Tuesday, August 10, 2010


This major news feature was published in the Sunday Times on 9th November 1980. It was an exclusive story that I sold to the paper, having been given advance access to the manuscript of Boris Komarov’s book ‘The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union’, which was published five days after this article’s appearance by Pluto Press in London.

It was an important story and very shocking at the time. Pollution was considered a very western phenomenon and this was the first indication that were serious similar problems in the Soviet bloc. It was my first major feature for the paper, at the age of 30 – a kind of coming of age. The Sunday Times was under the editorship of Harold Evans at that point, with offices in Gray’s Inn Road. It was a great paper at that time.


Illustration: Peter Brookes

The Poisoning of Mother Russia

The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union is a passionate indictment of the Soviet authorities for allowing the country's air, land, water and wildlife t be despoiled, while claiming that serious environmental damage is a capitalist phenomenon. JOHN MAY reports.

‘A FEW YEARS ago an English film was shown on our screens in which a lunatic general hunted deer with ground - to - ground missiles •quipped with heat-seeking warheads. Soviet zoologists and ornithologists commented ironically after seeing it that the English director and script-writer must have really enjoyed making their little fantasy, which ridicules the manic militarist.

"Among the divisions quartered in the Baikal area, however, hunting for deer in this manner has heen a long and serious practice (in contrast to the pure fantasy of our Englishmen). Our rocket officers reasoned quite soberly that they could find no better targets for training troops to shoot ground-to-ground heat-seeking missiles at than wild boar and deer on the run. Startled by the sound of a shot, the animals dash across the wooded hills, and the accurate rockets overtake them wherever they go. Everything is quite logical, everyone sane. . . ."

This is one of the more vivid examples of the environ­mental vandalism, which, according to Boris Komarov, is rife in the Soviet Union. Constitutionally, the state guarantees environmental protection—as well as human rights. In reality, says Komarov, the leading Soviet planning agencies connive at the widespread destruction of nature, and at covering up the disastrous effects of their policies. His assertions in­clude :

* Mining, logging, dumping and erosion have laid waste about 10 per cent of the habit­able land—an area the size of Western Europe.

*Largely because of air pollu­tion, the incidence of lung cancer doubled between the late Sixties and the late Seventies. Each year, 5 to 6 per cent more children are born with genetic defects. One city in the Urals set up a special workers' brigade to clear dirt and soot from the rooftops every three months— otherwise, the roofs would collapse.

*Newspapers and television stress how Western capitalists are polluting the world, butsay nothing about pollution in Russia. " Showcase examples " of good ecological management are used to deceive both Soviet citizens and foreign visitors.


Satellite picture of the Cheliabinsk plant. In the intervening years, the full story of the accident have come to light. Source: Global Security

*Soviet authorities covered up an explosion of nuclear wastes in 1958—a claim made four years ago by Dr Zhores Medvedev, a Russian biologist now living in London. Komarov says the explosion happened near the city of Cheliabinsk, in the industrial Urals, and that all crops, animals and homes in the area were destroyed; the popu­lation was evacuated for a radius of at least 200 kilometers. "It was only chance that the radioactive cloud did not reach Sverdlovsk a city north of
Cheliabinsk but passed over a comparatively sparsely populated region. The number of victims remains a secret to this day."

* The small Sea of Azov, ad­joining the Black Sea, has be­come " a latrine." with levels of oil pollution reaching 100 times the officially permitted maximum concentrations. It was once the most productive body of water in the world, yielding three times as much fish as the Black Sea, the Caspian, and the Baltic put together. The current yearly catch of about 3,000 tons is one ninetieth of what was taken in the postwar period.

*The poaching of wild ani­mals and birds—encouraged by the scarcity of fresh meat in the shops—is virtually uncontrolled. Wildlife reserves are routinely plundered, especially by top-ranking officials and the mili­tary. " Eagles, hobbies, kites and
other birds of prey are wiped out from military helicopters just for practice." In 1976, a commander of the Strategic Missile Forces was prosecuted for shooting I5 polar bears from a helicopter, using an automatic rifle in a special turret.

*Chemical effluents are des­troying the unique eco-system of Lake Baikal in central Sibe­ria—the deepest lake in the world, and the largest volume of freshwater. The damage will be increased by the construction of a secret industrial complex— including lead and zinc mines— on the Kholodnaia River, to the north of the lake.


baikal2 Source: Pacific Environment

“LAKE BAIKAL has inspired both poets and chroniclers of amazing phenomena. “Baikal," wrote the Soviet historian Leonid Leonov, is not only a priceless basin of living water but also a part our souls." And the Guinncss Book of Records gives it a double entry—for depth (6,365 feet) and capacity (5,520 cubic miles). The story of its pollution shows in detail how Soviet agencies collude in the destruction of natural resources, while pay­ing lip-service to environmental principles. Baikal is 25 mil­lion years old, but Komarov claims that chemical wastes have brought it to “the brink of irreversible change " in a single decade.

The public first learned of the plan to build two paper and pulp combines on the lake shores through a disquieting essay in the maga­zine October in 1963. The writer said that the plant— construction of which had already begun – was threatening to poison the lake and ruin the surrounding forests. In fact, says Komarov, scientific experts had been opposing the Baikal scheme since its proposal in the late Fifties, but the State Planning Committee had pressed on regardless. Neither Siberian nor Moscow scien­tists — let alone ordinary citizens — had been allowed up see details of the project. The real pressure to build the plant had come from the Ministry of Defence, which cited the  “strategic interests d the country.” The Ministry wanted a domestic supply of durable cord for bomber tyres, then being imported from Canada and Sweden. Only two sites could provide the huge quantities of clean water needed for the manu­facturing process: Baikal and Lake Ladoga. But Ladoga, near Leningrad, was already surrounded by industry and the chief source of drinking water for the city.

To  allay the widespread concern that followed the October article, it was announced that the most sophisticated and costly treat­ment facilities in the world would be built at the Baikal combines. A special commis­sion, set up by the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, confirmed in 1966 that the measures to protect the lake were effective, and, on the whole, adequate.

Komarov reveals, however, that the published report was a whitewash. In fact it was the fourth report produced by the commission; the three previous versions had been rejected because they failed to approve of the combine. He quotes a first-hand account from a member of the com­mission:

‘We submitted our report to the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, A. P. Vinogradov. He took a look at our conclusions and immediately sent the report back to us. "You maintain that the Baikal com­bines will prove fatal to the lake. Rut how can this be ? The government decides to build, and you say “impossible…” Take your report and do some work on it.” That is hen the real arm-twisting began. Elementary arithmetic showed that, even after treatment, effluents con­taining dissolved matter each year would clump more than 30,000 tons of sodium sulfides and chlorides, toxic lignin, foul-smelling mercaptan com­pounds, and the like into Baikal. The concentration of mineral compounds in the waste waters after purification would be 30 to 40 times higher than the normal Baikal levels. . . . There was, it seemed, no way out. Neither the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences nor Vinogradov could object to our work. But no means were spared. To oppose our com­mission the Presidium created its own commission, consisting of chemists. At its head put Zhavoronkov, an academic­ian, secretary of the chemistry department, a government man who knew what the Presidium needed. “

At one subsequent meeting, says the commission member, " one old academician began to scream at us: ' But why are we going on so about this Baikal? Pollute it if we have to. Now we have nuclear energy, and if later we have to, we cam easily make a big pit and fill it with water, and that's it. We'll make Baikal again '."

Two more versions of the commission's report were re­jected. In a fourth report, the authors dropped their categorical conclusion that " construction would be ruin­ous for the lake." There were conditions, however: a pipe­line should be built to dis­pose of waste waters over a ridge into the Irkut river; a national park should be created; and there should be extensive restricted zones around the lake where no wood pulp would be pro­cessed. Komarov claims that at his time of writing, in 1977, almost all of these conditions were still in "the discussion and design stage."

Meanwhile  Lake Baikal had suffered a decade of defilement. A second report of the Academy of Sciences re­ported in 1975-6 that the com­bine should be shut down and re-equipped for environment­ally safe production.

The report pointed out that a tiny crustacean—epishura —formed the first link in a food chain that supported all the fauna of the lake, including whitefish, cod, grayling and seals. The ephishura lived only in Lake Baikal, dying even if kept in pure Baikal water in a laboratory test tube.

Ephisura are not only an ir­replaceable food. They also act as a potent biological filter, helping to extract about 250,000 tons of calcium a year from the waters of the rivers flowing into the lake. They are responsible for the unique purity of the Baikal water, and for its satura­tion with oxygen even in winter.

Epishura die in the (sup­posedly purified) effluents from the paper and pulp combine, even when these effluents are diluted 20, 60 and 100 times. The crustacean is becoming extinct for several square kilo­meters around the plant.

Algae are flourishing in the southern part of the lake—some­thing previously thought im­possible—and fish are becoming infested with worms. There are constant breakdowns in the combine's purification equip­ment, and at these times the sewage entering the lake is hundreds of times more toxic than usual.

" Pollution has even begun to interfere with the operations of the combine itself," writes Komarov. " It now extracts water that it has polluted itself and is unable to do the job it was built for—produce a specially durable cord for tyres. However, this no longer bothers anyone—since 1964, before the BPPC had been completed, such cord has been made from petroleum."

So, asks Komarov: " Why are we slowly but surely destroying the most precious body of water on the planet? " His answer: to produce about 160,000 tons of ordinary cord—a small propor­tion of the nation's needs; 3,000 tons of coarse packaging paper —the kind used to wrap nails; 100,000 tons of nutrient yeast for feeding pigs; and a little turpentine and oil, used in paints

The great mass of Soviet citizens remain ignorant of the pollution of Lake Baikal, thanks to three government resolutions restricting information about it since the alarm of 1963. The latest of these, in 1975, covered not only information about Baikal but any ecological infor­mation in the mass press throughout the country.

" Major ecological problems began with Baikal, but unfortu­nately they will not end with the lake," writes Komarov. " During these years ' the blue orb of Siberia' has become a symbol of hundreds of Russian lakes and rivers being ruined by pollution, a symbol of the smoke-filled sky suffocating forests and people, a symbol of perishing nature."


Boris Komarov, whoever he is, dearly has had access to much restricted information, and understands thee political factors behind environmental decisions. His British publishers, Pluto Press, believe he is " a high official in close touch with the scientific and political establishment," and that he is still living in the Soviet Union.

Harry Rothman, a senior lec­turer at the technology policy unit of the University of Aston, who wrote the foreword to the British edition of Komarov's book, describes him as " an 'insider' who believes that the causes of the Soviet ecological crisis are due to fundamental weaknesses in the socio-economic structures o£ the Soviet Union."

Zhores Medvedcv, the dissi­dent biologist whose claim of a covered-up nuclear disaster is confirmed in the book, says Komarnv is " very well-informed," particularly about chemical contamination. He believes that Komarov probably worked in the chemical indus­try, and " writes from personal experience." He thinks it unlikely that Komarov is a high-ranking official, hecause he does not quote from official documents.

Komarov's book was first pub­lished, in Russian, by Possev-Verlag, an emigre firm based in Frankfurt.




Photo of Ze’ev Wolfson on Jan 26th 2007 by David Rabkin.

All these years later, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, have today discovered who Boris Komarov is: Ze’ev Wolfson

Ze'ev Wolfson was born in 1944 in the USSR. He received a Ph.D degree in Enviromental Policy from Moscow State University in 1978. The work The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union (under pseudonym Boris Komarov) was published in 1979 in the West in eight editions in seven languages. The book was awarded the Gambrinus European Award (Italy) for best book on ecology in 1983. After the Chernobyl disaster he focused his interests on the consequences of developing of nuclear technology, and chemical and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union and in Russia. The author has published numerous articles on these subjects. In September 2000 his work “Syrian-FSU Military Cooperation” was published in NATIV. From 1987 he was affiliated with the Mayrock Center for Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Research of the Hebrew University as a researcher and editor of the Environmental Policy Review and from 1998 as editor of CIS Environmental and Disarmament Yearbook.

Source: Ariel Center for Policy Research

Read the Foreword  by Yurii Shcherbak (Ukraine’s Former Minister of the Environment, leader of Ukraine’s “Green Movementg” and currently Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel) to Boris Komarov’s  ‘The Geography of Survival Ecology in the Post-Soviet Era’ [Published by M.E. Sharpe Inc in 1994]. Available on Google Books.



Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Greenpeace and WWF present 125,000 signatures to UNESCO to save world’s oldest, deepest and largest lake

UNESCO today received a petition of signed by 125,000 people around the world protesting against the re-opening of a paper and pulp mill on the shores of Lake Baikal, a World Heritage site in the Russian Federation.

The petition was presented to UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Francesco Bandarin, by Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), who agreed to bring it to the attention of the World Heritage Committee, when it meets in Brasilia from 25 July to 3 August.

"The World Heritage Committee will discuss the Baikal issue at its meeting in Brasilia, and will offer recommendations and support to Russia to define the most appropriate solutions," Mr Bandarin said.

"We have had, in the past, proof of the Russian Government's commitment to the conservation of World Heritage sites," he added. "We are confident that the authorities will understand that Lake Baikal requires decisions that will effectively protect its conservation."

Greenpeace Russia campaign director Ivan Blokov urged UNESCO "to do everything within it's power to protect Lake Baikal from the catastrophic consequences that would inevitably result from the re-opening of the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill (BPPM) on its shores". "The 125,000 signatures on the petition we have presented to UNESCO today provide ample testimony to the concern of people the world over about this unique site," he said.

Lake Baikal is the deepest, oldest and largest lake in the world, containing 20% of the planet's unfrozen fresh water. Over 25 million years it has developed an extraordinarily rich biodioversity, including a freshwater seal, and is often referred to as the 'Galapagos of Russia'.  It was inscribed on UNESCO's World heritage List in 1996.

Source: UNESCO News

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