Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- September, 1993

Russian Environmentalism: 

Conditions and Prospects


Ernest Partridge


Presented at the International Congress of Philosophy, Moscow, August 24, 1993

Published in Human Ecology: Progress Through Integrative Perspectives
The Society for Human Ecology, 1995.





By the environmental movement I understand first of all the movement to preserve the inhabited environment, and in the broader sense, to ensure that humanity survives.  As a social phenomenon, the environmental movement is a manifestation of human reason.  The rise of this movement represents the onset of humanity's social maturity, as opposed to biological instincts.  The main sigh of this maturity is humanity's willingness to limit its needs...  The movement's strategic aim is to create a new model for the self-organization of human materials and energy.  This means that as a movement we need to struggle, to resist, to try to save everything we can, and to attempt to build a new society in the depths of the present one and at the same time alongside it and independently of it.  What we need to create isn't a Green order but a Green brotherhood, a world environmental network which will stay afloat through the next great flood.1

Sviatoslav Zabelin, Co-Chair
Socio-Ecological Union


Russia: An Environmental Tragedy

With the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world has learned what it has long suspected: namely, that much of the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union is an environmental disaster area. In their definitive book, Ecocide in the USSR, Murray Feshback and Alfred Friendly, Jr., suggest:

When historians finally conduct an autopsy on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, they may reach the verdict of death by ecocide... No other great industrial civilization so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, water and people. None so loudly proclaiming its efforts to improve public health and protect nature so degraded both. And no advanced society faced such a bleak political and economic reckoning with so few resources to invest toward recovery....

For decades [the Soviet Union] was the leading producer of oil and steel, the owner of a quarter of the planet's forest reserves and an equal portion of its fresh water. Yet it beggared itself by endangering the health of its population -- especially its children and its labor force -- the productivity of its soil and the purity of its air and water....(2)

The list of environmental horrors in the former Soviet Union are by now familiar to the news-conscious citizen:

  • The Aral Sea: As recently as 1960, this was the world's fourth largest inland sea, with a prospering fishing industry, and a sustainable agriculture in the surrounding region. In just thirty years, the Aral Sea has lost two-thirds of its volume, its fisheries are totally destroyed. The land that was set aside by Soviet agricultural planners for extensive cotton cultivation has been seriously polluted by fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, residues, and by salt and chemical residues airborne from the dry lake bed.(3)

  • Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake (by volume) seems too vast to destroy. However, if even the world's oceans are vulnerable, so too is Baikal. And while difficult to pollute for that very reason it may prove impossible to restore.(4) The lake is threatened today by industrial complexes on the north an south ends and by agricultural runoff in its major tributary, the Selenga River.

  • The Semipalitinsk region of Kazakhstan, the primary testing site of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, has spawned an epidemic of radiation-induced cancers.(5)

  • The Chelyabinsk region in the Urals has been devastated by the twin horrors of nuclear radiation and industrial pollution. Possibly the world's most radiologically contaminated area is located at a secret weapons production facility in the region. As a result, reports Prof. Alexei Yablokov, recently President Yeltsin's Advisor on ecology, half of the young men of draft age are found to be ineligible for service, due to poor health.(6)

And so on, with some cases well known to the Western press and public; e.g., Chernobyl, the Volga, the Baltic Sea. A recitation of these, and other cases, is perhaps superfluous at this point.

The public-health consequences have been horrendous. Sources immediately at hand, could provide an extensive list; however, in the interest of brevity, I will cite, two general assessments from Russia. First, the 1989 report of the Russian Federation's Committee on Nature Protection: "The [Russian] Republic is in catastrophic condition. [Five distinct regions are] on the brink of catastrophe... It is theoretically impossible to live in every seventh city."(7)

And, once again, Alexei Yablokov:

The natural resources in our rich country are being wasted and misused to an extent that the country now faces ecological crisis. Problems of toxic and radioactive wastes, polluted air and water, and agricultural pollution have reached extremely serious levels.... The problems cannot be underestimated. In nearly every area of the environment, Soviet citizens are facing real threats to their health and the health of their children.. Declining environmental quality has fostered a rise in illness. We share the 47th or 48th place in average life expectancy and occupy 44th place in infant mortality in the world.(8)

Here is a tragic story of devastation brought on by official neglect and exploitation. However, the plundering of the Soviet environment has also prompted some extraordinary dedication and courage on the part of scientists, and often ordinary citizens. In fact, as we shall see, the earliest and most persistent protests against Soviet government policies had environmental, rather than political, provocation.


A Brief History of Russian Environmentalism(9)

Far from being a recent development in Russian culture, environmental science and activism has a long and honored history in that country. In fact, Russians were early pioneers in ecological thought. Notable among these was Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskii (1863-1945), who introduced the concept of Noosphere long before it was popularized in the West by Pierre Lecompte du Nuoy. He also developed and utilized the concept of the ecological niche -- the function of the species in the ecosystem. Daniil Nikolaevitch Kashkarov (1878-1941) was a pioneer in ecological community and succession theory. Finally, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stanchinckii (1882-1942) formalized models of energy flow and nutrient cycling, thus refining the significant work of his mentor, Vernadskii. Though almost forgotten, this work of these Russian scientists anticipated research in the West which flourished decades later. Indeed, had the accomplishments of these and other early Russian ecologists been known in the West, a great deal of independent but redundant "discovery" might have been avoided, and the science would today be much more advanced.

During the Romanov dynasty, the Russian government established zapovedniki (nature preserves), many of which still exist today. Unlike "national parks" in the United States, these preserves were set aside for purely scientific purposes, and human access was severely limited. The zapovedniki enjoyed early support from the Bolshevik government.

The preservationist and conservationist policies of the Tsarist and early Soviet governments were effectively overthrown by the Stalin regime. During the thirties, an official "conquest of nature" mentality pervaded domestic economic policy. Engineering schemes were devised and carried out that would make the most ambitious Bureau of Reclamation commissioner blush. Giant Siberian rivers were dammed, virgin lands opened for cultivation, deserts irrigated, and a network of canals were excavated, connecting the Arctic, the Baltic and the Black Seas. Often these projects were accomplished through the use of forced manual labor, and with ruthless disregard of the cost in human lives. The White Sea -Baltic canal was an especially notorious example. All the while, massive industrial complexes spewed forth pollutants into the air and water, heedless of the human and ecological costs. Lest we forget, all this took place during a similar, if more benign, period of technological optimism and biotic arrogance in the United States.

During this Soviet assault on nature, there was no place for the qualms of the ecologists. In biology, this was the era dominated by the "cult of Lysenko," the charlatan agronomists who, by enlisting the support of Stalin, effectively destroyed the science of genetics in Russia for four decades, and who cast a pall upon all the biotic sciences. Unfortunately for the strategic interests of the West, there was no comparable triumph of ideology over the physical sciences in the Soviet Union.

When, in 1952, death loosed the iron grip of Stalin, the opportunity arose for some initiative on the part of the scientists. The Soviets were always aware of the social and strategic importance of at least some of scientists, and the consequences of Lysenko's follies were becoming too costly to ignore. Thus in 1960, when a huge pulp and resin complex was proposed on the shore of Lake Baikal, protests arose from both the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and from the residents of the "sacred lake of Siberia." These protests were unavailing and the complex was built. Despite promises from succeeding Soviet and Russian regimes, it is still in operation. Yet out of failure, the protests against the Baikalsk plant proved a catalytic event in the formation of the Soviet environmental movement.

Later, when the Soviet government proposed to reverse the flow of several of the giant Siberian rivers, the Academy protested again -- this time, successfully. In 1986, the scheme was shelved.

1986 was also the year of the Chernobyl disaster, which mobilized the environmentalists of the Soviet Union into an organized movement, derived primarily from two sources: first, the "nature preservationists," primarily academics and intellectuals; and the "urban environmentalists," small groups of ordinary citizens focusing their attention upon the unhealthy conditions of their local areas.

The Soviet leader most supportive of environmental causes was also the last: Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In 1988, he established a new Ministry: "Goskompriroda" -- The State Committee on Nature. Soon after its establishment, Dr. Nicolai Vorontsov became the Minister. A man of extraordinary fortitude and courage, Vorontsov is notable for being the first non-communist Soviet minister since the early 1920s. As testimony to his courage, he was the only minister to vote against the abortive August, 1991 coup against Gorbachev. He later stood and spoke with Boris Yeltsin on that celebrated tank in front of the Parliament building.

With glasnost and the official recognition of the environmental crisis in the Soviet Union, the way was open for citizen activism, and the emergence of such significant figures as Sviatoslav Zabelin and Alexei Yablokov (regarded by many as "the Sakharov of the Russian environment").

In 1988, environmental groups from throughout the Soviet Union confederated into the Socio-Ecological Union (SEU), which today consists of over two hundred organizations, and remains the leading independent voice of environmental conscience in Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Thanks to the advent of glasnost the SEU was given semi-official tasks of monitoring and reporting environmental conditions in the Union. In fact, a year ago a large track of Siberian land was leased to the SEU as a nature sanctuary -- an historically significant event, since "it marked the first time since the 1917 revolution that a private organization had acquired Russian land for a nature reserve."(10)

However, despite its recent growth and accomplishments, and the valor of its proponents and leaders, the emerging environmental movement in the former Soviet Union faces severe challenges and opposition, from the entrenched nomenclatura (surviving officials from the Soviet era), from emerging entrepreneurial business interest, and from "patriotic" nationalistic movements.(11)

The rise and prominence of the Russian environmental movement is a dramatic story that deserves to be told throughout the world. However, much more urgent than this human story is the continuing tragedy of the Russian environment, and the efforts to restore it at a time of extreme political instability and economic hardship. This is a problem of acute interest to the entire world, since:

  • the polluted air and water of the Commonwealth Republics do not respect boundaries. Instead, they contaminate the common atmosphere and oceans of our planet.

  • contamination of products (especially food) inhibits the expansion of international trade.

  • continuing radiological and water contamination, and the consequent diseases, inhibit travel and tourism.

  • the economic consequences of this environmental damage are no longer speculative and remotely "in the future" -- they are acute, chronic, and urgently contemporary. Such consequences include the total collapse of commercial fisheries in the Aral Sea, and extreme diminution of the fisheries resources in the Black and Caspian Seas as well as the abandonment of large areas of Ukraine and Belarus, due to the Chernobyl reactor disaster.

While this list could be prolonged, we will not do so, since all this and more has been extensively reported and documented elsewhere.


Environmentalism and the Rise of "Civic Society" in Russia

Pause for a moment and reflect upon these past eight years!

For almost 70 years -- the entire lifetime of most Russians and Soviets -- a totalitarian regime had complete control of education and media, and suppressed the importation of "alien" ideas.

And yet, to many Russians, it is as if it had never happened. For instance, consider:

  • The Orthodox church is flourishing.

  • Free market is enthusiastically embraced. (For the freest market you'll ever want to see, visit Novo Arbat in Moscow, or Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg.)

  • Nowhere on earth are Americans more loved, admired and emulated(12) albeit not always, alas, for our most admirable traits or highest culture. Unfortunately, this good-will may well be squandered through over-exposure. The Russian-American journalist, Vladimir Pozner, warns that "some Americans have managed to accomplish in a few years, what the Soviets failed to accomplish in seventy years: they have caused many Russians to hate Americans."(13)

  • Personal values are replacing those of the state. Oleg Yanitsky writes: "Ordinary citizens were no longer willing to display enthusiasm for building an illusory "shining future," but began, independently and very actively, to fix up the present. Moreover, they did this in such a way as to ensure that they themselves could enjoy the fruits of the efforts they had invested. The participants in the "grass-roots" movements thus rejected yet another dogma -- about the priority of public (read: state and apparatus) values over personal ones. Instead, they affirmed that a society develops only when those who build it develop themselves and achieve satisfaction. It seems to me that this represents a complete revolution in our consciousness and in society as a whole, a revolution which so far we have sensed only dimly."(14)

  • Moral concern is especially conspicuous among the Russian environmentalists. Yanitsky continues: "This moral resource is implicit in people's values and aims, in their inner readiness to mobilize and to take direct action in order to turn their goals into reality. I have no wish to present the environmental movement as an army of selfless martyrs or mindless enthusiasts. On the contrary, the successes of the movement are due largely to the scientific prognoses and sober calculations of its leaders. But at the basis of these successes are to be found honesty, shame, pity, conscientiousness, a concern for justice -- that is, moral values."(15)

  • Thus, after 70 years of "top down" control, an authentic "grass roots" civil society is emerging. This "civil society" was a necessary prerequisite to the environmental movement. And that movement now most vividly and effectively embodies the enduring qualities of civic society: broad-based local support, initiative from the local level, dedicated and shared concern, and ongoing communication with like-minded and like-concerned individuals throughout the country, and beyond. "Civil society" is an old concept and condition. But one of the most important factors in the emergence and the sustenance of the "grass roots" environmental movement in Russia is very contemporary. This is the utilization of electronic communication. Thanks to generous and wisely considered contributions from the West, e-mail communications within Russia, and from Russia to the outside world have been essential to the success of the environmental movement. In my conversation with Oleg Yanitsky, this astute observer of Russian environmentalism told me that electronic communications have "enabled [the movement] to mobilize its rather modest human resources very quickly and very effectively. This gives the members a sense of ... community. And what is more important, the e-mail gives them a sense of belonging to a global community... And e-mail democratizes communications, making the environmental movement members informed ... in advance of events.... All in all, e-mail is a powerful resource that makes the environmental movement actually independent."(16)


Environmental Ethics in Russia

Sad to say, despite the spectacular growth and vitality of Russian environmentalism, Environmental Ethics as an academic discipline is in approximately the same stage as it was in the United States in 1960: no academic journals, no professional association, very few publications -- in other words, virtually non-existent.(17)

However, at the International Conference in Philosophy in Moscow, August, 1993, a few sessions on the topic were scheduled, and featured Russian participants. Meanwhile, the International Society for Environmental Ethics is actively seeking members in the former Soviet Union, and the journal Environmental Ethics is donating several subscriptions to libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most importantly, as with the United States in the 1960s, Russia contains and sustains a rich fund of nature literature, and, as noted above, has an honorable tradition of concern for the environment. Activist Irina Platonova, born in Siberia, tells Oleg Yanitsky:

... people without forests are people who have been cheated and robbed. A forest isn't just the trees outside your window. Nature means a forest with animals and insects. You know here I often look at the sky, because here in the city it's the only thing that links me to nature. Another thing is that a person who is deprived of nature is also deprived of literature, and of the ability to understand it. Such a person can't be a patriot, because all of Russian ... art, painting literature and music are linked with nature...(18)

Sentiments such as these, from a culture so rich in literature, science and humane thought, assures us that significant contributions to environmental philosophy should soon be coming to us from Russia.

 Copyright, 1995, by Ernest Partridge


1. Sviatoslav Zabelin, quoted in Oleg N. Yanitsky, Russian Environmentalism, (Moscow: Mezhdunarodni Otnosheniya [Foreign Affairs] Publishing House, 1993), p. 217.

2. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p. 1.

3. Cf. "A Tale of Two Lakes: Aral and Baikal," On the Other Hand: News from the Russian Environment," Edited by Ernest Partridge, (Ashland, Wisconsin), I:3, p. 14-19.

4. B. Kamarov, The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union, M. E. Sharpe, White Plains, NY, 1980, p. 16.

5. Paul Lowe, "The Soviets' Poisoned Land," Los Angeles Times Magazine, Feb. 21, 1993, p. 34

6. A. V. Yablokov, cited by Feshback and Friendly, op. cit., pp. 9, 174-5. About a year ago, the estimable Dr. Yablokov appeared to ABC's Nightline, with a stunningly candid on-site report on the radiation hazards in Chelyabinsk region, and their public-health consequences.

7. Sovetskaya Rossiya, April 28, 1987, p. 6.

8. "A Perspective from Another Country: The Soviet Task," EPA Journal, Jan/Feb. 1990., pp. 50-2. In this remarkable article, Yablokov continues with a list of specific environmental assaults upon human health in the (then) Soviet Union -- a list too extensive and detailed for citation here.

9. The definitive work in English on the history of Russian environmentalism is Models of Nature by Douglas Weiner, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988).

10. Peter Matthiessen, "The Last Cranes of Siberia," The New Yorker, May 3, 1993. See also, OTOH, #3, p 13.

11. These points are explored in detail in Irene Khalyi's previously unpublished paper, "The Environmental Movement in Russia: Contemporary Trends," On the Other Hand... I-3 (May, 1993), pp. 5-13.

12. Oleg Yanitsky points this out at some length, in an  interview with me which took place at his Moscow apartment in August 25, 1993. That interview is included in  Online Gadfly -- see "A Conversation with Oleg Yanitsky."

13. In that same interview (see previous note), Yanitsky notes that most American commentators on Russia are quite ignorant of the conditions, culture and history of that vast country. Moreover, they rarely speak the Russian language, and thus do not have direct access to primary materials. Yet Americans do not hesitate to offer free advice to their Russian friends and colleagues.

Unfortunately, Yanitsky's complaint is entirely justified. To cite a personal experience, three years ago, on a return flight from Moscow, I sat next to the President of a "free enterprise think tank" which, mercifully, I will not identify. He told me at length "what the Russians need" from us, and how he instructed them at the symposium which his Institute had sponsored. Throughout the ten hours of that flight, I heard not one iota of evidence that he had learned anything from the Russians, much less that he had changed his mind on any substantive issues. His mind set was no less fixed than that of an evangelical missionary. And this is by no means an exceptional case in my experience. I must wonder how long the good will of our Russian friends can survive the onslaught of such arrogance and ignorance.

14. Op. cit., pp. 35-6.

15. Yanitsky, op. cit., 117

16. Yanitsky, interview. Op. Cit. I can personally testify to the amazing improvement brought about by the computer revolution. The cost of a phone call to Moscow can quickly add up to three figures. Mail takes several weeks to deliver, and even so is frequently lost. Yet an e-mail message can cost mere pennies, and be read within a few minutes of its transmission. The recent visit to our campus of three researchers from St. Petersburg would have been quite impossible without dozens of preparatory e-mail communications which preceded that visit. With such order-of-magnitude decreases in cost and increases in speed, added to the admirable facility of educated Russians in the English language, there remain no further technological barriers to the full admission of the Russians to the global community of environmentalists.

17. Anton Struchkov, "Environmental Ethics in the Soviet Union," paper delivered at the CSU-Fullerton Symposium, Environmental Ethics: Now and into the 21st Century, March 8, 1991.

18. Quoted in Yanitsky, op. cit., 82-3.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .