From Socialist Worker Review, No. 124, October 1989, pp. 24–25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Today’s environmental problems spring from capitalism’s reckless pursuit of accumulation without regard for human welfare or natural limitations. Chanie Rosenberg shows that this is true in Russia, with its forced-pace industrialisation and planning for maximum growth, as much as in the West.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL calamities of Three Mile Island, Bhopal, the Exxon spillage, Sellafield, dead rivers, pollution related illness and food poisoning are facts of life in the West.
Russia easily matches this with Chernobyl, older nuclear catastrophes not yet fully revealed, the Siberian gas pipeline explosion plus its own dead rivers, pollution related illness and food poisoning.
The same compulsion has led to the appalling damage to ecology and health both East and West – the pursuit of accumulation above all other considerations. The difference is only in tempo. The industrial revolution in Russia spanned a couple of generations; in Britain it took two centuries.
The breakneck speed of Russian industrialisation, subjugating nature through huge enterprises under the ideological smoke-screen of socialist progress; took the horrors of life experienced under capitalism by all new urban working classes and peasants to an extreme and caused havoc to the environment. The harvest of this has only recently – or not yet – been reaped.
With official indifference to the quality of working class life including die environment, it might be expected that the most industrialised and profitable areas where most workers live suffer the worst pollution.
This is indeed the case. Look at the damage outlined by Pravda Ukrainy for the Ukraine in August 1988, for example.
The content of harmful substances in the atmosphere exceeds the permissible limits in Zaporozhye, Makeyevka, Donetsk, Zhdanov, Dnepropetrovsk and Krivoy Rog. More than one billion cubic metres of polluted waste was discharged in 1987 into water reservoirs.
Subsoil water is increasingly polluted, particularly in the Crimea, Lvov, Odessa and Kherson regions. Water is frequently polluted by accidental discharges of sewage. This has made unsafe the sea shores of Zaposozhbye, Dontsk, Kikolayev, Odessa and Kherson administrative areas.
Catastrophic pollution has been going on throughout the USSR for many decades. Harmful substances discharged by industry and transport exceed health norms in all industrial centres.
We are familiar with the phenomenon of forced crop monoculture in countries subjected to Western imperialism. This situation also exists in Soviet Central Asia where vast expanses of land are given over to cotton growing. As in the countries dominated by Western imperialism, this monoculture has ruined the health of millions and made Central Asian republics like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan totally dependent on supplying Moscow run industry with a single raw material – cotton.
Cotton needs lots of water, so the two rivers which flow into the Aral Sea are drained of nearly half their water. The Aral Sea, until recently a health resort and a base for the fishing and fur industry, has shrunk by a half in 30 years. Fishing villages are now 20-50 miles inland.
Huge overdoses of fertilizers, pesticides and defoliants containing large amounts of toxic chemicals are poured on the cotton fields to increase yields. These seep into and poison the water supply. One of the most dangerous substances, banned in 1983, was still being applied in 1987 “in order to use up supplies”.
According to Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya, an official Communist Party paper, infant mortality in Soviet Central Asia is four times the USSR average, on a par with the least developed countries in the world. Around 83 percent of children suffer from serious illnesses. In the Karakalpak region bordering the Aral Sea, two thirds of the people suffer from hepatitis, typhoid or throat cancer. Children are called out to work the cotton fields and miss about a third of their education.
Tobacco cultivation tells the same story. Tobacco is a highly profitable crop, hence it has replaced orchards over large areas in Tajikstan. Tobacco harvesting without protective clothing is dangerous, yet women and child harvesters have no protection at all. As a result 70 percent of women in tobacco growing areas suffer from anaemia.
In the processing plant, says Literaturnaya Gazeta, “Ventilation is poor, there are no first-aid stations ... no masks or protective clothing ... the plant does not have a single gynaecologist,” even though the harvesting leads to miscarriages. “All it cares about”, says the paper, “is fulfilling the plan”. So women and children work during the harvest season from five or six in the morning until they go to bed.
The elementary reforms suggested by the Director of the Tajik Research Institute for the Protection of Mothers and Children illustrate the brutality of the profit drive. They include banning the use of children and young women on tobacco plantations and organising mandatory twice daily meals fortified with vitamins to be paid for by the farms.
Much of the fertiliser that pollutes the rivers does not even do so via fields of crops. There is a chronic under-allocation of funds for fertiliser storage and transport facilities, so much of it is left lying in heaps on the fields polluting the ground water, ponds, lakes, rivers and seas.
The Caspian Sea already has nine times the permitted level of phenol and in the Volga River practically all the valuable sturgeon fish stocks were poisoned by a combination of industrial waste and chemically contaminated water from the fields.
The production process of chemical fertilisers is liable to lead to even greater ecological disaster. Rich potassium salt deposits for fertilisers near Lake Baikal in Siberia have been extracted with such indifference to the consequences that the land within a radius of 3-5 km of the plants cannot support a blade of grass.
Besides this, two thirds of the mines have caved in causing the ground water, poisoned by billions of tons of brine that filter through the inadequate bottom shields in the sludge storage tanks, to rise to the surface. Local people find it hard to breathe because there is salt everywhere. In 1980, 19 villages had to be relocated out of the danger zone.
An accident on a vast scale could occur if the dykes on the man-made reservoir, now nearly two metres above the subsided salt dumps and sludge storage ponds, should break. Such an accident has already occurred in the Ukraine at Stebnik, when 4.5 million cubic metres of saline fluid – only a tenth of that stored near Lake Baikal – poured out of a sludge storage pond and poisoned the Dnestr all the way to the Black Sea.
Industrial pollution and ecological damage have provoked resistance as in other countries. Many of these campaigns go back long before glasnost and perestroika. The most impressive example so far is the environmental protests during the recent miners’ strikes. An open letter from striking Kuzbass miners in Siberia complained that, “A miner’s entire life is adapted to the extraction plan and not vice versa.” Expenditure on health and social amenities is at a minimum.
The government gave in to the strikers’ demands and made promises to improve the environment.
Less than a fortnight later, the same miners briefly struck again because of government delay in getting rid of a major ecological threat, the construction of a huge hydroelectric power station which the local population say will cause pollution upstream and destroy their rivers. The head of the regional Communist Party responded immediately, promising work would stop straight away.
Last year’s huge nationalist uprising in Armenia had its seeds in demonstrations in 1987 against nuclear power plants and industrial pollution. Birth defects had become apparent and the incidence of cancer rose locally.
The site of a proposed chemical plant on the outskirts of Yerevan was picketed in February 1988 (chemical plants in Russia are notorious polluters). This ferment led to huge demonstrations and strikes over the status of Nagorny Karabakh throughout the rest of the year.
Even before glasnost made protest easier there had been many campaigns against pollution, in part because this was one of the few areas where protest could be successful against official resistance.
In Kirishi, near Leningrad Province, a protein and vitamin concentrate plant had dropped two tons of allergens on the town every 24 hours since its opening in 1974. As Komsomolszkaya Pravda of 15 March 1988 reports:
“Cases of bronchial asthma in the city registered a 35 fold increase! The local hospital has often been jammed with asthma sufferers and sick children with swollen eyes and red skin rashes.
“Meanwhile, in the local press, a senior official of the ministry scoffed at suggestions that the plant was a health hazard. Then an accident occurred at the plant: eight small children died in the space of two months, though their deaths were initially attributed to other causes.
“Later that month, Kirishi residents converged on the Young Pioneers’ House and forced their way into a closed-door meeting called to discuss the emergency.”
An illegal demonstration by 12,000 of the town’s 60,000 inhabitants forced the minister to shut the plant in June 1988. In early August it reopened despite many unrepaired defects. “Insidious clouds gathered over the town once again,” it was reported. Scapegoats were found and sacked, but this did not satisfy the residents who launched “an endless series of rallies, meetings and demonstrations”.
When it turned out that livestock was also being damaged by the emissions, thus threatening profits, the Leningrad Province Agro-Industrial Committee quickly banned the use of the plant’s products.
Big demonstrations halted the construction of a nuclear power station at Ignalia in Lithuania which was being built before health and safety provisions, fire precautions and seismic stability plans had been approved.
The bureaucratic drive for profit – expressed in the overriding pressure to fulfil the plan and leading to the neglect of everything that stands in the way of this – has created ecological havoc from one end of the country to the other. Scapegoats are always found and demoted or arrested, but this cannot solve the problem. The correction of construction and maintenance faults in factories or the restoration of ruined land or water will be a massive expense. The individual enterprises concerned with trying to overcome the universal shortages in order to fulfil the plan will not bother with such unproductive side issues unless forced to.
This is Gorbachev’s heritage. Because of the vastness of the job of correction and restoration he is unlikely to move fast or far of his own volition. The only agency that will force his hand is workers’ action which, as we have seen in the recent miners’ strikes, can work wonders in days.
Last updated: 19.9.2013