A Step Towards Understanding Russian Environmental Policy 


© Polina Bublik

The Soviet Union’s emphasis on heavy industrial development and blatant disregard for the environment has left Russia facing numerous environmental problems. In early Soviet times, the natural environment was considered the background of industrialization, which unambiguously depicted a poster Smoke of Chimneys is The Breath of Soviet Russia. Apparently, the priorities were different then. Soviet policymaking in the polar regions was undertaken for economic, military and strategic gains and was far from being called sustainable.

Considering the Arctic historical legacy of the Soviet era, both Russian and Western researchers agree that it mostly regards the resource extraction and exploitation (not development!) of the northernmost areas, as well as government’s attempts to establish a management system in the region for better implementation of large-scale economic plans, so-called Soviet five-year plans, that simply turned a blind eye to many shortcomings. The operation of weather stations, mining installations and military facilities is fairly assessed in anti-environmental terms, because thousand tonnes of waste and garbage have been left on the islands and coastal areas of the Arctic Ocean for 70 years.

Now criticism of the USSR by inertia confuses the utilitarian approach to nature and natural resources with violations of human rights, attitudes towards non-Russian ethnic groups on the territory of the Soviet republics, etc. It seems that both people and nature suffered equally in the USSR. To be honest, in this case the Soviet Union differed little from most countries in the 20th century that sought to capitalize natural wealth using modern technology. Until the early 1960s neither the USA, nor the UK, Germany or France realized how serious the consequences of industrial impact on the environment might be. The situation began to change in the 1960-1980s, when environmental issues in western countries had become a growing concern of the public and resulted in various environmental initiatives and protest movements.

Could someone imagine cases of environmental protest in Soviet Russia? Generally, environmental studies as an independent field of knowledge, not to mention the concept of social and environmental responsibility, did not exist.

Nowadays, the scientific development and the emergence of environmental studies as an independent discipline allows to understand what exactly the breathing of chimneys entails, big business and industries are gradually transforming and adapting to new conditions. In this regard, some notable efforts are being made by the Russian Arctic enterprises to revise their operational procedures and become somehow more sustainable, given the natural resource capacity of the region. Most important, they belong to the first, the highest hazard class and are identified as facilities with cumulative emissions at least 60% of total industrial emissions in the country. It refers to oil and gas production, coal mining, the development of ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy, pulp and paper industry.

Perhaps, the incentive for changes in dangerous northern enterprises operation served the accident in Norilsk in May 2020, known as the largest oil spill in the Russian Arctic. Then 6,000 tonnes of diesel spilled into the ground from the damaged storage facility. The rest went into the Ambarnaya River and its right tributary Daldykan, which flow into the large Pyasino Lake. This 70-km lake feeds into the Pyasina River, which flows into the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean. Russia-based MMC Nornickel, the world's largest producer of palladium and nickel, as well as one of the leading producers of platinum, cobalt and other metals, bore responsibility for the environmental disaster. The company fully compensated for tangible damage and informed the public about the progress of elimination, restoration and reclamation work.

In many respects the Soviet past and following insufficient attention to environmental risk management, indeed, until the early 2020s shaped the defensive nature of Russia’s environmental policy and way of thinking. This fits with the rapid reaction of Nornickel that launched a comprehensive multi-stage green strategy, which includes a number of unprecedented measures on environmental protection. The main pollutant is sulfur dioxide, a colorless toxic gas that causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This gas is considered toxic, but only in high concentrations, because in everyday life we encounter it from time to time. Burning sulfur from the matches, sulfur-containing fuel and coal at thermal power station.. So, in 2021, company finalized an independent verification of the methodology for calculating carbon dioxide emissions and developed a roadmap to reduce SO2 emissions at the sites in Taimyr and the Kola Peninsula. At the first stage, the Sulfur Programme was the closure of the metallurgical shop of the Kola MMC in Monchegorsk and one smelter near the village of Nikel on the Kola Peninsula which helped reduce emissions by 85%. Since then, instead of processing the concentrate on site, the raw materials are delivered to Norilsk to the main industrial site, where a giant plant for the production of gypsum from SO2 operates. Gypsum is absolutely harmless, it can be stored for an indefinite span of time and can also be used in production.

In autumn 2023, the company launched the Sulfur Programme 2.0 at the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant (NMP) and the Copper Plant in Taimyr. So far, 15 new facilities and related infrastructure have been built. The work covers the area comparable to seven football fields.. The company has excavated 300,000 cubic meters of land, poured almost 95,000 cubic meters of concrete, installed about 14,000 tonnes of metal constructions and more than 36,000 square meters of sandwich panels, finished the construction of the primary dam and the gypsum storage facility. Besides, the programme implies the creation of more than 500 new jobs at NMP. Also, it is expected to hire up to 5,000 workers and specialists.

Currently open access data about the corporate approaches to biodiversity conservation, green technologies and ongoing research projects is especially helpful to hydrochemists, botanists, zoologists and soil scientists. Scientists look into how microorganisms living at the bottom of Arctic lakes decompose heavy fractions of petroleum products. The results may be of interest to the world community, because no one will deliberately pollute aquatic ecosystems for the sake of research, and companies will hardly advertise environmental pollution that occurred through their fault. The opportunity to study these processes in the natural environment is unique.

Following the diesel spill accident, the developed permafrost monitoring system looks quite promising scientific and technological output. Why nobody cared about this before 2020? The system aims to assess the impact of permafrost thawing in the Norilsk region and manage the risks of accidents. It offers wells network for permafrost monitoring, some future plans involve the development of a 3D model of surface geology of region. Today, Russian specialists can evaluate the need and feasibility of installing thermal stabilizing systems or other technical solutions in the field of safe building and construction operation on permafrost soils. Also, currently big businesses attempt to keep dialogue with indigenous peoples, although no significant results have been achieved in this area so far. The time has come indeed, because the absence of such a policy would be comparable to a reluctance to adhere to environmental or human rights standards.

Anyway, it takes time for big companies operating in the Arctic to become environmentally responsible, but this process is inevitable. Scholars sort out three considerations guided the Russian business taking on social and environmental obligations in the Arctic: first, the desire to increase their attractiveness as business partners, second, to justify the legitimacy of their economic activities in the region and, finally, to adopt to changing political environment in order to reduce the likelihood of the state creating inconvenient rules and regulations for companies[1]. Moreover, the introduction of the concept of corporate social and environmental responsibility (CSR strategy) is considered a definite step towards reforming Russian socio-economic, political and legal system. Companies’ assumption of the role of good citizens of society is expected to facilitate the elimination of corruption, grey economy, lack of transparency in corporate and political procedures, etc.

This process is also fueled by the fact that Russia, the same as in the West, needs cutting-edge analysis of the consequences of renewable energy consumption, green economic growth, green technology, etc. Nobody can give a definite answer to the questions: where to dispose of solar panels, whether water generators are really environmentally friendly when they create electromagnetic fields and fish take other routes.. What is the greenest energy source: nuclear power or natural gas? A recent study by the American Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that deep decarbonization, or the production of clean electricity is not sufficient to achieve net-zero economy-wide emissions by 2050. It requires carbon removal technologies, which will cost governments a quadrillion dollars.

I believe that the origins of Russians’ attitude to environmental problems and nature as such, perhaps, are in values. The difference is that in the West, such principles as NIMBY, i.e. not into my backyard, or BANANA, i.e. build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, are the driving force behind the participation and struggle of citizens against the construction of environmentally hazardous facilities. As for Russia, such individualism is part of the survival strategy. In relation to everything that does not directly contribute to survival of his or her family, the Russian, unfortunately, is apathetic. The passivity in relation to environmental problems distinguishes the mentality of Russians. Taking into account these national features, we contribute to the West/non-West dialogue in the field of environment and climate change.

[1] Bobylev N. G., Gadal S., Sergunin A. A., Tynkkynen V.-P. Corporate social and environmental responsibilities in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation: theoretical and methodological approaches // Corporate Governance and Innovative Economic Development of the North: Bulletin of the Research Center of Corporate Law, Management and Venture Investment of Syktyvkar State University. 2021. Vol. 1, issue 1. Р. 15— 21.

Ekaterina V. Serova, 

Deputy Director, The Arctic Centre, PetrSU

Doctoral student, School of International Relations, SPbU



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