A Conversation with Sviatoslav Zabelin
Sviatoslav Igorovich Zabelin is the Co-Chair of the Council of the
Socio-Ecological Union. (There is no "Chairman," he tells me: "we are
all equals here"). The Socio-Ecological Union now represents over 290
environmental organizations, located in Russia and eleven other
republics of the former Soviet Union, in addition to Scotland, the
Czech Republic, Finland, Palestine, Norway, Spain and the United
Zabelin is thus described by Oleg Yanitsky, in his book,
Zabelin is one of the few leaders who combine the
capacities of a scientist and of a professional politician with
those of an individual possessing civic virtues of a high caliber.
With an open and accessible manner, he communicates readily with
almost anyone, preferring to listen rather than talk. Zabelin is
never overbearing in taking decisions, and never exploits his
authority as adviser to an official leader of the movement,
preferring to rely on the movement's collective experience and on
Educated as a biologist at Moscow State University, Sviatoslav
Zabelin served for eighteen years with the "Nature Protection Corps,"
first as an undergraduate and eventually as the president of
movement's Coordinating Council, moving on in 1979 to work for seven
years at a nature reserve in Turkmenia. Zabelin was a leading figure
in the founding of the Socio-Ecological Union in 1989. From 1991 to
1993, he served in the Yeltsin government as a State Councilor on
environmental and health protection issues. In 1993 Zabelin was
awarded the prestigious
Prize for environmental activism.
We visited Zabelin July 12, 1999, at the Moscow office of the
Socio-Ecological Union, where we taped the following
Gadfly: This year, the Socio-Ecological Union is
celebrating the tenth anniversary of its founding conference. What
circumstances and purposes led to the founding of the SEU?
Those who founded the SEU were members
of the "druzhinas" or the student "nature guardian" movement. This,
you will recall, was the time of perestroika. Two years
earlier, in 1987, there were over 100 nature druzhina
organizations. With perestroika, we began to organize adult groups as
well, to deal not only with nature preservation problems but also
with a full spectrum of environmental issues such as pollution - with
a focus on "my" immediate environment, not just a distant nature
But shouldn't nature protection be
regarded as an issue within this broader spectrum?
From a general point of view, perhaps.
But practically speaking, issues like pollution bring environmental
questions "home" to the public - as close as the air we breathe. We
also understood that the issues of nature and wildlife protection
could also serve as a means to alert the public to larger
How was this new movement organized?
We choose a horizontal "network"
structure, rather than the hierarchical ("pyramid") that was the
tradition of the Soviet-style bureaucratic state. Simultaneously,
about a half-dozen "all-Union" environmental organizations were
emerging which did, in fact, adopt the hierarchical structure. One in
particular emerged out of the "Komsomol" (Young Communist)
establishment, apparently with hopes of attaining financial support
from the Party apparatus. But when Komsomol faded with the demise of
the Soviet Union, so too did this organization. Of all these nascent
non-governmental environmental federations, only ours survived.
Our success, I believe, was due to our motivation to be
independent, to extend beyond the original student community, and yet
to develop the environmental movement through the experience gained
through thirty years of the student nature protection movement.
In those early days, the sixties and
seventies, how were the conservation groups able to achieve
independence from the Communist Party and the government?
Easily. First of all, these groups had
no "head," and thus no point at which the Party could exert control.
Also, these activities - e.g., the inspection of hunting and
fisheries, etc. - were not politically significant. And finally, the
Party did not perceive this a loose network of nature conservation
groups as a national movement.
So while these groups had Komsomol or
university affiliations, as far as the Party was concerned it was
enough that they were involving the youth in "socially useful"
activities, and nature-protection was not seen as particularly
So in 1987 you decided to shift your
emphasis from nature conservation to broader environmental
But remember that at that time the
student conservation movement existed independently from the
Socio-Ecological Union, though many of us who founded the SEU were
former members of this movement. We proposed an organization to serve
a different social group, to promote different activities, and to
address different objectives. After all, these were citizens who were
concerned about air pollution, radioactive contamination, Chernobyl,
dams and river control - the big projects.
Was this shift in emphasis and concern
made possible by perestroika and glasnost?
Certainly. Before then, we tried to do
it many times, but we failed.
What are the foremost objectives of the
Our main objective is the support of
local initiatives. We have a cadre of a thousand activist individuals
(not all of them SEU members) who offer that support, and we print
and distribute ten thousand copies of our Newsletter. By "support" I
mean that we give these local groups the means, most particularly
information, to carry out their activities. In addition, we promote
inter-connection, to help these groups become acquainted with each
other - to exchange practical experience and give each other moral
support. - to let each know, "I am not alone, I am not crazy, it is
And to let each other know that action
and initiative occasionally succeeds!
Yes! And in addition, we advise our
members of available resources - legal procedures, e-mail contacts,
agencies and foundations, etc.
A few years ago I interviewed Oleg Yanitsky. He told me then that electronic communication had an
important role in maintaining and extending the community of
environmental organizations in the FSU.
Certainly. This was a factor.
What do you see as the greatest obstacle
to environmental reform in Russia today?
Perhaps I have an untraditional approach
to that question. In my view, post-Soviet society is in a separate
category than the rest of the industrialized world.
Imagine a "normal distribution curve" (also called a "bell curve")
with the horizontal axis as the historical time line, from left to
right. The vertical axis represents resource consumption or
"throughput." The United States, western Europe and Japan (the
"developed countries" or "DCs") are, with their maximized consumption
of resources, at the apex of this curve - an unsustainable position.
To the left of the "DCs", on the "upward slope," are the so-called
"developing countries" which are aspiring, in a few cases with some
short-term success, to imitate the US by increasing its resource
consumption. To the right, on the "downward slope," is Russia which,
having passed its apex of consumption under communism, is now well
into an era of ever-decreasing consumption. Given the limits of the
earth, the other countries are bound to follow. Like it or not,
Russia is the "leader" in this regard.
Do you see any opportunity for Russia to
reverse this trend - put itself back on an "upward slope."
No. Nor should it. This is the necessary
historical trend, the normal path in the development of all social
systems. Industrial civilization is a self-destroying system. But
Russia has the ability to survive the crisis of "the limits of
growth" (as the Club or Rome described it).
But when we are asked, "what must we do to survive the present
crisis?," that question is posed with the presupposition that Russia
is on the left side of that curve, and that the solution to the
crisis here is to recover and implement the mechanisms of increased
consumption, by improving mismanagement, by ending political
corruption, and by finding still more technical solutions. But none
of this is the solution to Russia's economic, social and
environmental problems or, for that matter, for the emerging problems
of the United States and the world economy. It is not, for the simple
reason that the established system of modern industrialized society
is incapable of dealing with the limits of consumption and of
So, I understand you to be saying that
there is no solution in the sense of achieving the western standard
of living, or even of reversing this decline in consumption. Rather,
the solution must be for the Russians to learn to live within the
biotic and resource limits of the planet.
The solution now, as in the case of all
previous historical systemic crises, is to find new resources - and
by this I mean, not material resources, but human and institutional
resources. Consider: when primitive hunter-gatherers became too
numerous to be sustained by the available prey, they domesticated
plants and animals, developed agriculture and settled into permanent
communities. And when established agricultural methods no longer
sufficed, mankind discovered and developed fossil fuels and the
industrial revolution was born. Today, industrial civilization, as it
reaches its limits, is about to run its course, and a new revolution
is upon us.
What, then, do you see as this next stage
of human civilization?
It will be an era of information and
spirituality - a time of decreased material consumption, and of
recycling of available resources. As people discover spiritual
values, they will demand less material resources. This will be the
next stage of civilization, though nobody knows what will be the
price of this transition.
Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi and
Leo Tolstoy, among many others, observed that human material
dissatisfaction can be thought of as a fraction. The usual mode of
response is to seek satisfaction by attempting to increase the
"numerator" of wealth and possessions. However, they said, the wiser
course of action is to achieve satisfaction by reducing the
"denominator" of demand.
Of course - the solution is to demand
less. And this will bring about a profound change. There is no limit
to demands, for even the wealthiest individuals want still more.
Indeed, their demands seem to increase with their wealth. Unlimited
demands in a limited world? This is a prescription for disaster. But
if, on the other hand, we are moving to a society based upon
information and spiritual values, there are truly no limits. I have
never met an individual who was too wise or too virtuous.
So this new society will have a vastly
different economic system?
Certainly! Everything will be changed.
It must be. And this transformation will involve deep crises and
tragedies for billions of people.
Then, you see Russia as a leader in this
transition, though not by choice?
The Soviet Union moved forcefully into
the consumptive-industrial mode of economy. But it was the same with
capitalism. Both systems used and wasted enormous resources. Both
acted as if natural resources were unlimited. In Russia today we are
encountering the bleak fact that natural resources not unlimited.
Thus we just might possibly choose to deal appropriately with the
limits so clearly before us.
It is interesting to reflect upon the
similarities between the United States and Russia. Both arose
alongside what appeared to be limitless frontiers - to the west of
the United States, and to the east of Russia. From this historical
experience, both acquired a careless attitude toward nature and its
resources - an attitude that an island nation such as England might
not have. And the most reckless use by both, of course, was the arms
Let's move on to another question. Do you believe that there is
much support in Russia for environmental reform, outside of the SEU
No support from the "official" organs of
society. The environment has a very low priority in all levels of the
But isn't this condition a change from
the official attitudes a decade ago, during the final days of the
Soviet Union when Nikolai Vorontsov was the Minister of Environmental
Perestroika was a time when new
ideas and adaptations were being seriously considered, and there were
some attempts then to promote dialog and to effect reform. But sadly,
this did not last very long. Very soon the authorities came to
believe that money was much more important than dialog with the
I notice that Alexey Yablokov, another
Co-Chair of SEU and a man that I very much admire, is no longer a
member of President Yeltsin's administration. Is this because he
feels that he can work more effectively outside the Government? And
if so, is he correct in this judgment?
Yes, on both counts. As you may know, I
served as his assistant deputy in the Administration.
Do you see any hope for change in this
regard? Is there any chance that the Russian government might renew
its interested in protecting the environment?
No chance - and for the reasons just
explained. We are facing the need to develop and adopt a new system,
and the government is bound to the old system - not the "system" of
communism, but the western-style system of constant growth. Because
the new system must be radically different, the present system is
more and more irrelevant. After all, the interests of the government
and its supporters are contrary to the trends of history. Politicians
can only think and act in terms of the old system - in terms of
putting Russia back on the "left-hand, upward slope" of our diagram.
They fail to realize that, in the present economic and social
circumstances, this is a hopeless policy.
And yet, the ordinary Russian citizens do seem to realize this. I
published a book expressing these ideas, and it has passed from
hand-to-hand among ordinary people. But when I present these ideas to
top-level officials like Yavlinsky, it becomes clear that they have a
block against even considering these ideas. And that is
understandable, since in the "post-industrial" system (the
"right-hand slope") they simply have no place.
My friend, Alexander Karpov (St.
Petersburg Society of Naturalists), conveyed to me your concern that
the West was looking greedily at the vast store of natural resources
in Russia - that the West was interested in making Siberia and much
of Russia what you call a "resource colony." Do you see this as a
Yes, this is a problem. But it is a
problem for the West as well as Russia. The problem arises out of the
political situation here. The post-Soviet society is a non-legal
society - the old legal institutions simply do not work. Legislation
is simply ignored. Officials from the President on down do not follow
the letter of the laws, nor are they guided by the laws. How then can
firms or individuals plan and manage their activities? But then, when
foreign firms go outside their own countries, they also operate
non-legally and extra-legally. And this is especially true in
So the attraction of Russia (and other
countries) to foreign firms, is that in Russia these firms are not as
legally constrained as they would be in their own countries?
Yes. Very often these firms express, in
the popular press, the view that they would like to work abroad under
a well-defined legal system, and with a clearer understanding of "the
rules of the game." But that is just public relations. They don't
really mean it.
Why would "resource colonization" be a
problem for the West (the "colonizers") as well as Russia (the
Because we have a global flow of
pollution. We live, that is to say, on a single planet. The
atmosphere and the oceans do not recognize national boundaries.
Somehow the multi-national corporations don't see this. They think of
pollution in terms of local dumping of toxic chemicals. But the
greatest threat is not the toxic chemicals, it is the greenhouse
gases. And these, through climate change, affect the entire
Many of us in the west have been
concerned about the deteriorating condition of Russian science and
scholarship. I am personally acquainted with several professors and
researchers who are working under extraordinarily difficult
conditions. I find this alarming, since, to use a western expression,
these individuals are "the canaries in the mine" - the harbingers of
dangerous conditions ahead. In the United States, it was scientists
such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich
who first alerted the public to the environmental crisis. So we must
wonder if, in Russia, the scientists are well-situated to sound
As both a scientist and an activist, I
have mixed feelings about the conditions of the academics and
intelligentsia in Russia today. As an activist, I feel that for the
short term, we have the necessary facts - we don't need to
investigate further. However, when we face new problems, such as
genetic engineering, we need highly qualified assistance, and it may
not be there when we need it.
Shouldn't activists be concerned about
the decline of influence by the scientists? After all, weren't the
crucial environmental problems of the past brought to the attention
of the public by the scientists?
This was so because of the social status
of the scientists.
But hasn't that status and influence of
the Russian scientists been affected by their loss of voice,
prestige, income, and so forth.? Doesn't that present a problem?
Indeed it does, for now the influence of
scientists upon the authorities is effectively zero, quite apart from
the declining social status of the academics. As a result, we now
have no real intellectual leadership - no informed voices that will
be heard by the authorities. Yes, we have intellectuals. But they
have been effectively isolated from the political leaders.
What caused this disconnection?
It was a change of the "instruments"
with which the power structure deals with the community. Instruments
such as the mass media, public relations - devices that are
implemented by money rather than by ideas and arguments.
Isn't the problem of the decline of
influence of the intellectuals two-fold: not only their loss of
leverage with the authorities, but also their loss of contact with
the public? While a scientifically informed public might respond
appropriately to an ecological emergency, a public saturated with
mass media and manipulated by public relations techniques will ignore
the warnings and be ill-prepared to deal with emergencies.
Yes, but there are two sides to this
situation. On the one hand, there is the lack of respect for
intellect on the part of the mass public. On the other hand, there is
the lack of response by the authorities to the concerns of the
intellectuals. They are reinforcing phenomena, for in the first place
the authorities thus feel no pressure "from below," and reciprocally,
the public sees no use in trying to influence the authorities. The
public and the authorities, so to speak, are mutually detached.
During the Soviet times, published views of the "top level"
scientists were taken very seriously. (But always remember, that
these views had to be within "accepted bounds" since the state
controlled the press). These opinions resulted in official action.
But when the Soviet system collapsed, the views of the scientists
fell upon deaf ears, both officially and publicly. Of course, the
status of the social scientists was not helped by the fact that they
were quite unprepared to explain the upheaval in the social system of
their own country.
We have a similar situation in the United
States, though in our case it is less a failure of the government
(though that too is serious, most acutely with the Congress) and more
a failure of the public to respond to scientific evidence and
opinion. Sadly, our public is not scientifically sophisticated - not,
for example, when over half refuses to believe in the theory of
evolution. This problem is compounded by a lack of critical skills
among the public, and thus with opinions expressed all over the
spectrum, from scientifically warranted opinion to far-out nonsense,
the public lacks a "critical filter" that will lead them to a
recognition of urgent public issues amidst the "noise" of popular
culture. The primary culprits, I believe, are mass media and
commercially motivated public relations campaigns. The solution in
both our countries, it seems to me, is a sound scientific education.
And this is the source of my concern about the decline of science and
scholarship in Russia today - and not just in Russia, I would
We hope that this decline in academic
status and prestige is temporary. An encouraging sign is the
increasing interest of the young people in their higher
Now that is very good news! Of
course, it would help if the young felt that there were economic and
career advantages to pursuing higher education.
Let's move on now to another issue. What do you see as the best
means to promote cooperation between the SEU and environmentally
concerned Russian citizens, on the one hand, and people and NGOs with
a similar point of view in the West and elsewhere in the world? How
might we best work together?
First and foremost we must develop
mutual understanding. It is important for the local groups to
appreciate that they are not alone on the global level - that these
are not just Russian problems, and that there are solutions to these
problems. In addition, because of your privileged position on that
"historical curve" that I described, you have resources that we don't
have to address global problems that are common to us all.
So we should focus on common
Of course. Climate change, biodiversity,
and the search for a new and sustainable life-style. For our part, we
are experimenting with sustainable "eco-villages." Perhaps we may
find something through this experiment that might be of use to
You mentioned the need for mutual
understanding, and of course I completely agree. What, then, do you
see as the most significant misunderstanding that the West,
and Americans in particular, have concerning Russia and the Russian
In general, ordinary Americans look upon
Russia as a failed United States - that all we need to succeed is to
be more like you. So they come to us with schemes that might be
useful in the United States (and perhaps not, for that matter), and
with little regard for our historical and cultural contexts. Of
course, the real situation is much more complex.
When you and I first met six years ago, we in Russia had a very
limited comprehension of the spectrum of American and Western
attitudes and organizations. And we had very little communication
with the "grass roots" of your society. Thus it was very difficult
for us, on both sides, to recognize our common interests.
So, in the interests of mutual
understanding, we should develop contacts with a wider spectrum of
both of our societies? We should search out and focus upon common
problems, such as global warming?
In addition, we must find ways to
establish genuine self-government, on the very local level.
What is the role of global communications
in the development of mutual understanding. It is, to be sure, a
remarkable phenomenon. For example, with satellite communications I
can turn on a TV in a hotel room almost anywhere in the world, and
find an English language broadcast from Atlanta or Washington DC.
I am not impressed. It is too simple,
and it is not conveying the message that we need to hear. These are,
after all, commercial enterprises, and they are promoting consumerism
and consumption. They give out their message, but they do not take in
information and adapt to the new world conditions. Thus they are the
problem, not the solution. They are not facilitating the appropriate
mutual understanding between nations and peoples.
I understand and share your concern, for
I see this consumerism taking hold in Russia. But this message aside,
the medium affords an opportunity for communication and mutual
understanding, albeit it is an opportunity that it not being realized
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
I first became familiar with your
esteemed colleague, Prof. Yablokov, through commercial American
television. About a dozen years ago, the now-retired American "talk
show host," Phil Donahue, teamed-up with Vladimir Pozner of Soviet Gosteleradio to present live discussions with audiences in
New York and Moscow. On one of these programs, Alexey Yablokov gave
an eloquent plea for cooperative action by both our societies in the
face of a common global ecological crisis. I was very moved and very
impressed, and thought to myself, "now there is a man that I would
like very much to meet," and eventually I did.
This media exchange took place during the exciting era of
glasnost, and I must report, with great regret, that we have seen
nothing remotely like this since then. For now, American commercial
Television (and Public TV too, for that matter), has become what you
have described: a self-serving promoter of the consumer economy.
Yes, media could be a very positive
force. But I see little prospect for this. Now it is far more a
Aside from commercial media, about which
I share your concerns, there is the development of electronic
communication - e-mail and the internet. Aren't these potentially
positive tools in the hands of the global environmental movement? For
example, my current visit to Russia would have been much less
productive without the advantages of ongoing and almost instant
communication with my Russian colleagues, including yourself, of
Surely you don't mean that the SEU
needed computers to get started. After all, we were founded several
years before computers became available to us.
No, what I meant was that, once
established, computer networking became a valuable tool in the hands
of the SEU - a means of maintaining and solidifying your gains by
coordinating activities among the member organizations, and with
supporters around the world.
Well, yes. Once SEU was established,
e-mail became a very useful device, especially with our communication
with the global environmental community.
I would like next to bring up a matter
very much on your mind these days: namely, the legal difficulties of
two Russian naval officers, Alexander Nikitin and Grigorii Pasko.
What do these cases represent, and what is the role of SEU and its
supporters in the west in securing a happy outcome?
Both cases involve the distribution of
information about radioactive pollution, in Nititin's case in the
North Sea, and in Pasko's case in the Sea of Japan. Each officer
acted officially as he collected information about these conditions,
and each attempted to disclose the information to the world
community. Note the contrast with the Soviet era. In Soviet times,
environmental activities (by "nature conservationists," you will
recall), were officially permitted. But now, these two cases show us
that environmental activity has been selected by our authorities as
pretexts for the prosecution of all kinds of social activities. They
are, so to speak, "test cases."
Why the authorities have chosen to do so, I just don't understand.
After all, both cases have attracted international notoriety. The
Euro-parliament has protested, as has your Vice President, Al Gore.
Just like the complaints about the "prisoners of conscience" during
the Soviet era.
Now both cases involve the "nuclear establishment" in Russia,
which happens to be struggling for its survival - because they are
very hazardous and because they are connected with the military.
So this may be a panic reaction by the nuclear establishment.
Maybe. There just seems to be no reasonable alternative
explanation for this reaction.
From what I understand from reading your
excellent newsletter, the SEU Times, these two individuals have appealed their cases
to the courts, which is to say that they have looked to the rule of
law for relief. Now the rule of law may not be as secure in Russia as
it is in the West, but still this seems to be a hopeful aspect of
these cases. After all, it never happened during the Soviet era. Do
you see any possibility of a happy outcome to these cases?
Not soon. For the very fact that these
accusations are unreasonable, it will be very difficult for the
authorities to admit that they are wrong. If these accusations were
reasonable, we might calculate what the authorities might do.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Does the foreign press, or public or
official opinion, have a useful function to serve in behalf of
Nikitin and Pasko?
All this is useful, for without this
expression of opinion it seems to me that Nikitin would now be in
prison. Over 16,000 messages of protest have been sent in the Pasko
case. [See addendum, below. Gadfly].
In conclusion, do you have any general or
closing comments for our "browsers."
Just that it is a delight to see you
again and in good health.
And I sincerely return those sentiments.
On behalf of the readers of The Online Gadfly I thank you
for you time and for a very insightful interview. I look forward to
transcribing this, and putting it on the internet for you to read,
along with your friends and admirers in the United States and around
the world. It is a privilege to be able to speak with you again, and
to share your wisdom and experience with our readers.
Sviatoslav Zabelin may be contacted at:
Gadfly's Addendum, January 2, 2000.
Fortunately, Zabelin's pessimism regarding the Pasko and Nikitin
cases has since proven to be unwarranted. On July 20, about a week after our
interview with Zabelin, Grigorii Pasko
was released from prison, and acquitted of the charge of treason. He
was convicted of the charge of "misapplying his position" but granted
amnesty. Even so, Pasko intends to appeal that conviction. Alexander
Nikitin was acquitted by a St. Petersburg court on December 29,
(April, 2000): The Federal Security Bureau appealed the verdict to the
Supreme Court of Russia, which upheld the acquittal in April.
Both cases have been extensively reported in the SEU
Times, included in this web site. We have collected the
SEU TIMES reports in an "Archive"
edition. See also the January, 2000 editorial:
"The Rule of
Law Comes to Russia."
Copyright 1999, by Ernest Partridge