Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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A Conversation with Oleg Yanitsky


Dr.  Oleg Yanitsky, a sociologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the chronicler of the Russian Environmental Movement.  The author of numerous books in Russian, he also wrote Russian Environmentalism, published in English in 1993 by the Socio-Ecological Union and the Moscow publishing house, Mezhdynarodnii Otnosheniya (Foreign Affairs).  Yanitsky's research and publications suggest that he may well be the foremost authority on the Russian environmental movement. 

In August, 1993, I had the great privilege of interviewing Dr.  Yanitsky at his apartment, near Moscow University.  That conversation was recorded with his permission and with the expectation that it would appear in our newsletter, On the Other Hand.  With the demise of that project, the manuscript sat unused in my files until this website afforded the opportunity for its publication.  The reader should be alert to the fact that the interview is more than seven years old, which means that Yanitsky's responses might be notably different if he were asked these questions today.  Accordingly, I have reduced (in September, 1999) the original entry in this site by eliminating "dated" material.  What remains is material which, after careful review, I believe to be valid and significant today.  My review of the Yanitsky interview was guided by my recent conversation with Sviatoslav Zabelin (this site), wherein I found significant points of agreement between these two important figures in Russian environmentalism.

Gadfly: Dr.  Yanitsky.  The influence of American culture as I have seen it in St.  Petersburg and Moscow is an embarrassment to visiting Americans who have other than business interests.  How does this conspicuous American presence affect Russian attitudes toward the United States, and particularly, how is this affecting the possibility of environmental cooperation.

Dr.  Yanitsky: I cannot answer as a scholar, since I am unaware of any empirical research on the subject.  But speaking informally, I feel that the majority of our population shares a positive attitude toward Americans in general.  This is a reversal, for before perestroika we had more negative attitudes.  But these negative attitudes were more politically and ideologically inspired, and the rank and file people were either neutral or positive, because they knew about American from films, drama, literature.  The general attitude, then, is positive.  And the onslaught of American businessmen, has not strongly altered this positive attitude.

Regarding the environmental issues, I think we should talk about a relatively closed international environmental community, where mutual attitudes are highly positive.  Americans now are the first to give real and tangible aid to environmentalists in Russia and the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and of course this has provoked a positive attitude.  After all, American agencies and the US government are the major donors to the environmental movement in the FSU.  Indeed, this movement is dependent upon US aid.

Gadfly: In your very excellent book, Russian Environmentalism, you write that "the environmental situation in Russia will keep getting worse for a long time to come." Why do you believe this is so?

Yanitsky: I think there are a lot of reasons.  Let me mention just a few.  First, the whole economic system is very resistant to change.  Second, as I have mentioned, the government has no strategy of ecological modernization of our industry and of the society at large.  Third, both the state and the regions can survive only at the price of consuming still more natural resources, for selling, trading, and otherwise disposing of these resources is key to their survival.  Nobody wants to work hard, and the majority of our businessmen and officials want to sell these resources.  Fourth, the developed countries, including the US, will benefit greatly if Russia remains a source of raw materials and a deposit for waste -- particularly, radioactive wastes imported from these countries.  For us, this is a great problem.  Most Americans whom I have met repeat that stereotyped phrase, "Yes you are good friends; but as you emerge from your crisis, you will appreciate that you are a rich country in terms of resources.  And this will be very good for you."  But this bears dark implications, for it suggests that our foreign "friends" are regarding us as their source of unrenewable and raw resources.  And in turn, our businessmen and government economists share this attitude.  Fifth, I think that ethnic conflicts will postpone serious ecological programs and projects.  Finally, I think that in the popular consciousness, nature is still regarded as something external to a society.  People do not want to acknowledge that risk is a necessary condition of modern society.

Gadfly: Dr.  Yanitsky, how do American environmentalists and journalists misperceive environmental problems and the environmental movement in the former Soviet Union?

Yanitsky: I will answer as a scholar.  There is, I think, a general and inevitable law: If anyone wants to tell something about a country, or to offer recommendations to it, he should know the country in question as well as he knows his own.  But unfortunately, this is not the case in practice.  The majority of your colleagues do not know the Russian language, and thus can never deal with the original documents.  Instead, they use secondary materials, or reviews, and so they do not have access to the real events, and thus seldom go in depth into what is going on.  Moreover, many of your scholars and journalists persist in the attitude that "America is best." Also they are not inclined to examine our concepts or research techniques.  This is my personal feeling, after many contacts with American researchers, businessmen, and some officials.  Even worse, many such individuals regard Russia as a testing ground for concepts and theories developed in the USA. 

Next point -- the "case study" approach of my American colleagues is often casual and superficial.  They do not try to identify regularities.  For example, when the Chernobyl accident took place, there was a lot of reportage in the American press about the details, but much less about the "underground" factors which preceded this event: factors such as irregularities in the industry, in technical policy, in the mind and the way of the life of the operators -- the base of the iceberg.  Regretfully, I must cite Feshbach and Friendly's book, Ecocide in the USSR, as an example of a work which presents many cases, events, and statistics, but not a deep analysis.

Gadfly: I fear that you are encountering a problem which we share in our country as well.  When we have an environmental problem or emergency, journalists like to interview people for the "human interest" aspect of the story, but they do not get into the institutional, social and economic factors, which are not that interesting to the ordinary reader or viewer.

Yanitsky: Superficiality is a distortion, of course.  At first glance, many things are seen as quite similar in our two countries: meetings here and there, protest actions, litigation.  But this leads us to forget that all these things are happening in quite a different context in your country than in our country.  For instance, while the process of litigation in the United States is well defined by the three separate branches of government, in our country, the courts, up to now, have been essentially meaningless.  Moreover, the economic, cultural, political contexts are utterly different.  But these "contexts" are just those "background" factors which case-study analysis and journalistic reporting tend to ignore.  It is a paradox, but environmentalists often ignore their "environment" in the larger sense of the word: social, political and economic.  They like to talk about "environmental events," but not the context in which these events take place.  Among my American colleagues, the only person who can escape these misconceptions is Douglas Weiner, the University of Arizona historian.  But Weiner has earned his credentials through more than ten years of hard work, frequent visits, and extended residency in Russia.  Weiner is a real insider, fluent in Russian, who deals in depth.  Most of your visitors are outsiders, looking in.

Gadfly: Turning to another issue: How was it possible for an environmental movement to arise in Russia, out of a climate of political repression and stagnation?

Yanitsky: There are several reasons and possibilities.  First, notwithstanding the repressions, some key people still survived, and I think that people are as important to a movement as organizations.  In our country, this is especially so.  Second, if these key people were exiled but not killed, then when the repression was eased or removed, these individuals formed cells of the environmental movement all over the country, in testing stations, in reserves, where they were sent by Stalin.  And to these cells, our universities sent students, which initiated a feedback and networks.

Gadfly: Who were some of these people?

Yanitsky: Felix Shtilmark comes to mind.  But also many anonymous people, sent to places like Turkmenistan, where Svet Zabelin, now the head of the Socio-Ecological Union, worked for many years.  And then a network emerged.

Then the Universities played a crucial role in the networking, for the University was a social structure which supported them financially and morally.  Even in the times of Lysenko, there were botanical journals which were in a position to publish quite different viewpoints

A second point is that the Universities served as supporting structures to very small eco-groups, which later evolved as a network for the whole environmental movement.  These were small nature clubs.  Yablokov, Shvarts, Zabelin -- all our key individuals emerged from these clubs.

The next point: the government, along with their official ideology, allowed such organizations as the All Russian Society for Nature Protection to exist.  Such organizations maintained, not only official functions, but also served as a base for shaping a kind of nature protection group.  Formally, such organizations were sanctioned, but of course it was under the umbrella of the party ideology.  But no one within was covered by the official ideology.  Within these groups were processes which were in effective opposition to party ideology.  Of course, the emerging movement never openly acted against the state or the state bodies.  Instead, they acted covertly or latently along with the principle, "nature must have her adherents everywhere." It was a principle of utmost transparency -- first in the pores of the state bodies, then later acting in the cells of the environmental movement.

In addition, the student nature protection teams played a significant socio-psychological role, not only as a part of the movement, but as a brotherhood allowing the members to overcome the feeling of alienation and to gain a sense of community.

After the repressions ended and social control weakened, the movement gained new possibilities and resources to act.  But it partly lost its initial character as a brotherhood.  It became more diverse, formal, and bureaucratized.  So those earlier times were the times of the brotherhood, the community.  Now these are the times of a more official structure with a hierarchy, more definite roles within the movement.

Gadfly: You speak of how the environmental movement evolves from a brotherhood to a bureaucracy.  But as a sociologist, wouldn't you expect this, as almost an inevitable evolution of a social group -- such as a religious society into a church, a political action group into a party?

Yanitsky: I think this is a common tendency, and that is inevitable.  There is only one difference that Russia, in terms of human resources, is really exhausted.  In your country, if one layer of activists and dissidents becomes "co-opted" and bureaucratized, there is below it another layer of activists to take its place.  But I observe in Russia that there is now a void -- a lack of people who can act as vigorously as those earlier activists who became politicians and bureaucrats.  There is, in short, no fund of "human resources" to renew the movement.

Gadfly: How strong is the commitment of the Russian government to environmental protection and restoration, in particular, that of the executive and President Yeltsin, and then of the Parliament?

Yanitsky: This is a rather large and complicated question, and I am not a political man.  Thus my answer will be somewhat short and subjective.  In general, I am convinced that the commitment is not sufficient or as strong as it should be.  Why? Because there is no environmental policy at all.  By "policy" I don't mean a set of laws or regulations, but rather principles and strategies of eco-development.  As far as I know, nobody in the government or the parliament has ever tried to apply the concept of sustainable development to the Russian soil.  The more Russia is regionalized, the more severe competition of local or regional social actors for the key resources -- for land, urban infrastructure, raw materials, etc.

Let me give one example: When the book "Our Common Future" by the Brudland Commission was published, I asked a set of high officials and politicians how they perceived this book and if they intended to use it.  The general response was that of total indifference.  They don't bother.  They thought of it as just another book, but never considered it as a program or a scenario of eco-survival.  I asked some persons in 1987, at the dawn of perestroika, can you use this book in your everyday political activity? No, they said.  It's too general.  The only questions of interest are those asked by the Central Committee of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union).  So they never considered it as a workable document.  Because I was in Norway at the time, I can compare the reaction of the Norwegian Parliament to our former parliament.  The Norwegians disseminated this book throughout the world, and asked for individual and concrete reactions from each parliament.  There was no official reaction from our parliament.

So my feeling is that our official commitment is rather small.  Our officials act only as a machine which is reactive rather than proactive -- responding only to consequences, but with no strategy oriented to the future.

Gadfly: Does the environmental movement in Russia have much political influence?

Yanitsky: To my mind, it has.  But the movement's activity is mostly latent, according to the above-mentioned principle that nature must have advocates everywhere.  They supply information to influential individuals such as Zabelin at the Socio-Ecological Union, or Yablokov [formerly] in Yeltsin's cabinet.  I believe that in one way or another the environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) took part in the drafting of laws concerning the environment.  But at the same time, it is understandable that environmental problems that have accumulated for twenty years, cannot be solved at once.  So recently, one may observe a strong tendency for local environmental executive bodies to merge with environmental NGOs.  I have personally observed this process.  This is a new process, and it is not clear what will be the outcome.  I am afraid that it will be a bureaucratization of the movement.  But at the same time, it will be a further step in the changing of environmental policy.  But now I speak only about the regional and local levels.

Gadfly: In a previous issue of our Newsletter, your colleague, Irene Khalyi writes that "the environmental movement's survival is essential to the development of a civil society in the country." Here she uses a term, "civil society," which I find is extremely important in your book.  There you write, in an eloquent passage, that with the advent of perestroika and the rise of the environmental movement,

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 [bureaucratic]) 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 sense only dimly.  (Russian Environmentalism, 35-6)

Would you please explain this term, "civil society," and its significance in Russia?

Yanitsky: This is an important point.  I argue that in contrast with many other movements which are struggling for political power, the environmental movement tends first to form and maintain the cells of civil society -- working, so to speak, not "from the top down" in society, but "from the bottom up." It is a more creative approach.  Thus the movement not only looks for and consumes resources for its own survival, but also to produce resources -- human, material, organizational and otherwise.  They organize small enterprises and centers, as in Nizhny Novgorod [formerly Gorkii], and other places.  The major organizational centers of the environmental movement are not political headquarters.  They are the NGOs, which definitely produce material, financial and intellectual resources.  The last point is quite important.  They teach, they organize, they collect information, they act as mediators between the populations and the local bodies.  They sometimes have their own small businesses.  In sum, the green NGOs act as independent subjects.  I think that the green NGOs are the most independent social actors in our society.  Other civic groups are usually tied either to national organizations, or to local communities, or to charitable organizations.  They have to belong!  But to my mind, the environmentalists belong either to themselves, or to the international community.

Gadfly: I believe you told me that the environmental movement is the only civil movement that has survived in all the republics following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yanitsky: Yes.  But this doesn't mean that it can produce the civil society at once.  Nevertheless, it is still, so to speak, in the pores of these republics, which later on can emerge as the nesting cells of a civil society.

This is how it was with Russia.  Just before Perestroika, such "grass roots" flourished in Russia.  Before there was "Democratic Russia" or other nationalistic movements, these small cells of civil society flourished in neighborhoods as grass roots, as civic initiatives.  It was a rather interesting period during which the government removed the pressure -- not deliberately, but because it became weaker.

Gadfly: What time, exactly?

Yanitsky: It began with the death of Brezhnev but became pronounced near the end of Andropov's life.  A lot of local clubs, organizations, groups, initiatives -- in cleaning streets, teaching children, club lectures -- the real stuff of civil society.  They were independent and the felt independent.

Gadfly: I was of the opinion that perestroika made civil society possible.  But you are saying that the reverse is the case.  And thereafter, it was a "positive feedback" whereby each reinforced the other.

Yanitsky: Yes, exactly!

Gadfly: How important and effective is electronic communications (e-mail etc.) in the work of Russian environmentalists -- in the effectiveness of their work and the growth of the movement.

Yanitsky: Extremely important.  First of all they create an information skeleton of the movement.  They enable it to mobilize its rather modest human resources very quickly and very effectively.  This gives to the members a sense of belongingness, of community.  And what is most important, the e-mail gives them a sense of belonging to a global community -- a great community of environmentalists all over the world.  And e-mail democratizes communications, making the environmental movement members informed before the discussions become known to the media or ordinary people.  So they feel themselves in advance of events.  All in all, e-mail is a powerful resource that makes the environmental movement actually independent.

However, there is only one serious potential threat: it is the inequality of those who have access to the network and those who do not.  And therefore this raises the possibility for the leaders of the movement, when they became bureaucrats, to put pressure on some deviant groups.  Those leaders who become members of the government still hold in their hand the e-mail devices, and usually say to the groups, "if you proceed as I tell you, you can keep the e-mail.  If not, I will switch you off."

Gadfly: Can the government do this?

Yanitsky: Not the government.  I mean a local leader, previously a leader of an NGO, who now becomes a leader of a local ecological department of an oblast (local province).  Still he is a leader of the SEU, and holds in his hands the e-mail system.  Now he can manipulate it, deciding how has access to it and who has not.  This is a potential problem.  But I repeat: in total, there is much more benefit than loss in electronic communication.

Gadfly: How would you characterize the most pressing organizational challenges facing the environmental movement in Russia?

Yanitsky: First, we must understand that there has been a radical restructuring of the movement, stimulated by the new economic and political conditions.  Before and at the beginning of perestroika, environmental activity dealt mainly with nature protection.  Now it has been very quickly transformed into an "environmental movement," with a great widening of the scope of things it must deal with.  The movement must deal with such huge things as radioactive contamination, disarmament of chemical weapons, the Chernobyl accident, etc.  And it is quite natural that all this requires new knowledge, new technology, and even new strategy.  Besides, many core activists have become politicians and have left the movement, and this has evidently weakened the movement.

The movement has to learn to form an environmental lobby, to draft laws, and so on.  All in all, such challenges are quite new, and thus there have been great changes both outside and within the movement.  So I would not say that the movement is "in crisis." Rather, these losses and difficulties which it faces are the inevitable result of the transformation of the movement.  Of course, there was a negative reaction by some militants who were disappointed by the results of perestroika and the ongoing reforms, but I think its normal for some people to drop out from the movement, as others come in.

Gadfly: We had the same phenomenon after our first "Earth Day" in April, 1972.  There was a great expression of citizen concern, and inevitably it cooled.  And eight years later, Ronald Reagan was elected President -- a political disaster for the American environmental movement.  Only recently has the movement become reactivated in the US.

A friend of mine, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, offered this reflection on the current state of the environmental movement.  I'd like to hear your response.  He said that there are two very practical factors that are damaging the impact of the environmental movement: time and place.  First, time, in the sense that given the difficult economic conditions, Russian citizens in general have little time for anything other than earning money and surviving.  Secondly, place since with privatization it becomes very difficult of groups to meet and administer their activities, since prices are becoming unbearable and meeting places impossible to find.  Is this true?

Yanitsky: I agree, but only partly.  Because, as I told you, the movement is not poor -- it has financial resources.  Concerning time, yes, but again if the movement has resources, it can hire help.  In general terms, people have less time.  But if they are paid, then they do have time.  In this sense, things may become better.  If the masses of people are seriously affected, they will put aside their work and go to the streets.  A lack of time and space will not be significant.

Gadfly: In spite of the economic difficulties of which we spoke, are you on balance optimistic about the effectiveness of the environmental movement in improving the condition of the Russian environment?

Yanitsky: This depends first of all on the tactics adopted in the near future by the movement.  To my mind, it would be much better if the movement not involve itself in political activity, but rather continue its latent work with which they are well acquainted and well trained.  If they do become involved in political activity, I can not foresee the results.  But as a political force, the environmentalists are unknown on the Russian stage.  So it means that they must join with other movements.  I think that the role of the movement as a kind of an underground apolitical force is much more effective, than that of an open partisan in the political struggle.  If environmentalists do become political, they will be attacked from both the left and the right.

Gadfly: What is the role of the international environmental community in supporting the Russian environmentalists?

Yanitsky: I think that the role is very important, perhaps even decisive.  This includes the exchange of information, training, building an e-mail network, joint projects, financial support for all kinds of local activities -- expeditions, conferences, green press publishing, etc.  Second is moral support.  Think of the late eighties, when environmental concern of the rank and file society sharply decreased.  So the Russian and other former Soviet environmentalists urgently need a feeling of belonging to the global environmental community.  They need financial and moral support to maintain themselves as the carriers of environmental values.  I see this as a key point.  To this day, there is no other supporter of the environmental values in our society.  So the global community makes a great input when it supports the environmental movement.  They in turn maintain the environmental values in our society.  This is most important because the environmentalists are opposed to the growing consumerism of our society.  But the more our environmentalists integrate into the world environmental community, the more the danger that they will be accused as "non-patriots" -- as adversaries of reforms.  In other words, the integration of the Russian environmental movement into the world community could be interpreted here in Russia as "uprooting." This is ironic, since, up to this time, society considered our environmentalists as the most rooted of people, because they were concerned with the immediate environment.  But now as they deal more and more with the global issues, they may be accused of losing their feelings of place.

Gadfly: My final question has several parts.  In general, the question is this: how might the West, and the United States in particular, best assist the Russian environmental movement? Now to the parts: first of all, how might scholars and scientists best assist the movement?

Yanitsky: They have already done a lot.  And I would very much appreciate it if they would develop environmental theory, particularly in sociology and politics, jointly with their Russian colleagues, and to develop these as independent disciplines.  Clearly, in our society, following seventy years of unchallenged dogmatism, the very basic foundations of sociology should be re-examined.  In particular, a new environmental paradigm must be devised to adapt to Russian conditions, recognizing that the society is in a stage of transformation.

Gadfly: And the educators?

Yanitsky: As for educators, I can only say that they must continue their activity.

Gadfly: And the environmental activists?

Yanitsky: The ties should be maintained and strengthened.  Every part of Russia and the former Soviet Union should be covered by the network of the global environmental community.

Gadfly: The government officials?

Yanitsky: Your officials, when they deal with our government and urge economic reforms, should be aware of environmental and ecological considerations.  Up to now, nothing.  Only very general words.  I think you should stress to our top officials that they should think more and think conceptually about sustainable development, and about ecological modernization.

Gadfly: The Media?

Yanitsky: They do a lot.  Only one request: it would be very good if the Western media gave more access to Russian environmentalists, thus allowing them to speak to American audiences.  As it is, you are getting the impressions of your journalists and environmentalists, not ours.  So you should give the microphone to Zabelin, to Shvarts, to Yablokov, and so on.

Gadfly: Finally, ordinary citizens?

Yanitsky: My great interest is to facilitate contacts, because this is very practical.  We should find the means to maintain our personal ties.  Not only in the capitals, but also in the small cities and towns.  Direct contact between "sister cities" has proven to be especially useful and productive.

Gadfly: Dr.  Yanitsky, this has been an extraordinarily insightful conversation.  On behalf of our readers and environmental scholars and activists throughout the world, I thank you for your time, your wisdom, and for your dedication to our common concerns.


Copyright, 1995, by Ernest Partridge

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 .