Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution

The Soviet government made its first centralized effort to control air pollution. Because the government was more concerned with industrial development than it was with the environment, however, its air pollution law, like its other environmental protection laws, went unenforced and unheeded.

Summary of Event

In 1949, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union adopted a resolution for the control of air pollution and the establishment of a chief Administration for Sanitary Epidemiological Supervision Administration for Sanitary Epidemiological Supervision, Soviet . While air pollution had not reached the proportions in the Soviet Union that it had in the West, its effects were beginning to be felt. Because of its large population, Moscow especially was beginning to suffer the problems of pollution associated with twentieth century life. The new law called for measurement and regulation of discharges into the air from factories and for the control of pollutants. Factory managers who violated the law could be punished with severe fines. The new administration tracked and handled disease and illness resulting from bad air. Environmental policy;Soviet Union
Pollution;Soviet Union
[kw]Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution (1949)
[kw]Air Pollution, Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce (1949)
[kw]Pollution, Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air (1949)
Environmental policy;Soviet Union
Pollution;Soviet Union
[g]Europe;1949: Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution[02790]
[g]Soviet Union;1949: Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution[02790]
[c]Environmental issues;1949: Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution[02790]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1949: Soviet Union Adopts Measures to Reduce Air Pollution[02790]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;environmental policy
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;environmental policy
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich

The Soviet Union had enacted conservation laws ever since the 1917 revolution. With the exception of a few standardized regulations concerning sanitation and water conservancy districts, however, these were generally idealistic pronouncements with few enforcement provisions and little practical effect. Environmental concerns were secondary to the more immediate task of industrialization. The 1949 law, in fact, was the first serious attempt to deal with an environmental concern in the Soviet Union.

The law established stations to measure air pollution. Two such stations had already been operating in Moscow since 1945. Under the provisions of the new law, an additional sixty were built.

Classical Marxist Marxism theory, the underlying basis for Soviet policies, focused largely on issues of production and tended to ignore issues of reproduction and the reproducibility of the conditions of production. What is now called “sustainability” by environmenal theorists is a subset of this sphere to which classical Marxist theory was generally blind. The same theory held that capitalism was a necessary stage in world history, because it alone could produce the surpluses that would make socialism possible. However, after the Russian Communists succeeded in their revolution and subsequent civil war, they sought to bypass capitalism and bring about a socialist society in Russia before its time by instituting a form of state-run capitalism based in rapid, enforced industrialization. They paid no heed to the environmental consequences of this plan.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the first Soviet leader, attempted to achieve this industrialization through his New Economic Policy New Economic Policy, Soviet (NEP), which returned the country to a partial market economy and offered concessions to foreign entrepreneurs to help build up the country. Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor, introduced a program of five-year plans for the rapid construction of industry by unrelenting, ruthless measures. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union became a totalitarian dictatorship in which every citizen was coerced into working for the common goal. Even after Stalin, when more liberal policies appeared, the totalitarian attitude continued to play a significant role in Soviet society. For the environment, this attitude meant that ecological concerns would be second to industrial needs.

Stalin showed some interest in the preservation of nature, but his main concern was the manipulation of nature in the service of Soviet society. Because there was also a tradition of socialist obligation to nature, considerable propaganda about conservation existed in the Soviet Union and resulted in the enactment of laws such as the 1949 air pollution act. The effects of the propaganda and the law, however, were minimal.

Despite the 1949 law, air pollution and other forms of environmental damage continued to increase in the Soviet Union. The relative purity of Soviet air in the post-World War II era resulted not from preventive legislation but rather from the low level of Soviet industrialization and the nation’s low standard of living when compared to the industrialized world. As Soviet industrialization and, along with it, private consumption increased, pollution also increased. Even at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Soviet industry and consumption were behind those of North America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim nations, and the country as a whole was therefore less polluted, even though certain industrialized areas were badly polluted.

A major cause of air pollution in the industrialized world is the private automobile. The scarcity of private vehicles in the Soviet Union is one of the reasons that Soviet cities had relatively clean air. In 1972, there were only 7 million automobiles in the Soviet Union compared to 110 million automobiles in the United States. Power plants also were responsible for air pollution in the Soviet Union; even toward the end of the Soviet period, the United States used twice as much electricity as the Soviet Union did.

In the years after the 1949 law’s passage, the number of automobiles and electricity usage increased to meet consumption demands. Soviet citizens began to have greater access to information from outside the country, and they began to expect the government to provide material benefits comparable to those enjoyed in the West. The post-Stalin Soviet leadership, in fact, encouraged these expectations in its official pronouncements. Indeed, in his famous 1958 “kitchen debate” with U.S. vice president Richard M. Nixon at the American exhibit in the Moscow Trade Fair, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev boasted that the Soviet Union would outstrip the United States in production of color televisions and refrigerators, just as it had in the production of rockets. Similar promises by later Soviet leaders helped fuel demand for consumer goods.

In order to provide automobiles cheaply to the expectant Soviet public, measures were not taken to prevent air pollution. Thus, as a consequence, the automobiles that were built were very dirty. Exhaust, especially from Soviet trucks, fouled the air. Furthermore, Soviet gasoline was particularly noxious. The cities began to suffer.

In the 1970’s, there was an improvement in the quality of automobiles built in the Soviet Union as a result of Moscow’s interest in the export market. Soviet scientists developed catalytic converters and experimented with electric vehicles. The latter generally had the same disadvantages as those produced in the industrialized countries and therefore had limited success. Soviet engineers did produce a minibus, the Centaur, which used both a small internal combustion engine and an electric motor. The widespread employment of trolley cars and trackless trollies occurred for economic reasons; these vehicles were, however, less threatening to the air.

Soviets also used central water-heating and refuse-disposal units as well as space heating—all of which are environmentally superior to the more convenient and comfortable, but more polluting, individual methods used in the West. In fact, since Soviet citizens tended to live in apartment complexes rather than in individual houses, their air was less polluted. The extensive use of natural gas, especially in the major cities, also contributed to air quality. In short, the relative poverty in Soviet society and its consequences, such as apartment living and public transportation, kept air pollution at a lower level.

During the 1960’s, massive pollution and large areas of ecological destruction in the Soviet Union became obvious. These were localized in major cities and along waterways, especially in Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea, where industries were located. As time went on, however, the number of areas spoiled by pollution increased. Many new laws concerning the environment and the protection of nature were passed, but more often than not, these laws proved to be ineffective or simply were not enforced. Economic concerns, especially the ideological vision of the communist society and the much-publicized goal of catching and outstripping the United States, required low-cost industrial expansion that emphasized quantitative production goals and compromised quality. Even plans to close unprofitable, polluting enterprises and to replace them with more environmentally sound buildings were not implemented because of their cost. Furthermore, the Stalinist attitude that nature was meant to be mastered still prevailed.


Although polluted waterways and sources were the first obvious environmental crisis in the Soviet Union, air pollution that was more difficult to detect soon followed. Soviet factories spewed chemical pollutants from their smokestacks, and some of the measures proposed to solve the problem, such as the construction of taller chimneys, were naïve and inappropriate.

Air-pollution abatement occurred more slowly than other environmental controls, particularly the saving of water sources. Some measures were taken, however, including the planting of tree belts and parks, the installation of air filters and scrubbers, and the closing of polluting factories and smokestacks. In Nizhny-Tagil, air filters reduced air pollution by 85 percent. Scrubbers reduced fly ash from the power plants. In some places, however, excessively polluting plants, such as metallurgical works and cement factories without sufficient antipolluting devices, opened faster than older plants could be fitted with filters or scrubbers. Thus, the trend toward pockets of air pollution in the nation’s industrial centers continued. Environmental policy;Soviet Union
Pollution;Soviet Union

Further Reading

  • Goldman, Marshall I. The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. An American work on the Soviet environmental question. Discusses the history of the conservation movement and contemporary problems, including air pollution. Appendixes list major laws. The best English-language book on Soviet pollution.
  • Hill, Malcolm R. Environment and Technology in the Former USSR: The Case of “Acid Rain” and Power Generation. Lyme, N.H.: Edward Elgar, 1997. Study of the effects of the Soviet power industry on the environment, especially its creation of “acid rain.” Bibliographic references and index.
  • Hughes, Gordon, and Magda Lovei. Economic Reform and Environmental Performance in Transition Economies. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1999. A study of air and water pollution in former Soviet republics. Includes evaluation of both monetary and health effects upon the populace. Bibliographic references.
  • Komarov, Boris. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. A Soviet dissident accuses his government of disregard of the environment. One section deals with air pollution. For general audiences.
  • Kort, Michael. The Soviet Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the USSR. 3d ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1993. An excellent text for the historical background of the Soviet Union.
  • Mote, Victor L. “Air Pollution in the USSR.” In Environmental Deterioration in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, edited by Ivan Volgyes. New York: Praeger, 1974. An excellent scholarly article by an American expert.
  • Volgyes, Ivan, ed. Environmental Deterioration in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. New York: Praeger, 1974. A collection of scholarly essays on the environment. Some essays are technical, but the volume provides an excellent survey of environmental problems in the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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