Cleaning up Baikal

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Lake Baikal, world’s largest and clearest freshwater body, stood soiled and battered amid the ravaged expanse of Siberia by 1980. The story of how its breathtaking beauty could be spoiled goes to the heart of many decades of Soviet environmental neglect. The mineral wealth of Siberia attracted the plotters of the First Five Year Plan in the late 1920s, who projected great cities and rail routes through its expanse. During the war it housed factories evacuated to safety from western cities. 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. Baikal itself, its shorelines eroded by lumbering and population growth, fouled by waste from construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline, found its clear waters growing murky from wastes pumped by the Baikal Pulp and Paper Plant, which stood on its banks. Built in the late 1950s, and from the start a source of controversy, the plant was the target of protests and journalistic campaigns throughout the 1970s and 1980s

Lake Baikal, or the “sacred sea,” is located in the Irkutsk region of southeastern Siberia and the Buryat Autonomous Republic. At eighty kilometers wide and 636 kilometers long, averaging a depth of 630 meters, the lake holds twenty percent of the world’s fresh water, as much as the Great Lakes combined. The waters are exceptionally clear, transparent to a depth of seventy meters, and although the lake freezes over every January, it is home to 1200 different animal species and 1000 species of plants, eighty percent of which are endemic. These include the unique freshwater seal species called the Nerpa. The lake was already considered sacred when the Russians colonized the region in the 1600s, and the new residents continued the tradition.

Environmental issues such as Lake Baikal allowed Soviet citizens to mobilize their civic concerns in a way no other issue did. Although Soviet scientists were among the world’s most progressive preservationists in the 1920s, Stalin’s aggressive industrialization plan marginalized them entirely. For decades the environment was assaulted in the name of industrial growth. Russian environmentalists were ignored; colleagues in the republics were brutally repressed as nationalists. State authorities did not recognize the environment to be a political issue, allowing citizens to rally against state decisions with some freedom. Much of the most effective opposition to the Baikal factory appeared in the official press. Citizens could disagree with the government without bearing the taint of disloyalty that damaged the dissident movement. 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. In the republics, environmental issues allowed nationalists to organize; and in Russia, it let national conservatives give voice to their concerns.

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