Ecology in the former Soviet Union

Polluted rivers, deforestation, noxious smokestack emissions and Chernobyl. That is what comes to mind when we think of the former Soviet Union. Like much of the history of the former Soviet Union, there is another side to the story. Just as there were political alternatives to Stalin, there were alternative possibilities to the way that the planned economy dealt with nature. Douglas R. Weiner's "Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union" (Indiana Univ., 1988) is, as far as I know, the most detailed account of the efforts of the Russian government to implement a "green" policy.

This story starts, as you would expect, with the Bolshevik revolution. While Lenin has the reputation of being a crude "productivist," the actual record was quite the opposite. Although Lenin wanted to increase Soviet Russia's productive power, he thought that nature had to be respected.

The Communist Party issued a decree "On Land" in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal "Forests of the Republic" complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree "On Forests" at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the "preservation of monuments of nature." This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that is about to take place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia is about to disappear, all in the name of heightened "productiveness."

What's surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree "On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons" was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.

Podialpolski urged the creation of "zapovedniki", roughly translatable as "nature preserves." Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the "natural equilibrium [that] is a crucial factor in the life of nature."

Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:

"Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan' region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai, but for the whole republic as well."

Podiapolski sat down and drafted a resolution that eventually was approved by the Soviet government in September 1921 with the title "On the Protection of Nature, Gardens, and Parks." A commission was established to oversee implementation of the new laws. It included a geographer-anthropologist, a mineralogist, two zoologists, an ecologist. Heading it was Vagran Ter-Oganesov, a Bolshevik astronomer who enjoyed great prestige.

The commission first established a forest zapovednik in Astrakhan, according to Podiapolski's desires Next it created the Ilmenski zapovednik, a region which included precious minerals. Despite this, the Soviet government thought that Miass deposits located there were much more valuable for what they could teach scientists about geological processes. Scientific understanding took priority over the accumulation of capital. The proposal was endorsed by Lenin himself who thought that pure scientific research had to be encouraged. And this was at a time when the Soviet Union was desperate for foreign currency.

In my next post, I will cover the period of the NEP.

Under Lenin, the USSR stood for the most audacious approach to nature conservancy in the 20th century. Soviet agencies set aside vast portions of the country where commercial development, including tourism, would be banned. These "zapovedniki", or natural preserves, were intended for nothing but ecological study. Scientists sought to understand natural biological processes better through these living laboratories. This would serve pure science and it would also have some ultimate value for Soviet society's ability to interact with nature in a rational manner. For example, natural pest elimination processes could be adapted to agriculture.

After Lenin's death, there were all sorts of pressures on the Soviet Union to adapt to the norms of the capitalist system that surrounded and hounded it and produce for profit rather than human need. This would have included measures to remove the protected status of the zapovedniki. Surprisingly, the Soviet agencies responsible for them withstood such pressures and even extended their acreage through the 1920s.

One of the crown jewels was the Askania-Nova zapovednik in the Ukranian steppes. The scientists in charge successfully resisted repeated bids by local commissars to extend agriculture into the area through the end of the 1920s. Scientists still enjoyed a lot of prestige in the Soviet republic, despite a growing move to make science cost-justify itself. Although pure science would eventually be considered "bourgeois", the way it was in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it could stand on its own for the time being.

The head administrator of Askania-Nova was Vladimir Stanchinksi, a biologist who sought to make the study of ecology an exact science through the use of quantitative methods, including mathematics and statistics. He identified with scientists in the West who had been studying predator-prey and parasite-host relationships with laws drawn from physics and chemistry. (In this he was actually displaying an affinity with Karl Marx, who also devoted a number of years to the study of agriculture using the latest theoretical breakthroughs in the physical sciences and agronomy. Marx's study led him to believe that capitalist agriculture is detrimental to sound agricultural practices.)

Stanchinski adopted a novel approach to ecology. He thought that "the quantity of living matter in the biosphere is directly dependent on the amount of solar energy that is transformed by autotrophic plants." Such plants were the "economic base of the living world." He invoked the Second Law of Thermodynamics to explain the variations in mass between flora and fauna at the top, middle and bottom of the biosphere. Energy was lost as each rung in the ladder was scaled, since more and more work was necessary to procure food.

The whole purpose of the Askania-Nova was to allow scientists to observe such processes without interference from politicians or commerce. Unfortunately, there were already powerful forces being unleashed in Russian politics that would undermine these efforts.

They came from two sources which tended to reinforce one another. One was the sheer need to compete in a hostile capitalist world. This meant that everything was ultimately judged on whether it could be bought or sold. The other hostile force was the Soviet science establishment itself that Stalin was reorienting toward a more "utilitarian" view of nature.

Stalin had very little use for theoretical science. On the 12th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, he said, "All the objections raised by 'science' against the possibility and expediency of organizing great grain factories of forty to fifty thousand hectares have collapsed and crumbled to dust. Practice has refuted the objections of 'science,' and has once again shown that not only has practice to learn from 'science,' but that 'science' also would do well to learn from practice."

(Of course, Stalin never examined the environmental consequences of such grain factories. The dubious lessons of such models are coming under scrutiny today as soil and water are exhausted by agribusiness, just as Marx anticipated in the 1860s.)

Eventually, Stalin and his minions began to view all pure scientists as being nuisances at best and counter-revolutionaries at worst. He sneered that they enjoyed the sort of "protected" status that the ecologists had achieved for the zapovedniki. "During the twelve years of revolution, the scholars of the USSR lived as if in a fastidiously protected zapovednik. In this All-Union zapovednik for the Endangered Species of Bourgeois Scientists, they found cozy corners for themselves...far out of sight of Soviet public opinion."

Stalin adapted a crude version of Marxism based on a "productivist" reading of the Communist Manifesto. Gone was any attempt to view society and nature as in harmony. Instead, man would conquer and tame nature like a hostile beast. Scientists and artists were sensitive to Stalin's new views and helped him find the words to express them. Leonid Leonov wrote a novel called "Soviet River" whose protagonist is the engineer Uvadiev. His antagonist? Nature itself. "From the moment when Uvadiev stepped on the bank, a challenge was cast at the River Sot'...and it seemed as though the very earth beneath his feet was his enemy." Another square-jawed, broad-shouldered hero is the Soviet manager Sergei Potemkin who had a dream to turn forests into newsprint. Leonov rhapsodizes:

"Gradually...his dream had swollen...Potemkin sleeps not; he straightens and deepens the ancient bed of rivers, increasing fourfold their carrying capacity...unties three provinces around his industrial infant...opens a paper college...Cellulose rivers flow to foreign lands, the percentage of cellulose in the newspaper world is tripled. The dreams urge on reality, and reality hastens on the dreams."

(Doesn't this sound a bit like an Ayn Rand novel? Apparently this Russian emigr´┐Ż must have sopped up the culture of such proletarian novels and simply transposed them to the capitalist world.)

Another hater of nature was the hack Maxim Gorky whose novel "Belomor" depicts the great dictator drawing up battle-plans against nature:

"Stalin holds a pencil. Before him lies a map of the region. Deserted shores. Remote villages. Virgin soil, covered with boulders. Primeval forests. Too much forest as a matter of fact; it covers the best soil. And swamps. The swamps are always crawling about, making life dull and slovenly. Tillage must be increased. The swamps must be drained...The Karelian Republic wants to enter the stage of classless society as a republic of factories and mills. And the Karelian Republic will enter classless society by changing its own nature."

The concrete form that subversion of the zapovedniki took was "acclimatization." Stalin and his science whores believed that it was necessary to import species that were not native to a region in order to maximize their value (i.e., commercial value.) This bone-headed idea found its most profound expression in the release of muskrats into various regions, despite the objections of scientists who thought that the result could be as disastrous as the import of rabbits into Australia. Muskrats might adapt well to the steppes, but they could very easily feed on valuable fish roe as well. What good would fur production be if salmon were destroyed in the process?

The justification for acclimatization was the same as that provided by the novelists Leonov and Gorky. It was part of man's historical mission to conquer nature. In 1929, the Stalinist Academician N.F. Kaschenko made a major statement on behalf of the policy. He argued that it would not only reduce the USSR's dependence on imports but "proletarianize" the availability of tropical fruits. The notion of growing pineapples in the Ukraine was as foolish as the proposed muskrat project, but Stalin's followers were not easily persuaded of their errors. Kaschenko's words epitomize the insanity of the anti-ecology assault that was gathering steam in the USSR and which would become official policy in less than 5 years:

"The final goal of acclimatization, understood in the broad sense, is a profound rearrangement of the entire living world--not only that portion which is now under the domination of humanity but also that portion that has still remained wild. Generally speaking, all wild species will disappear with time; some will be exterminated, others will be domesticated. All nature will live, thrive, and die at none other than the will of humans and according to their designs. These are the grandiose perspective that open up before us."

Louis Proyect

(This is the second and final part of Douglas Weiner's "Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union," Indiana Univ., 1988)