-baikal-texts/new-measures-to-protect-the-environment/
Von Geldern, James. “Cleaning up Baikal.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed April 24, 2017. Available: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/cleaning-up-baikal/