As we’ve discovered in this course, Russia is a treasure trove of natural resources. Spanning nine time-zones and two continents, much of Russia’s wilderness was relatively untouched until the 20th century. Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake was surprisingly subject to decades of abuse, starting with the First Five Year Plan in 1928 and industrialization under Stalin. Russia struggled to catch up with the industrial revolution and Siberia with its’ wealth of natural resources was the starting point. However, “oil and mineral exploration, large-scale lumbering, military and prison populations all put the Siberian environment under stress. The assumption that a space so vast could absorb unlimited pollution eventually proved false.”
This large-scale destruction of Lake Baikal and the surrounding areas allowed environmentalists to protest the government’s actions directly without fear of persecution. The protection of the environment was not seen as a political issue by the government and was thus allowed to occur, “Local scientists, writers, fishermen, and ordinary citizens banded together to fight the Baikal plant, and ignited an environmental movement throughout the country. Environmentalism provided a forum for ideas that were otherwise unacceptable in Soviet discourse.” An article from 1977 shows how the relationship between the Russian State and Lake Baikal is a delicate one. Using the natural resources the lake can provide can easily turn into exploitation, which could have permanently damaged the environment and eventually the Russian economy.
“The protection of this cup of crystal-pure, amazingly transparent water, the deepest lake on the planet, is worth any expense. And the state is sparing none. V. Kalinichev, USSR Deputy Minister of Railroads and Chief of the BAM Board of Directors, cites an impressive fact. It had been planned to lay the rails of the Baikal-Amur Main Line right next to the lake shore. ‘Close proximity to the railroad will be dangerous for the lake,’ scientists warned. They were heeded. The route now passes through the mountains, far from the shore. The main line will be lengthened by dozens of kilometers, and four additional headland tunnels will have to be dug. Otherwise, the “glorious sea” will be in danger …”
After all of the years that Stalin destroyed the wilderness in the name of industrialization, scientists and environmentalists alike seemed to convince the government that the disappearance of Lake Baikal would be detrimental to the country as a whole. Russia depended on the natural resources that Siberia, and Lake Baikal in turn, had to offer. Luckily, the quick thinking of environmentalists made their voices heard and saved Baikal and the surrounding areas before too much permanent damage was done. This period in time was one of learning, one where the government had to balance the new practice of industrial planning and the traditional ways of living that Russians developed over hundreds of years.
http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1980baikal1&SubjectID=1980baikal&Year=1980 –> Source: Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXX, No. 40 (1977), pp. 7-8; Vol. XXXII, No. 36, pp. 9-10.