Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Opposition to the development and industrialization that threatened Lake Baikal, Siberia’s unique natural treasure, led to the Soviet Union’s first organized environmental movement, which lobbied for measures to preserve the lake.

Summary of Event

Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, deepest, and most voluminous lake, lies in the heart of Asia north of Mongolia. Its shape is a dramatic crescent nearly 400 miles long. Like the great rift lakes of Africa, it was formed along a juncture in the earth’s crust where the tectonic forces of continental drift are slowly pulling the eastern portion of Siberia away from the rest of the Eurasian landmass, a process that began some twenty million years ago and that will presumably culminate in the creation of a new arm of the ocean at some point in the geologic future. Environmental policy;Soviet Union Lake Baikal Conservation;public land Resolution On Measures for the Preservation and Rational Utilization of the Natural Complex of the Lake Baikal Basin (1969) [kw]Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone (Jan., 1969) [kw]Lake Baikal a Protected Zone, Soviet Union Declares (Jan., 1969) [kw]Protected Zone, Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a (Jan., 1969) Environmental policy;Soviet Union Lake Baikal Conservation;public land Resolution On Measures for the Preservation and Rational Utilization of the Natural Complex of the Lake Baikal Basin (1969) [g]Europe;Jan., 1969: Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone[10150] [g]Soviet Union;Jan., 1969: Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone[10150] [c]Government and politics;Jan., 1969: Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone[10150] [c]Environmental issues;Jan., 1969: Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone[10150] Galazii, Grigorii Rasputin, Valentin

Lake Baikal is an unusual geophysical and biological entity. Although the lake has only one-sixth of the surface area of Lake Superior, it is more than 5,250 feet deep, and it holds approximately one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater reserves. Thermal vents, similar to those found in oceans, support a community of benthic organisms that do not exist anywhere else on earth. Because the surrounding watershed was composed of mineral-poor crystalline rocks and because there had been little human activity in the area, the water of the lake was of unparalleled clarity and purity.

The age, size, and geological qualities of Lake Baikal have made it home to a rich biota found nowhere else on earth. Life-forms include the minute endemic crustacean, epishura, which feeds on algae and bacteria and is in part responsible for the clarity of the water, and the nerpa, the world’s only freshwater seal. In addition, there are about two thousand fish and invertebrates, twelve hundred of them restricted solely to the Baikal basin. Natural historians who refer to Baikal as “The Sacred Sea” continue a long tradition stretching back to the Russian peasants who began to settle the area in the seventeenth century, and even further back to native Siberians, whose mythology populated the lake with gods and demons.

Native Siberians bring to the Siberian environmental movement some of the same issues that Native Americans have brought to the North American environmental movements: a respect for landscape and nature as a part of cultural heritage; resentment against development, especially development that benefits primarily outsiders; proprietary claims to the natural wealth of ancestral lands; and demands that the same respect be shown to the artifacts and sacred traditions of the indigenous culture as are accorded those of the nonindigenous culture. Until recently, neither indigenous Siberians nor Russian peasants with strong ties to the land had an effective voice in planning decisions that emanated chiefly from Moscow. On the other hand, indigenous Siberians are far more numerous than their North American counterparts and occupy a substantially greater proportion of their ancestral lands.

Lake Baikal as seen from Olchon Island.

(Andrzej Barabasz)

Until 1950, the Lake Baikal watershed was virtually free of industry. Of the roughly two hundred streams that feed the lake, only one, the Selenga, supported cities of any size. Irkutsk, the principal city of eastern Siberia, lies downstream on the Angara River. The lake supported a major fishery, and farming along its margins, but it had supported these activities for more than a hundred years without evident environmental degradation, and the methods of exploitation were fairly primitive by twentieth century standards.

During the 1950’s, development first began to threaten the environmental integrity of Lake Baikal. Dams and hydroelectric plants built along the Angara River included one massive installation at Bratsk. Although well downstream, that installation, aluminum smelters built to take advantage of abundant electricity, and the massive movement of population into the region had repercussions on Lake Baikal. There was also a dramatic increase in logging in the Baikal watershed, which increased siltation and organic matter in the streams feeding into the lake as well as boat and log-raft traffic. A large pulp and paper mill at Selenginsk on the lower Selenga River discharged toxic wastes into the river and the atmosphere. There was, moreover, a general increase in the acidity of rainwater and low levels of pollutants because of industry in the Urals and European Russia.

With the building of the Baikal-Amur Railway Baikal-Amur Railway[Baikal Amur Railway] (BAM), the previously almost inaccessible northern end of Lake Baikal was opened to development. Construction of the railway through the fragile taiga (the subarctic forest) and the building of the town Baikalskoe on the railway line contributed to a decline in water quality in the area. Ostensibly, the BAM was built to tap into the natural riches of the Siberian north. An equally important consideration was to provide an alternative to the trans-Siberian railway, which runs uncomfortably close to the Chinese border. Baikalskoe is a typical example of bad environmental planning: Housing far more people than were needed for development, in predominantly ramshackle structures in a bitterly cold climate, requires huge amounts of energy; primitive sanitation arrangements foul the surroundings. An even more controversial development in the region was the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Combine, which opened in 1959 at a site directly on the lake.

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In 1954, during the escalating Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, planners in Moscow decided that it was necessary to build a factory to make ultra-pure cellulose for the cording in airplane tires; the water used in the process was to come from Lake Baikal. The political climate at the time was such that no one dared oppose construction of the plant. The Soviet willingness to make sacrifices for military buildup may have influenced the decision. The plant began to produce cellulose in 1959, and for ten years highly contaminated effluent was discharged directly into Lake Baikal, turning square kilometers of lake bed into virtual biological desert and devastating the surrounding taiga.

Public sentiment against further development directly on Lake Baikal slowly grew. Opposition came initially from two groups of people who had always been prominent in dissident movements in the Soviet Union: research scientists and writers. At first, the movement was distinctly local. Siberia had been settled by people expelled from European Russia, sometimes for being revolutionaries, more frequently for being common criminals. A certain independence and frontier spirit consequently persisted among residents even during the Soviet period.

Hydrobiologists and zoologists at the Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, directed by Grigorii Galazii, grew increasingly concerned that pollution, watershed degradation, and overexploitation were undermining the biological integrity of the lake. Fish populations were declining, partly as a result of excess harvest but mostly because logging and a series of drought years had damaged many of the streams that served as spawning grounds. Even as continuing studies revealed more about the extraordinary qualities of the lake, habitat degradation and introduced species were compromising those qualities. In the 1960’s, the worst damage was still concentrated in the southern part of the lake; no important species had become endangered, and the changes appeared reversible. The more that became known about the ecological balance of Lake Baikal, however, the more critical it seemed that further development be halted. Boreal forest regenerates slowly, and the immense volume of Lake Baikal meant that it was not an ecosystem that would repair itself quickly if damaged.

Limnologists persuaded local authorities in Irkutsk Oblast to institute some controls, and they petitioned the Soviet council of ministers to take measures to assure preservation at the national level. At the same time, authors of the literary movement known as the Village School were writing eloquent fiction about the decline of traditional Siberian life. The eminent Russian writer Valentin Rasputin, who was born in a region of the Angara River valley that had been inundated by the Bratsk hydroelectric dam, called attention to the human tragedy that had resulted from razing the landscape.

In January, 1969, the Soviet council of ministers passed the Resolution on Measures for the Preservation and Rational Utilization of the Natural Complex of the Lake Baikal Basin. It was the first comprehensive regional plan for nature conservation to be enacted in the Soviet Union, as well as the first piece of major legislation of any description enacted in response to local agitation by people outside the main administrative channels of the Communist Party. The act mandated strict pollution controls on new industry constructed in the Baikal watershed, and it directed the ministries of water resources, agriculture, forest resources, forest products manufacturing, and fisheries, as well as the Academy of Sciences and regional governments, to study Baikal’s resources and make recommendations for the sustainable use thereof.

Significance

The 1969 resolution was an important step in that it acknowledged the problem, gave a more powerful voice to the people most familiar with the ecology of the area, and discouraged massive new development projects in the Baikal basin. Under its provisions, pollution-control equipment was installed at the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Combine and other paper mills along the Selenga River. The legislation was, however, unable to block development or decommission existing factories, and the mechanisms for implementing conservationists’ recommendations were inadequate.

During the next twenty years, the rate of degradation and development was somewhat slowed but by no means halted, and damage to Lake Baikal was still occurring. Pulp mill effluent, although processed by the best pollution-control equipment then available, continued to be discharged; the Baikalsk combine produced 250,000 cubic meters of contaminated water per day. Logging persisted in the watershed, and the volume of shipping steadily increased.

During most of the Soviet period, the Lake Baikal region was closed to Western tourists and scientists; consequently, although specialists were aware of some of the features that make Lake Baikal a phenomenon, the lake and its fate did not receive prominent coverage in the popular press. With the advent of glasnost in the late 1980’s, information about pollution began to be more widely publicized within the Soviet Union and to be disseminated abroad as well. Russian conservationists became free to appeal to international organizations, Western scientists could study the situation directly, and the area was opened up to foreign tourism.

In 1987, responding to criticism that the resolutions of 1969 and 1975 had failed to halt the degradation of Lake Baikal, the Soviet council of ministers issued a new set of “measures for the rational utilization of the resources of the Baikal Basin” for the years 1987-1995. Commercial logging was forbidden within the Baikal basin, log rafts were banned from the lake, and boats were required to have self-contained sewage-holding systems. Two large tracts of land adjoining the lake were set aside as national parks. A third tract of land, which had been set aside early in the Soviet period for the immensely valuable fur-bearing sable, retained its protected status.

In the last decade of the twentieth century the Soviet Union, once regarded as a monolithic superpower, collapsed politically and economically, endangering the impressive ecological strides that had been made in the foregoing twenty years. Many Russians became concerned that the natural wealth of eastern Siberia was being plundered by overseas corporations. Despite the governmental efforts to protect and restore the lake, therefore, the long-term future of the Baikal region remained uncertain. In 1996, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Lake Baikal as a World Heritage Site. Environmental policy;Soviet Union Lake Baikal Conservation;public land Resolution On Measures for the Preservation and Rational Utilization of the Natural Complex of the Lake Baikal Basin (1969)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belt, Don. “The World’s Great Lake: Russia’s Lake Baikal.” National Geographic 181, no. 6 (1992): 2-39. An illustrated exploration of Lake Baikal and its surroundings. Gives a good picture of the landscape and the people who live in the region. Includes information on conservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galazii, Grigorii. “Lake Baikal Reprieved.” Endeavor 15, no. 1 (1991): 13-17. Summarizes scientific investigations in the Baikal region from about 1970, documenting the effects of pollution. Describes the environmental legislation of 1987, 1988, and 1990, as well as plans for an international center for the study and preservation of Lake Baikal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudgins, Sharon. The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. Part of the Eastern European Studies series, this descriptive book includes the chapter “Lake Baikal: The Sacred Sea of Siberia.” Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kotenko, N. Valentin Rasputin: Essays. Translated by Holly Smith. Moscow: Raduga, 1988. Contains a biography and account of the literary work of Valentin Rasputin and a discussion of his role in the Soviet environmental movement. Includes Rasputin’s essays “Baikal, Baikal” and “The Real Siberia.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthiessen, Peter, and Boyd Norton. Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992. Beautifully illustrated travel book on the Baikal region. Includes brief discussion of the preservation movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sergeev, Mark. Baikal. Introduction by Valentin Rasputin. Moscow: Planeta, 1985. Parallel English and Russian text. Discusses some of the background of the Baikal conservation movement and gives descriptive data, interviews with local inhabitants, and traditional legends. Magnificent color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, John Massey, ed. The Soviet Environment: Problems, Policies, and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discussion of Lake Baikal in chapter 14, “Air and Water Problems Beyond the Urals,” which concentrates on the positive efforts made in recent years to reduce pollution. A comprehensive, objective, and readable source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tahoe-Baikal Institute. Baikal Reader. S. Lake Tahoe, Calif.: Author, 2004. An introductory reader on environmental issues concerning Lake Baikal and the surrounding area. Covers geography and history, public policy and regulation, land use, forest health and logging, water and air pollution, recreation and tourism, economics, indigenous peoples, and wildlife. Available at http://www.tahoe baikal.org/lakeinfo/.

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