Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Volunteer organizations were established in the Soviet republics to serve as public information agencies to assist in the protection of nature.

Summary of Event

After the Russian Revolution of November, 1917, which brought the Communist Party to power, the Russians paid little attention to environmental concerns. The leaders of Soviet Russia had expected their revolution to be a stimulus to turn World War I into a class war, bringing into existence an international socialist state in Europe. When this did not occur, the Communists were faced with the prospect of building socialism not in an industrialist state, as Marxist theory envisioned, but in a backward, rural state. The emphasis of the new regime would thus have to be on economic development—the antithesis of environmental protection. Conservation;organizations All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature[All Russian Society] Natural resources, conservation Environmental organizations [kw]Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature (1924) [kw]Society for the Protection of Nature, Soviets Establish a (1924) [kw]Protection of Nature, Soviets Establish a Society for the (1924) [kw]Nature, Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of (1924) Conservation;organizations All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature[All Russian Society] Natural resources, conservation Environmental organizations [g]Russia;1924: Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature[05940] [c]Environmental issues;1924: Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature[05940] [c]Organizations and institutions;1924: Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature[05940] [c]Natural resources;1924: Soviets Establish a Society for the Protection of Nature[05940] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;environmental laws Lunacharsky, Anatoly Stalin, Joseph

Ecological themes were not entirely neglected in Marxist-Leninist theory and practice. Although it is difficult to find references to the natural environment in the writings of Karl Marx, a few writings do express concern that the land, which would be the legacy of the working class, or proletariat, not be despoiled or destroyed. Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, was more direct in stating that the human community is not the possessor of the earth but its custodian for future generations.

Indeed, under Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s leadership between 1917 and 1922, the Soviets passed a number of environmental laws, although whether Lenin ordered these or they originated from lower levels of the Soviet bureaucracy is difficult to say. One of the most important such laws was the nationalization law of November 8, 1917, enacted the day after the revolt, which made all land in the Soviet Union the property of the state. In 1918, the new Soviet government enacted laws concerning irrigation, forests, hunting, and fishing.

In 1919, the government established the Astrakhan National Forest Preserve Astrakhan National Forest Preserve and passed legislation regarding hunting and natural resources, particularly the protection of water resources. Laws affected irrigation and drainage, established water conservancy districts, registered water services, and established sanitary districts. These laws, however—with a few exceptions, such as the forest preserve—were little more than sanitation regulations, concerned with daily living. Environmental issues remained subordinate to the major political and economic problems confronting Soviet society in its first years.

From 1917 to 1922, Lenin’s government concluded the war with Germany, fought a civil war against the Soviet government’s Russian opponents, and battled an Allied invasion after World War I ended. Moscow, which became the seat of the government in 1918, established a policy called War Communism, War Communism a euphemism for centralized economic and social control. All resources were put into the war effort. Because most environmental concerns were of a local or regional nature, these issues received little attention during this period.

In 1922, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy (NEP), which represented a partial return to a market economy. Again, Soviet emphasis was on production rather than on ecological preservation, especially after the destruction wreaked by World War I and the Russian Civil War. The NEP reintroduced a measure of decentralization that allowed local concerns, where they existed, to be heard. Yet part of the NEP was to invite foreign entrepreneurs into the country to exploit its resources in exchange for technology and necessary foreign currency. Soviet environmentalists reported that Lenin personally stopped a work crew from cutting down trees in a Moscow park. Under the NEP, however, Lenin approved the destruction of whole forests in order to achieve his economic goals.

The NEP was accompanied by a loosening of restrictions on Soviet society, with considerable freedom granted to ordinary Soviet citizens, including the ability to organize in various associations. In those first years of Soviet rule, many idealists organized clubs and associations for various purposes. The Soviet minister of education and culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, especially encouraged the preservation of traditional Russian education, historical monuments, and national heritage. It was in this context that public opinion brought about the formation in 1924 of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature.

In 1922, after the victory in the civil war, the Soviet government restructured itself into the Soviet Union, which encompassed several Soviet republics, eventually growing to a union of fifteen. Volunteer organizations similar to the 1924 Russian society were formed in all the republics. By the 1970’s, the All-Russian Society alone comprised more than twenty-two million members. The purposes of the society were to teach love and respect for nature and to involve the Soviet people in the conservation, proper use, and replenishment of natural resources. One of the society’s tangible goals was the planting of parks and gardens in cities, towns, villages, and rural areas. The society used its resources to promote natural conservation and educational activities for children and adults. Councils of the society were established in autonomous republics, in regions and districts, and in cities and neighborhoods. The local and central organizations worked with factories, collective farms, schools, and various other organizations to encourage the protection of the natural environment.

Significance

In 1929, Joseph Stalin emerged as the supreme dictator of the Soviet Union. Defeating his rivals and eventually having them executed, he not only succeeded to Lenin’s mantle but in fact outdid the former Soviet leader in the scope of his supreme power as well. Stalin brought the NEP to an end and introduced a program of rapid industrialization. This was accompanied in Soviet society by the creation of a modern totalitarian system through which the Soviet government attempted to regulate almost all aspects of the lives of individual citizens.

From 1941 to 1945, the Soviet Union engaged in World War II, which on the Eastern European front was fought mainly on Soviet territory; vast areas of the country were devastated. Then began a process of rebuilding and reindustrialization. Under the circumstances, the Soviets paid little more than lip service to environmental concerns. With a few exceptions, the Soviet Union engaged in very little serious environmental activity until the 1960’s. Given the rudimentary industrial development of the Soviet Union and its low standard of living, however, the nation’s environmental problems were not as serious as those in the high-technology regions of Western Europe and North America.

Stalin believed in the manipulation of nature and had some concerns for its preservation, so long as such preservation was compatible with his modernization program. The local and regional societies for the protection of nature thus remained active during the Stalinist period and beyond and were organized by the vast Communist Party apparatus. The societies spread information on conservation through the press and published and disseminated posters and pamphlets. They also used motion pictures, radio, and, later, television to disseminate their messages.

The societies helped organize exhibits and displays in schools and factories, and they planted trees, shrubs, and flowers throughout the Soviet Union. They stressed the conservation of natural resources and helped organize programs to protect air and water quality, especially in heavily populated areas. The societies also worked to protect recreation areas from industrial and domestic pollution, and they were responsible for organizing national environmental celebrations such as Bird Day, Forest Week, and Nature Month. In cooperation with local soviets (cities, towns, and village councils), they organized conservation inspections as well as environment-related competitions and contests.

The first All-Union Congress on Conservation All-Union Congress on Conservation[All Union Congress on Conservation] convened in 1933. Its resolutions emphasized the protection of natural resources and their regeneration. In 1956, the Soviet Union joined the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

In addition to the supposedly volunteer public organizations, the State Committee for Conservation in the Russian Republic and similar groups in the other republics were also active. These groups came under the jurisdiction of the Commissariat for Education, Lunacharsky’s ministry, which was charged with coordinating all conservation activities. In 1930, the Committee for Conservation was changed to the Interdepartmental State Committee for Promoting the Development and Protection of Natural Resources, still under the authority of the Commissariat for Education. In 1933 and 1938, the committee underwent further reorganization, eventually becoming the Central Board for Preserves, which was charged with overseeing the rational use of natural resources. This board was directly responsible to the Russian cabinet. Similar evolution took place in conservation agencies in the other republics.

In the post-World War II Soviet Union, many different agencies and ministries had responsibilities concerning the environment, including the State Committee for Science and Technology, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water-Use Management, and the State Committee of Forest Economy. In general, however, those agencies in charge of protecting the environment were also in charge of its use and exploitation. The Soviet authorities ignored this conflict of interest.

In the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, environmental degradation in the Soviet Union became too serious to ignore. The Soviet government passed many laws, but these did not stem the increasing tide of pollution. The attitude that nature was to be mastered permeated the thinking of Soviet authorities, as it did that of the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe, where environmental problems were equally bad. For example, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev’s virgin lands campaign, which introduced monoculture agriculture into marginal soils despite warnings against the practice, was an environmental disaster. Furthermore, pervasive government censorship prevented any widespread Soviet conservation campaign.

Growing danger to the Soviet Union’s water resources brought ecological concerns to the forefront as fresh water became dangerously scarce. Poor harvests in the 1960’s compelled the Soviets to import grain and stimulated massive irrigation plans, leading to grandiose schemes to divert Siberian waters. Despite damage to the environment in many different areas, plans for the use of Siberian water for Soviet industry increased. Bodies of water such as the Caspian Sea and the unique Lake Baikal in Siberia were destroyed by loss of water and contamination by sewage and industrial pollutants. The valuable Caspian sturgeon catch was devastated. Rivers turned into sewers as untreated water was pumped into them, and agricultural chemicals produced water pollution by way of drainage and air-blown particles that filtered into the water supply.

Criticism concerning environmental problems proved to be one of the most powerful means of dissent within the Soviet Union. The first significant issue of public debate in this regard was the pollution of Lake Baikal, the deepest and hence the largest (by volume) lake in the world. The damage to the water and the fish it contained, including unique species, as well as to the lake’s formerly pristine surroundings, aroused the ire of private citizens and public officials alike. The protesters forced the government to recommit itself to the protection of nature, particularly in Siberia.

Even with such government concessions, environmental protests continued in the Soviet Union and eventually contributed to the formulation of the policy of glasnost, or openness, in the late 1980’s. Soviet citizens called for a government committee for the protection of nature that would have more power than the volunteer committee and would be free of the conflicts of interest that undermined the effectiveness of the existing groups. When further liberalization occurred under Mikhail Gorbachev, environmental issues became an important factor in the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991. Conservation;organizations All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature[All Russian Society] Natural resources, conservation Environmental organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Marshal I. The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. A classic American work on Soviet environmental problems. Discusses the history of the conservation movement, particularly in the years since World War II. An appendix lists major Soviet conservation laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Komarov, Boris. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. This dissident essay protesting the despoliation of nature in the Soviet Union was influential in the organization of the Green movement in the last years of the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pavlínek, Petr, and John Pickles. Environmental Transitions: Transformation and Ecological Defence in Central and Eastern Europe. London: Routledge, 2000. Discusses the environmental changes that have taken place in Central and Eastern Europe with the transition away from state socialism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Includes maps, tables, figures, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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. Presents two aspects of conservation activity in Siberia after World War II. Analyzes the efforts of both official and dissident environmental groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaposhnikov, L. K. “Societies for the Conservation of Nature.” In Great Soviet Encyclopedia, edited by A. M. Prokhorov. New York: Macmillan, 1983. One of the best English-language accounts available of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, Donald W., and Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. 9th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Comprehensive history of Russia in the twentieth century provides excellent coverage of the political background of the Soviet period. Includes maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Völgyes, Iván, ed. Environmental Deterioration in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. New York: Praeger, 1974. Collection of scholarly essays about pollution problems provides an excellent survey of the state of the environment in the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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