This article was published in The Guardian on March 31st 1987.
AFTER Chernobyl and the period of guilty secrecy immediately following the accident, doubts were raised in Western minds about Soviet awareness of and seriousness about ecology and conservation. Perhaps, muttered the pessimistic, it would all end not in the bang of a nuclear war, but in the whimper of radioactive poison spread by Soviet sloppiness.
Evidence that the people of the Soviet Union do care — and that it is, as ever, bureaucracies which fail to take all factors into account — comes this week with the publication of the first modern English language book on Soviet wildlife and the almost Western-style PR hype of the visit of its author to this country.
Conservation is given great prominence in the ‘Natural History of the USSR’ and Algirdas Knystautas, the stylish, blond-haired 30-year-old ornithologist who wrote it, paints an optimistic portrait of the state of the Russian environment. The Soviets' love for the earth, as expressed so often in their literature and music, has, he says, for many years found a practical form in conservation.
"If you look at the roots of conservation," he says, "it's not a recent thing at all. The Astrakhan nature reserve,which is very important in the Volga delta, was created in 1919 by Lenin. More nature reserves are being created and recently huge territories have been withdrawn from any kind of industrial or agricultural activities.
"Taimyr nature reserve is about 1,500,000 hectares, an enormous territory of virgin tundra with about 3,000 red-breasted geese breeding there. They are a symbol of the USSR Ornithological Society. It is definitely improving in all ways. Awareness among the people, especially the people who deal with agriculture and just common people, is very important."
Dr Knystautas was born in Lithuania, in Vilnius, a town of 40,000 inhabitants, and spent his first six years in his grandparents' house "which had a big garden, old trees, many birds nesting and, of course, it was a place to explore." His love of nature is, he says, "just genetics, just inborn. I really do not think that environment had so significant an effect on me.' Birds were always my subject. I've always felt like that and I'm very confident that things happen to me that way, so let them be that way."
His seriousness and his confidence are intimidating. So is his refusal to conform to cultural stereotypes. He is neither tweedy ornithologist nor baggy-suited Soviet scientist. Midway through his lecture and publicity tour of the UK and already a veteran of similar trips to Canada and the USA, he does not resemble his unbecoming book-jacket photo. He is wearing a sharp suit and a fashionably voluminous belted overcoat. And he is talking with a passion and intensity which leaves no room for small talk. And he is not smiling.
His traveller's tales are full of dangers and difficulties, beauties and triumphs. There was his hunt for the Ibisbill, a rare and mysterious wading bird of the Central Asian mountains, pictures of which are seen in this book for the first time in the West. There was the golden eagle he watched hatch on the Aksu-Dzhabagly nature reserve in the Western Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia.
And he almost smiles when he says: "One of the most exciting birds is the Blue-Whistling Thrush which lives on mountain waterfalls and builds the nest just near. You can imagine what sound the waterfall produces, the bird has to sing in those conditions so that the song is heard clearly by other birds. That is really exciting."
Photography is also a passion and one he is extremely serious about — an attitude justified by results. "My love of nature is so strong," he says, "I cannot keep it to myself. What I see I must show people. It is always with me. If I have had a joyous experience or found something very funny in a book, I must share it with someone else. The same is with nature."
There are many willing to be shared with. As in the West, nature programmes are big on Soviet television. There is The Life of Plants, Ecological Diary and, most popular, The World of Animals. There are many magazines, some national, some local. Gerald Durrell was mobbed by readers of his books when he visited the USSR and Sir Peter Scott and other Western naturalists are increasingly turning their attention eastward's for fresh material.
Knystautas stresses that the fight to save the rarer species of fauna and flora is engaged on a mass level. He says: "I think a great deal was done by establishing the Red Data Book. Every republic has its own and ordinary people can go to the authorities and say: 'Look, this bird is breeding just near and what have you done to conserve it?' This is very important."
He adds: "The main difference between problems of natural conservation in the USSR and the West is the fact that in the Soviet Union there is state ownership of the land and it makes it much easier to look after the natural resources because we don't need to make an endless effort, as the World Wildlife Fund or the RSPB do, to buy land from private individuals for enormous, enormous prices."
But don't the layers of bureaucracies make it difficult to pilot ideas and proposals through the system? "You know, nothing ever goes very smoothly at all points. But in my experience a positive response is more usual than a negative one."
The Natural History of the USSR by Algirdas Knystautas is published by Century Hutchinson