The ecological disaster that was the USSR

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In every paragraph of Adam Baker’s contribution (Alliance Voices Vol 11, No. 6) there is, I think, something I take issue with. But let me confine myself here to something I have particular experience of: the environment, and the environmental movement, in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia.

Adam asks, “Are we honestly saying that the entire Soviet Union was an ecological disaster?” Later, he asserts: “To suggest the environmental damage was on the same level as the rest [?] of the capitalist world is drawing a very long bow indeed.”

I lived for close to two years in the Soviet Union, and for a further seven in post-Soviet Russia. Reporting on the local environmental movement was part of my brief as a GLW correspondent, and also a personal enthusiasm. I got to know the Moscow environmental scene well, and interviewed activists from numerous republics and provinces. I also travelled, and saw some of it for myself. The Moscow sociologist who has made Russian environmentalism his specialty remains a close friend, and I’ve translated several of his books.

On this basis, let me agree with Adam that the damage done to the environment by the Soviet regime and its successor doesn’t remotely bear comparison with that in the West. It was, and remains, catastrophically worse. Particular countries elsewhere, especially in the developing world, have suffered one or another ecological disaster, sometimes of mind-bending dimensions. The USSR managed something in just about every sector of heavy industry to match the worst of them.

The Niger delta? The development of the oil industry of Western Siberia was carried out from the 1970s with great haste, using pipes and welding equipment that were often defective. By the 1990s the wells and pipelines were leaking like sieves, a Niger delta every few hundred kilometres. The Bhopal disaster in India? It’s only through enormous good luck that in Dzerzhinsk, the city east of Moscow that remains a key centre of the chemical industry, thousands of residents haven’t been killed by a similar leak of toxic gas. An activist from the place once argued to me that in any case, the levels of dioxins and other lethal chemicals to which the population was exposed ensured a cumulative “Bhopal” every few years. What were the local morbidity rates? Either the information was purposely never collected, or effectively suppressed.

Heavy metals pollution? In the ore-smelting centre of Nizhny Tagil in the Urals, another environmentalist surmised to me only half-jokingly, the sandpits in the child care centres could have passed assays as a minerals resource. The Siberian coal industry? This I did see for myself. I remember the black snow outside the municipal offices in the mining city of Anzhero-Sudzhensk. Who knows what the local incidence of birth defects was?

Speaking of birth defects, there’s the legacy of the Soviet nuclear industry. It’s not often realised that Chernobyl wasn’t the first major Soviet nuclear catastrophe. The first, in the southern Urals in the 1960s, involved dispersal by the wind of finely-ground uranium ore tailings from the shores of a lake where they’d been heedlessly dumped. A whole region was quietly evacuated. Then there’s the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range, now in Kazakhstan and off limits to human settlement effectively forever. In the fiords of the Kola Peninsula, meanwhile, are the rusting hulks of numerous decommissioned nuclear submarines. When I wrote about them in the 1990s they still contained large amounts of highly dangerous reactor waste, which no-one, it seemed, had the expertise or will to deal with. There were grave fears at the time that radioactivity was starting to leak. I haven’t heard that the problem has been rectified since.

A related topic I reported on while in Russia was the persecution, by military authorities and the ex-KGB, of two environmental whistle-blowers who tried to expose mishandling of environmentally dangerous materials by the armed forces. Both copped exemplary prison sentences.

There’s no point in trying to dress up the Soviet bureaucracy as anything except what it was: a grossly irresponsible clique that pursued its corporate advantage with little regard for damage to nature or to the health of the population. Capitalists, to be sure, do the same when they can get away with it, but most of the time they can’t; the human rights and elements of democracy that working people have often forced capitalism to concede impose certain constraints.

In the USSR, enterprise managers had little reason to fear retribution from below, but faced losing their careers if they failed persistently to reach plan targets; the incentive was very strong for them to cut corners in areas such as care for the environment. Ministerial chiefs and party leaders were dimly aware that wrecking the environment could cause them problems, but especially after the mid-1970s the difficulties of maintaining growth were such that the general response of top bureaucrats to such apparently lower-order dilemmas was simply to trust to luck. The armed forces were in many ways a law unto themselves, with enormous top-level clout, able in many cases to get what they demanded simply by putting their hands out. They had no inclination, or incentive, to pay heed to the environment.

And the masses? The mood in places like Dzerzhinsk was uneasy, and rumours flew, but hard information was impossible to get. Meanwhile, wages in the chemical plants were good. And if Dzerzhinsk was where you had your housing and your “propiska”, your residence registration, that was where you stayed. Unless, of course, you could find someone in another city to swap their apartment with you. But who in their right mind would move to a place like Dzerzhinsk?

There’s nothing in this picture to indicate that abuse of the environment should have been less in the USSR than in the West, and plenty to suggest that it would have been worse. And so indeed it was.

Needless to say, if a healthy workers’ democracy had existed in the Soviet Union, enterprise managers and officials of the industrial ministries would never have got away with a thousandth of what they did. But the efforts to build this democracy were thwarted at an early stage. The peoples of the former USSR are still having to endure the consequences of that defeat.