Mother Russia Loves Mother Earth

(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:

T. Gagina, “Protect the Taiga!”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 26, 15 (January 1975), p. 29-30. Available:

V. Nosyrev, “Protect the Herring Gulls”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 28, 26 (January 1977), p. 7. Available:

V. Ermolayev, “Keeping Lake Baikal Clean”, October 8, 1977 . Available:

CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers , “New Measures to Protect the Environment”, December 1, 1978. Available:

Von Geldern, James. “Cleaning up Baikal.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed April 24, 2017. Available:


Centralizing Soviet Science: Akademgorodok

(The Symbol of Akademgorodok: a sigma representing the sum of Soviet science with a lightning bold symbolizing the new city springing into existince)

Throughout the first half of its existence, much of the Soviet Union’s power had been focused on heavy industry and military might. However, after WWII and the death of Stalin, this focus began to change. With the creation of atomic bombs, it became clear that in order to keep pace with the West, the Soviet Union had to excel in the realm of science. To this end, Soviet academics proposed a city that would be solely for their own use; a place that housed nothing but research facilities, universities, and institutes. They made their proposal to the government and it was easily approved. They were eager to have this city stand as a shining example of all that Soviet ingenuity and strength could create. The new city would be called Akademgorodok and, according to Soviet press, it would house institutes for the study of Mathematics, Computation, Mechanics, Hydrodynamics, Physics, Automation, Geology and Geophysics, Thermodynamics, Experimental Biology, Medicine, Cytology, Genetics, Economics, Statistics. Thus they began construction in 1957. This centralized city of science would allow for unprecedented focus and collaboration between members of different disciplines. Additionally, it’s location far from Moscow would allow for less red tape and strangling oversight. Additionally, it would be useful in for developing the historically neglected eastern part of the county.

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(Akademgorodok shortly after being built)

Ostensibly, the city of Akademgorodok was to be nothing less than a city of academics working on projects for the betterment of humanity. However, this was not entirely true. Defense was one of the largest considerations in the choice of location and the military had a large stake in the city. Akademgorodok is almost at the geographic center of the Soviet Union. This meant that in case of an invasion, their scientific infrastructure and their academics would be safe for quite a while. Additionally, the remote location made espionage very difficult. Unlike Moscow or other large cities where there was a large civilian population for spies to blend into, Akademgorodok would be made up entirely of scholars and researchers, making it all but impossible for an outsider to gain access to sensitive information. In addition to its strategic location, the city was also a major hub of military research and development. Missiles, tanks, and nuclear bombs were all subjects of study and development in Akademgorodok. However the most deadly product of the city wasn’t steel and radiation, but bacteria and viruses. Akademgorodok was a major research and industrial production center for the secret Soviet bio-weapons program that was developed in violation of international agreements against it. Even though the Soviets built this shining city of science as a beacon of prosperity and peaceful research, they used it to hide some of their most deadly military projects.


Kupershtokh, Natalia, and Alexander Apolonskiy. 2014. “Physics in Novosibirsk and Akademgorodok.”  Physics in Perspective 16 (2):250-276. doi: 10.1007/s00016-014-0138-4. Available:

Von Geldern, James. “Akademgorodok.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed March 27, 2017.

A. Nesmeianov, “New Scientific Center in the East”, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. IX, No. 23, 17 (July 1957), p. 30. Available:

Alibek, Ken. Biohazard. New York: Random House, 1999.

The Unconquered People of the Soviet Union

(Soviet Poster Calling the People of the Occupied Territories to Arms)

The German advance was lightning quick in the early days of Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets troops, completely unprepared, were unable to hold on to territory and fell back toward the Russian border, leaving tens of thousands of soldiers behind in the panic. They took refuge from the German advance in the eastern European forests. As the fight moved on, and the Germans began to “govern” their newly gained territories, the people felt the weight of German oppression. Some, naturally, were angry at the state of affairs and wanted to do something about it. It started with small attacks and subversion of the occupiers. As the people linked up with the soldiers that had been left behind, something of a command structure began to take shape. Soon, these units started to carry out larger attacks like sabotaging rail and telegraph lines, even going so far as burning German barracks and assassinating officers. Stalin naturally saw the strategic value of these units and issued official orders to provide direction to the resistance. Ostensibly, these units were to be led by party officials. However, many already had a functioning command structure with soldiers and veterans at the top. Additionally, many party members had been rounded up soon after the invasion. Thus, the partisans maintained a mostly autonomous existence throughout the occupation.  Their attacks were devastating to the German rear. They were somewhat effective in disrupting supply chains and wore away at the morale of the occupying troops.

The main effect of their activities, however, was to boost the morale of the Soviet citizens still working in the factories and fighting on the front lines. Stories like the Legend of Tanya, were circulated to great effect. In the story, a young girl stuck behind enemy lines burns a German stable and is caught in an attempt to burn a barracks. The Germans question and beat her for hours but she does not give in. Finally, at her execution she turns and exhorts her countrymen to continue the fight. This story made the people feel that the Germans could be beaten and gave them an impetus to put the survival of the Soviet Union ahead of their own survival. This to me seems like a brilliant strategy to motivate a people who’s situation is so grim. In the early years of the war the Soviets were on the back foot. They had to convince the people to keep fighting and working and what better way than to provide shining examples of selflessness. It is also interesting to me that the partisans used so many similar guerilla tactics to enemies of the united states today. The partisans conducted assassinations of high ranking officials, beat and harassed collaborators, and used small attacks to disrupt the occupiers. Their brand of guerilla warfare, while it would never overpower the massive German war machine, worked well for their purposes and served Stalin’s interests as well.


Von Geldern, James. “Partisans in the Forest.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed March 20, 2017.

Soviet Central Committee, “Organization of the Struggle in the Enemy Rear”, July 18, 1941. Available:

Pavel Lidov, The Legend of Tanya, January 26, 1942. Available:


The Great Terror: Stalin Brings Down the Hammer and Sickle

(Nikolai Krestinskii, Victim of the Great Terror)

When one thinks of Stalin one of the first things that comes to mind is crushing oppression. Images of gulags and mass executions of political rivals, dissidents, and anyone deemed an ‘enemy of the people’, are forever intertwined with his name. The largest and most widespread of these purges known as the Great Terror occurred throughout the 1930’s, with the largest actions being taken between 1936 and 1938. During this time Stalin and the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) Ezhov signed the death warrants of hundreds of thousands of people and sent nearly a million to forced labor camps. The targets of this purge were scattered and many were completely innocent. Many prominent party officials like Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, and Yuri Piatakov along with much of the general staff of the Red Army and other prominent Soviets were put through show trials to make an example of what happens to traitors. One prominent party official, Nikolai Krestinskii, evidently forgot that he was part of a Trotskyite conspiracy when he begged for his life in front of the court. The next day, after another night in prison and some persuasion, he reversed this position and accepted guilt. Many of the victims of these purges weren’t even given the luxury of a trial or were given a quick and painful trial without testimony and disappeared to Siberia or a hole in the ground.

While doing research on this topic, I found it very interesting that many of the people of the Soviet Union still had faith in their government during this time. Author Ilia Ehrenberg states that people thought Stalin must have been ignorant of the mass executions and purges and found it hard to believe that he would allow this to happen under his watch (Freeze 368). In a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party following the removal of Ezhov as head of the NKVD, V. Chernousov felt optimistic that things would change, citing Ezhov as the source of all of the terror and indiscriminate slaughter. Another example of citizens faith in their government comes in Autobiography of an Exile by L. S. Tsel’merovskii. In it, the author included a letter he wrote to the Supreme Soviet after his citizenship was revoked. He lost it simply because his father, likely innocent as he says, was sent to a gulag for being a ‘malcontent’. In the letter he expresses his earnest desire to serve the Soviet Union, the nation that has taken so much from him, in the Army. This mentality of trust in the state, even when it is killing its people at an alarming rate, is extremely interesting to me. They continued to turn each other in for imagined crimes or petty disagreements, even innocent neighbors, while believing the state would never get to them.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “The Great Terror.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed March 12, 2017.

L. S. Tsel’merovskii, Letter to Presidium of Supreme Soviet, September 13, 1938. Available:

V. Chernousov, Letter on the Removal of Ezhov, December 10, 1938 Available:

Bukharin, Nikolai. Excerpts from Bukharin and His Trial. 1938. Available:

Shaping the Soviet Future: Communist Youth

As the Russian Civil War was coming to an end and it became clear that the Bolsheviks were the victors, they began to look away from the past and toward the future. The people that fought both for and against the Bolsheviks had grown up under the Tsar and for them, communism, even if they supported it, was a novel idea. The new regime saw the youth of Russia, still too young to have become ‘tainted’ by the Tsarist and capitalist ideas of the former time, as the future of the Soviet state. In this, they were very forward thinking. Instead of focusing solely on their military might and political power, they took the time to ensure and direct the growth and education of children so that they would grow up to be fervently loyal to their country and its communist ideals. In order to achieve this indoctrination, the leaders of the Bolsheviks established the Russian Communist Union of Youth, later known as All-Union Leninist Young Communist League or Komsomol, an organization referred to by some colloquial sources as a gender inclusive “Boy Scouts of the Soviet Union” (Von Geldrin) This group, as mentioned above, was intended to promote the ideals of the Soviet state and steer youth toward loyalty. Komsomol provided opportunities for children to participate in art and sports as well as political activities. They organized things such as “dance and theater, gymnastics, choirs, reading circles, etc” (Von Geldrin). Additionally, they abhorred smoking, drinking, promiscuous sex, and any other ‘bourgeois’ activities (Vasilver)  But beneath all of this ‘wholesome’ activity, the communist party was providing them with constant subliminal messages and influencing their thoughts and views on the world.

One of the clearest examples of this from the early years of Soviet power were the ‘Komsomol Easter and Christmas’ demonstrations. In these parades and displays, the children of Komsomol would dress up in costumes, carry signs, and openly mock the religious traditions of the holidays (Freeze 337). The Communist Party was without a doubt at war with the church at this time and atheism was the official doctrine of communism. Many of the children in the early Komsomol were the sons and daughters of people who had grown up in a world where the Tsar was a god appointed head of an all powerful church. Now, their children were out in force mocking the very traditions on which they were raised. This is an obvious example of the effectiveness of this type of indoctrination. In the span of just a few years the Communist Party managed to indoctrinate the children of the new nation to ensure loyalty and build a strong base of support for the future. The children of Komsomol would often go on to achieve great things. One source claims that, while membership was not mandatory, not joining could seriously impact one’s ability to attain higher education and get good paying jobs. Thus, Komsomol would become one of the most important tools of the post revolutionary period for ensuring the Bolsheviks maintained control of the state. It was a masterful plan and ensured the future of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

[A Komsomol Christmas Demonstration]


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Von Geldrin, James. “Young Communists.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed February 12, 2017.

Vasilver, Sima. “The Komsomol.” Guided History: History Research Guides from Boston University. Accessed February 12, 2017.


The Forgotten Victims of 1905

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1905 revolution to me was the treatment of minorities by the revolutionaries and the government alike. I have learned in the past about the revolution and its political implications, but this seems almost like a forgotten sidebar to the revolution. In a time filled with so much turmoil and change it is easy to overlook the stories of those who were lost senselessly during the revolution. When the October manifesto was issued in 1905 by Tsar Nicholas II, it split the revolution into two groups. The moderates were satisfied with the provisions for a civil liberties and a bit of democracy. Radicals were not nearly as happy about the provisions and took to the streets (again) in protest and anger. Demonstrations were organized in support of the Tsar and the two groups often clashed.

Jews had historically been the targets of hate in Russia and had been attacked in pogroms before. This, however, was different. Both groups felt that Jews supported the other side and this led to widespread anger at them from both sides. At some point during a day of protest in Odessa, a city in what is now Ukraine, a protestor was shot by an unknown assailant and several student demonstrators were beaten. The anger in the already agitated crowds boiled over at that point and they found easy targets in their ‘subversive foreign enemy’. They went from street to street pulling Jews from their homes and killing them in the streets. They burned or ransacked any Jewish-owned business they found and left the city in ruins. Official imperial estimates say that 400 Jews were killed and a few hundred were injured. This is only the official estimate and is likely very low. Many newspapers at the time put the number closer to 5000 killed. The anger and chaos produced by the revolution created the perfect environment for senseless violence to occur. Many Russian Jews fled to other parts of Europe and the United States following this pogrom. I found it very interesting that I only every heard about Russian pogroms in passing and I was shocked to learn the scale of these riots during the 1905 revolution. I believe this is an important part of Russian history and needs to be remembered.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

“Odessa.” The Untold Stories: The Murder Sites Of The Jews In The Occupied Territories Of The Former USSR . Accessed January 29, 2017.

“When Blood Flowed Like Water at Odessa.” New York Times (New York, NY), Nov. 26, 1905. ProquestHistorical. Available

“Jewish Conference Meets.” New York Times (New York, NY), Jan. 31, 1906. ProquestHistorical. Available

“Russian Refugees Here; Tell of Massacres.” New York Times (New York, NY), Dec. 12, 1905.

Digging In At Bakal

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a groundbreaking early 20th century Russian photographer. A chemist by training, he studied for years to perfect a method of producing color photographs. Then in 1909, after receiving a commission from the Tsar as well as some special equipment, he set off to document the life, culture, and achievements of the Russian Empire. This documentation led him from the architectural wonders of St. Petersburg to the rural farms near Sochi. [1] All of this travel was done on rails of iron and trains of steel. And he, perhaps unknowingly, photographed the birthplace of those metals: the Bakal Iron Mine.

The Bakal Mine is located in the southern Ural mountains and is in very rough terrain. The people who lived and worked in this environment were hardy and tough. Without machines of any kind, they had to do all the work of mining by hand using shovels and pickaxes. As shown in the photo, this work employed the whole family. They broke down the mountainside together with only pickaxes (and sometimes explosives) and loaded the ore into carts with shovels. [2] This ore then went out to build and expand the empire. The Bakal Mine was one of the largest and most famous in Russia at the time and sent its ore for refinement at the Satka Iron and Steel Works. This refined metal was then sent across the empire to be used in building and manufacturing. [3] Perhaps most notable to this class, this location was the primary provider of metals for the Zlatoutst weapons plants. [4]

I found this photo extremely interesting because I started my journey here at Virginia Tech as a mining engineer. It was fascinating to me to see the way that open pit mining used to be done. Additionally, the significance of the photograph in terms of the development of Russia. The empire could only build and expand if it had the raw materials and resources to do so. Without the women and men in this photo, the Russian Empire would have taken much longer to develop. These photos, taken just a few short years before the revolution, also document the lives of the working class that would soon rise up and create the Soviet Union.

[1] “Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii: Biographical Information ,” Library of Congress, Accessed 1/22/2017,

[2] Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei M. Work at the Bakalskii Mine. 1910. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, Library of Congress, Web, Accessed 1/22/2017,

[3] Siberia and Eastern Russia: Part 4 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), 44.

[4] A. I. Dimitriev-Mamonov, A. F. Zdiarski, Tr. L. Kukol-Yasnopolsky Guide to the Great Siberian Railway (St. Petersburg: Ministry of Ways of Communication, 1900), 104.