previous chapter
Chapter Nineteen— Environmental Activism under Gorbachëv
next chapter

Chapter Nineteen—
Environmental Activism under Gorbachëv

As this book has shown, environmental activism was one sphere of citizen politics tolerated by the Soviet Party-state, perhaps because from the apparat's perspective it looked so little like serious "politics." The various pre-perestroika environmental movements had kept alive the essential idea that the Party had no right to a monopoly on decision-making; citizens (even in the narrow, elitist sense of citizen experts embraced by the old field naturalists and the druzhinniki ) had a right to input on public policies as well. What perestroika changed was the cast of actors. No longer did only a relatively few biologists, geographers, writers, and art historians strut the stage of Soviet environmental history. The removal of the worst aspects of the police state brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary working men and women into the streets and squares of the USSR's cities. Where the two older branches of environmentalism were concerned, in one way or another, with sacred space, be it zapovedniki or the Russian Northland, the newer actors arrived on the scene with more mundane concerns: a livable environment for themselves and their children.

Russian National Environmentalism

After the stunning victory over the river diversion schemes, for which the nationalist environmental current deserves much credit, its activists continued to keep the spotlight on Russian "national" nature. Particularly visible was a Save the Volga Committee, in which Vasilii Belov and Kedrograd founder Fotei Shipunov played the leading roles. Cooperating with similar committees to save the Don, Ural, and other rivers, notably in Siberia, these groups


continued to be attracted by the symbolism of hydropower and canal projects as violent, alien, modernist, technological intrusions that needed to be expunged from Russia. Nationalist environmentalists envisioned the rehabilitation of Russian culture—especially rural culture—and morality, and the restoration of monasteries and churches. Graphic reflections of this vision may be seen in the oversize canvases of the painter Il'ia Glazunov, in which twelfth-century Rus' ships sail untroubled down undefiled rivers.

Economist M. Ia. Lemeshev's Anti-Nuclear Society and the Fund for the Restoration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior led by writer V. A. Soloukhin were other institutional expressions of this current. Valentin Rasputin was active in the Baikal Fund. Many veterans of the river diversion struggle united around Sergei Zalygin's new organization, Ecology and Peace, which tackled other hydroprojects such as the dam on the Katun' and the VolgaChograi Canal.

With ideological restrictions removed by the last two years of the decade of the 1980s, some nationalists began to espouse religious mysticism or explicitly chauvinistic positions. For the 1990 anthology Ecological Alternative , Fotei Shipunov contributed a philosophical credo in which his developing mysticism was evident. "No one can sense the spirit of nature like a poet-thinker," he wrote. "All of the visible and the unseen world is the creative fruit of this Spirit. . . . [It] creates and organizes the material world like a mechanism and is visible as the biosphere and that which surrounds it in all of its grandeur, brilliance, and beauty, like a Blessed Icon-Frame. And this spiritual organism and its creation . . . are linked to the moral world through its bearers—the individual, peoples, and humanity."[1] One class of people had always been in touch with that spirit—the peasants. "Every peasant," he wrote, "knew that a wisely lived life derived from two sources: (1) from a knowledge of the land and its creatures . . . and (2) from the spiritual attainment arising from the consecration of his land, that is, from faith in something else besides farming alone, besides even his own life—faith in an Absolute Truth reaching down from the eternal, Heavenly world."[2]

During the elections of the spring of 1989 the nationalist environmentalists tried their hand at electoral politics. Briusova complained that although she, Lemeshev, Shipunov, and laroshenko all stood for election, they were derailed. "And this stands to reason," she continued, charging a pattern of discrimination on the part of the Electoral Commissions, "insofar as it is now known that patriots of Russia did not make it into the 'Moscow group' of the Congress."[3]

The evolution of some, such as Shipunov before his untimely death, was poignant. As their political role seemed to contract and, after its independence, Russia seemed to adopt a modified pro-Western stance, Shipunov and others became more extreme in their insularity and antimoderism. The embittered Kedrograd founder's last works now included anti-Semitic


diatribes reminiscent of the Elders of Zion tracts, having little of the poetic and universalist mysticism of his writings of just two and a half years before. Jews, at the head of a broad anti-Russian coalition that included Westerners, Georgians, and a host of other "others" were driven by the goal of "purposively and sacrilegiously falling on Russia and exacting not only physical but also spiritual vengeance—the ritual murder of that nation!" The Bolsheviks, led by the Jew Bronshtein-Trotskii and others, "turned the land into grotesque fragments [of the former Russian forest] and lifeless deserts, in which humanlike forms wander, casting equally grotesque shadows. . . . The pogrom of the Fatherland in every way included the pogrom of its nature." The end result was that the Russian people "lived in their homeland, but without a homeland, and lived in their Fatherland, but were bereft of a Fatherland."[4]

Although non-Russian movements are outside the scope of this book, it is apposite to note that many environmental activists in the Baltic states, Moldova, and elsewhere underwent a similar evolution. Activists such as Dainis Ivans, who led Latvian resistance to the Daugavpils Dam in the mid-1980s, later became a leader of the nationalist Latvian Popular Front and a supporter of industrial development as a means of strengthening the country's military capability to defend itself against a future Russian invasion.[5]

Democratization and the Crisis of the Druzhiny

With the advent of glasnost' and the halting democratization of politics fi-om 1986 on, the defensive posture of the nature protection movement became an anachronism. When citizens gained an increasing say in major issues of public concern, the highly symbolic politics of the struggle for zapovedniki seemed increasingly abstract and irrelevant. With the legalization of "informal" nongovernmental groups in 1987, the druzhiny were no longer the lone knights defending their fragile holdout of civic autonomy against the massed forces of the Party-state bureaucratic machine. Glasnost' had destroyed their special status.

The subsequent crisis of the brigades stemmed from the fact that glasnost' had unleashed broader social forces that had remained largely quiescent over the previous decades. "Finally, the broad masses of the people rose up," wrote Evgenii Shvarts, "concerned about their own health and the health of their children." But the druzhiny as institutions did not always undergo a perestroika to keep up with the times. Most, in clutching to their corporativistelitist social identity, allowed events to pass them by; by the late 1980s the druzhiny's glory had faded. The socially most involved students now bypassed the brigades to involve themselves with other causes, sometimes overtly political ones.[6]


By the end of the decade this had led to a drop in membership and a corresponding discussion about whether indeed there was a crisis and, if so, what its causes and dimensions were and how to resolve it. Some vigorous druzhiny such as the one in Riazan' managed to adapt to the new times. Galvanizing opposition to an overly hasty plan to build a sewage canal through the floodplain of the Oka River, brigadiers were able to collect 15,000 signatures on a petition opposing that particular route. By June 5, 1988—Earth Day—the protest had spilled onto the streets, Riazan"s first political protest meeting in living memory. A second protest rally followed in July, evidently exhausting the patience of the city fathers, and on September 1 the authorities decertified the druzhina for "anti-Soviet speeches." One response of the druzhina was to go to court, but the case dragged on for more than two years. Another was to advance the candidacy of former druzhina komandir Aleksandr Gavrilov for the USSR Supreme Soviet in the elections of March 1989. Despite the thousands of voters who signed Gavrilov's electoral petition, his candidacy was denied by the Riazan' branch of Gorbachëv's so-called Electoral Commissions. As a crowd of 300 waited peacefully for final word on Gavrilov's candidacy on April 5, 1989 outside the municipal soviet, police with billy clubs moved in, arresting twenty. Gavrilov himself was sentenced to ten days in jail.[7] Ultimately the druzhinniki were vindicated as Gavrilov won a sweet victory in the elections for the Russian parliament in 1990. However, Riazan' was more the exception than the rule.

As early as December 1987 at a large druzhina conference in Dolgoprudnyi, Moscow oblast , the sociologist Oleg Nikolaevich Ianitskii, who has studied this movement more profoundly than anyone, was able to identify the contours of the movement's debacle. This crisis was not yet apparent to most druzhinniki themselves, for the movement had just passed its high-water mark. The representatives of the 110 druzhiny had come to Dolgoprudnyi to constitute themselves as a legal, autonomous movement, which did not need to shelter any longer under the legal umbrellas of the Komsomol or local branches of VOOP. VOOP was officially asked to dissolve its Coordinating-Methodological Council for the druzhina movement, which the VOOP leadership had established as a curatorial body.[8] Among the problems Ianitskii recognized was that the druzhiny , in their emphasis on the protection of wild nature, had projected an image of "rural" irrelevance to the vast mast of the newly politically activated urbanites (ironically, when the druzhinniki "went to the country" to pursue their projects, they met with hostility from ruralites as well).[9] Linked with this image of irrelevance were the druzhinniki's reluctance to give sufficient weight to global issues, their reluctance to rethink the political implications of their program and to act and talk in an overtly political way, and their tendency to treat all nature protection issues as scientific problems of ecology to be solved only by biology professionals.[10]


Shvarts added:

If earlier, the external pressure on the druzhiny and their persecution made for a concentration of "the best people" in their ranks, representing a wide spectrum of styles and methods of work (theoreticians, politically oriented, practical people, organizers, etc.), under the new conditions the druzhiny began to lose out in favor of sharply "specialized" organizations unmistakably geared toward protests, toward work among the broad public, and toward political forms of activity, on the one hand, and self-supporting ecological organizations, on the other.[11]

By 1990 the former "Green druzhina " of Leningrad University had melted away, as had those at the Biology Faculty of Belorussian University, Udmurt University, and a host of others.[12] On the other hand, the druzhiny were the nurseries where many of their new competitors were hatched: the Green Party in Leningrad, the Ecological Initiative Movement in Voronezh, the antinuclear movement in Gor'kii (Nizhnyi Novgorod), the ecological-political club Al'ternativa in Kuibyshev (Samara), and a host of others. The most influential organization born from the womb of the druzhina movement was the Social-Ecological Union.

To do justice to their sophisticated analyses, Ianitskii's and Shvarts's critiques of the brigades apply from the emergence of glasnost' to the end of the Soviet era. The brigades movement had matured politically since its founding, especially from the last years of Brezhnev's rule on. "Consciousness of the need for political actions and for an analysis of the economic interrelationship among various events proceeded quite quickly," wrote Shvarts, "owing to the participation of the druzhiny in the struggle to stop various grandiose 'projects of the century,' including the diversion of the northern rivers, the construction of the Danube-Dnepr, Volga-Chograi, and Volga-Don 2 Canals, the Tiumen' gas and chemical complex, and some dangerous projects involving transnational corporations. It is therefore obvious that the process of politicization of the druzhina movement began a long time ago."[13] But the most politicized, economically savvy, and broad-minded members of the movement left the brigades for other venues of struggle from 1987 on. Arguably, the best and brightest transferred their efforts to the Social-Ecological Union.

The Social-Ecological Union

Founded on August 6, 1987 during the Third Conference of Former Members of the Druzhiny , the Social-Ecological Union (SEU) until its first conference in late December 1988 existed as a movement of druzhina veterans. At the 1988 conference, though, held in Moscow's House of Hunters and Fishermen, the SEU managed to attract delegates from eighty-nine cities


representing 130 separate organizations in eleven republics.[14] At the December 1988 conference some delegates decided that an overtly environmental political party was needed in addition, and they established the Green Party, based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, André Gorz, and Ivan Illich, with a founding congress held in Moscow in March 1990. By October 1991 the SEU claimed 4,000 members and sympathizers across seven former Soviet republics.[15]

Reflecting their traditional liberal, internationalist intellectual orientation, SEU leaders quickly forged ties with international groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Earth Island Institute, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Swedish Green Party, the Finnish Green Party, Global 2000 (Austria), the Sacred Earth Network, the Japanese Bird Protection Society, and IUCN.[16] Successes came quickly during those heady days of 1988 and 1989, when free speech was gaining new ground by the day. As early as spring 1988, before its big December congress, the SEU and the druzhiny were important members of an environmental coalition that defeated a proposed party and government decree to expand the number of large hydropower stations by ninety during the decade 1990–2000. An unprecedented torrent of letters inundated the Central Committee of the Party, which was forced to rescind the draft decree owing to the almost unanimously negative verdict of public opinion.[17]

Perhaps the most glorious success of the SEU came just months after its official founding when, in nationwide rallies on February 12, 1989 that involved perhaps hundreds of thousands in 100 cities, it was able to collect more than 100,000 signatures against the construction of the Volga-Chograi Canal, a relic of the old river diversion plans. The Moscow rally also marked the first time that a central newspaper, in this case Vecherniaia Moskva , published an announcement that an independent, nongovernment demonstration was to take place.[18] Arguably the SEU charted an even more important "first" that day: the first truly nationwide protest in Soviet history. Struck by the power of the public reaction mobilized by the SEU, the government canceled the project and withdrew its earthmoving equipment from Kalmykia the day before the nationwide protest, which proceeded undeterred.[19]

Although many of its continuing struggles, such as that to stop the Katun' hydroelectric station in the Altai mountains—which apparently led to the project's cancellation—and the fight for a number of new zapovedniki and national parks, continued traditional themes of opposing development in "pristine" areas, the SEU, unlike the remnants of the druzhiny , did in fact move with the times. Local affiliates worked with local communities on issues involving radiation and industrial pollution. Beginning in 1988 the SEU turned its attention to assisting in the fight to shut down the production of a protein-vitamin concentrate for livestock made from oil paraffin. The SEU was particularly helpful in marshaling scientific expertise to but-


tress citizen efforts; with the organizational efforts by its members in Tomsk, Volgograd, Kremenchug, and Kirishi, the Union put together two scientific-practical conferences on the threat as well as a petition drive. By 1991 the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a law halting production of the concentrate from that year on.[20]

It would please the leadership of the SEU to believe that it had masterminded this environmental triumph as well. However, in that complicated time other social forces had awakened, and although the links between the intelligenty in the SEU and the working mothers and fathers of Tomsk, Volgograd, Kremenchug, and Kirishi cannot be denied, it is not yet possible to allocate credit for the victory. But common sense tells us that the sight of tens of thousands of workers in the streets must have counted for something in the councils of the Central Committee. And it all started with Kirishi.

The Masses Weigh In

Even before the law on meetings and street demonstrations was passed—and even before the founding of the Social-Ecological Union—the mother of all ecological rallies erupted in an almost unknown town of 52,000 on the Volkhov River between Novgorod and Leningrad: Kirishi. In the summer of 1975, after the new biochemical plant had started up, there was an outbreak of a disease never before encountered there: its symptoms included shortness of breath, wheezing, a hoarse cough, and spots on the body. Residents observed that these signs coincided with winds blowing vapors from the direction of the plant, which produced a protein-vitamin concentrate for livestock.

When the plant was built, it transpired, the construction crews cut corners on pollution abatement equipment to complete the job before the official deadline, and the director, Valerii Bykov, was quickly promoted to Moscow as minister of biomedical industries. Seven more such plants were built around the country, including in Volgograd, Novopolotsk, and Kremenchug. Residents of those cities began to suffer from the same condition.

After the initial complaints forced the creation of a commission to look into the situation at Kirishi, the commission's head, USSR deputy minister of public health P. N. Burgasov, the country's chief health inspector, concluded: "Rumors, as always, exaggerate matters. Talk that the discharges from the biochemical plant . . . have increased the number of cases of illness is an exaggeration from fantasyland."[21]

There the matter remained until the spring of 1987. Then calamity struck. In May another outbreak of disease ravaged the town and this time killed eleven children under the age of five. One father who lost a year-old son began a one-person demonstration in the city's main square, holding a


photo of the infant bordered in black. Soon he was joined by the other grieving parents and then the whole city. At least twelve thousand turned out on June 1, 1987, Children's Day, with the demand that the factory be closed down. As the episode's chronicler, T. A. Shutova, noted, this was one of the first spontaneous mass street demonstrations in the country in decades. "In the process," she adds, "the residents of Kirishi became citizens."[22]

In the aftermath the citizens of Kirishi organized themselves. Using the infrastructure of the practically defunct local branch of the VOOP so that it could function legally, the citizens' committee added a "Sixth Section" to the society's existing five (pet fish, pine cone crafts, ikebana, and two others). The "Sixth Section," which became a people's shadow government in the city, enrolled thousands. Meetings were organized at schools and factories. Although the factory was closed down the next day, a round-the-clock monitoring of the factory was organized by the residents. One of the leaders of the citizens' revolt and leader of the section, Vladimir Vasil'ev, a mailman, gained national notice when his "mail bomb"—an exposé of the "reprofiling" of the factory—was published in Komsomol'skaia pravda on March 15, 1988.[23] When the May Day parade was held in 1989, 15,000 marched under the banner of the "Sixth Section," dwarfing all other contingents.[24]

The easing of international tensions at times created tensions internally in the Soviet Union. In a bid to outdo the United States in dismantling weapons of mass destruction, foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced in January 1989 that the USSR would begin to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons unilaterally.[25] Without seeking local consent, the central authorities built a secret facility to destroy the chemical weapons in Chapaevsk, a city of 97,000 in Saratov oblast' . The plant—dubbed the "factory of destruction"—had been built in a densely populated area. Once word of its existence got out, local residents were outraged, and a group, Initsiativa, was formed to stop the operations of the plant. Soon 60,000 petition signatures were collected.[26]

Taking on the military and the Foreign Ministry, however, brought environmental protest directly in conflict with "national security." Nevertheless, a coalition of environmental and anarchist organizations from Saratov and Samara provided active support to the local residents. With health and safety issues salient, the struggle attracted tens of thousands of participants in August and September 1989, when rallies culminated in the erection of a tent city of 7,000 that "laid siege" to the factory. Supported additionally by workers' groups from local factories, the "siege" continued for thirty-five days until the central government agreed to convert the plant to a training center.[27]

By 1989 workers as a self-organized group also began to react to issues of occupational and public health. Of particular note were actual or threat-


ened strikes in the automobile factory town of Toliatti, in Ufa, and in the coal fields of the USSR from Karaganda and Kemerovo in Kazakhstan and southern Siberia to the Donets in Ukraine.[28] In the end, not endangered wildlife, besieged zapovedniki , or flooded sixteenth-century monasteries lit the fires of righteous civic indignation among the Soviet Union's general working populace but the life-and-death issues of unbreathable air and undrinkable water. In a funny Marxian way, the very biological bases for human survival proved more compelling than the iconographies of the intelligentsia. As Oleg Ianitskii put it, "One way or another ecological protest during the years 1987–1989 in the USSR was the first legal embodiment of broadly democratic protest and solidarity of citizens as citizens . This was natural, since the issue was the basic and universal conditions for human survival."[29]

Much more could be written on this fascinating time of environmental activism than is contained in this chapter. But its brevity is indicative of a larger fact: glasnost'and democratization, the hour of the traditional environmental movement's greatest triumph, paradoxically set the stage for its marginalization. Against the backdrop of free speech, contested elections, and hundreds of thousands of workers on strike or in the streets, the old-line activists could no longer sustain their social identity as tribunes of the people, intellectual knights fighting an almost isolated struggle against the Party-state apparat on the curiously protected terrain of environmental issues. By the early 1990s, as purely economic and political issues edged out even the urgent concerns about public health, as workers were now forced to choose between slow poisoning and unemployment, the fight against pollution did not seem nearly as clear-cut an issue as it had a mere three or four years earlier. For many, putting bread on the table is more urgent than shutting down a factory that causes asthma in a child. Both usually take precedence over fighting for a national park.

An equally profound dynamic also had a hand in remarginalizing environmental activism. By late 1990 powerful brokers within the economic bureaucracies and the Party had recognized that Gorbachëv's reforms, which had been introduced in order to legitimize and save the one-party system and its centralized economy, were leading to exactly the opposite outcome. As a titanic political struggle between two broad alignments—Communists and democrats—seemed to be unfolding, environmental issues were now relegated to a much lower priority. Aleksei Iablokov and Nikolai Nikolaevich Vorontsov, who had each been elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in March 1 989 in the curia of seats allotted to the USSR Academy of Sciences, were the two most visible representatives of the old scientific nature protection intelligentsia during late perestroika . Elected along with Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, they swiftly aligned themselves with the physicist's interregional bloc of democrats. Iablokov's leadership was quickly


acknowledged on the Congress's Ecology Committee, where he served as deputy chair, even publicly calling USSR premier Nikolai Ryzhkov an "ecological ignoramus." For Vorontsov fate had another political position in store. In July he was nominated and confirmed as USSR minister of nature protection, making him the first non-Communist in the Soviet cabinet since 1918. Soon Vorontsov and Iablokov both found themselves overwhelmed by the violent and dramatic political events of the day, captured in a photograph by a Der Spiegel correspondent showing Nikolai Vorontsov and Boris Yeltsin on top of the tank, together, during the first day of the August 1991 coup.

When Vorontsov (KIuBZ; from the late 1980s, vice president of MOIP) was minister and Iablokov (VOOP Youth Group) was holding forth in the Congress of People's Deputies (he would later become Yeltsin's personal environmental adviser for a time), it seemed that the new day of the scientific intelligentsia had dawned at last. But then the Party pulled back from its reforms, precipitating the crisis of 1990 and 1991 that ultimately brought down Communist monopoly rule and the USSR state structure. For reasons of conscience as well as political exigency, the scientific intelligentsia overcame its caste elitism and supported forces calling for full democracy. With the democrats' program, however, also came a commitment to a "free market."

The country's severe capital shortage meant that what little monies were available for investment would not go into pollution abatement. Exploiting the Russian government's desperate search for capital, foreign concerns were able to move in to extract vast amounts of lumber and other resources. Environmentalists, believing any criticism of Yeltsin and his allies would play into the hands of the Communists, held their tongues. Ultimately, the Communists, as well as Russian nationalists led by Zhirinovskii and Prokhanov and other extremists, were able to repatriate the environmental issue, arguing that Yeltsin and his camp were selling off the country at rock bottom prices.[30] The intelligentsia's environmental activists were disarmed ideologically.

From a social and institutional point of view as well, the new changes were potentially lethal to the scientific intelligentsia. Democratic self-government and the free market under Russian conditions placed institutions of science, learning, and culture in a perilous situation. For their own reasons the Communists had heavily subsidized these sectors for decades. Now, with the cash-starved new order unable and unwilling to subsidize science, culture, and scholarship any longer, we are witness to an unprecedented and potentially cataclysmic meltdown of Russian academic and cultural potential. With the continuing prospect of unimaginable cutbacks in the funding of learning, the scientific intelligentsia is emigrating, finding jobs in business, or living off potatoes grown in out-of-town dachas. The victory of those whom the scientific intelligentsia supported is paradoxically leading to the intelligentsia's


virtual eradication, certainly as a privileged social group. Additionally, the elimination of many positions in higher education and science threatens the survival of the scientific intelligentsia as a group with its own traditions and values. For a member of that group it is becoming harder to say what the "lesser of two evils" looks like. I would have liked to end this book with an assurance to the reader that justice and a humane vision of the use of human beings and other living things had triumphed in Russia, promising a national resurrection. There is, however, no "end of history," and some author writing fifty years from now may conclude on an entirely different note. This, at least, is my hope for Russia, the other successor states, and our common home.


previous chapter
Chapter Nineteen— Environmental Activism under Gorbachëv
next chapter