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The Conservation Congress of 1938

On April 20, 1938, the First Congress of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature opened in Moscow. Although a previous all-Russian conservation congress had been held in 1929 and an all-Union one in 1933, neither had been convened under the exclusive auspices of the Society. Nor had the Society's leadership previously had to give an accounting of its activities to representatives of the membership at large. And although such stalwarts as Makarov and the Society's secretary, Susanna Fridman, still held center stage, gone were Grigorii Aleksandrovich Kozhevnikov, who had died at the previous congress, Pëtr Germogenovich Smidovich, and Shillinger, who had been arrested five days earlier.

Formally vice president but really in charge, Makarov presented the first major substantive address. One striking note repeated by Makarov (recall his letter to A. A. Andreev) was his assertion that the Soviet conservation movement remained a part of "a larger international movement" at a time when Stalin's regime was slamming shut all the windows between the Soviet arts and sciences and the outside world. He was, however, mindful enough (and probably sincere in this) to emphasize that capitalism and private property were systemically bound to plunder the environment. "If capitalists could assert a right to the air, they would," he said. "Luckily, air cannot be appropriated as private property by individual entrepreneurs" because of its ambient nature.[51] Nevertheless, great enough damage to the environment had already been done, he argued; by the late eighteenth century most of Western Europe had already become deforested, and "with every passing year the faunal web has become thinner and thinner." As recently as in the seventeenth century Eurasia experienced the extinction of the aurochs, in the eighteenth, the Steller's sea cow, and in the nineteenth, the tarpan. The


North American bison and the European bison had been driven to the edge of extinction more recently, and the situation of marine mammals had become catastrophic. Of the three groups positioned to notice this alarming turn of events—commercial hunters, sport hunters, and scientists—"only the latter could adopt a reasonably objective view rising above self-interest."[52]

Interestingly, Makarov, in his thumbnail sketch of the emergence of conservationism worldwide, reserved his strongest praise for Americans, who regarded conservation as "a national ideal."[53] Indeed, he noted, "the Americans were right when they advanced the rule of thumb that a nation's culture may be judged by its treatment of natural resources," although he was quick to add that "it must be said in advance that capitalist countries will scarcely be able to resolve their internal contradictions that flow from the nature of the capitalist system."[54]

Invoking the names of the founders of the movement in Russia—Kozhevnikov, Semënov-tian-shanskii, Borodin, Taliev, and others—Makarov chronicled the often rocky path for nature protection both before and after the Revolution. In one revealing comment, he recounted how Mikhail Petrovich Potëmkin, the onetime president of the Society, had been subjected to a long interrogation by the president of one of the Party purge commissions, who demanded of Potëmkin in consternation: "How can you, a member of the Party, have gotten involved in a cause like conservation?!"[55]

Although Makarov had little good to say about the last years of Narkompros's stewardship of VOOP after its patron, former People's Commissar of Education Anatolii Vasil'evich Lunacharskii, had been replaced by A. S. Bubnov, who was hostile to conservation, he did note that with the Society's transfer to the jurisdiction of the Presidium of VTsIK, it had experienced a revival. For the first time "juridical members," including the Academy of Sciences, the Committee for Zapovedniki , and the Main Administration for Forestry and Afforestation, affiliated as institutions."[56] Additionally, the number of thematic sections of the Society continued to expand, with an ornithological section formed in 1936 and a mammalogical one added in 1938, exemplifying what Makarov categorized as "academism in the good sense of the word"—linking research with practical problems.[57] Academism it was; of the 150 members of the ornithological section, forty-one were professors and an additional thirty-six were docents and senior scientific workers.[58]

Despite the purges and disruptions of the mid-1930s, VOOP refused to allow itself to be frightened or diverted from pursuing its bold goals. In conjunction with the Committee it continued to sponsor expeditions to promote the creation of new zapovedniki (Barents Sea, Teberda, Kazakhstan) and persisted in its studies of the ecology of endangered species such as dolphins in the Black Sea. VOOP's submission to the government of a huge amount of research data on deforestation led to a law on headwaters protection,


and the Society's special study of the Crimea, long a focus of special interest among conservationists, although failing to elicit comprehensive governmental action, did result in a disbursement of 400,000 rubles for some improvements. VOOP's far eastern branch asked the State Committee on Procurements to cut target quotas on sea lions by half, which was done, remarkably, and VOOP also successfully secured the creation of a twenty-five-kilometer-wide green belt around Moscow (which was eventually built over in the 1950s).[59]

Despite the Party's refusal to allow VOOP delegates to attend the international conference in Vienna, Makarov emphasized that ties with similar foreign organizations were continuing to be maintained. With 5,000 volumes in sixteen foreign languages, all acquired through exchanges with foreign conservation societies, VOOP's library was one of the best in the world and was unique within the USSR. Sadly, the volumes were languishing in boxes; the Moscow Soviet had dispossessed VOOP of its office space, and the Society's operations were hanging by a hair, its paperwork processed on one desk in a corner of the office of the Committee for Zapovedniki . Komarov, the Society's president-designee, had even called on the president of the Moscow Soviet to try to straighten out the matter, but was also unsuccessful. "If the Society is acting improperly, then it must be eliminated," Makarov stoutly challenged; "if not, and it contributes to the general good, then it is to the shame of the Moscow Soviet that the Society lacks its own office space."[60] The Moscow Soviet "should think about its outrageous attitude toward social organizations," he admonished bitterly.[61]

Because a reregistration of members had not been conducted in some years, it was unknown how many of the 16,000 putative members were real and how many were "dead souls."[62] Negligent in collecting membership dues, the Society's financial situation continued to be precarious.[63] At the evening session on April 22 , 1938, the Society elected its Executive Council. V. L. Komarov was elected president, while Makarov continued as vice president and de facto leader. The inveterate secretary of the Society, Susanna Fridman, was reelected overwhelmingly as well. In addition, Konstantin Matveevich Shvedchikov, official head of the Committee for Zapovedniki , was confirmed in his virtually ex-officio council seat. Not surprisingly, academic biologists and biology students represented the single largest bloc on the council. Testifying to the continuing fiercely independent spirit of this Society, members rejected the candidacy of S. V. Turshu, considered more friendly to Stalinist tempos of resource exploitation, giving him only seven votes.[64] Perhaps Turshu's criticism of the Congress as too dominated by academics also had something to do with the result.[65]

Even the election of the honorary presidium, comprising prominent members of the Soviet scientific and cultural elite, became an occasion for a dis-


play of nonconformity. A number of academicians as well as Ivan Dmitrievich Papanin, whose aviatorial efforts rescued the crew of the icebreaker Cheliuskin, all received unanimous support. Otto Iul'evich Shmidt, a cosmologist and one of those whom Papanin rescued, was elected with the surprisingly large number of eight abstentions, however. Noting that the election of honorary members was "a serious political act," one member asked that those who abstained justify their positions. One who abstained, Lukashevich, then explained that his abstention was not occasioned by a lack of respect for Otto Iul'evich, but rather because he thought that others were closer to the movement's ideals: "Why was it necessary precisely for our society precisely now to advance the name of Otto Iul'evich?" Lukashevich earlier had exhibited the same fierce spirit of independence regarding the question of press access; the press had shut out issues involving conservation. "We must not view ourselves as poor relations," he thundered; "rather, we are Soviet citizens . . . imbued with passion to assist our government and people. And since that is the case, we can certainly demand space in the pages of the press and not simply timidly beg for it through intermediaries."[66] It was not always easy for VOOP to walk the fine line between political accommodation and its own robust grassroots traditions of fierce scientific and political autonomy.[67] That tradition of autonomy, however, was inextricably linked with a desire to be a fully accepted, valued, and heeded part of the power structure.

Although after mid-1938 the "Black Maria" police sedans no longer swarmed as frequently through Russia's cities in their terrifying early-morning feeding frenzies, it is inappropriate, to say the least, to speak of a return to "normalcy," let alone liberalization. Nevertheless, until the Nazi invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Soviet society began a slow recovery from the trauma of the Great Purge. VOOP, too, reflected this upsurge of civic energy. It resumed its propaganda activities with a booth and lectures in Gorky Park, and successfully gained protection for polar bears from Glavsevmorput', the administration that organized expeditions, transport, and supply for the Soviet Arctic Ocean and its coastal zone.[68] In the spring of 1941 a section of the Society devoted to marine and waterway protection was inaugurated under Professor Lev Zenkevich of Moscow University.[69]

Records of the Society's activities during 1939 support this picture of heightened activity. While membership stood at only 2,553 on January 1, 1940, that figure did reflect a growth by 696 new members over the real figure for 1938.[70] Significantly, there were almost as many members of the Academy of Sciences (7) as peasants (10), and more than half as many professors and docents (55) as workers (95). Communists (127) and Komsomol members (97) were still underrepresented in this largely non-Party milieu.[71]

A new branch was organized in Astrakhan, which quickly attracted 300


new members, while in Moscow a new section on protection of the earth's crust was established by the noted geologist A. E. Fersman, a close colleague of Vernadskii. A seed bank, an herbarium for rare steppe plants, and a photo gallery of conservation figures were all established, too. The mammalogical and ornithological sections compiled lists of endangered species, which were delivered to the Main Administration for Zapovedniki , along with a proposal to publish a series of monographs of these interesting and threatened life forms.[72] Indeed, a special Species Commission was organized within the mammalogical section to organize this initiative.

Linked with the above efforts was an intensive lobbying campaign to stop hunting of the desman, a rare aquatic shrew. Based on field observations subsidized by the Committee for Zapovedniki ,[73] VOOP sent the SNK RSFSR a memorandum "illustrating the real state of affairs and directly clashing with the data presented by SOIUZZAGOTPUSHNINA," the state's fur procurement agency. The result was a big victory for the conservationists; the SNK's decree No. 673 extended the ban on trapping desman to January 1, 1943, continuing a policy first set (at VOOP's initiative) in 1935. Lobbying continued for an all-Union structure for conservation as well as for the removal of responsibility for hunting matters from Narkomzem's Main Administration for Hunting and Breeding to an interministerial body.[74]

The Society cleverly called for adoption of the "newer methods" propounded by Academician Lysenko as a desirable replacement for the use of arsenic-based pesticides by the People's Commissariat of Agriculture. Such use had resulted in a massive die-off of birds, and a special trip was planned for 1940 to study the question in greater depth. Meanwhile, Iu. A. Isakov, a member of the ornithological section, conducted a study into the death of Black Sea waterfowl as a result of pollution by petroleum products.[75] Other research sponsored by VOOP included investigations of the decline of willow ptarmigan in Kalinin oblast' despite protection and of ways in which the Moscow-Volga canal affected avian life. The Society was heavily represented at conferences, symposia, and meetings of governmental advisory agencies.[76] Additional commissions on endangered species—walrus, sable, beaver, otter, tiger, polar bear, and others—were organized to influence public policy. New nature reserves were called for, and extensive areas were carefully surveyed and drafts were meticulously prepared.[77]

As Europe edged toward war in 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact bought the Soviet Union a dual cushion of extra time and extra territory. The partition of Poland with Soviet absorption of its eastern half had tragic consequences for that country, not the least of which was the cold-blooded massacre by Stalin's secret police of almost 15,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest of Belorussia. One zoological footnote to that terrible political drama, however, loomed large for Soviet field biologists: for the first time since 1923, wild pure-line European bison were living at liberty within the political


boundaries of the USSR, in the newly acquired Belovezhskaia pushcha reserve, formerly run by the Poles.

VOOP's membership continued its slow growth right up until the war. In January 1941 it stood at 2,960, although a major setback came when the People's Commissariat of Finance prohibited financial contributions to the Society by state or economic organizations in their capacity as "juridical members."[78]

Although the Society recognized that its small membership affected its public image and effectiveness, this was not viewed as a catastrophic problem. The Society's old guard instead put a premium on the individual, the amateur, and the enthusiast. "Their role is very great," the VOOP activities report emphasized, "and it may boldly be stated that wherever there are even one or two such enthusiasts the cause of conservation successfully develops."[79] Put in less sentimentalized terms, the nature protection movement, because it was a sanctuary for individuals of a certain social type, not only was uninterested in converting VOOP into a truly mass society; its raison d'être was to preserve the Society's clublike atmosphere, which guaranteed a safe and comfortable haven for "scientific public opinion."

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