Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation

The Soviet Union responded to domestic and international pressure by passing legislation for clean air and the protection of animals.

Summary of Event

In June, 1980, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union adopted two laws concerning the environment: one on the protection of air quality, and the other on the protection and utilization of the animal world. The purpose of these laws was to unify and simplify the various all-Union, republican, and local laws and decrees into national law. The laws established universal standards for air quality and standardized fines and punishments for infractions. They also regularized the functions and regulations of the various Soviet ministries, state committees, and departments dealing with environmental issues, particularly concerning air pollution and endangered animals and animal reserves. Environmental policy, Soviet Union
Soviet Union;environmental policy
[kw]Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation (June 24, 1980)
[kw]Environmental Legislation, Soviet Union Passes (June 24, 1980)
[kw]Legislation, Soviet Union Passes Environmental (June 24, 1980)
Environmental policy, Soviet Union
Soviet Union;environmental policy
[g]Europe;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
[g]Soviet Union;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
[g]Russia;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
[c]Environmental issues;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
[c]Animals and endangered species;June 24, 1980: Soviet Union Passes Environmental Legislation[04240]
Gerasimov, Innokenty P.
Krasnitsky, A.
Izrael, Yuri

The clean-air law gave authorities the power to halt the construction of new plants that did not meet established standards, which the responsible state agencies could apply at every discharge point and every smokestack. The air-quality law contained articles protecting the climate, regulating the air for economic purposes, and regulating damage to the atmosphere by physical factors such as high-tension wires and electromagnets. The animal law prohibited enterprises from destroying animal habitats and regulated hunting and fishing. It included a ban on hunting and fishing in nature preserves and on hunting certain endangered species.

A. Krasnitsky, the director of the V. V. Alekhin Central-Chernozem Biosphere State Reserve, reported on the laws in the April 12 issue of Izvestia. The purpose of the laws, he wrote, was to protect the natural gene pool and to maintain the state nature reserves, which serve as standards for the rest of nature and as laboratories for studying the environment.

Environmental issues had long been a double-edged sword in the Soviet Union. After the 1917 revolution, one of the top priorities was the rapid industrialization of the new socialist state at any cost. Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Lenin, Vladimir Ilich Joseph Stalin, Stalin, Joseph and Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. all sought to modernize the Soviet Union through industrialization as quickly as possible. Socialism plus electrification, Lenin wrote, equals communism—the final stage of the Marxist dialectic. Stalin rushed through his five-year plans of industrialization at a cost in human tragedy that staggers the imagination. Khrushchev added to Lenin’s dictum, stating that socialism plus electrification plus chemicalization equals communism.

However, the Soviet Union’s Marxist ideology steadfastly denied that socialist society could permit pollution, a flaw of only capitalist governments. Laws protecting the environment had been in place in the Soviet Union since 1919, but these had little effect. They were widely ignored to give industrialization free range. Soviet ecological problems did not elicit much attention until the 1960’s because of the low level of industrialization in the country until that time, the lack of private automobiles, and the use of central heating plants in cities, among other factors.

By the 1960’s, environmental damage began to be noticed and caused concern in the Soviet Union. The liberalized atmosphere, called “the Thaw,” that followed the death of Stalin permitted public debate on this issue. A number of prominent scientists, academicians, journalists, and authors began to challenge the notions that industrialization should have preeminence over the environment and that environmental damage could not occur in the socialist system.

The first great ecological issue was the destruction of the pristine and ancient Lake Baikal in Siberia. The battle for Lake Baikal Lake Baikal was drawn between industrialists and conservationists. The leaders of the industrial side of the struggle included the East Siberian Economic Council; the Irkutsk Economic Council; the State Committee for the Lumber, Pulp, Paper, and Wood-Processing Industry and Forestry; and the State Institute for the Design of Pulp and Paper Industry Enterprises in Siberia and the Far East. The conservationists were less organized, but they included leading Soviet scientists and authors, academicians and journalists, public health officials, representatives of the fishing industry, and private individuals. Among the ranks of those working to save Lake Baikal were the well-known physicist Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa; Kapitsa, Pyotr Leonidovich the geographer Innokenty P. Gerasimov; author Mikhail Sholokhov, Sholokhov, Mikhail who later was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987); Boris P. Konstantinov, Konstantinov, Boris P. vice president of the Academy of Sciences; Iurii Danilov, Danilov, Iurii deputy minister of public health; and author Oleg Volkov. Volkov, Oleg

The Lake Baikal controversy was significant because it represented a genuine public debate in the Soviet Union, not simply a propaganda demonstration or an interagency squabble. It was similar to environmental debates in the West, such as the American debate on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System[Transalaska Pipeline System] The issue drew worldwide comment.

The Soviet Academy of Sciences created the Lake Baikal Commission under Gerasimov, director of the Institute of Geography. Grigorii Galazii, Galazii, Grigorii a prominent limnologist, was on the committee, as were eminent authorities from around the Soviet Union. Many prominent journals and newspapers supported environmental issues. In addition, many dissidents attacked the government’s environmental record through the journals, books, and pamphlets of samizdat, the Soviet Union’s illegal underground opposition publishing distribution system.

A considerable amount of legislation in the Soviet Union was directed toward environmental concerns in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The propaganda value of the environmental movement added new force to the Soviet conservationists. The international Green movement was a new force on the Left, and many communist parties outside the Soviet Union wished to embrace its policies. The new laws, however, generally proved inadequate or were simply ignored. Part of the problem was that one agency, Gosplan, the government planning agency, handled both production—the assigning of goals to factories—and environmental protection. Republican committees on the environment were no match for the all-union cartels that controlled the industrial might of the nation and ran the factories.

In the 1970’s, the Soviet Union and the countries of the West met in many bilateral and multilateral conferences concerning the environment, which resulted in a number of international treaties. Because these meetings and treaties gave considerable influence to conservationists in the Soviet Union in their struggles with industrialists, the treaties were welcomed by those interested in protecting the environment both inside the Soviet Union and abroad.

In 1979, the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Council of Ministers adopted a resolution to intensify conservation and improve the utilization of natural resources. The 1980 laws on air quality and animal protection were two of the first implementations of this resolution. The draft laws were widely distributed and discussed before adoption, and they represent a major turning point in the history of the ecological movement in the Soviet Union.


The difference between ecological theory and practice in the Soviet Union and the consequent establishment of two competing but legitimate interest groups in the Soviet bureaucracy—the industrialists and the conservationists—made the issue of the environment one of monumental importance in the Soviet Union where, in general, dissent from official policies was not tolerated. Soviet censorship, which denied the public information on ecological crises, was challenged. The environment issue provided the basis for political action in the 1980’s. At the same time, cooperation with the West on environmental issues had been part of the Soviet policy of détente in the 1970’s. At the end of 1979, Soviet-West cooperation was seriously threatened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A strong Soviet commitment to environmental issues, such as were drawn up in the various international meetings and treaties, helped to ameliorate some of the political damage caused by the invasion.

In February, 1981, Yuri Izrael, the director of the State Committee for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Control, wrote an evaluation of the impact of new environmental laws, including the air-quality and animal protection act. As a result of the measures, investments were made in gas scrubbers and dust-trapping devices. Regulations related to the laws specified the exact amount of pollutants to be removed from the atmosphere. Izrael reported that air quality had improved in a number of cities across the Soviet Union. In implementation of the laws, a number of new nature reserves and national parks were created, and the reproduction of commercially valuable fish and animals increased. The government organized the National Service for Observation and Monitoring of Environmental Pollution. This service monitored the air quality of 450 Soviet cities. Izrael’s own hydrometeorology committee maintained an inventory of air pollutants and was charged with working with industries and enterprises to ensure that environmental standards were met in construction and operation. Izrael also reported that a number of ministries had not complied with the clean-air regulations. He complained that the implementation of environmental regulations was not adequately funded.

While other issues contributed to the changes brought about in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, the impact of ecological issues on these changes cannot be underestimated. The writer Valentin Rasputin, Rasputin, Valentin leading a group of Greens, was able to force the government to cancel a number of Siberian projects. Conservationists in various republics were able to assert their autonomy. More and more, the ecological issue was united to the question of ethnic autonomy and independence, particularly in the Baltic republics. Environmentalists there argued that Moscow’s industrial projects were environmentally dangerous. Opposition members in Estonia protested against oil shale production and the open mining of phosphates; Latvian environmentalists objected to pollution in the Gulf of Riga and at a hydroelectric plant; in Lithuania protesters opposed the nuclear plant at Ignalina.

In Ukraine, the scene of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, the environmental movement took on a special status. The Ukrainian Writers’ Union, the leading force in the Ukrainian independence movement, put ecological concerns on its agenda and discussed them in its newspaper. The Ukranian Popular Front focused on Chernobyl at its founding congress, and the political organization Green World joined the Ukrainian Democratic Bloc in the elections of 1989. In each republic—including the Russian Federation—environmental issues were associated with the movement toward liberalization and increased republican autonomy.

With the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail in 1985 as the Soviet leader, glasnost, Glasnost;environmentalism or openness, accelerated in the Soviet Union, and the environmentalists gained even more influence. Ironically, Gorbachev’s first major challenge was dealing with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Glasnost and ecological debate followed rapidly. Changes in Soviet politics calling for contested open elections created a new platform for the environmental debate. A new ecological code gave Gorbachev more power, as did the support of the broad-based Green movement in the country. An advocate of industrial reduction in Siberia openly challenged the powerful Nikolai Ryzhkov in the parliament, an event that was impossible before the Gorbachev era. The more fundamental changes in Soviet politics and society, however, forced environmental issues into the background as a host of other problems beset the Soviet Union and its successor states. Environmental policy, Soviet Union
Soviet Union;environmental policy

Further Reading

  • Budyko, M. I., and Yu. A. Izrael, eds. Anthropogenic Climatic Change. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991. Collection of scholarly essays by Soviet scientists on the topics of climate and pollution.
  • Gerasimov, I. P., ed. Man, Society, and the Environment: Geographical Aspects of the Uses of Natural Resources and Nature Conservation. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975. Edited by one of the leaders of the Soviet environmental movement.
  • Goldman, Marshall I. The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. Describes and analyzes the problems of the environment in the Soviet Union. Chapter 4 deals specifically with air pollution. Condemns Soviet environmental policies.
  • Izrael, Y. A. Ecology and Control of the Natural Environment. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1992. A translation of an ecology textbook by a Soviet scientist and government minister who played an important part in drafting and implementing the laws.
  • Kelley, Donald R. “East-West Environmental Cooperation.” Environment 22, no. 9 (November, 1980): 29-37. Surveys and analyzes international meetings that involved the Soviet Union regarding the environment and resulting legislation. Emphasizes problems caused by economic and political issues.
  • Kimstach, V. Water Quality Assessment of the Former Soviet Union. New York: E & FN Spon, 1998. Examines the effects of human activity on surface and groundwater supplies in the former Soviet Union.
  • Komarov, Boris. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. An English translation of the Russian dissident environmentalist’s essay criticizing Soviet conservation policies. Originally published in the underground samizdat. For general audiences.
  • Volgyes, Ivan, ed. Environmental Deterioration in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. New York: Praeger, 1974. Collection of scholarly essays focuses on issues of air, soil, and water pollution in the Soviet Union.

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