Saving Baikal

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.”

Ever Since They Built the Chemical Factory Here, All the Fish Have Been Giving Black Caviar
Source: I. P. Abramskii: Vragi i druz’ia v zerkale Krokodila, 1922-1972. Moscow: Pravda. 1972.

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.

Baikal Shoreline (1980)

“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.

Sources: –> Source: Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXX, No. 40 (1977), pp. 7-8; Vol. XXXII, No. 36, pp. 9-10.

8 Responses

  1. I thought it was really interesting the Soviet government did not think environmental issues were political, ultimately allowing direct discussion of the destruction of Lake Baikal. Understanding the extensive Russian continent, it is easy to see why pollution was not a major concern. If one location was polluted, they could move on to another. Like in the United States, it took destruction to allow for learning and actions against pollution and natural resource depletion.

  2. Environmentalism and Soviet government are two things I have never related to one another. It is interesting that the Russian government worked towards helping this lake out yet today it does very little to help curb global warming.

  3. I think this post is great in the fact that it highlights how environmental issues came to the forefront in the 1970s. The quote in the beginning of your post, about the assumption that the Siberian wildness could continue to absorb pollution indefinitely, is a very interesting one. I think that this attitude persisted not only in relation to Siberia and other Russian territories, but in relation to the Earth in general. The 1970s was a decade when this type of attitude was more widely reversed. Your post illustrates this attitude shift as it occurred in Russia. Awesome job!

  4. Hello, Hannah.

    I’m extremely glad to hear about this decision. To be honest, I haven’t read into any news about the area in quite a while. But when I went there a few years ago.. the feeling was magnificent. And probably one-of-a-kind. Protecting the Lake Baikal should definitely be a part of any government’s tactics. ­čÖé

    Cheers and thank you for the article!


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