The control room of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant unit 3. Photo: Dana Sacchetti/IAEA

The control room of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant unit 3. Photo: Dana Sacchetti/IAEA

Conference reports Inheriting the Pandora Box: Environmental Impacts of the Soviet Industrial Legacy

The roundtable “Inheriting the Pandora Box: Environmental Impacts of the Soviet Industrial Legacy”, explored the relevance of the Soviet environmental legacy for the way we as a society understand our relationship to the environment today.

Published on on June 15, 2021

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Thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its material and symbolic legacies are acutely perceptible. A series of panels were therefore organized during 2021 at Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University, dedicated to the ‘longue durée of afterness’ ensuing after the USSR collapse. One of the panels, “Inheriting the Pandora Box: Environmental Impacts of the Soviet Industrial Legacy”, explored the relevance of the Soviet environmental legacy for the way we as a society understand our relationship to the environment today.

The panel was comprised of four speakers: Paul Josephson (Professor in History, Colby College, Waterville, Main), Anna Barcz (Assistant Professor, Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw), Dimitri Litvinov (Campaigner, Greenpeace Sweden) and Arran Gare (Associate Professor in Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry, Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne).

The historical origins of the Soviet environmental legacy

In an overview of the environmental history of the Russian empire from the 19th century and throughout the Soviet Period, Paul Josephson stresses the role of the Soviet development model in the formation of the Soviet industrial legacy. This model is for Josephson the key to the understanding of certain trends in contemporary Russia that are continuing many of the Soviet economic development practices. In this sense Russia seeks to be the “Resource Empire” and at the same time “Modern Scientific Superpower”, Josephson argues. He further points out the continuities in the environmental history of Eurasia, starting with the activists who raised environmental consciousness among people in Tzarist Empire and founded the first National parks (Zapovedniki) in pre-Soviet Russia. The prominent explorer Arseniev serves as an example for Josephson on the importance of local knowledge besides the universal scientific knowledge in environmental thinking:  He argues that there are different ways and levels of understanding nature, and that this “deeper” knowledge of nature often is neglected and overlooked in the discourses of the State that mostly regard nature as a resource to exploit and an impetus for consolidating state power.

Investigating the relevance of the Soviet environmental legacy for the contemporary society, Josephson focuses on the Stalin period as the most important period in Soviet history in this regard, considering the impact of industrialization on the formation of the Soviet society. The ‘hero project’ approach during this period (the centralization of economic planning through collectivization) led to resource development as the number one message of the State and was environmentally unsound. The collectivization reflected the industrial approach in agriculture, resulting in excessive use of machines, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This ‘hero project’ was efficient in terms of turning peasants into workers,  emphasizing the labor theory and undervaluing natural resources. Josephson reminds us that engineers who in the 1920s Soviet Union expressed concerns about social and environmental factors were systematically persecuted and purged. In today’s Russia the very same Soviet industrial mentality persists in projects such as nuclear enterprises with their dreadful destructiveness, in river diversion projects as well as the ongoing development of the Arctic today. He concludes that for Russia to be able to develop a viable approach to resource management, the State would need to democratize science and technology, which is unlikely to happen in the observable future.

Narratives of despair, resistance and hope

Turning towards cultural rather than material heritage, the panel’s second speaker Anna Barcz presented her book Environmental Cultures in Soviet Europe, in which she addresses the underrepresentation of non-human voices and counter-voices in (post-)Soviet cultures, voices which find their outlets in various literary texts. She argues that although historians have focused on a litany of environmental disasters initiated by the Soviet Union, they often leave out everyday perspectives and struggles. To fill up these gaps, Barcz sees literature as an access point to and historical source of marginalized narratives and memory of the Soviet environmental and industrial legacy, as well as a voice of everyday activism against communist regimes. She moreover stresses the importance of looking beyond dominant narratives of victimhood and hopelessness — initiated by environmental catastrophes, heavy industries and colonized environments — and instead unpack ‘the Soviet Umbrella’ by tracing multiple voices of resistance and hope.

Among the vast amount of important literary works addressing the Soviet legacy at the human-environment interface, Barcz gives two examples that successfully put in dialogue memory and environmental Soviet history. The first one, The Foundation Pit (1968) by Soviet-Russian writer and philosopher Andrei Platonov, arguably shows the darkest depths of collectivization, linking the pre-Soviet rural melancholic past with Soviet industrialization. On the other hand, the text can also be read as a historical artefact per se, full of the writer’s personal experiences of propaganda, the collectivization and totalization projects as well as the subsequent colonization of nature marked by narratives of death.

The second, more recent example is Chernobyl Prayer/Voices from Chernobyl (1999) by Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, written ten years after the nuclear disaster took place. Both Platonov and Alexievich show how propaganda is part of the Soviet mindset. Chernobyl is, as Alexievich uncovers, the primary symbol of Soviet industrial and environmental catastrophes. Barcz also claims it was the first work on Chernobyl that provided polyphonic insider perspectives and narratives of trauma, including both human and non-human victims. All in all, the literary Soviet and post-Soviet legacy opens up for non-anthropocentric narratives of resistance and hope rather than just those of hopelessness and despair.

The environmental is the political

The topic of resistance and activism was continued by Dimitri Litvinov, who stresses the strong connection between the Russian environmental movement and political struggle. Coming from a dissident background (his family was exiled to a remote part of Siberia for anti-Soviet agitation, and then deported to the US when Litvinov was eleven years old), he was brought up in the “atmosphere of protest”, surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of taiga. Perhaps the superimposition of these two experiences led to his engagement in environmental activism, including  as head of Greenpeace campaigns in Russia.

Litvinov has been arrested three times on board Greenpeace vessels, each time under a new president: Gorbachev in 1990, when protesting against Soviet nuclear testing at Novaya Zemlya; Yeltsin in 1993, when protesting against disposal of nuclear reactors in the Kara Sea; and Putin in 2013, when protesting on a Gazprom offshore oil rig in Pechora Sea. He says that each of these experiences was different because of the shifting attitudes of the political power towards environmental activism. He connects environmentalism and political opposition further by stating that the environmental opposition played an important role in the last years of the existence of the USSR in weakening the Soviet regime: the Chernobyl disaster made it possible to oppose the regime on environmental grounds. Some of the people constituting the environmental opposition were also part of the political opposition that precipitated the regime shift (Yeltsin’s ascend to power), and initially the Russian environmentalists had a high level of access to the new political elite. As a result the environmental movement had a position to exercise pressure on their opponents (nuclear and oil industries, large-scale fisheries etc.) that were forced to be considerate to the demands from the environmental movement.  This favorable momentum for the environmental movement of being part of the ideology of the new political power ended around the mid-nineties, with Viktor Chernomyrdin’s office as prime minister.

Litvinov stresses that the fracture of 1991 represented a fluid cultural and political breakdown which simultaneously was a genuine moment of opportunity for the emergence of a strong civil society.

“Nobody knew what the rules were supposed to be. We tried to [steer] in the direction of the awareness of the value of the environment, coming out from a harsh legacy”, says Litvinov.

He regrets that it was not the strong civil society path which was taken, but the one defined by the military and industrial interests.

Litvinov identifies several hindrances to a strong civil society in Russia due to Soviet legacy of a Soviet industrial mentality, including the devaluation of the individual, denied agency, the rejection of a spiritual connection to nature, idealized individual sacrifice for the sake of a ‘bright future of humanity’ at any cost, as well as industrialization at any cost. Today, the majority of Russians do not feel a personal responsibility for the environment according to Litvinov. In some sense, he argues, such responsibility, which is more prominent in the West, however, can also be a reflection of a consumerist and individualist ideology which is not truly compatible with environmentalism either. In that way, the Soviet legacy can be partially a blessing in disguise, as the Russian consumerism (which is as prevalent in Russia today as it is in the West) is a “thinner veneer” which can be more easily “scraped away”, in Litvinov’s opinion. Consumerism was foreign to the Soviet mentality, when commodity fetishism was seen as “tacky”, which echoed all the way back to the values of intelligentsia of the pre-Soviet Russia.

‘There Is No Alternative’?

The ideas voiced by Arran Gare can be distilled to two implications of the Soviet legacy of environmental destruction for today’s thinking about society and the environment. First, ‘TINA’ – the thesis formulated by Margaret Thatcher and taken up by the political elites in the leading Western economies in the 1980s, that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to neoliberalism. Second, the idea that we as a society cannot have any grand narratives, because they all inevitably lead to disaster.

Gare challenges both these ideas. First of all, he does not see the dominant Marxist-Leninist ideology of the USSR as an alternative to capitalism, but rather as its Eastern offshoot as far as the environment is concerned. Secondly, he reminds us that in Russia and the early Soviet State there existed a philosophical and political alternative to both capitalism and Marxism-Leninism, which was not taken up. He associates this alternative with the names of such pre-Soviet and early Soviet scientists as Vernadsky and Bogdanov, among others, who had developed sophisticated scientific understandings of the biosphere and ecological economics. This alternative entitled a strongly democratic politics and a creation of a different culture, based not on the juxtaposition of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but managers and workers – including intellectual workers. He sees one of the roots of the current global ecological crisis not in neoliberalism per se, but in “managerialism” – the taking over of society by the managerial class. This takeover is as endemic to neoliberalism as it was to the East European communistic regimes, and even to the Scandinavian social democratic models, which, he supposes, face their decline precisely as a result of excessive bureaucratization. If we were to take one lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it is the danger of the prevalence of the technocratic, bureaucratic, managerial systems which, unfortunately, seem to increasingly permeate our society, including our universities.

As far as grand narratives go, Gare suggests that they may, contrary to the postmodern distrust of them, in fact be necessary. The grand narrative he advocates for would be rooted in process philosophy, which sees reality consisting of processes, not “things”, and the politics of social democracy (or democratic socialism) which is both centralized enough to be able to deal with the structural crises, and decentralized enough to give autonomy to each community. He sees a revival in certain Russian intellectual circles of the ideas of the radical thinkers of the 1920s, and he believes that Russia has a certain contribution towards the possibility of an “ecological civilization”, owing to the importance assigned in the Russian collective consciousness to the intellectual and cultural life. The prominence of intellectual and cultural life is a factor in combatting consumerism, an ideology of neoliberalism, which disempowers the populations. Another important measure in this regard is citizen engagement, active participation in politics, which unfortunately is largely missing in Russia, according to Gare (and we would argue, with the exception of the recent continuous political demonstrations that have swept Russia since the beginning of 2021).


To sum up, we observe that the speakers see the Soviet legacy enduring in the form of a techno-managerial outlook, continued extractionism and a form of neo-colonialism, which allows no space for radical ideas or democratization of technology and science. A rich heritage of thought and culture which could (and has repeatedly attempted to) counter this outlook (the cultural and political values of intelligentsia, pre-Soviet and early Soviet environmental thinking, richness and recognition by intellectuals of indigenous knowledge related to human/non-human relations, etc.) is continuously suppressed by dominant narratives. This suppression and prosecution is directed, among other kinds of resistance, at the environmental movement, which is seen and to a large extent identifies itself as part of the political opposition. Some of the speakers regret that civil society is not strong enough in Russia, which is a consequence of a collectivist ideology which denies agency to individuals; on the other hand, the same ideology makes it possible (even if weakly) for consumerism to be potentially offset by the stronger cultural values. The speakers were united in a search for a hopeful message, and differentially expressed the need for a continuous cultural and political struggle, democratization of science and technology, and a dialectical, synthetic process philosophy, including the revival of some of the progressive environmental ideas of the pre-Soviet and early Soviet time.