Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve

In 1919, the Astrakhan National Forest Preserve became the first nature reserve established under Soviet auspices. After its creation, general legislation established a nationwide system of nature reserves in the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

In January of 1919, when the Russian Civil War Russian Civil War (1918-1921) was at its height and the new Soviet government was struggling to survive, Deputy Commissar Nikolai Podialpolski traveled to Moscow to submit requests to the commissar of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, to establish a university in Astrakhan and set aside a portion of the Volga River delta as a zapovednik, or nature reserve. After routinely approving the request for a university, Lunacharsky dictated a letter of introduction to Vladimir Ilich Lenin, recommending Podiapolski as “a splendid Soviet worker from Astrakhan” and encouraging him to present his conservation proposals to Lenin. At a meeting on January 16, 1919, Lenin expressed his approval of the proposal to set aside land in the Volga Delta as a nature reserve and directed Podiapolski to draft legislation for a general decree on conservation for the entire Russian Republic. Lenin’s involvement illustrated the centralized nature of Soviet government in this and subsequent periods and the personal interest Lenin took in nature conservation. Conservation;wilderness
Wilderness preservation;Soviet Union
Astrakhan National Forest Preserve
[kw]Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve (Feb. 1, 1919)
[kw]First Soviet Nature Preserve, Lenin Approves the (Feb. 1, 1919)
[kw]Soviet Nature Preserve, Lenin Approves the First (Feb. 1, 1919)
[kw]Nature Preserve, Lenin Approves the First Soviet (Feb. 1, 1919)
[kw]Preserve, Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature (Feb. 1, 1919)
Wilderness preservation;Soviet Union
Astrakhan National Forest Preserve
[g]Russia;Feb. 1, 1919: Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve[04680]
[c]Environmental issues;Feb. 1, 1919: Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve[04680]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 1, 1919: Lenin Approves the First Soviet Nature Preserve[04680]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;nature reserves
Lunacharsky, Anatoly
Podialpolski, Nikolai
Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, Andrey
Stanchinsky, V. V.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

(Library of Congress)

Lenin referred both the specific request for a nature preserve and the general question of establishing nature-conservation policy to the State Commissariat of Education, which approved establishing an Astrakhan nature reserve on February 1, 1919. In the spring of that year, the Soviet government also set up the State Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Nature under the direction of the State Commissariat of Education.

In 1919, the permanence of the newly established Soviet state was questionable, the economy had been replaced by “War Communism,” and large chunks of Russian territory were in the hands of hostile forces. The government nevertheless perceived that some conservation measures were necessary to avoid irreparable damage to the country’s environment. The last wild herds of the European bison had been destroyed by the invading German army in the west and by hungry peasants in the Caucasus (the species survived in captivity and was later reintroduced in the Caucasus), and the European moose was on the verge of extinction.

Podialpolski’s draft for a general conservation measure, titled “On State Protection of Parcels of Dry Land, Water, and Subterranean Areas,” languished for two years during the Russian Civil War. On September 16, 1921, Lenin signed a revised conservation statute, On the Protection of Monuments of Nature, Gardens, and Parks, that empowered the ministry of education to declare parcels of nature having special scientific or cultural-historical value as a zapovednik.

From the outset, zapovedniki were established and managed by two separate administrative units, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture (the Narkomzem), whose aims were quite different and whose management philosophies were consequently often in conflict. The individuals in the education ministry responsible for overseeing nature reserves were research scientists and included some of the most distinguished ecologists of the day. They saw nature reserves primarily as sites for the preservation and study of pristine natural ecosystems and resisted attempts at commercial, that is, state, exploitation of resources within their boundaries. The proponents of an aesthetic approach and appreciation for unspoiled nature for its own sake aligned themselves with the education ministry. The purely aesthetic ethic was, however, never very prominent in resource management in the Soviet Union, and it ceased to have any influence after the mid-1920’s. Nor was tourism seen as an important or desirable use of preserved “monuments of nature” in the early Soviet period, although the ministries were aware of the role of tourism in the U.S. national park system, and they thought that tourism might provide needed cash for a program that received limited financial support from the state.

The Ministry of Agriculture had jurisdiction over forestry and hunting, both historically important sources of income for the Russian people. The export of furs from the vast forests of Russia, in particular, was a major source of foreign exchange. The ministry therefore considered it important to prevent the kind of unregulated plundering of limited natural resources that had characterized the civil-war period. Consequently, they managed their zapovedniki as research centers for forestry- and range-management practices and as hunting preserves for high yields of commercially valuable species. In practice, unrealistic production goals during the Five-Year Plans Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union)[Five Year Plan] of the 1930’s severely compromised legitimate conservation efforts in areas under the agriculture ministry’s control.

The oldest nature reserve in pre-Soviet Russia was the venerable Askania-Nova Research Station, an extensive area of unspoiled steppe in an otherwise heavily agricultural area in the southern Ukraine. Originally the estate of a nobleman who had dedicated it to the preservation of rare wildlife (species native to the steppes of Russia as well as species imported from elsewhere), Askania-Nova became a research station in late Czarist times. Another reserve that dated from the civil war period was the Il’menski mineralogical zapovednik in the Ural mountains, which became the first national reserve created by the Soviet regime. The Astrakhan zapovednik was the first regional nature reserve founded by the Soviet regime.

The Astrakhan National Forest Preserve lay in the lower delta of the Volga River—one of the world’s great wetlands—where it joined the Caspian Sea; in 1980, it occupied a total area of 62,569 hectares out of a total 650,000 acres of designated wetland. The level of the Caspian Sea gradually fell, and the Volga River continually deposited silt in the delta; thus the area of the preserve grew by 33 percent between 1919 and the end of the twentieth century. The delta was an important gathering place for migratory waterfowl, and it occupied a critical position in the ecology of migratory birds; thus the continued existence of protected tracts in this area was of international importance. The delta was also home to an enormous variety of plants and invertebrates, including endemic and relict species, and formed a striking contrast to the surrounding desert. Important fisheries in the Volga and Caspian also depended on the integrity of the region.


Unlike the U.S. national park system, the Soviet network of zapovedniki functioned primarily as a system of research stations for the study of intact natural communities. Conditions in Russia in the 1920’s favored expansion into new scientific disciplines, and the study of community ecology flowered briefly during this early Soviet period. Preeminent among Russia’s ecologists was V. V. Stanchinsky. Based at the Askania-Nova Research Station, Askania-Nova Research Station[Askania Nova Research Station] Stanchinsky conducted pioneering studies involving productivity, food webs, predator-prey relationships, and quantitative modeling of the prairie ecosystem. Such studies of intact natural systems had practical as well as theoretical value; the assumption was that a thorough understanding of the natural ecology of a region was necessary for optimum management of agriculture, grazing, and forests.

The 1920’s also saw the creation of the All-Russian Society for Conservation, a state-run organization that published the influential journal Okhrana Prirody (protection of nature). During the 1930’s, this organization came under attack for its “bourgeois tendencies” and failure to develop a broad base among working people and peasants. Significantly, in 1931, the name of the journal was changed to Nature and the Socialist Economy.

From 1919 to 1932, 128 state and local zapovedniki, with a total area of 12.6 million hectares, were created in the Soviet Union (.56 percent of the total area). These preserves were concentrated in the Ukraine, European Russia, and the Caucasus, but they also included tracts in most of the republics, Siberia, and the far east. They ranged in size from small parcels of fewer than one hundred hectares to areas of more than one million hectares, including the Pechoro-Ilchshinskii preserve, established in 1930 in northern European Russia; Altai, established in central Asia in 1932; and Kronotskii, established in Kamchatka in 1927.

The conservation movement in Russia fell prey to the same political demagoguery that doomed genetics in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period; during that time, the system of nature preserves built up during the 1920’s was partially dismantled. Whereas during the 1920’s it had been possible to reconcile Marxist dialectic with objective observation of natural processes, in the Russia of the 1930’s the emphasis of the natural sciences shifted toward transformation of nature, and was increasingly dominated by models of nature based on incorrect assumptions and the grandiose plans of people with no understanding of nature or agriculture. Industrial expansion was paramount in the Five-Year Plans, and agriculture, along with the forest-product and fur industries, was to be pushed to the limit to support industrial expansion. Spokespersons for the All-Russian Society for Conservation argued in vain that the hunting quotas were disastrous (a yearly quota of 350 sea otter pelts when the estimated total population was only 450) and that clear-cutting was irreversibly damaging vast forested tracts. Conservation considerations were virtually ignored when designing and siting factories and dams, a legacy that continued to haunt the country, where the ratio of pollution and environmental degradation to industrial productivity for decades remained one of the highest in the world.

The fate of Askania-Nova and its distinguished scientific staff was a microcosm of the conservation establishment. Askania-Nova had always functioned both as a steppe preserve and as an agricultural research station; more than half the total area was under cultivation. During the Stalin era, the agricultural research station came under the aegis of Isai Prezent Prezent, Isai and Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko, Trofim Lysenko was the notorious guru of Lamarckian genetics, Lamarckian genetics
Genetics;Lamarckian a science based on the mistaken notion that individual organisms could be transformed by experimental manipulation and could then pass the new characteristics on to their offspring. Stanchinsky was removed from his post in shame and spent the remainder of his life in obscurity.

Lamarckian genetics had a parallel in the belief that a biological community could be similarly transformed. According to this belief, it was unnecessary to study the existing ecosystem in detail; rather, one could simply visualize the ideal productive community and then manipulate nature to produce the desired result. Askania-Nova and other zapovedniki that preserved unspoiled territories in otherwise populated regions lost much of their “reserve” character and were subjected to poorly designed experiments in environmental manipulation as well as direct commercial exploitation. Attempts were made to introduce exotic species such as the American muskrat, but rational game management fared badly; hunting quotas were set at excessive levels, so-called predator control upset population balance, and traditional hunting communities were destroyed.

The preserved tracts were not unspoiled in the sense of never having been subject to human activity. The larger ones remained home to indigenous peoples who had exploited their resources at a sustainable level for millennia. Efforts of dogmatic Marxist planners to improve on the management practices of traditional hunters and nomadic pastoralists dramatically increased the rate of environmental degradation, caused wholesale famine and misery, failed in most cases to produce a sustained increase in productivity, and destroyed much of the traditional culture.

By the end of World War II, the zapovedniki had lost much of their reserve character, and there was increasing pressure to liquidate those that occupied productive, desirable land. In 1950, the director of the zapovednik system proposed that 85 percent of the lands be taken out of protected status and turned over to state farms or the lumber industry, and that the remaining reserves be operated as agricultural experiment stations. Both proposals went into effect in the period 1951-1952, leaving the system with forty reserves and a total area of 1,465,000 hectares, which was approximately 12 percent of the prewar total.

After Nikita S. Khrushchev’s leadership, which focused on agricultural expansion, there was a resurgence of interest in conservation under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Interest in the environment was rekindled, and popular interest in preserving nature for aesthetic and philosophical reasons became more prominent. Tourism also became more important for the more mobile and prosperous Russians, and with the breakdown in travel restrictions under perestroika, the country began to attract international visitors. Increasingly, what unspoiled areas remained in Russia were seen by the international scientific community as being of worldwide importance. As a result, international cooperation became more common. By 1981, the number of reserves had increased to 129, exceeding the prewar total.

The breakup of the Soviet Union posed new challenges for conservation, as each newly independent state faced its own set of problems, not the least of which was bankruptcy. Industrialization in the Soviet Union left a legacy of pollution and environmental degradation that affected all the preserves to some degree. Although not threatened by direct development within its confines, the Astrakhan preserve in the Volga Delta had been essentially a dumping ground for all the pollutants produced by industry, agriculture, and urban development along Europe’s longest river. Pollution by heavy metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and fertilizers had turned the Volga River into an ecological disaster area. The delta and the unique community of plants and animals that had evolved in response to the nutrients brought down by the river were particularly vulnerable to toxic substances, which persisted and caused damage even after measures had been taken to curtail upstream sources of pollution. The result was a decrease in the level of biological diversity, the invasion by weedy species, and increased mortality and deformed offspring among wildlife; many biologists regarded the situation as critical. The Astrakhan preserve, which reflected the foresight of the Soviet government at the beginning of Communist rule, also illustrated the principle that an isolated “monument of nature” cannot be preserved intact unless the surrounding areas are also properly managed. Conservation;wilderness
Wilderness preservation;Soviet Union
Astrakhan National Forest Preserve

Further Reading

  • Mnatsakanian, Ruben A. Environmental Legacy of the Former Soviet Republics. Edinburgh: Center for Human Ecology, 1992. Primarily statistics about air and water pollution, salinization, desertification, and toxic and radioactive waste in the various regions of the former Soviet Union. Useful as a source of specific information, but virtually unreadable.
  • Pelloso, Andrew J. Saving the Blue Heart of Siberia: The Environmental Movement in Russia and Lake Baikal. Bloomington: Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, 1993. Discusses post-World War II conservation activity in the Soviet Union, including the work of both official and dissident environmental groups.
  • Stewart, John Massey, ed. The Soviet Environment: Problems, Policies, and Politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A collection of papers on the state of the environment and environmental politics in the Soviet Union, with emphasis on the growth of environmental movements during perestroika in the late Brezhnev-Gorbachev era, and on the interaction between environmentalism and nationalism among ethnic minorities before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
  • Treadgold, Donald, and Herbert J. Ellison, eds. Twentieth Century Russia. 9th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. A standard reference on Russian history and politics. Excellent background for the Soviet politics of the period.
  • Weiner, Douglas R. Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. 1988. Reprint. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. A detailed history of the conservation movement in the Soviet Union from its pre-revolutionary roots through its blossoming in the 1920’s and eclipse during the Stalin period. Lucidly explains the interaction among conservation, ideology, and development.

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