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NY Times, August 7, 2017
The Opinion Pages
by Fred Strebeigh
NEW HAVEN — Atop a granite cliff in Siberia this past winter, I stood
gazing at what became, 100 years ago, the first in the world’s largest
system of most protected nature reserves. To my west glistened mile-deep
Lake Baikal. To the east rose snowy mountains, including one that
reminded me of sharp-cut Half Dome, an icon of America’s Yosemite
National Park. I was looking across Barguzinsky Zapovednik, a
conservation area protecting more than 600,000 acres so free from human
impact that visitors may not enter.
Barguzinsky began a chain of 103 zapovedniks, or nature reserves, that
protect 68 million acres of Russia. Most zapovedniks date from the
Soviet era and provide the world’s highest level of protection to the
most land within any nation, under the International Union for
Conservation of Nature’s designation of “strict nature reserves.”
How did Russia — hardly considered a cradle of environmentalism, given
Joseph Stalin’s crash program of industrialization — become a global
pioneer in conservation?
Much of the answer begins with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In 1919, a young
agronomist named Nikolai Podyapolski traveled north from the Volga River
delta, where hunting had almost eliminated many species, to Moscow,
where he met Lenin. Arriving at the Bolshevik leader’s office to seek
approval for a new zapovednik, Podyapolski felt “worried,” he said, “as
before an exam in high school.” But Lenin, a longtime enthusiast for
hiking and camping, agreed that protecting nature had “urgent value.”
Two years later, Lenin signed legislation ordering that “significant
areas of nature” across the continent be protected. Within three
decades, some 30 million acres (equal in area to about 40 states of
Rhode Island) from the European peaks of the Caucasus to the Pacific
volcanoes of Kamchatka were set aside in a system of 128 reserves.
The roots of the zapovedniks were holy. Priests for years had sanctified
forests by proclaiming a zapoved, or commandment: Thou shalt not cut. By
the early 20th century, the sacred was resonating with the scientific:
Mankind was exterminating “primordial nature,” a Moscow biology
professor, Grigorii Kozhevnikov, told a conference in 1908. He argued
that anthropogenic dominance would soon leave humanity unable to see
nature except through man-made imitation, “obscuring the image of the
He proposed that Russia preserve vast lands where “nature must be left
alone.” Each would serve not as a “pleasuring-ground” for people (the
words of the law that created the first of America’s national parks,
about which Russians were aware) but as a baseline established by
observation of natural systems untrampled by people.
In the early 1920s, the Moscow Zoo began training a “circle of young
biologists,” many of whom became leaders in the Communist conservation
movement, establishing zapovedniks as far-flung as the Pacific coastal
reserve created in 1935 to save the Siberian tiger.
Joseph Stalin, however, was not one for obeying anyone else’s
commandment. In the 1940s, he initiated a “great transformation of
nature” in the U.S.S.R. To open the country for a huge expansion of
farming, logging, mining and hunting, he slashed the zapovednik system
by 89 percent in 1951, leaving just 40 reserves comprising about 3.5
After Stalin died in 1953, brave scientists fought back in defense of
the reserves. By 1961, the system had rebounded to 93 zapovedniks on
15.7 million acres, with some additions and many restorations.
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was no friend of conservation,
but the defenders were organizing. The reserves owe their survival, in
part, to a 1960 law inviting the “participation of non-governmental
organizations in the protection of nature.” Within days, a group of
biology students at Moscow State University took up the challenge. They
called their movement Druzhina, after the medieval warriors who defended
their homeland against invaders seeking to destroy Russia’s Christian
faith, and began to fight poachers and create nature reserves.
The students’ motto resounded with ironic romanticism: “For the success
of a hopeless cause!” By the 1980s, about 140 brigades of Druzhina had
sprung up across the country. As the years passed, Druzhina activists
became leaders on university faculties, and in environmental
organizations and Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
On my hike up the bluff that lies just outside the protected vastness of
Barguzinsky Zapovednik, the researcher leading me was a Druzhina named
Irina Kurkina. This reserve was Russia’s first, created in January 1917,
before the Bolsheviks seized power (the Volga delta zapovednik proposed
to Lenin by the young agronomist was the second to begin). Ms. Kurkina
came here in 1986, fleeing a poultry farm to which the Soviet system had
sent her to work, straight from college. She lives in this remote part
of southern Russia far beyond the reach of any road.
“I would not do this job, be this kind of person,” she told me, if not
for the inspiration of fellow students in the Moscow Druzhina, whose
names she recited as we climbed.
Their activism carried risks. To combat poaching, Druzhina teams gained
legal authority to make citizens’ arrests. At least three Druzhina were
shot dead by poachers in different regions — near the Black Sea, the
Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal — between the early 1970s and mid-1980s.
When the threat wasn’t physical, it could be political. One leader of
the anti-poaching teams, Vsevolod Stepanitskiy, told me some years ago
about a time when he and his university colleagues, on patrol near
Moscow, caught some illegal duck hunters. One, they learned, was a
“deputy minister of finance.” Worried at how their report would be
received, the students presented their evidence to the Communist Party.
The minister got away with a reprimand, Mr. Stepanitskiy recalled. But
the students went unpunished, and felt victorious. Druzhina became, in
the words of another warrior who later joined the biology faculty at
Moscow State, “a prototype of civil initiatives” and, as she put it, “a
sign of democratization in conditions of totalitarianism.”
Like many Druzhina, after graduating Mr. Stepanitskiy became a
zapovednik researcher, starting in 1982 on Russia’s Pacific coast. In
late 1991, when the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Mr. Stepanitskiy found himself
heading the Zapovedniks Administration for the new Russian Federation.
Despite economic hard times, he and his colleagues seized the initiative
and created 18 new reserves in four years, including the spectacular
Commander Islands, Russia’s Aleutians in the Pacific.
Nature conservation in Russia remains challenging. Three times in the
first two decades of his post-Soviet leadership, Mr. Stepanitskiy
resigned to express his opposition to management problems, including
efforts to turn protected resources into financial resources. His second
resignation came in 2002, when an official in the Ministry of Natural
Resources ordered zapovednik directors to start making money by cutting
down forests in their reserves. “Going to work,” Mr. Stepanitskiy
announced, had become “like going behind enemy lines.”
Each time, Mr. Stepanitskiy went to work outside the government, helping
environmental organizations and providing support to conservationists.
But each time, apparently in tacit acknowledgment of Mr. Stepanitskiy’s
judgment and leadership, the Russian government invited him to return to
directing the zapovednik system.
In 2015, President Vladimir Putin, who famously enjoys photo
opportunities in nature with tigers, bears and whales, announced that
the centennial year for Russia’s zapodneviks, 2017, would be the “Year
of Protected Areas.” His government pledged to increase Russia’s
protected acreage by 18 percent over the next eight years.
But storm clouds have gathered. Ranger salaries, which Mr. Stepanitskiy
has fought to raise, are only about $4,300 a year. New ski resorts,
supported by wealthy corporations that Russian conservation groups
believe have lobbied the government, seem likely to threaten Caucasus
Zapovednik. While Mr. Stepanitskiy has encouraged educational tourism in
small sections of the nature reserves, he has criticized ski
construction as “not eco-tourism” and as likely to jeopardize a leopard
reintroduction project that has had Mr. Putin’s backing.
Russia’s first zapovednik in the Arctic, Wrangell Island, is threatened
by a new military base. After polar bears had been fed illegally, a
construction worker tossed toward a bear an explosive device that
detonated in its mouth, a horror shown by Russian TV. Proposed
legislation would authorize Russia’s president to strip protection from
zapovedniks for any reason, including “to ensure the security of the state.”
In April, Mr. Stepanitskiy resigned for a fourth time. Conservationists
across Russia are following his now unbridled commentaries, including
that the ministry views Russia’s nature reserves as “a resource that can
be used for personal recreation and entertainment.” He has attacked the
government for failing to uphold the system’s century-long “sacred idea.”
For now, at least, Lenin’s legacy is preserved and Russia remains the
world leader, ahead of Brazil and Australia, in protecting the most land
at the highest level. Russian naturalists continue to advance their
not-yet-hopeless cause of keeping free a few vast landscapes on this
planet where humans do not tread.
Fred Strebeigh is a senior lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and
Environmental Studies and the department of English.
This is an essay in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy
of Communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution.
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