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The Soviet Ecological Movement

"Gorbachev Factor"

Although the impact on Soviet politics of the new “revisionist” thinking, generated by the academic community, is not always easy to quantify, in certain other areas of Soviet public life under Brezhnev the involvement of experts and scientists produced certain tangible achievements. Scholars were at the forefront of the Soviet ecological movement that began to develop in the 1960s. Specialists from different fields—soil science, law, biology, ethnography, economics, and so on—drew public attention to a variety of ecological problems and campaigned against mindless grandiose projects, initiated by empire-building central ministries regardless of the effects their schemes might have on the environment.  

 
The view of Lake Baikal from space. Photo: nich4.science.tsu.ru 

Experts were first to raise the issue of the massive soil erosion caused by the sowing of vast areas of western Siberia—the so-called virgin lands. Scientists were involved actively in the environmental battle against the construction of cellulose factories on Lake Baikal that would have damaged the purity of the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water. They fought successfully over the proposed diversion of Russia’s northern rivers to provide irrigation for the cotton-growing areas of central Asia, warning that it would lead to incalculable economic and social side effects.  

Thanks to the efforts of scientists, these and other environmental issues began to be aired in the Soviet press and found reflection in documentary and feature films, as well as in works of Soviet writers such as Valentin Rasputin and Vasily Belov. The environmental campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s did much to raise public awareness and reawaken public opinion. The ecological issues became the battleground where for the first time public interests openly stood up to narrow ministerial interests and, as in the case of Lake Baikal and the proposed river diversion, actually prevailed.

With the onset of Gorbachev’s glasnost, ecological issues became the crucial starting point for the criticism of defects of the Soviet system, especially following the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

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