Persistent, large-scale pipeline leaks have saturated the soil in large areas of Western Siberia and Chechnya with oil. The southern districts of Krasnoarmeysk near Volgagrad is one of the most polluted areas in Russia. Chemicals spewed out by a former chemical-weapons factory that now makes pesticides have collected in 50 squares miles of settling ponds, some of which are bright yellow and red in color.

Each of Russia's natural zones has suffered degradation of specific kinds. In the tundra, the greatest damage stems from extraction and transportation of mineral resources by crude techniques. In delicate tundra habitats, oil spills, leaks in natural gas pipelines, and the flaring of natural gas destroy northern marshland ecosystems, which take many years to purify naturally. Also endangered are reindeer grazing lands, upon which indigenous peoples traditionally have depended for their livelihood. In the permafrost zones that constitute about 40 percent of Russia's territory, lower air, water, and ground temperatures slow natural self-cleansing processes that mitigate contamination in warmer regions, magnifying the impact of every spill and leak. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

In the taiga, or forest, zone, the overcutting of trees poses the greatest threat, particularly in northern European Russia, the Urals, and the Angara Basin in south-central Siberia. Uncontrolled mining operations constitute the second major source of damage in the taiga. In the broad-leafed forest zone, irrational land use has caused soil erosion on a huge scale. Urbanization and air and water pollution also are problems.*

The forest-steppe and steppe regions are subjected to soil exhaustion, loss of humus, soil compacting, and erosion, creating an extremely serious ecological situation. The soil fertility of Russia's celebrated black-earth (chernozem) region has deteriorated significantly in the postwar period. Overgrazing is the main problem in the pasturage regions of the Russian steppe and has severely affected the Republic of Kalmykia in southwestern Russia and the region east of Lake Baikal. In Russia's limited semiarid and arid territories, poorly designed irrigation and drainage systems have caused salinization, pollution, and contamination of surface and underground water, but not to the degree that these problems exist in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan.*

Laws from the peristroika era that gave more control to the provinces has meant that local authorities can rape the land and its resources and Moscow can't do very much about it. In the 1990s, mineral concessions were often given out of friends and relatives who more or less did what they wanted with worrying themselves with environmental concerns. Strip mining methods are often still employed. This causes erosion, pollutes rivers, makes the land unstable.

Problems with Russia’s Soil and Land

Russia devotes about 10 percent of its land to agriculture, but land quality is declining. Erosion carries away as much as 1.5 billion tons of topsoil every year (see Agriculture). In the past twenty-five years, Russia's arable land area has decreased by an estimated 33 million hectares, with much of that loss attributable to poor land management. Experts fear that agricultural land management may deteriorate further under Russia's new land privatization as individual farmers try to squeeze short-term profit from their new property. In the early 1990s, an estimated 50 percent of arable land needed remediation and improved management for agricultural productivity to improve. Russia's southern regions, especially the Republic of Kalmykia, are losing about 6,400 hectares of agricultural land yearly to desertification. To the east, desiccation of the Aral Sea and expansion of the Qizilqum Desert in Kazakstan have a climatic drying effect that exacerbates desertification in Russia to the north and west. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In Russia an estimated 74 million hectares of agricultural land have been contaminated by industrial toxic agents, pesticides, and agricultural chemicals. Considerable land also is lost in the extraction of mineral resources. Unauthorized dumping of hazardous industrial, chemical, and household waste takes land out of production. Flooding is a problem near the Caspian Sea and in Stavropol' Territory, where the construction of reservoirs has removed land from use.*

Desertification of the Kalmyk Steppe areas around the northern Caspian Sea have occurred because of overgrazing of sheep. Kalmykiya, north of the Caspian Sea, contains a 1.4 million acre man-made desert produced by the forced settlement of the region's nomads and the raising of more sheep than the environment could accommodate. The erosion of fertile soul in black-earth steppe has occurred because of excessive cultivation.

Pipelines and Oil-Related Pollution in Russia

Soviet and Russian oil extraction has traditionally been very sloppy and produced a lot of pollution. At the vast Tyumen oil fields, located in a vast area of wetlands north of Tomsk, numerous wells leak oil which collects in pools in the marshes. Heats and toxins produced by flaring off methane kills trees and vegetation. One Western oil executive told the New York Times, “You go there, and you are surprised, if not horrified by what you see.”

Environmentalists are concerned about offshore drilling the Sakhalin region. They worry about a major tanker spill and damage caused by the drilling and exploration process. Finland has complained that Russian tankers operating in the Baltic during the winter are not adequately protected against ice. Foreign oil men in western Siberia say they have seen rough necks toss equipment into a lake that could be used to virtually eliminate drilling discharges.

Oil pipelines leaks and accidents are a daily occurrences. Russia averages two oil spills—mostly small ones—every day. Every year a fifth of Russia's oil supply is lost (some to theft and some to leakage). The pipelines rust, split and rupture, releasing oil that seeps into the soil and bodies of water, leeches into ground water and contaminates the environment. Greenpeace estimated that 15 million to tons of crude leaks from Russia's pipeline system every year. This is equal to 375 Exxon Valdez tanker spills. Environmentalist are concerned about the environmental impact of pipelines built from the new oil fields of Central Asia to the Black Sea..

Komi Oil Leaks

In 1995, an oil spill caused by at least 16 ruptures, averaging in two-inches in diameter, along a 32 mile length of a 1,000-mile pipeline between Usinsk, 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow in the Komi Province. and Moscow resulted in the release of massive amounts of oil. Concerned it could afford to halt production, the oil company kept on pumping oil months after the leak began even though it was aware that large of amount of oil was despoiling the environment.

The pipeline has ruptured many times before and was covered with patches. It is estimated that 750,000 barrels (25 million gallons of oil)—more than twice that of the Exxon Valdez in 1989—leaked from a 20-year-old, badly-corroded pipeline that transported crude oil from the Russian Arctic to a refinery near Usinsk.

It was not clear how much oil leaked out in 1995. High estimates were around two million barrels, eight times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The Russians said these estimates were grossly exaggerated. They said the size of the spill was 100,000 barrels. The most likely figure is around 500,000 barrels (100,000 metric tons, 20 million gallons).

The leaks have badly damaged wetlands in Russian Arctic that is a vital habitat for wild animals. The native Komi people claimed the oil has contaminated fish they depend on for food. Describing the damage he observed 250 feet above in a helicopter, Governor Walter Hickel of Alaska wrote in the New York Times, "Oil was caked on stream banks. Despite a recent snowfall, we could see oil bubbling out of leaks in the pipeline, unattended and ignored. Crude containment dikes had been breached by heavy rains. A videotape made before the snowfall showed oil lying on the tundra in black pools the size of football fields...We landed. We walked in the muck. We took samples. Though we had been told a cleanup was under way, we saw no evidence of it."

The company answer to the problem was to build a 25-foot-high dam to contain the oil. The dam eventual broke and a three-foot-deep, 50-foot-wide and seven-mile-long stream of oil spilled all over the tundra and taiga, where it soaked into the permafrost, and flowed into a tributary of the Pechora River, where it affected drinking water supplies and breeding ground for birds and salmon. Only when the pipe ruptured again did the company shut down the pipeline. The cost of the clean up estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Workmen in white overalls slopped up the crude and placed it metal containers. As part of an earlier effort to get rid of one large pool of oil, Russian authorities simply set the oil on fire, producing huge clouds of polluting black smoke. As of the early 2000s, most of the oil that leaked out was still there.

Problems with Russia’s Forests

In 1994 about 22 percent of the world's forests and 50 percent of its coniferous forests were in Russia, covering an area larger than the continental United States. Of the 764 million hectares of forested area, 78 percent was in Siberia and the Far East. At that time, vast stands of Siberian forest remained untouched. Such broad expanses have an important role in the global carbon cycle and in biodiversity. In the 1990s, the atmosphere of economic stress and political decentralization has the potential to accelerate drastically Russia's rate of deforestation and land degradation, especially in remote areas. Environmentalists fear that timber sales will be used as a short-term stimulus to regional economies; already, Chinese, Mongolian, and North and South Korean companies have taken advantage of looser restrictions and the critical need for hard currency to begin clear-cutting Siberian forests. Timber harvesting by Russian firms decreased dramatically in the 1990s, from 375 million cubic meters in 1989 to 110 million cubic meters in 1996.*

Aleksey Yablokov, head of the nongovernmental Center for Russian Environmental Policy, has estimated that Siberia is losing 16 million hectares of forest annually to cutting, pollution, and fires--an amount six times the official government estimate and higher than the rate of loss in the Amazon rain forests. Fires, which normally improve biodiversity and long-term stability, cause excessive damage because of poor fire control measures. Large tracts of Russian forest, most notably 136,000 hectares in the vicinity of Chernobyl', have suffered radioactive contamination, which also increases the likelihood of forest fires. Because forests cannot be decontaminated, the distribution of radioactive particles in the trees remains constant over many years.*

Inefficient lumbering procedures cause unnecessary loss of timber; as much as 40 percent of Russia's harvested trees never go to the mill, and unsystematic clear-cutting prevents productive regrowth. Forest management has improved gradually in the post-Soviet era. In 1993 the Supreme Soviet, then the lower house of Russia's parliament, passed the Principles of the Forest, national laws that include guidelines for management and protection. Because implementation of these laws has been quite slow, many regional jurisdictions have adopted their own management standards.*

Acid rain from European and Siberian industrial centers and from power generation plants has reduced the Siberian forests by an estimated 730,000 hectares. Hydroelectric dams on Siberian rivers raise significantly the temperature of air and water, destabilizing the growing conditions of adjacent forests. Because of the enormous oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption of the Russian forests (a capacity estimated to be second only to that of the Amazon rain forest), removal of large sections of those forests would have a drastic effect on the quality of land in Russia and the quality of air over the entire world.*

Deforestation in Russia

About ten million acres of forest in Russia is cleared each year. Only a small percentage of Russia’s forest is protected. Almost 30 percent of Kamchatka's forest are gone. Logging roads open up the area of remote taiga to development, hunters, poachers, which can increase the likelihood of fires and deplete wildlife.

In the Soviet era, timber harvests were determined by the state. One timber harvester was so intent on meeting his Five-Year Plan quotas that he didn't care what happened to the logs after they were harvested so workers simply dug pits and buried them.

In 1996, over 10,000 square kilometers were clearcut, in some cases resulting in rivers clogged with silt, permafrost melts, wildlife being deprived of habitat and entire ecosystems destroyed. It believed that more forest would have been destroyed if the economy was in better shape.

Deforestation is heaviest near the railway lines and rivers. The last virgin forests are in places where its is uneconomical to transport timber Much of the taiga lies on permafrost. Harvesting trees damages the soil and makes it difficult for new trees to grow aback.

The Siberian ecosystem is fragile. The growing season is only 120 days. It can take 40 years for a birch tree to grow 10 feet and take trees 60 years to mature. Once a forest is chopped down it can take hundreds of year to regenerate. It takes about 180 years to replace the loss caused by a damaging fire.

Timber an mineral concessions are often given out of friends and relatives who more or less do what they want. In the 30,000-square-kilometer Khor River watershed, for example, there are 90 forest enterprises operated with out any kind of supervision.

Deforestation and Foreign Timber Companies

The Putin government and the World Bank have provided money and incentives for logging. To bring in hard currency Russia has leased huge tracts of spruce, fir and pine forests to foreign corporations who harvest the wood. Much of the timber harvested in Siberia finds its way to China where economic growth is high and there is a near moratorium on logging.

Timber companies from Europe, Japan, Korea and the United States all have shown an interests in the vast forest in southern Siberia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these companies moved in en force to Siberia.

The Japanese have been importing Russian timber for a long time. The South Korean company Hyundai was chopped down large tracts of the taiga. It has a contract to log 200,000 hectares, including an entire watershed stretching from the Ural mountains to the Pacific. The Malaysian conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau has a long term lease on 914,250 acres of Siberian forest.

Illegal Logging and Reforestation in Russia

About 1.5 million cubic meters of timber is illegally harvested each year in the Far East, robbing the government and the legal timber industry of $1 billion annually. About 70 percent of the logging in the Far eastern Primorye region is illegal. Many of the timber processing plants in the region are closed. Much of the illegal logging is carried by unemployed loggers who work from criminal groups that send the timber to China.

The logging of Siberian cedar is banned entirely yet, thousands of cubic meters of it is exported annually. Illegal logging is threat to seriously damage ancient virgin forest in Ussuri Taiga in the Far East, home for are Siberian tigers, Asian black bears and Amur leopards.

After of clear cutting conservation recently persuaded Moscow bureaucrats to selectively cut the forest, allowing younger trees to grow and reseed.∞

An area of 270 square miles—nearly half the size of Alaska—was set side for protection in the huge Sakha (Yakutiya) Republic in Siberia.

Forest Fires on Russia

Even though the boreal forest may appear very green and damp, it receives relatively little rain and is susceptible to fires, Every year huge fores, caused by lighting and man, destroy as many trees as logging. Fores are essential to the regeneration of the forest. After a fire larch is the first to appear, followed by pine, spruce and fire.

The taiga forests in northern China are incredibly prone to forest fries and the they sometimes spread into Russia. Many are started by careless people, The effort to put them out are hampered by a shortage of firefighting equipment and helicopters. The Great Black Dragon fire in May 1987, burned for more than a month and devastated more than 46,000 square miles on the Russian side of the Amur and around 5,000 square miles on the Chinese side. China and the Soviet Union did not cooperate at all in fighting the fires.

A forest fire in 1998, damaged two million hectares, an area the size of Michigan, of forest in the Kharbarovks region of Russia's far east. Over 200 square miles of forest in a single night. The carbon dioxide released was equivalent of 4 percent of the carbon dioxide produced annually worldwide from man-made sources.

Major fires struck throughout Russia in the summer of 2002. Almost 25,000 individual fires were reported across 2.5 million acres of land. At one point 250,000 acres was on fire. In May, 2002 is a half dozen locations in Siberia and the Far East were engulfed in smoke from fire. In August 2002, Moscow was shrouded in haze and smoke from peat and forest fires fueled by unseasonably high temperatures and dry conditions. The visibility was less than 50 meters in some places. People with asthma were told to leave the area. Old people were told to stay indoors. Emergency officials said it was the worst smog in 30 years.

Smoldering peat fires are particularly worrisome. They produce a lot of smoke and are difficult to put out. Tons of water and sand can be poured on them in an attempt to smother them but they can continue to smolder underground for months, even years. The only thing that can put them out is continuous rain that lasts for a long time.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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