In 1988, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, an groundswell of environmental concern stimulated the Gorbachev government to form the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Gosudarstvennyy komitet po okhrane prirody — Goskompriroda), an agency given broad responsibilities similar to those of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 1992 the Russian Federation used Goskompriroda as the model for a new Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, which received a similar mandate. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

In the 1990s, the interdepartmental Commission for Ecological Safety, headed by senior environmental authority Aleksey Yablokov, released shocking statistics about Russia's environmental quality. For example, in 1996 one in five tap-water samples failed to meet public health chemical standards, and about 40 percent of sewage was being dumped untreated into bodies of water, with Moscow and St. Petersburg among the regions most affected. Yablokov lobbied Yeltsin unsuccessfully to expand the ecological safety commission and its funding. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Official environmental protection has declined since the early 1990s, when the public briefly supported meaningful reversal of Soviet environmental practices. In 2000 the Putin government abolished Russia’s Environmental Protection Committee (which earlier had lost its ministry status) and the Federal Forest Service. After substantial delay, in 2004 Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, making possible the enforcement of the protocol in signatory nations. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Some enlightened leaders are trying slow down development until the effects on the environment are known. Even though the Lena Delta, for example, sits on huge reserves of gas and oil, a biosphere was set up to protect the area. But this is an exception to the usually development first policies.

There has traditionally been little or no recycling in Russia. Russians liter beer bottles and cigarette butts. But that doesn’t mean nothing is done. A dairy stores often require customers to bring their own bottles or plastic bags because of shortages of containers. Some groups pick up trash and recycle it as part of a "trash is money" campaign.

Garbage from Moscow apartment chutes ends up in an underground vacuum pipeline that moved garbage along at 60 to 80 feet a second to central collecting stations. There is a similar system in Leningrad and Disney World in Florida. [Source: "The Fascinating World of Trash" by Peter White, April 1983].

Soviet Era View of Environmental Problems

In the Soviet system, environmentally threatening incidents such as the bursting of an oil pipeline received little or no public notice, and remedial actions were slow or nonexistent. Government officials felt that natural resources were abundant enough to afford waste, that the land could easily absorb any level of pollution, and that stringent control measures were an unjustifiable hindrance to economic advancement. In the 1990s, after decades of such practices, the government categorized about 40 percent of Russia's territory (an area about three-quarters as large as the United States) as under high or moderately high ecological stress. Excluding areas of radiation contamination, fifty-six areas have been identified as environmentally degraded regions, ranging from full-fledged ecological disaster areas to moderately polluted areas. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the half-decade that began with the Chernobyl' disaster and culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, substantial changes took place in the public's attitudes toward environmental crises. The public engaged in unprecedented discussion about the dangers the state's environmental policies posed to public health. According to surveys, the public's main concerns were local problems having immediate impact, such as polluted water supplies, violation of public health regulations, and air pollution. Russians were much less interested in more general and fundamental issues such as loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and acid rain. *

The Soviet environmental movement began with a protest of a cellulose factory on the southern shore Lake Baikal. In 1989 a national poll placed environmental pollution fifth among citizens' major concerns, but only one-third of respondents expressed their willingness to sacrifice economically to improve the situation. Nevertheless, a substantial green movement arose in the late 1980s. Fragmented by disagreement over politicization and national versus local agendas, parts of the movement branched into other areas of activism such as human rights and regional autonomy, and no single green party emerged. *

Politics and Environmental Issues in Russia

Public enthusiasm for environmental improvement followed the same curve as enthusiasm for democratic and economic reform; by 1992 economic hardship began to wilt the zeal for reform, and the vast majority of Russians remained skeptical of political change throughout the early 1990s. As worsening economic conditions heightened short-term insecurity, issues such as environmental protection paled, especially in cases where the shutting of a polluting plant threatened the livelihood of a town or city. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1990 elections for Russia's local legislative bodies (soviets) and the republic-level Congress of People's Deputies, virtually every candidate, whether democrat or communist, made the environment a major campaign issue, thus promoting the electorate's awareness that severe problems exist. In 1990 Yablokov was appointed to an influential position as environmental adviser to the president of Russia (a position he continued to hold in the Russian Federation after 1991), and powerful environmental commissions were formed in the local soviets of Moscow and other cities. In the early 1990s, such soviets blocked many large, environmentally dubious projects of the central government, such as the activation of the Northern Thermoelectric Center near Moscow, and of various local jurisdictions tied to national monopolies, such as the State Construction Committee (Goskomstroy) and the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom).*

By the time of the parliamentary elections of 1993, however, the political atmosphere had changed. Most environmental activists either abstained from political activity or merged their single-issue efforts with coalitions that might exceed the 5 percent threshold needed for a party to gain representation in the State Duma. Neither strategy had political impact because environmental views were lost in the coalitions' agendas. Among the major parties, only the Yabloko coalition had a separate department for environmental issues. Another major reform-minded party, Russia's Choice, which gained seventy-six seats in 1993, advocated environmental protection through market reform; Russia's minister of environmental protection and natural resources, former communist functionary Viktor Danilov-Danil'yan, was a member of Russia's Choice. However, neither in the campaign nor after assuming office did Danilov-Danil'yan press the party's nominal program of tax stimulation for energy conservation and pollution control. In the 1995 legislative elections, Russia's Democratic Choice (the new name of Russia's Choice) declined dramatically, gaining only nine seats in the new State Duma, although Danilov-Danil'yan remained head of his ministry.*

A crucial event was the 1992 appointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister to replace Yegor Gaydar, head of Russia's Choice. Chernomyrdin, former head of the State Natural Gas Company (Gazprom), has made the reinvigoration of Russian industry, and especially the fuel industries, a top priority. A second important event was President Yeltsin's dismissal of the local soviets in his 1993 struggle to consolidate presidential power and curb the growth of regional autonomy. The local dumas that replaced the soviets have been much more solicitous of local economic ambitions.*

In the parliamentary elections of 1995, the Kedr (Cedar) coalition (which also had presented a slate in the 1993 election) was the only group among forty-three parties calling itself environmental; however, the party was dominated by businesspeople rather than environmental activists. Kedr candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote and no seats in the new State Duma. Some nongovernmental groups have continued to have political impact, and in 1995 Yablokov hailed a new wave of the green movement. The annual Days of Defense Against Environmental Hazards, which began modestly in 1993, became a national phenomenon the next year and included a speech by President Yeltsin. Public organizations played a major role in establishing the All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Nature under the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. The national congress is preceded each year by eighty-nine regional congresses, one in each of Russia's political subdivisions. In late 1993, the new Commission on Ecological Security went into operation under the Security Council, with the assignment of assessing the most serious environmental problems as they endanger national security. Although it was formed with great fanfare, the commission received little funding in its first three years.*

Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources

The State Committee for Environmental Protection (Russia's equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency) was a cabinet-level ministry created by Gorbachev in 1991. In 1996, it was downgraded to a State Committee by Yeltsin. The organization didn't have the authority of the EPA in the United States but was credited with establishing new environmental laws and battling oil and mining companies that were dumping toxic materials.

In 1994 the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources employed about 21,000 people. In addition, the official Russian environmental protection system included environmental agencies in each of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions and also several state committees responsible for the use of mineral, water, and forest resources. In 1993 some 65 percent of the ministry's expenditures went for protection of water quality and 26 percent for protection of air quality. However, the ministry's actions against major polluters remained infrequent despite the 1993 constitution's guarantee of the people's right to a clean environment, to receive information about environmental conditions, and to get compensation for damage to health and property that results from negative ecological conditions. In 1995 Danilov-Danil'yan reported that only twenty-two cases had been brought against alleged polluters in the previous year. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1993 Russia's total investment in environmental preservation was about US$2.3 billion, less than 4 percent of the national budget category entitled "industrial construction," in which environmental expenditures are included. That figure was 20 percent less than the 1990 investment. The structure of environmental spending remained substantially the same as it was in 1980: some 58 percent went for protection of water resources, 24 percent for prevention of air pollution, 7 percent for forest management, and only 0.04 percent for nature preserves and species protection. In most subnational jurisdictions, water pollution receives the most investment because of uniformly serious water conditions.*

In 1993 state enterprises and organizations paid 39 percent of environmental costs. As state budget deficits occurred in subsequent years, the amounts from those sources decreased, but the percentage did not because the only other funding sources were local budgets and private environmental foundations. Budgets of subnational jurisdictions often suffered the same deficits as the federal government, and private organizations contributed only 1.4 percent of total investments in 1993. Meanwhile, local economic conditions have combined with weak enforcement funding to promote corruption among local authorities and to encourage poaching, especially in the fishing industry.*

In May 2000, State Committee for Environmental Protection was shut down in decree issued by Putin and it responsibilities were transferred to the National Resources Agency, a government body in charge of issuing licenses for the development of resources. Putin also eliminated the State Committee on Forestry and named a man with close ties to the oil industry as the energy minister. In 2002, parliament let expire a fee charged to companies based on how much they polluted.

Environmental Laws in Russia

In 1991 Yeltsin signed Russia's first comprehensive environmental law, On Environmental Protection. Modeled after a similar Soviet law, it made many general statements about the environmental rights of citizens without setting any specific goals. The law also defined numerous environmental functions for every level of government as well as for citizens and nongovernmental organizations, and it specified environmental regulation of every aspect of society, from health resorts to electromagnetic radiation. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The sheer inclusiveness of such provisions made practical enforcement impossible. The other major obstacle to enforcement has been the slow development of Russia's judiciary, which was only a rubber-stamp branch of government in the Soviet system and which totally lacked experience in the area of environmental law (as well as the general theory of Western-style jurisprudence). Before any enforcement could begin, the 1991 law stipulated that numerous other laws had to be passed. The same complex situation has existed at the regional and local government levels. In early 1995, the State Duma passed a law requiring environmental impact assessments for a variety of construction and development projects, including large-scale industrial development, large-scale use of natural resources, city planning, creation of new technology and materials, and modification of existing commercial facilities.*

Managers of the polluting factories in Siberia didn't take the anti pollution laws very seriously. The maximum fine the Russian equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency could fine a manger is $16. Putin’s National Resources Agency planned to create laws that would seriously crack down on polluting industries. The laws were scheduled to go into affect in 2006. According to the plan, offenders will be required to invest on anti-pollution technology rather than pay fines.

Russia is a signatory of most major international environmental treaties. Among them are the International Tropical Timber Agreement (1983), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, 1973), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), and the Montreal Protocol controlling substances harmful to the ozone layer. *

Environmental Movement in Russia

The environmental movement in Russia is generally small and weak but is getting stronger The Soviet environmental movement began with a protest of a cellulose factory on the southern shore Lake Baikal. Russian environmentalists have been able to halt construction of a railway and gas pipeline on the Yamal peninsula in the western Siberian Arctic that would have disrupted reindeer migrations, Environmentalists have also rallied to try and prevent the construction of a oil-pipeline depot on the Black Sea.

A number of grassroots groups have sprung up. They are called "public organizations" or NGOs. Groups like Name of Life have been able get referendums on the ballot to halt the construction of nuclear power plants. Officials in Kamchatka banned helicopter hunts after half the population of brown bears was killed in five years. The Far-East-based Phoenix Fund is involved in saving the Siberian tiger. Greenpeace Russia has a lot of volunteers and organized an international camp to bring attention to the fouling of Lake Baikal and other problems.

Russian environmentalists won a battle in December 1996 when a regional referendum soundly rejected completion of the Kostroma Nuclear Power Station, on which construction had been suspended after the Chernobyl' disaster of 1986. This was Russia's first referendum on such an issue; the 59 percent turnout made the vote legally binding. In February 1997, the Republic of Sakha announced plans to conserve one-quarter of its vast Siberian territory, including the world's largest tract of virgin forest, protecting several endangered species and the shrinking indigenous population of Evenk nomads. That plan bypassed national authorities — an increasingly frequent trend in environmental and other matters. The Sakha government received a support [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Foreign Environmental Groups and Russia

A number of foreign countries have been involved in Russia’s environment. In 2003, the United Nations organized a $30 million clean up effort of 10 hotspots in the Arctic. A third of the money was slated to come from the United Nations, a third from Russia and third from countries such as the United States, Norway, Canada, Sweden and Iceland. Projects included using a special oil-eating algae and studying the release of methane gas.

The Bellona Foundation is a Norway-based group that monitors the environment, particularly those associated with nuclear energy, in Russia. In August 1996, Bellona, long a vocal critic of Russia's nuclear waste procedures, issued a damning report on the threat posed to Arctic regions by Russia's nuclear waste disposal practices and at least thirty-six decommissioned nuclear submarines at anchor near Murmansk with their reactors on board. Bellona described the Murmansk region as having the world's largest concentration of active and defunct nuclear reactors, many of which are not maintained or disposed of properly. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Foreign courts are also making decision that affect the victims of pollution in Russia. In 2005, ten years after she took her case to a Russian court, a woman was awarded $10,000 plus legal expense bu the European Court of Human Rights. The fine was to be pais the government on city of Cherepovets because it had not taken to measure to keep pollution from the nearby Severstal steelworks from adversely affecting the woman’s life. The court stopped short of ordering the city to relocate her.

Environmental Whistle-blowers

Russian whistler-blowers who have made an effort to alert the public about nuclear dangers have been arrested and charged with treason rather than being commended for making sacrifices for the general public good. In the mid 1990s, two nuclear safety whistle blowers were charged with treason. Journalist Grigory Pasko was sentenced to 4 years months in prison on charges of treason after printing articles about the Russian Navy in Vladivostok dumping nuclear material in the ocean. He was accused of divulging state secrets on combat readiness.

Alexander Nikitin, a Russian icebreaker engineer who had joined a Greenpeace antinuclear voyage near Murmansk, revealed the location of an Arctic dumping grounds near Kola Peninsula to the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. He was arrested in 1996 and charged with divulging state secrets. He was jailed for 18 months and was acquitted in December 1999. According to a Bellona report, the FSB (KGB) obstructed the foundation's investigation and imprisoned Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired Russian naval officer. As Nikitin's trial was delayed repeatedly, his case attracted international protests.

Going after Russian oil companies on environmental issues can be risky. A member of a foreign environmental group told the New York Times, “Oil is big money. There is a lot of pressure on ecologists. It can be dangerous.”

Russian National Parks and Reserves

Russia contains 100 reserves covering almost 83 million acres. This is comparable in size to the national park system in the United States. Russia also has 88 semi-protected national parks and wildlife refuges. Russia's oldest nature sanctuary, Barguzin Nature Preserve in Lake Baikal, was created in 1916 to save the rare Barguzin sable from extinction. Tourist are not allowed to visit. The first national park was not created in the Soviet Union until 1983.

Most Russian nature reserves are off limited to humans except people doing research. Unlike the United States, which created national parks as "pleasuring grounds" for people, reserves were created in Russia in 1908 to converse nature under the belief that "nature must be left alone." Some of Russia’s 160 State Nature Reserves have been set up to protect specific animals and plants. Others protect unique habitats.

Russia’s parks are centers of conservation and research. The science that comes out of them is often better than in Western parks and the dedication of the researchers, some of whom work for minuscule salaries, is excellent.

Russia's national parks and reserves have suffered from a lack of funding since the Soviet break up. There is a lack of money for rangers to keep out poachers and illegal timber harvesters. Developers have set up hotels and vocations lodges on prime park land at Lake Baikal.

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.

Last updated May 2016

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