Soviet environmentalism in the Stalin era


There is a persistent myth that the USSR in the Stalin era was harshly anti-environmentalist. The research of historian Stephen Brain convincingly debunks this myth. Brain is a bourgeois anti-Stalin historian (who makes certain mistakes due to his pro-capitalist bias) but nevertheless, his main conclusion is correct and definitively proved: Stalin’s government supported strongly environmentalist policies.

However, Soviet environmentalism wasn’t the same kind of liberal-idealist environmentalism which existed in capitalist countries. It did not put any inherent spiritual or supernatural value on nature. Nor was Soviet environmentalism merely interested in conserving natural resources, like many western theorists. Instead the USSR saw the natural environment as something which offers economic, psychological and aesthetic value to human beings. Soviet environmentalism was tied to the deep humanism of Soviet socialism. The Soviets understood that humanity is not separate from nature, but is a product of nature, and deeply connected with nature.

Stephen Brain writes:

“Environmentalism survived and—even thrived—in Stalin’s Soviet Union, establishing levels of protection unparalleled anywhere in the world” (Stephen Brain, Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 93)

“the Soviet Union in the 1940s went about protecting from exploitation more forested land than any other country in history. Accordingly, it is accurate to say that the Soviet Union developed a real and effective environmentalist program… Stalin emerges as a peculiar kind of environmentalist… his policies withdrew millions of hectares [of forest] from economic exploitation on the grounds that this would improve the hydrology of the Soviet Union. These millions of hectares were left more or less untouched, in keeping with the supposition that complex, wild forests best regulated water flows, and thus one may conclude that Stalin’s policies were steadfastly environmentalist—and because of the way they were carried out, preservationist as well.” (Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905-1953, p. 2)

“Stalin also actively promoted forest environmentalism for the benefit of the state, establishing levels of protection unparalleled anywhere in the world… Stalin’s environmental policies codified into law an assumption that healthy land was forested land and that deforestation represented serious environmental dangers to the state’s larger project of modernization, in the form of droughts, floods, hydrological disturbances, and crop failures… Forest protection ultimately rose to such prominence during the last six years of Stalin’s rule that the Politburo took control of the Soviet forest away from the Ministry of Heavy Industry and elevated the nation’s forest conservation bureau to the dominant position in implementing policy” (Song of the forest, p. 116)

However, “after Stalin’s death, the forest protection bureaus were demoted or eliminated entirely” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, pp. 97-98)

“Such an assertion, clearly, represents a significant revision to the existing consensus about Soviet environmental politics, which holds that Stalin’s government was implacably hostile to environmentalist initiatives.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 93)

“The concensus”

“the shortcomings of Soviet environmental policy [which actually took place in the revisionist period, not in the Stalin-era~MLT]… have been extrapolated into a sweeping conclusion that conservationist or preservationist awareness in the Stalin era was entirely lacking.” (Song of the forest, p. 4)

The revisionists actually carried out projects in the 1960s, 70s and 80s which had very serious environmental effects. The Siberian oil industry, the gas industry and the drying of the Aral sea by the revisionists are usually given as examples. However, in the Stalin era the USSR had a completely opposite policy. There is no link between the environmentally destructive policies of the revisionists and the Marxist-Leninist policies of Lenin and Stalin.

Immediately after the October Revolution Lenin had called for nationalization and conservation of forests:

“We must demand the nationalisation of all the land, i.e., that all the land in the state should become the property of the central state power. This power must fix the size, etc., of the resettlement land fund, pass legislation for the conservation of forests, for land improvement, etc.” (Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution)

Lenin and Stalin already supported environmental protections in the 1920s:

“Lenin and Stalin called for aggressive afforestation at Party conferences in the 1920s” (Song of the forest, pp. 143-144)

However, in the Lenin and Stalin periods, the USSR did emphasize that humanity must use science to improve production, build industry, electricity etc. Statements were made, which emphasized that humanity changes the world. These statements were then twisted into supposed “evidence” of Soviet hostility towards nature:

“by the late 1980s, scholars of Soviet environmental history had documented a number of grave environmental problems in Russia, many of which had roots, or appeared to have roots, in the Stalin era. Soviet promethean proclamations from the 1930s, typified by Gorky’s famous dictum “Man, in changing nature, changes himself” and Ivan Michurin’s motto “We cannot wait for kindnesses from nature; our task is to wrest them from her,” strongly influenced this view, along with accounts of the mammoth engineering projects of the first Five-Year Plan. The failure to adopt meaningful emissions controls like those enacted in the West in the 1960s further reinforced the impression of Stalinist enmity toward nature.” (Song of the forest, p. 3)

“Ronald Suny’s discussion of the first Five-Year Plan provides a representative expression of this interpretation: “…insensitivity to the limits of nature was characteristic of capitalist industrialization as well, but in the Soviet Union general ecological ignorance was compounded by the bravado of the Communists…” So dominant is this interpretation that countervailing evidence has been unable to shake it” (Song of the forest, p. 4)

Stephen Brain shows in his paper that the so-called “consensus view” is false. This graph shows that protected forests (group I+II) were logged less and less over time, despite the fact total lumber harvests increased consistently. Group I forests could not be logged at all, and group II could only be logged at a sustainable rate and it had to be approved by the Sovnarkom. This demonstrates that the Soviets definitely prioritized the protection of these ecologically important forests:

In reality, the USSR under the leadership of Lenin and Stalin was not insensitive to the limits of nature or hostile to nature. In actuality: “the Stalinist political and economic system made meaningful economic and political sacrifices in the interests of environmentalism” (Song of the forest, p. 10)

Brain mentions numerous examples of researchers pointing out that the USSR in the 1970s was polluted, and they blamed it on Stalin. Brain says that the most sophisticated version of the consensus view—represented by Douglas Weiner—stated that there was some nature protection in the Lenin era, in the form of non-governmental nature preserve scientific stations, which debunked the claim that there was absolutely no kind of environmental protection. However, because these non-governmental preserves were abolished in the Stalin era when socialism was constructed, Weiner claimed this proves that “stalinism” is entirely hostile to environmentalism. This claim is fallacious. The nature preserves of the Lenin era prove that Lenin was not hostile to environmentalism. In the Stalin era the non-governmental nature preserves were abolished only because they were replaced by even more powerful state-enforced environmental protections and state-controlled nature preserves.

It is true that the USSR did not have emission controls like countries have today, and that is sometimes used as a criticism of the USSR, but this argument is illogical. In those years, emission controls did not exist in any country, and there were practically no environmental protections or laws in any capitalist country at all to speak of:

“Prior to the 1960s, environmental law did not exist as a discrete domestic and international legal category.” (A. Dan Tarlock, History of environmental law) except perhaps in the USSR, as we shall see further in this article.

“environmental law is a byproduct of the rise of environmentalism as a political force throughout the world [only] since the 1960s” (Tarlock)

For comparison, the US environmental protection agency was founded only in 1970. In the capitalist world there was no concept or understanding of the biosphere as something which needed protection:

“The science-based idea that the biosphere was a fragile system vulnerable to human-induced impairment only became widely accepted after World War II.” (Tarlock)

However, the idea of the biosphere was actually invented in the USSR by scientist V. I. Vernadsky, a student of V. V. Dokuchaev. The idea of nature being fragile and that it could be harmed by human action, was already researched and pioneered by Dokuchaev, and in the Soviet period by many of his students, such as V. R. Williams. Vernadsky elaborated his view in his book The Biosphere, which won a Stalin Prize in 1943.

Yet anti-communists have always dismissed these scientists or are completely ignorant of them. As a result they spread the interpretation that Stalin’s Soviet Union was hostile to environmentalism and sustainable practices:

“So dominant is this interpretation that countervailing evidence has been unable to shake it: William Husband’s recent survey of Soviet children’s literature from the Stalin era, for instance, revealed a multiplicity of encoded attitudes toward nature, with a “small but significant number” of books depicting nature in a nonadversarial way. Yet for Husband, such sympathetic portrayals of nature did not suggest a more complex attitude toward the environment, but instead represented only a failure of totalitarianism: “Stalinist-era literature,” he writes, “eluded the hegemony the dictatorship sought, and in so doing it demonstrated an important limit to political control in the USSR.” Although the English scholar Jonathan Oldfield recently pointed out the need for scholars to “move purposefully beyond broad understandings of the Soviet environmental legacy” in order to check a “tendency towards overly crude interpretations of Soviet environmental degradation,” the consensus remains basically unchallenged.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 95)

It is also wrong to claim that forests were protected only because of industrial or agricultural reasons, although those were priorities:

There are examples discussing the aesthetic and psychological benefits of the forests as well, from “a December 1917 editorial in the journal Lesnaia zhizn’ i khoziaistvo (Forest Life and Management) claiming that “the forest has always had . . . an enormous beneficial influence on the psyche and spiritual store of humans,” to the speech of a delegate at a January 1949 forest conference asserting that “the forest is an enormous moral force for our country.”” (Song of the forest, p. 10)

History of environmental laws in the USSR

Catastrophic clear cutting of Russian forests began during the first world war. Due to the terrible poverty and the needs of the war effort it continued during War Communism (1918-1921). During War Communism the Bolsheviks devised a plan to repair the damage caused to the forests, once peace was achieved. Here is a poster from the forest administration depicting this plan:

In the 1920s a debate arose between two rival schools of thought: “the conservationists”, followers of G. F. Morozov, and “the industrializers”, followers of S. A. Bogoslavsky. Morozov’s ideas had their roots in the theories of V. V. Dokuchaev, while Bogoslavsky relied on contemporary German theories.

Morozov’s supporters advocated sustainable practices and their position was favored by the Soviet government. However, during the first years of the First Five Year Plan, the ultra-left supporters of Bogoslavsky managed to label conservationists as bourgeois, and as people who hinder industrialization. Supporters of Bogoslavsky explicitly attacked sustainability as an outdated bourgeois concept, and stated that nature had to serve interests of industry without any limitations. Otherwise, man was allegedly subordinated at the mercy of nature, instead of nature being subordinated to a rational plan.

However, the ultra-leftists were used flawed undialectical reasoning. They did not correctly see humanity and nature in their inter-relation. The economic plan should be sustainable and take limits of nature into account, otherwise nature would be destroyed. This in no way meant subordinating the economic plan to blind natural forces. In fact, the ultra-left “industrializers” were advocating an idealist voluntaryist position which totally ignored material conditions and material limitations. The Marxist-Leninist position realizes that humanity is limited by material conditions, but can master material conditions more and more, and plan them rationally, thus becoming more and more freed from them, but never absolutely free from them.

Similar ultra-left tendencies raised their heads in other fields too during the first years of the First Five Year Plan. This is because the party and the working class had to focus on attacking Right-Wing views in those crucial years. However, the situation was soon corrected, and sustainable environmental policies gained the upper hand.

“In the 1920s, when representatives of the industrial bureaus advanced visions of a new, socialized landscape, with highly abstracted, regularized forests and logging quotas based on industrial demand, the party leadership sided with conservationists who championed traditional ideas such as sustainable yield. But later, in the 1930s, after industrialists and student activists succeeded in labeling such concepts as bourgeois, advocates of conservationism regained the upper hand by citing the theories of the pre-revolutionary soil scientist V. V. Dokuchaev, who linked the hydrological stability of Russia to the maintenance of permanent forest cover… After 1931, hydrological concerns became the justification for the creation of a vast forest preserve in the center of European Russia, at the time the largest in the world.” (p. 96)

1931 environmental regulations

“Stalin… personally initiated legislation predicated on the belief that Russia’s hydrology necessitated forest protection. Party archives show that on May 30, 1931, Stalin raised a topic for discussion, “On the order of cutting of timber,” requesting Sovnarkom to prepare “in a month’s term, a draft law about the absolute forbiddance of cutting timber in certain regions so as to conserve the water in other regions.” On July 15, Sovnarkom returned its draft law to the Politburo, and by the end of July 1931, Decree No. 519, dividing all the forests of the country into two zones – the forest-industrial zone, and the forest cultivation zone – became law.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 109)

“Regardless of which bureau controlled them, the forests in a one-kilometer belt along both banks of the Volga, Dniepr, Don, and Ural rivers were made off-limits to any logging whatsoever.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 109)

1936 environmental regulations

“The party leadership chose… in 1936, to strengthen forest protection further, by greatly expanding the zone of protection, and, with Stalin’s direct participation, by creating a powerful new administration to enforce the new regulations… in July 1936 a new agency was founded, the Main Administration of Forest Protection and Afforestation (GLO) whose sole duty would be to look after lands henceforth called “water protective forests.”…

Forbidden under threat of criminal responsibility was any cutting of the forest (aside from sanitary cutting) in vast zones lying
a) in a twenty-kilometer belt along the Dniepr and two of its tributaries, the Don and three of its tributaries, the Volga and ten of its tributaries, the Ural, and the Western Dvina;
b) in a six-kilometer belt along two tributaries of the Dniepr, four tributaries of the Don, five tributaries of the Volga, two tributaries of the Ural, and two tributaries of the Oka; and
c) in a four-kilometer belt along five tributaries of the Don, eleven of the Volga, one of the Bel’, and one of the Oka.

In the areas that lay outside these belts but still inside the basins of the rivers named above, logging was allowed, but this would be conducted by the GLO, and the harvest could not exceed the annual growth of the forests in question.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, pp. 110-111)

“The 1936 law reached far beyond the scope of its predecessor… These protected zones were so extensive that they amounted to a majority or near majority of forest land in most oblasts of central Russia, and moreover, a significant percentage of total land in many oblasts… the initiative came from the very top of the party apparatus. As the deputy head of Narkomzem’s forest protection arm, V. M. Solov’ev, reported to a convention of foresters, “this unusual law, comrades—a turning point in forest management—was developed under the direct guidance and with the direct participation of Stalin himself.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 111)

1943 environmental regulations

“Soviet forest protection grew yet more robust… on April 23, 1943… dividing the nation’s forests into three groups, two of which were subject to protective measures. Into Group I went “the forests of the state zapovedniki, soil protective, field protective, and resort forests, [and] forests of green zones around industrial firms and towns”; in these forests, only “sanitary cuts and selective cuts of overmature timber” were allowed, with clearcuts of all types forbidden. Into Group II went all the forests of Central Asia and along the left bank of the Volga; here, only cuts less than or equal to the annual growth, “ratified by Sovnarkom,” were allowed. Group I and II forests remained under the control of the GLO. In Group III were grouped all other forests, on which no restrictions whatsoever were imposed.

The 1943 classification greatly expanded upon the protections provided by the 1936 law; the forests of entire oblasts, among them Moscow, Voronezh, Kursk, Smolensk, Vladimir, Tambov, Penza, Riazan’, Saratov, Rostov, and Stalingrad, were placed in groups I and II, protecting them, at least ideally, from all exploitation. Over time, the size of Group I forests grew tremendously, until they represented by far the world’s largest area so protected.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 114)

1947-1953 regulations and the peak of forest protection

“Stalin-era environmentalism reached its zenith in 1947 with the creation of the Ministry of Forest Management (Minleskhoz).” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 115)

“the period of 1947 to 1953 indeed did represent a high point in Soviet forest management.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 117)

“forest protection in general, received more institutional support during the years from 1947 to 1953 than at any other time in Russian history.” (Song of the forest, p. 10)

Professor Viktor Nesterov of the Timiriazev Agricultural Academy wrote in Pravda on January 19, 1966 that:

“There is a pressing need for an all-Union forest management agency with its own system of subordinate organizations. … Specialists express the opinion that a USSR Ministry of Forestry could become such a competent agency. Incidentally, such a ministry existed from 1947 to 1953. During that time forest workers managed to do a great deal: The amount of sowing and planting of new groves was sharply expanded, and the trimming of the cutting areas was achieved everywhere. The ministry set up two hundred forest-protection stations outfitted with machinery. The annual volume of forest sowing and planting increased sevenfold. We are by no means thinking of idealizing the activity of this ministry, but the results of its work were apparent to everyone who had anything to do with the forests.” (quoted in Stalin’s Environmentalism, p. 117)

“in 1890 the soil scientist Dokuchaev experimented with shelter [forest] belts. During the Soviet period scientists continued to plant trees—millions of them—in order to increase agricultural productivity, particularly on the collective farms and in the wooded steppes of European Russia. The greatest impetus and plan for afforestation and reforestation were apparently Stalin’s; in 1948 he supposedly laid the groundwork for a fifteen-year project to plant trees on more than ten million acres… obviously the Plan benefited the Soviet Union” (Jack Weiner, The Destalinization of Dmitrii Shostakovich’s ‘Song of the Forests’, Op. 81 (1949), p. 214)

“Shelter forest belts have been planted already on more than 800,000 hectares, 306,800 hectares in this spring alone. An irrigation system for 122,000 hectares has been completed, for which it was necessary to build 8,000 irrigation pools and water tanks. The tasks for this year include planting of 700,000 hectares of forest and building of 7,587 irrigation pools.” (Kommunisti, no. 6, 1950, p. 387)

The destruction of environmental protections by the opportunists and Khrushchevite revisionists

“After Stalin’s death, the conservation bureaus fell from their prominent position” (Song of the forest, p. 117)

“The period when Minleskhoz dominated Soviet forest management, however, was brief. On March 15, 1953, six days after Stalin’s funeral, Minleskhoz was liquidated. With the functions of Minleskhoz transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, forest conservation fell into deep decline. The number of workers assigned to forest matters in Moscow fell from 927 to 342 in the space of six months, a drop of 62 percent, and then to 120 workers after a year.” (Stalin’s Environmentalism, pp. 117-118)