An Outlet for Political Dissent: environmentalism in the Soviet Union then and now6 min read
December marked 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Be it the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, a return to Europe or the beginning of a new era of partnership, the event is surely commemorated across the world.
There can be beauty in history’s ability to cast a new light on something old, and one aspect of the dissolution seems particularly pressing in light of today’s reality. Climate change has become a mainstay of political discourse, and the severity of coming changes has inspired a number of movements and protests.
Environmental protests also played varying roles in many Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact states during the late Communist period. The Phosphorite wars in Estonia, protests against coal mines and air pollution in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and of course, outrage caused by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine all played their part in galvanizing political dissent against Communist rule.
While environmental movements were allowed to exist in varying degrees across the Socialist space throughout the post-war era, they functioned as mostly apolitical organizations before Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies and the Chernobyl disaster. These movements educated young people and acted as discussion forums for some circles of intellectuals. When organizations veered into the direction of politics, their complaints were focused on specific local grievances such as opposition to new coal mines, protesting pollution in rivers or worsening air quality in cities. Although these are political issues, the organizations’ argumentation steered clear of making the step of portraying Communist parties as the ultimate culprits of pollution.
Environmental movements became a channel through which dissent could vent itself during the late Communist period. The legitimacy of Communist regimes relied on giving citizens more social well-being than the West could, despite its structural economic inefficiencies. Because of this, Communist Europe was in effect forced to ignore its effect on the environment while it chased greater economic growth. While the environmental situation became increasingly dire, politics in the bloc more liberal, and the socialist economies ever more untenable, environmental concerns quickly became mixed with other grievances.
Protests against phosphorite mines in Estonia – which later became known as the Phosphorite war – are regarded as the catalyst to a national uprising against Soviet rule. Public dissatisfaction became mixed with nationalism as concerns rose over the potential immigration of Russian miners to Estonia. There were fears that this could decrease the already diminishing portion of ethnic Estonians in the republic. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, environmental concerns were also linked to nationalism and human rights. Communist regimes were placed under popular indictment over the ruination of national lands and decreasing quality of life. Environmental demands quickly became a part of popular uprisings that found a common enemy in all complaints. Soon the issue was not the environment, but a political machine that not only ignored dissent but actively tried to dismantle it.
The wide range of issues that brought people together under the environmentalist umbrella also caused these movements to fall into disarray soon after the Communist regimes fell. Environmentalist movements saw their memberships dwindle as the unifying cause of opposing Socialist-led degradation of the environment disappeared.
Democracy was seen as a form of government that would act on the desires of the people, and so, as environmental concerns were present, the perceived need for protests vanished with Communism. Environmental organizations faded into the background of emerging civil societies. As prominent former environmentalists joined governments, found other interests, or stepped back into academia, environmental movements likewise shifted to resemble what they were before; local and apolitical. The remaining organizations found themselves in a new world where their position was uncertain.
The widely adopted neoliberal approach to the post-Communist transition resulted in decreasing funds for environmentalists, and at times caused the sidelining of environmental activists. A brief moment of hope passed by as former activists found themselves prioritizing the economy and focused on nurturing young democratic systems over the environment. In this way, from an environmental point of view, the difference between socialism and capitalism was small.
However, it would be incorrect to say that the newly independent republics merely stayed the course in terms of environmental regulation. As much of Central and Eastern Europe strove for membership in the European Union, its institutions used what leverage they could to ensure the application of effective environmental governance. By establishing strict criteria for membership that included an active role for the state in environmental protection, the EU directed how post-Communist governance took shape, though its ideological teachings were perhaps less nuanced.
Meanwhile, the ideas of Thatcher and Reagan loomed over the transitioning economies. Former environmentally-minded dissidents were either forced to reshuffle their priorities or matured as neoliberal reformers after emerging from the ranks of environmentalists. In the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus’s government saw the remaining environmentalists as obstacles to economic growth, and therefore, as opponents to the national cause. Environmental movements and nascent Green parties alike did not manage to make their case in a reshuffled ideological field, where the economy reigned. While emerging market economies faced similar pressures across the region, environmental thinking all but disappeared to secure economic growth and the material well-being of citizens. A neoliberal wave washed over from the west, leaving little ideological space for local green thinking to develop.
Climate change and the new dissent
Contemporary political environmentalism is underdeveloped in post-Communist Europe. This is plainly evident in the lack of success of Green parties in the region. Arguably the most successful of the post-Communist Green parties in Hungary seems to owe much of its success to its ability to attach itself to the broader anti-Orbán coalition. In other countries, Green parties have floundered, usually failing to gain any seats in national parliaments and perhaps only a few local seats. A bottom-up, apolitical, environmentalism has deep roots in post-Communist Europe, but Green political thinking has largely failed as a Western export because, in the first decades of renewed independence, it had to compete with both the desire to join the EU and the popular drive to, simply, “have the same stuff” as the Western neighbours did.
Yet, after 30 years, significant economic development has occurred and a generation that has never known socialism has grown up in a world where the need for Green thinking is ever more apparent. It has a long way to go, but Green ideology has the potential to be the first genuinely new and universal paradigm of political thinking since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The green transition is already here. Where are the post-Communist Greens? Who are they?
Contemporary politics is divided between those for globalization and those against it. In post-Socialist states, Greens have been unable to solve debates within their parties and have failed to politicize the environment in an ideologically coherent way. Their policy solutions vary from outright rejections of capitalism to technocratic solutions tweaking a global economy. This, along with increasing public pressure to mitigate climate change, has resulted in environmental issues being absorbed as a list of watered-down policy solutions among the neoliberal consensus, while Green parties stand relatively isolated as the pioneers of an unready ideology that attracts few.
Environmentalists in the Soviet sphere were inspired by the democratic alternative that the West represented, but once that alternative was adopted, environmentalists were stuck between conceding to its neoliberal manifestation or advocating for a vague, but Green, alternative.