Environmental Policy and Politics of Lake Baikal: A review of physical, psychological, and political contexts

Lake Baikal in Siberia has a rich biological and cultural history. It is highly valued for its aesthetic qualities and rich biological diversity. In addition, the surrounding region is rich in natural resources. Today, several environmental organizations operate in the region’s largest city, Irkutsk, which lies not far from the shores of Baikal. Given the diversity of the lake’s uses, it is not surprising that these organizations have varied goals: preservationist, conservationist, exploitationist (e.g. ecotourism, resource exploitation), or some mixture of the three.

This paper will describe the physical, political, and psychological contexts of the Lake Baikal environmental debate and how environmental organizations in Irkutsk, Russia have reacted to these contexts. To do so, a wide range of materials will be used, including journalism on local issues, secondary and tertiary texts, and primary documents including internet posts made by activists. The initial results of original field research, which began in 2010 and are ongoing as this paper is being written, will also be presented. Materials collected include a survey and interviews with leaders and members of environmental organizations in Irkutsk.

Section1: Physical

Lake Baikal is remarkable in terms of its watershed and water quality, forest resources, and unique biota. Each is significant in terms of human patterns of resource exploitation, which have shaped the physical context that creates the backdrop for political action and psychological relationships in the region.

  • Water

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, with a maximum depth of 1,637 meters, and a freshwater reservoir of global significance (Stewart 1991). The huge volume of the lake and its extreme depth create a unique hydraulic situation which makes the waters of Lake Baikal stunningly clear (Rossolimo 1966, cited in Lubomudrov 1978). The lake is fed by a great number of tributary streams and rivers, the most significant being the Selenga River, which enters Lake Baikal from the southeast. The only outflow from Lake Baikal is the Angara River to the southwest (Stewart 1991). Irkutsk is located on this outflow river.

While the waters of Lake Baikal have been utilized and valued by indigenous populations for centuries, the industrial use of Lake Baikal’s waters began with the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Angara River near Irkutsk. Construction began in 1950, and the dam came into operation in 1959. Later, against much public protest, the construction of pulp plants began in nearby Baikalsk in 1966 and in Selegsk in 1974 (Stewart 1991). Soviet officials insisted that the plants needed the pure water of Lake Baikal to manufacture high-quality cellulose products. While this claim was dubious from the outset (Weiner 1999) (Baikal Movement, 9.09.2010), the argument later became superfluous as alternative technologies eliminated the demand for high quality cellulose products, and the plants switched to manufacturing lower-quality paper products (Lubomudrov 1978).

Inadequate environmental standards and lackluster enforcement of regulations resulted in industrial effluent being dumped into the lake during the Soviet period. While later legislation helped to curb pollution somewhat, most scientists still fear that the lake’s waters are being compromised (Stewart 1991)(personal interviews 2010). In fact, the loosened environmental regulations of Decree #1 of 2010 (Russian Federation 2010) allowed the Baikalsk cellulose plant to reopen in January 2010, two years after being closed due to environmental concerns. In general, industrial pollution has been contained to southern Baikal, where major industrial centers and effluent sources are located (e.g. Irkutsk and Baikalsk). Here, polluted waters are discharged via the Angara River relatively quickly, leaving northern waters uncontaminated (Tulohonov 2010).

Another source of pollution in the southern region of Lake Baikal is the Selenga River. The Selenga, which flows across the border of Mongolia into Russia before entering Lake Baikal in the southeast, provides over 50% of Baikal’s inflow and thus presents a potential trans-boundary pollution issue as Mongolia develops its industrial sectors (WWF 1990, in Stewart 1991). International agreements have sought to reduce trans-boundary pollution (Woods 1994). However, a large portion of the industrial pollution and municipal waste that is discharged into the Selenga River comes from the Russian industrial region centered in nearby Ulan-Ude, rather than from relatively-undeveloped Mongolia (Tulohonov 2010).

The development of polluting industries and the increase in municipal waste from Severobaikalsk, a city located at the northern tip of Lake Baikal, threatens the lake’s northern waters. If industrialization accelerates without proper controls, large volumes of Lake Baikal could become polluted as polluted effluent travels along the entire axis of the lake before being discharged (Stewart 1991). Development is likely, as investors are increasingly interested in tourism opportunities based on the region’s stunning beauty a natural hot springs.

  • Forests

Lake Baikal is surrounded by extensive forests, many of which are perched on the relatively steep slopes surrounding Lake Baikal. The Baikal region was originally heavily forested by slow-growth conifers (Stewart 1991) and timber exploitation has caused a number of ecological problems. Clear-cutting, for example, has increased erosion rates (Lukov 2010).

Transporting logs to mills by “floating” them is another problem. During transport, some logs inevitably sink, adding biomass to the lake, which negatively affects the chemistry and nutrient content of lake waters. This practice was banned by governmental decrees in 1971, and since this practice was halted, some logs have been recouped from the lake (Stewart 1991).

  • Biota

Lake Baikal’s astounding biological resources have attracted both indigenous peoples and modern scientists. The unique chemistry of the lake’s waters, partially contributable to its relatively low oxygen content, which may result from the lake’s small surface area relative to depth, and its unique tectonic origin (Na 1993) have create

an isolated aquatic environment with a unique biological community. Two-thirds of the more than 2500 species and subspecies found in the lake ecosystem are endemic—found only in Lake Baikal (Stewart 1991).

Some of these endemic species have been utilized by humans, and as a result have become increasingly rare. The nerpa (Pusa siberica), a unique freshwater seal, has been extensively hunted for its food and skins; several fish species, like the omul (Coregonus autumnalis migratorius), have been important food resources (Stewart 1991). Although laws ban the poaching of omul, the fish is still commonly eaten.

Section 2: Political

The Russian political system provides the next layer of relevant context. Increasing federal power has limited public access to political influence, and, as a result, environmental organizations have developed grassroots strategies.

  • Limited public influence

Environmental organizations’ power to influence policy has been limited by three factors: (1) a governmental structure which concentrates power at the federal level, which is physically and politically inaccessible, (2) an inability to effectively use the courts to redress environmental violations, and (3) a tradition of non-compliance with environmental law.

The 1992 Environmental Protection Law, one of the last pieces of legislation passed and ratified before the Soviet Union dissolved, (Bond and Sagers 1992) has continued to form the framework of environmental protection even in the post-soviet period. This type of law provides a federal “framework” that local legislation must conform to and complement (Donahoe 2009). Thus, major environmental decisions are made by high-level bureaucrats who are both socially and physically removed from those affected by these decisions. Local governments are often financially unable to administer and enforce the “complementary” laws, which often remain “unfinished” or unenforced on the local level. This problem, as is applies to the Irkutsk region, was prominently discussed at the 2010 Baikal Economic Forum’s Roundtable on Baikal Environmental Issues (e.g. Tulohonov 2010).

The court system is also of limited use to redress environmental wrongs. The Federal Law on Specifically Protected National Areas accords rights to file suits to some officials, but not private citizens or civic organizations. Furthermore, since Russian courts do not rely on precedent, single victories do not translate into sustained court-supported environmental protection (Ostergren 2001). In addition, traditions of “understandings” and bribery promote non-compliance with existing regulations (Levin and Satarov 2000).

Irkutsk activists regularly deal with legal arbitrariness and complications. For example, notice must be given of any planned public meeting, specifying the place, number of participants, and basic outline of activities. Notice must be presented by several individuals at once and cannot be given more than two weeks in advance. Advertising an event before it is approved is forbidden. Complications, holidays, and foot-dragging often leave activists with practically no time to organize. Few people, let alone volunteers with other professional obligations, have the time, energy or patience to take on this process. While the notification is perhaps reasonable from a logistical perspective, allowing city police and traffic officers to prepare for the event, the execution of the requirement is not.

  • Prevailing attitude toward civil society

The Putin administration has generally been confrontational and hostile toward active civic organizations (Thornhill quoted in Peterson and Bielke 2001) (“progressivepathway” 2008). Further, federal laws, such as the 2006 amendments to the Russian Federation Law on Nonprofit Organizations, have complicated the long-standing federal registration procedures required of civic organizations (Wood 2006).

The Medvedev-Putin administration’s vision of the Russian government as the sole “keeper” of Russian lands and people (McFaul and Treyger 2004), coupled with the vision of Russia as a natural resource power (Henry 2009), demands that the government have full control of Siberian resources. As a result, the problems that are faced by Russian NGOs in general are magnified for Siberian environmental organizations.

In an interview conducted in Irkutsk in April 2010, the leader of a small environmental organization in Irkutsk stated that environmental organizations are unable to directly protest against the government because they are “dependent” on favorable relations with government officials and agencies. “Problems” with documentation, and a resulting threat on an organizations right to exist, he stated, can arise when an organization fails to limit itself to “acceptable” activities. As a rule, these favorable relations are extended only to organizations whose work compliments existing government initiatives (personal materials 2010).

Additionally, the 2006 amendments to the Russian Federation Law on Nonprofit Organizations create registration requirements which are not sensitive to NGO regulations in other countries. Thus, some of the materials demanded by Russian officials simply do not exist for international organizations incorporating in Russia. The international NGOs must petition the Russian agency or make changes to their original legal documents (Wood 2006), a process which can be time-consuming and expensive and discourages the growth of Russian civil society.

In spite of governmental roadblocks, the attitudes expressed by individual leaders of organizations suggest that civic society in Irkutsk is making positive progress. The individual quoted above and several others stated that their personal participation in environmental and/or anti-government protests does not interfere with the professional work of their organizations. At the time these interviews were being conducted, regular protests against the re-opening of the Baikalsk cellulose factory were being held. These leaders cited their personal participation in these protest meetings as an example of their ability to separate personal and organizational politics (personal interviews, April, 2010).

  • Organizational and emotional reactions

In response to limited political access and legal challenges, environmental organizations have developed strategies to cultivate political influence through non-governmental channels. Through the creative application of grassroots strategies, environmental organizations have occasionally become influential in local environmental politics, and they have gained some substantial environmental victories.

Organizational leaders often feel alienated from the government and express restrained contempt and distrust of governmental leadership (Sopronenko 2009)(Metzo 2009). In Irkutsk, several organizations have completely retreated from “the political front,” favoring initiatives which allow them to avoid confrontation with governmental agencies. This is not surprising, since remaining politically potent can result in organizational complications and governmental meddling. For example, activists affiliated with the unregistered Baikal Movement (Байкальское движение) report that supporters from the neighboring province, the Buryat Republic of Russia, and sympathizers from Baikalsk, the city where the re-opened cellulose factory operates, were detained on two separate occasions under the false pretense of traffic violations while en route to protest meetings. Active members of the Baikal Movement also report that picketers are often detained without charge for several hours (personal communication, April 2010).

Another example of governmental meddling was the 2010 confiscation of nearly all working computers from the office of Baikal Wave (Байкальская Волна), including the server base for the organization’s website. The organization, at the time, was planning a protest against the government-supported re-opening the Baikalsk cellulose plant. Officials claimed that the machines were operating on pirated software and needed to be inspected (Tihi 2010). Although Russian law required the computers to be returned within one month, officials held them for several. The capacity of Baikal Wave to coordinate its protest activities was significantly curtailed.

In light of these political challenges, many environmental organizations have remained, at least outwardly, politically neutral. Some have even garnered support and cooperation from government officials and ministries. One, The Great Baikal Trail (Большая Байкальская Тропа), an ecotourism organization, cooperated with officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources in Irkutsk Oblast to offer environmental presentations in Irkutsk universities. The Baikal Ecological Network (Ассоциация Байкальская экологическая сеть) works with teachers and Ministry of Education officials to promote the distribution of Baikal Studies textbooks in schools. Political goodwill helped the animal rescue organization Zoogallery (Зоогалерея) save their extensive bird collection from extermination during the international bird-flu scare (personal communication 2010). In effect, these non-political organizations have been logistically, and in some cases financially, “rewarded” for their political neutrality and submissiveness.

  • Grassroots and the media

In 1987, environmentalists effectively mobilized the public to reject a pollution diversion pipeline, which would have channeled pollution produced by a cellulose plant on Lake Baikal to the Irkut River. This grassroots movement, which united under the principle of making no compromises to force the complete closure of the plant with the concerns of drinking water contamination in small regional cities (personal interview 2010), arguably solidified nearly 20 years of relatively unorganized environmental agitation into the Baikal Movement (Stewart 1991). In a second, more recent example of a grassroots ecological success, local activists in the Tunka National Park near Lake Baikal and other locals were instrumental in shaping the public support that encouraged then-President Putin’s redirection of oil and natural gas pipelines from near the shores of Baikal (Metzo 2009).

Often, environmentalists use the media to garner public attention to publicize an environmental problem. Lubomudrov (1978) discusses the leading role that newspaper coverage had in highlighting Baikal environmental issues beginning in the 1960s, and Stewart (1991) discusses how agitations in the press can unite public opinion. Metzo (2009) notes that regional newspapers and media were essential in providing those involved in the Tunka pipeline debate with information essential for uniting opposition against federal and private pipeline plans. In that instance, local newspapers were especially effective, since they were perceived as reputable sources of pertinent local information (Metzo 2009).

In Siberia, and in Irkutsk in particular, small organizational publications, usually funded by relatively unreliable one-time grants, also help to spread environmental news to a limited audience. The Baikal Wave, for example, publishes a journal (Волна) which, due to funding difficulties, is released irregularly. The weekly newsletter “Baikal Siberia,” (Байкальская Сибирь), which highlights environmental and social issues in Irkutsk and the surrounding region, is also distributed by the Baikal Wave office. Nonprofit World (Некоммерческий мир), a journal featuring information about Siberian nonprofits, is published regularly by Rebirth of Siberian Lands (Возрождение земли сибирской), and the political organization Control by the People (Народный контроль) publishes a newsletter which sometimes features local ecological problems. Other materials, ranging from glossy booklets to black and white flyers, are published on an irregular basis.

In the battle for formal press attention, much relies upon individual players and the specific interests of journalists. For example, the reputation of the newspaper Eastern Siberian Truth(Восточная Сибирская Правда) as a good source of environmental news is almost entirely the making of one journalist, Giorgii Kuznetsov. Nearly all forms of public media are under strong governmental influence, and publishing stories that reflect poorly on the government or highlight dissidence is generally avoided. Even when environmental protest events are covered, activists complain that their events are often “skewed” in the media. For example, the press seized on photos of protestors dressed in bear suits at a Baikal Movement protest in 2008 (see Kuznetsov 2008) and used them as mocking symbols to degrade the seriousness of the protest.

Many organizations have turned to the Internet as an uncensored forum for discussion and dispersal of information. Several Irkutsk organizations maintain online newsletters and informative, though not always up-to-date, websites. Great Baikal Trail, for example, keeps volunteers informed through an email distribution list, and the Baikal Movement maintains a very active online Google Groups forum. “Protect Baikal Together” (Защитим Байкал вместе) updates its website regularly with photos and descriptions of various projects. Zoogallery volunteers keep in touch through the social networking site Vkontakte.ru, Baikal Wave and Great Baikal Trail are both on YouTube, and other online forums are also used, such as Angara.net, a popular site among hikers and outdoorsmen in Irkutsk.

One news forum in particular, Babr.ru, is a significant information hub. The site’s creator and director, Dimitrii Tajevski, while not personally active in an environmental organization, provides environmental NGOs with free advertising space for protest meetings and a base for collecting online signatures. After Prime Minister Putin signed the amendment to the law “On the Protection of Lake Baikal” (Federal Law №1 2010), the Baikal Movement advertised its protest meetings with homepage banners and collected more than 40,000 online signatures for a letter of protest on Babr.ru. Demonstrating the effectiveness of Internet resources, only several thousand “paper” signatures were collected during protest events held between February and May 2010.

Cooperation and funding – In Irkutsk, environmental organizations are poorly unified, although the fact that they often pursue similar initiatives makes cooperation a future possibility. For example, among organizations with environmental education initiatives, Great Baikal Trail regularly hosts an environmental education expert and trainer from the United States Forest Service; the Irkutsk Children’s Library (Юношеская библиотека именна Уткина) has large meeting room, existing positive relations with teachers from a number of local primary schools, and a large library of environmentally-focused materials; and Baikal Ecological Network has successfully developed relations with the local officials of the Russian Ministry of Education and developed international publication partnerships. However, these organizations are largely isolated from each other and do not take full advantage of each other’s resources to reach common goals.

Most environmental leaders blame this lack of cooperation on the “Russian mentality,” saying that Russians by nature work in closed systems without “outreach.” An additional explanation is the greatly individualized character and loose organizational structure which characterizes organizations in the highly selective, post-soviet NGO environment. The influx and later dearth of international grant funding for environmental initiatives created a huge swell and later “pruning” of environmental organizations in Irkutsk (Zular 2003). Only flexible organizations that found highly specialized niches in environmental and public spheres were able to remain viable. Thus, many organizations, after being forced to find ways to remain financially viable on their own, have developed unique grassroots financial and organizational structures which make cooperation and integration with other organizations difficult.

Some organizations have found financial support in commercial operations. The Irkutsk State University Botanical Garden, for example, receives very few funds from university coffers and supports its diverse programs through sales of ornamental and garden plants. Other organizations find support through partnerships with local government. “New Squares for Our Favorite City” (Любимому городу новые скверы), a city greening project, created a partnership with the Irkutsk municipal government and a local NGO, “We’ll Do It Together” (Сделаем вместе), after the NGO won a government-sponsored contest for the best partner organization.

  • EcoNationalism and dissidence

Members of various civic movements in Russia have expressed exasperation and suspicion (Sopronenko 2009), as well as helplessness and disillusionment (Metzo 2009) (personal interview 2010), when asked about their dealings with the federal government. These observations bring to mind theories which postulate that nationalism develops to fill a self-identification void created when citizens feel disillusioned and disconnected with their government (Brown 2000).

Young environmentalists in the 1960s became disillusioned with the communist government they had once idolized after bureaucrats were staunchly unsupportive of environmental projects and initiatives (see discussion of Kedrograd forestry experiment in Weiner 1999). Key Russian nationalists and dissidents arose from this group and propagated nationalistic and anti-government ideas throughout Russia.

Today, those on the political fringe are often those who participate most actively in the politically-focused sector of the environmental movement. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, a radical’s already disfavored political position leaves him, so to speak, with nothing to lose by participating in politically unpopular NGOs, and, secondly, nationalistic tendencies make protection of the homeland from outside interests attractive. Examples from the Irkutsk environmental movement may illustrate this “radicalization” trend. Irkutsk anarchists as well as members of the banned political movement National Bolsheviks (НацБол) and the more-tempered Other Russia (Другая Россия) all have active representatives in Irkutsk environmental organizations. Although the percentage of these members is relatively low, anti-Putin slogans, chants and posters were nonetheless conspicuously included at every large protest meeting against the re-opening of the Baikal Cellulose Factory that was organized in Irkutsk from February through April 2010 (personal observation). One particularly memorable banner pictured a baby nerpa (Baikal seal) with the slogan “Don’t kill me, Putin.” Furthermore, active attendees of the Baikal Movement meetings nearly unanimously agree that the Baikal Movement is both unavoidably political and unavoidably anti-United Russia (Единая Россия, Russia’s current party of power).

Instances of foreign partners not offering the help that is anticipated could lend further support to isolationist, nationalistic tendencies. For example, the signatures collected against the reopening of the Baikalsk cellulose plant in 2010, discussed above, were among a total of 125 thousand sent to UNESCO officials and the Kremlin in the spring of 2010 (personal communication, 2010) Lake Baikal and some of the surrounding region is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. While the silence from Russian officials was more-or-less expected, from the point of view of Irkutsk activists, the impressive fruits of their efforts were met with a disappointing lack of urgency by USESCO officials, who plan to visit the region only in Spring, 2011 and present a report during the 35th UNESCO meeting in Bahrain, June, 2011 (personal email communication, documents still unavailable online). Even as environmentalists took advantage of new, western agitation styles (use of the Internet, for example) and, from their point of view, “played by” all the necessary western “rules,” western help was not forthcoming. Feelings of betrayal and disappointment in western partners, which parallel those toward the Russian government, could support the notion that Siberians must protect their own lands, setting the stage for a resurgence of eco-nationalist sentiments.

Section 3: Psychological

Commentators and researchers are often unable to contain their wonder at Lake Baikal’s beauty, even as they introduce technically-based characterizations of history, geography, or ecology. They often open with normative, emotion-laden introductions, using phrases like “adjectives fail” (Weiner 1999, 356) and “most remarkable” (Pyrde, 84 in Weiner 1999, 356) to describe Lake Baikal. These qualities assert a significant psychological and aesthetic influence over those who are otherwise interested in positivist and evaluative issues. Psychologically-based interactions with nature are significant in the current investigation of environmental politics; these interactions effect how leaders and members of the environmental movement perceive and interact with nature and, furthermore, how they engage in environmental politics.

Three concepts related to environmental psychology will be discussed: environment-behavior interactions, place attachment, and worldview. Each of these concepts can be applied to better understand humans’ interactions with nature and, more specifically,  the effectiveness of local environmental organizations, the extent to which relationships with local spaces affect political behavior, and the influence of Western attitudes on the contemporary Russian environmental movement.

  • Environment and behavior

Interactions between humans and the ecological environment have been interpreted by some as a suite of stimulus-response processes, a proposal which is clearly influenced by the early theories of B.F. Skinner (Skinner 1953). Other researchers have taken a more nuanced view of the stimulus-response relationship, investigating, for example, how the physical environment can affect the frequency of “green” behaviors such as picking up litter or participating in recycling programs (Cone and Hayes 1980). Researchers have sought to apply the knowledge gained from behavioral experiments to advocate for certain urban design plans (Bechtel 1977) or to craft community programs and infrastructure to promote “green” behavior (Cone and Hayes 1980).

This research suggests that environmental organizations’ initiatives should be based upon local experimentation. However, Russian NGOs are currently accused of disregarding the needs of communities (Henderson 2003) (Henry 2009) as communication and cooperation with international organizations shifts their attention toward global trends. These assertions may be corroborated by evaluating the degree to which an understanding of environment-behavior interactions is utilized in local NGO-designed programs.

For example, an anti-litter propaganda campaign which does not take into account local infrastructural deficits in waste management could be accused of failing to recognize and properly incorporate existing environment-behavior relationships. Such a program fails to truly meet local needs, and focuses instead on outward propaganda like attractive color posters or on the application of concepts which are ill-suited to the local context.

Such a deficit of localism can be illustrated by a case study of the application of the ecotourism concept in the Baikal region. Tourism officials and others have heralded the Western ecotourism concept as a sustainable development option, but have failed to unite the psychological and infrastructural aspects of this development theory. Russian infrastructure and mentality is, in many important ways, incompatible with the ecotourism models that have been developed in Western Europe and the United States which emphasize long-term cultural development and slow-growth economic gains. The desperate state of the Russian economy, coupled with an exploitationist perception of nature that was nurtured during the long Soviet period, make Western ecotourism initiatives inappropriate for the Russian context. Unsurprisingly, many who have worked in Russia’s ecotourism field note that this rapidly growing sector has negatively affected the Baikal ecosystem (personal interviews, 2010).

The misapplication of foreign eco-concepts is also illustrated by “ecological” activities that are used as PR events for organizations and companies. Often, more focus is often placed on the quantity of people who show up at an ecological event, such as a park cleanup day, than on the outcome of the event (was the park cleaned?). For example, a Subbotnik cleanup day in Kayskaja Rosha, Irkusk in Spring 2010 was valued by organizers as a visually attractive TV news spot; they failed to address the prevailing garbage dumping problem which continues to be a stark local environmental problem. Unfortunately, not all “ecological” initiatives are well-connected with encouraging long-term eco-friendly behaviors and habits.

  • Sense of place

Other researchers view the environment as a more complex matrix of not only physical, but also social, evolutionary, and symbolic factors which shape attachments, attitudes, and behaviors. They generally refer to the cumulative relationship between an individual and his natural environment as “sense of place.” An individual’s sense of place refers to that individual’s experience living and interacting in the local physical and social environment and how he or she, in turn, feels about this space.

Strong place attachments are particularly notable among native peoples, who often closely associate personal and geographical identity. The Buryat, an indigenous people of the Baikal region, have developed strong attachments to hundreds of sacred sites in the Tunka National Forest, located to the south of Lake Baikal (Metzo 2009) and throughout Irkutsk oblast, including in the Baikal National Park on Lake Baikal (personal communication 2010).

Recently, indigenous peoples have been active in working against governmental initiatives to open up native lands for resource exploitation (Donahoe 2009). Minorities have argued that their places are critical to the maintenance of their cultural and religious integrity (a guaranteed right under the Russian Constitution and the Forest Code). In this case, place, cultural traditions, and history have created a collective social attachment, which provides a salient impetus for political action when these places are threatened (Altman and Wolhill 1983).

Many of the efforts to protect specific places and traditions take place at a markedly local level. For example, in the small village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, in Baikal National Park, residents have mobilized to preserve their environmental and cultural heritage. Local teacher Faina Petrovna Mangaskina and members of her family actively invite environmental educators to the village school and have begun developing cultural heritage materials with the help of a western grant. Further, the family coordinates international education projects with the volunteer ecotourism organization Great Baikal Trail (personal communication 2010). Mangaskina feels an urgency to develop sustainable ecological and economic practices, as she witnesses uncontrolled construction deny local residents access to natural and recreational resources that they depend on. While she believes grassroots efforts can help solve these problems, political pressure and inaccessibility often create discouraging and frustrating barriers.

As is the case in Bolshoe Goloustnoe and many other locations, the main strategy used for strengthening the psychological connections between “green” environmental attitudes and “ecological” behaviors is through environmental education programs. The uniting lament of ecologists and NGO leaders is that Russians lack “ecological culture” (экологическое воспитание; экологическая культура). Many local residents know the lake and its ecosystem very well, but they lack an understanding of the negative effects of human activities on the lake ecosystem as a whole; this, coupled with a lack of waste disposal infrastructure, makes dumping and polluting commonplace (personal interviews 2010).

Research suggests that social priming shapes behaviors in certain physical environments (Barker 1968) by altering the experiences that shape place attachments and establish linkages between attitudes and their “objects” (Ajzen 1991). Thus, place attachment (and the resulting theoretical desire to protect a certain area) would not necessarily elicit observable “green” behaviors like picking up litter, unless a strong association between attachment and behavior had been created. To create the lasting environment-behavior connections that will help to shape a more ecological society, environmental educators must be careful not to alienate or intimidate their program participants. Insensitivity towards local habits and traditions can create animosity toward the educator or the subject matter.

Today, environmental education is a popular way to shape ecological worldviews, but it is not the only way. Journalists and literary figures have played an unusually prominent role in framing the Baikal environmental movement and generating public support (Lubomudrov 1978). Authors have used literary images of Lake Baikal beauty to craft “abstract landscape symbols” (Riley 1992), which promoted place attachments to the Baikal region. Writers of “village prose” such as Valentin Rasputin and Vladimir Chivilikhin propagated ideas of protecting nature and images of the threatened natural beauty of Lake Baikal throughout Russia (see discussion of Chivilikhin’s work “Sacred Eye of Siberia” in Weiner 1999)(Rasputin 1991). “[J]ust as a flag, slogan, or caricature [can become]…a symbol of a community or nation” (Altman and Wolhill 1983), it is possible that the literary images of Lake Baikal became symbols of Siberian wilderness to which environmentalists, as well as the general Russian public, grew attached.

Lake Baikal continues to be a popular symbol of pure and distinctly Russian nature. Young artists draw on Rasputin’s works to create ecologically-motivated art, and excerpts from Rasputin’s writings and telegrams are read at environmental meetings (personal observations 2010). To build place attachments in non-residents, environmental organizations, and especially those active on the international level, emphasize natural beauty and encourage protecting the lake for its own sake. The desire to see the “pearl of Siberia” fostered by these long-distance place attachments forms the emotional basis of a growing tourism industry in the Baikal region which, ironically, may foster more environmental damage than protection.

  • Worldview

Worldview research sees the environment as an abstract object of socially-influenced attitudes, which may or may not influence behavior. Worldview research does not focus on an individual’s experiences in a particular place, but is more interested in discerning broad attitudinal trends, such as the shift from Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP—the traditional, Judeo-Christian-inspired attitude of human dominance over nature) to a more ecologically-friendly worldview which recognizes resource limitations. Several survey indices have been developed to measure this shift, but one scale, the 15-question New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) survey index, has gained prominence (Dunlap et al. 2000). This survey index measures the respondents’ degree of agreement with human exceptionalism, professed level of anti-anthropocentrism, assuredness in an emerging eco-crisis, acknowledgement of limits to growth, and the belief that nature exists in a fragile balance.

While the scale has been popular internationally, Oleg Yanitsky, a prominent scholar of Russian environmental attitudes and movements, claims that results from NEP surveys in Russia will produce disputable results, since the NEP scale is designed to measure divergence from a distinctly Western DSP which has never been influential in Russia. Since Russians have a different starting point, NEP scores from Russian respondents may not be comparable to scores from Westerners (Yanitsky 2000) (personal interview 2010).

Despite this, NEP scores from Russian respondents may still be valuable. If scores are interpreted as a level of current adherence to the western NEP, rather than a measure of divergence from a given traditional environmental attitude, then use of the NEP in non-Western cultures can indicate the degree to which these cultures have been influenced by Western environmental ideology. Meta-analysis of NEP surveying in a variety of international contexts suggests that this (re)interpretation of NEP scores may be valid (Milfont, Hawcroft, and Fischer (unpublished material) cited in Dunlap 2008).

While the Russian environmental movement was well established and relatively isolated before the breakup of the Soviet Union, since then environmental organizations have received copious support from Western funders. In the process, organizational leaders have sought to frame their initiatives in Western-style grant proposals and to coordinate partnerships with Western organizations. For example, Baikal Environmental Wave, Baikal Ecological Network, Great Baikal Trail, Rebirth of Siberian Lands and other Irkutsk environmental organizations have, at some point in their history, all received international grant monies.

Further, leaders of many NGOs (such as Baikal Wave and Rebirth of Siberian Lands) attend international conferences or maintain active partnerships with organizations in Europe and North America. Russian activists sometimes rely on these partners for political leverage when access to the Russian political elite proves unavailable. Baikal Wave, for example, sought support from high-level German officials to block the re-opening of the Baikalsk cellulose plant and collected signatures for a letter sent to international UNESCO officials.

This type of political strategy, based on interactions with international partners, strongly affects the way that Russian and, in particular, Irkutsk environmental activists perceive their role in the Russian environmental debate and in global political and environmental spheres. In part to measure the extent of this “westernizing” effect, the author of this paper conducted a survey of leaders and members of environmental organizations in Irkutsk in the spring of 2010. As a whole, this survey sought to discern how psychological relationships between humans and their ecosystem affect behavior in everyday as well as political arenas. The NEP survey index was included in the survey as a way to measure adherence to Western “ecological” worldviews.

The results of this survey provide support to the hypothesis that those who are active in environmental organizations in Irkutsk have developed attitudes in agreement with the NEP. Although the target population of active environmental organization leaders and members was limited and, as a result, the sample size was relatively small, respondents on average demonstrated very robust agreement with nearly all of the questions (12 out of 15) included in the NEP index (unpublished personal data 2010). While a lack of longitudinal statistical data complicates interpretation, these results suggest that a re-interpretation of NEP scores relative to Yanitsky’s criticism may be valid. In light of the historical context of the environmental movement in Irkutsk, which was very isolated and distinctly Russian before the fall of the Soviet Union and later rapidly Westernized, it may be valid to interpret today’s adherence to NEP as a movement toward Western attitudes rather than a distancing from traditional Russian worldviews.

Nonetheless, there is one, perhaps uniquely Russian, peculiarity which may hint at the complex nature of Russian environmental attitudes. The three NEP index questions for which respondents demonstrated the lowest average agreement (less than three points out of five) are all related to the future ability of mankind to understand and/or exploit natural resources.

In Irkutsk, special attention to temporal variation among questions can possibly be explained by rapid changes in social, economic, and political norms occurring during respondents’ lifetimes. In disagreement with NEP attitudes, Irkutsk respondents are more inclined to believe that the exponential progress that they have observed over the past ten years (see, for example, “Dear Pleasure” 2010) will continue, allowing them to better understand nature, more effectively exploit resources, and effectively correct the environmental problems that could make the world unlivable.

Administration of the NEP in a variety of contexts has shown that members of Western environmental organizations typically have high NEP scores (Dunlap and VanLiere 1978). However, for others, even those who have strong environmental concerns, agreement with certain question types has wavered (low internal consistency; Gooch 1995). This may be in part because, in regions where sustenance living takes precedence or economic hardship makes day-to-day-survival difficult, some NEP concepts may seem superfluous. For example, an individual who is negatively affected by a polluting factory may nonetheless rely on employment in that factory to feed his family; a person who experiences a rapid increase in his standard of living may fail to sympathize with attitudes suggesting the ultimate limits of human progress (as discussed above for Irkutsk). Still, it is interesting to note that the separation of future-oriented questions in the NEP index is observed for the first time in this data, even though the NEP scale has been applied in many countries.

Nonetheless, Irkutsk environmental activists, like those in the West, report strong overall agreement with the NEP. However, also like their western partners, they often display day-to-day behaviors that are not commensurate with their “green” attitudes. In a separate section of the survey, respondents were asked to identify how often they engaged in various green behaviors (reusing containers, recycling paper and glass, picking up litter, and encouraging others to live “green”). Even though survey respondents professed overwhelmingly “ecological” attitudes, they engaged in very few “green” behaviors. Respondents scored on average only eleven out of a possible twenty points on the green behaviors index included in the survey.

Still more interestingly, the vast majority of respondents indicated that they fail by choice to participate in green activities. Claiming that “the opportunity to do this is not available in my community” was rare. This was the case even when that activity was, in fact, unavailable in the region (e.g. some types of recycling). This nuance may provide some insight into the way that environmentalists in Irkutsk relate to “green” opportunities; even if the choice to act green is not actually available, from their point of view, they regularly choose not to participate. While the learned helplessness and public apathy that has plagued Soviet and post-Soviet society may be partially to blame for this trend, this author is inclined to think that the overwhelming opaqueness of Russian infrastructure has done even more to encourage civic inactivity. Living in Irkutsk for almost a year, I have come across numerous instances of passionate would-be civic leaders being confused and discouraged by the complexities of governmental and non-governmental bureaucracy.

Fishbein and Ajzen’s theory of reasoned activities suggests that “associations” between attitudes and the object of these attitudes, in this case the attitudes measured by the NEP index and the Baikal region ecosystem, must be created in order to elicit specific behaviors commensurate with these attitudes, in our case “green” behaviors (Bell et al. 2001). In light of the fact that those with high NEP scores do not always engage in “green” behaviors, environmental organizations need to adopt dynamic, cooperative initiatives which work to demonstrate the importance of each individual’s actions for maintaining a level of environmental quality from which all will benefit.

Unfortunately, many of the Western grants available to Irkutsk environmental organizations focus on funding informative publications that are published by isolated organizations (journals, newsletters, textbooks), rather than integrated programs designed specifically to suit the Baikal region and encourage partnerships among local organizations. This author’s observations suggest that cooperation between organizations, especially in the less politically charged environmental education sphere, could be fruitful. However, organizational barriers, which have been reinforced by an unstable social and political climate, complicate cooperation efforts, and expectations for productive partnerships may not be realistic.


While personal resolve and dedication to environmental causes is not lacking among the leaders and members of environmental organizations, Russia’s current political climate as it relates to environmental organizations is less than supportive, if not outright subversive. Governmental hostility toward civic organizations has limited the ability of civic organizations to function. Many have been driven to the fringes of the Russian political sphere and seek support from the global environmental movement outside of Russia. In light of this ecological and political context, NGO leaders and members have developed unique relationships and impressions of the world around them which, in turn, affect their behavior within their respective organizations.

Westernization supports an ecological worldview, while inadequate social, technical, and political infrastructure has failed to provide the necessary opportunities to realize an ecologically sustainable way of life. Caught between ecological attitudes and destructive behaviors, and discredited by national politics, ecological organizations in Irkutsk must develop dynamic and cooperative programs to unite disparate interests in the environmental movement.

The author welcomes commentary and can be reached by email at sarahbeckham164@hotmail.com

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About the Author

Sarah Beckham Hooff

Sarah Beckham Hooff was awarded the 2008-2009 SRAS Research award to conduct the research for this paper in Irkutsk and around Lake Baikal. She returned to Irkutsk, Russia with the assistance of a Fulbright Student Research Grant in September 2010 to continue her research. She hopes to pursue a career in international environmental conservation.

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