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Behind the Poster: Environmental Policy in the USSR

‘April is the month of cleanliness”, declares a serenely smiling sun. Broom at the ready, she reminds us to ‘tidy up our environment’ in this Lithuanian propaganda poster from 1972.

The Policy Behind the Propaganda

It wasn’t a new sentiment. The Soviet Union had been proactive about environmental protection for almost a century already. In the 1890s, ‘Zapovednik’ – essentially nature sanctuaries – had been established across the USSR. Intended to be kept ‘forever wild’, access by the public was restricted in order to protect sites of particular natural or cultural heritage.

Environmental protection was still enough of a priority in 1972 – the same year this poster was published – that both the USSR and the USA signed the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection. Significantly, it was signed at the same summit as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT).  SALT curtailed the manufacture of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and signalled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. That environmental policy was on the same agenda shows quite how seriously it was taken by both superpowers.  

A graveyard of ships kilometres from the shore of the Aral Sea. Credit: Vladimir Mulder

Did the Propaganda Work?

But despite this promising approach to public policy, the USSR still saw one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th century. 

The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world, equivalent to the size of Ireland. In the 1960s, the USSR enlisted prisoners and volunteers to build over 20,000 miles of irrigation canals. The goal was to divert water from the Aral Sea to plains in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where water-intensive crops like cotton and melons could be grown and exported, reducing dependence on international food markets.

The Aral Sea quickly began to quickly recede.  By 2007, it had shrunk to 10% of its original size. The impacts have been catastrophic: islands once used as biological weapon testing sites and dumping grounds have been left exposed. Pesticides and fertilisers have polluted the remaining water supply and soil, leading to rapid desertification. There are high levels of infertility, miscarriages, and complications during pregnancy and in birth in the area, while 60,000 fishermen have lost their livelihood.

It’s not all bad news. Kazakhstan and several NGOs are working to reverse the damage done and life is slowly returning to the Aral Sea. Shop our environmental posters below or explore the collection here.

Flora | Russia | 1990£600.00
Life Threatening | Lithuania | 1983£450.00
The Decoration of Our Homeland is in Your Hands | Russia | 1980£100.00
List of all posters

Further Reading

culture

Final Frontier: The Road of a Million Bones

Snaking through Russia’s wild and unforgiving Far East, small towns dot an otherwise barren and lunar landscape. A single road, the Kolyma Route, connects the furthermost outposts of the former Soviet empire. But, the road is also known by a more sinister name, the ‘Road of Bones’.

culture

The eagle has landed: Hunting with the last eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan

High above the southern shore of Issyk-Kul lake, in east Kyrgyzstan, we wait and watch for movement on the rocky hillside below. Movement means prey. And that means that the hunt is on. For centuries, the nomadic people of Central Asia have used eagles to hunt for food and fur. On one a freezing morning in December, I went hunting with Nur-Sultan, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous eagle hunter.

culture

60 Years in the Making: The Domestication of the Siberian Silver Fox

For millennia, dogs have lived side-by-side with humans. It took thousands of years to domesticate them. Cats have lived amongst humans for more than 4,000 years, but are still only considered semi-domesticated. But, it only took 35 years to domesticate the silver fox in Siberia. For the last 60 years, a team of Soviet geneticists have been running a unique biology experiment which gives us a real-time window into domestication in action.

culture

Soviet Sanatoriums: The Crumbling Remains of Tskaltubo, Georgia

In the USSR, a spa weekend wasn’t a pampered holiday. It was a requisite, prescribed by the Soviet state. In their heyday, millions of citizens across the Soviet Union visited sanatoriums each year, on an all expenses retreat paid for by the state. Today these icons of communism are crumbling, in varying states of decay, with just a few still welcoming guests.

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