Soviet Ecology under Lenin and Stalin

Early Soviet ecology was extraordinarily dynamic. Lenin had strongly embraced ecological values, partly under the influence of Marx and Engels, and was deeply concerned with conservation. He read Vladimir Nikolaevich Sukachev’s Swamps: Their Formation, Development and Properties and was, Douglas Weiner has speculated, “affected by the holistic, ecological spirit of Sukachev’s pioneering text in community ecology.” Immediately after the October 1917 Revolution, Lenin supported the creation of the People’s Commissariat of Education under the leadership of Anatolii Vasil’evich Lunacharskii, which was given responsibility for conservation. In 1924 the All-Russian Conservation Society (VOOP) was created with an initial membership of around one thousand. The Education Commissariat with Lenin’s backing set up the celebrated ecological reserves, known as zapovedniki, of relatively pristine nature, set apart for scientific research. By 1933 there were thirty-three zapovedniki encompassing altogether some 2.7 million hectares.

Key Soviet ecological thinkers, besides Sukachev, included Vladimir Vernadsky, who published his epoch-making The Biosphere in 1926; Alexander Ivanovich Oparin, who in the early 1920s (simultaneously with J.B.S. Haldane in Britain) developed the main theory of the origins of life; and the brilliant plant geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, who discovered the primary sources of germplasm or genetic reservoirs (known as Vavilov areas) tied to the areas of earliest human cultivation around the world—in locations such as Ethiopia, Turkey, Tibet, Mexico, and Peru. Others, such as leading Marxian theorist and close Lenin associate Nikolai Bukharin, and historian of science Y. M. Uranovsky, generalized such discoveries in terms of historical materialism. Bukharin, following Vernadsky, emphasized the human relation to the biosphere and the dialectical interchange between humanity and nature. Zoologist Vladimir Vladimirovich Stanchinskii pioneered the development of energetic analysis of ecological communities (and trophic levels), and was a leading promoter and defender of the zapovedniki. Stanchinskii was the editor of the USSR’s first formal ecology journal. Physicist Boris Hessen achieved worldwide fame for reinterpreting the history and sociology of science in historical materialist terms.

However, with Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin, issues of Soviet conservation and genetics were politicized and bureaucratized within a repressive state. This led to the elimination of many leading scientists and intellectuals, particularly those who questioned Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a dominant figure in Soviet biology for three decades from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s—first through his directorship of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences and then the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Noted scientists who resisted Lysenko’s often exaggerated claims that by various techniques, such as vernalization and hybridization, it was possible to speed up plant growth and generate greater productivity in agriculture, were purged. As a result the USSR in this period lost some of its most creative ecological thinkers. Bukharin, viewed by Stalin as a rival, and Hessen, who was closely associated with Bukharin and Vavilov, were both executed. Vavilov, who had opposed Lysenko on genetics, was imprisoned, where he died a few years later of malnutrition—to be dumped into an unmarked grave.

In 1927, the issue of using the zapovedniki for “acclimatization” research (i.e., removal of wild and/or domestic animals and plants from their original habitat and placement in new habitats in an attempt to transform nature) arose in Soviet biology. Sukachev and Stanchinskii strongly defended the zapovedniki against those promoting the acclimatization agenda, arguing that they should remain inviolable. In 1933, Stanchinskii came directly into conflict with Lysenko (and his chief ally Issak Izrailovich Prezent) regarding the zapovedniki and acclimatization, leading to Stanchinskii’s 1934 arrest, imprisonment, and torture. He was to die in prison (after a second arrest) in 1942.

The consequences for Soviet ecological science, particularly in areas related to agriculture, were disastrous. Membership in VOOP, which had risen to 15,000 by 1932, declined to around 2,500 in 1940. The zapovedniki were converted more and more from reserves for the scientific study of pristine nature into a new role as transformation-of-nature centers.

Nevertheless, in two major areas, forestry and climatology, Soviet ecology continued to develop. One of the key intellectual achievements was Sukachev’s first introduction in 1941, developed more fully in 1944, of the concept of biogeocoenosis (alternatively biogeocoenose), which was to be extraordinarily influential both in the USSR and in the wider world, and was the main rival to Arthur Tansley’s ecosystem category.

A botanist and ecologist, Sukachev had been influenced by Georgii Fedorovich Morozov, considered the founder of Russian scientific forestry, who died in 1920. Morozov helped introduce systemic thinking into Russian ecology by making extensive use of the concept of biocoenosis (or biological community), coined by the German zoologist Karl Möbius in 1877.

Sukachev’s concept of biogeocoenosis was a further development on biocoenosis, intended to incorporate the abiotic environment. It was conceived in dialectical-energetic terms as a more unified and dynamic category than the notion of the ecosystem. The concept of biogeocoenosis grew out of and had an integral connection to Vernadsky’s notions of the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles. According to Sukachev in his landmark 1964 workFundamentals of Forest Biogeocoenology (written with N. Dylis), “The idea of the interaction of all natural phenomenais one of the basic premises of materialistic dialectics, well proved by the founders of the latter, K. Marx and F. Engels.”

“A Biogeocoenose,” as Sukachev famously defined it, is a combination on a specific area of the earth’s surface of homogeneous natural phenomena (atmosphere, mineral strata, vegetable, animal, and microbiotic life, soil, and water conditions), possessing its own specific type of interaction of these components and a definite type of interchange of their matter and energy among themselves and with other natural phenomena, and representing an internally-contradictory dialectical unity, being in constant movement and development.

In a 1960 article he further explained, since the existence of mutual influences or interaction of the components is the most characteristic feature of the [integrative ecological] concept in question, we believe that “biogeocoenosis” (from the Greek words koinos “common” and the prefixes bio “life” and geo “earth,” which emphasize the participation in this general unity of living things and inert elements of the earth’s surface) is the more accurate and descriptive term [as compared with all alternatives].

A biogeocoenosis may be defined as any portion of the earth’s surface containing a well-defined system of interacting living [biotic] (vegetation, animals, microrganisms) and dead [abiotic] (lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere) natural components, i.e., a system of obtaining and transforming matter and energy and exchanging them with neighboring biogeocoenoses and other natural bodies that remain uniform.

The continuous interaction of all the components among themselves and with surrounding natural objects means that each biogeocoenosis is a dynamic phenomenon, constantly moving, changing, and developing.

Hence, “each organism and each specimen,” Sukachev argued, “is in dialectical unity with the environment.” Nevertheless, a key aspect of the ecological condition was that multicellular organisms higher on “the evolutionary ladder”—i.e., characterized by a wider range of adaptive mechanisms and specialization in relation to their environment—experienced a “growth of relative autonomy.” The biogeocoenosis could then be seen as dialectically evolving in complex ways, with organisms actively changing their environments—a reality that demanded specific investigations. “The biogeocoenosis as a whole,” he wrote, “develops through the interaction of all its variable components and in accordance with special laws. The very process of interaction among the components constantly disrupts the established relationships, thereby affecting the evolution of the biogeocoenosis as a whole.”

Like dialectical frameworks in general, Sukachev’s biogeocoenosis (even more than its main conceptual rival, ecosystem) emphasized internal dynamics, contradictory changes, and instability in ecological processes.

The dialectical, integrative approach in Soviet ecology promoted by figures like Morozov and Sukachev, which was rooted in detailed empirical research into specific conditions, led to the recognition of the extent to which forest-ecological-system health was essential to hydrology and the control of climate. This broad ecological understanding helped give rise in 1948 to the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, which was conceived as a grand attempt to reverse anthropogenic regional climate change in deforested areas, with an emphasis on the promotion of watersheds. Already in 1936 the Soviet government had created the Main Administration of Forest Protection and Afforestation, which established “water-protective forests” in wide belts across the country. While forests in parts of the Soviet Union were exploited relentlessly as industrial forests, the best old growth forests of the Russian heartland were protected, with ecological concerns given priority, eventually creating a total “forest preserve the size of France, which grew over time to an area the size of Mexico” (roughly two-thirds of the contiguous United States).

The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, introduced in the context of attempts at ecological restoration following the Second World War, was the most ambitious plan of afforestation in all of history up to that point. It sought to create some 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of entirely new forest in the forest-steppe and steppe regions, and constituted “the world’s first explicit attempt to reverse human-induced climate change.” The trees were planted in shelterbelts along rivers (and roads) and around collective farms, with the goal of staving off the drying influence of winds emanating from Central Asia, while protecting watersheds and agriculture. Although the plan had not been realized at the time of Stalin’s death (when it was discontinued), a million hectares of new forest were planted, with 40 percent surviving.

Yet, even while this afforestation plan was being carried out, some 85 percent of the territory of the zapovedniki was formally liquidated in 1951 (to be reestablished under the leadership of Sukachev and others during the resurrected conservation movement of the late 1950s).

One reason for the limited success of the Great Stalin Plan was Lysenko’s entry into forestry and his battle for control of Soviet afforestation. In 1948, Lysenko had achieved his greatest victory, with the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ declaration that Mendelian genetics was a form of bourgeois idealism. With the introduction of the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Lysenko turned his attention to forestry, taking direct control of the Main Administration for Field-Protective Afforestation. He concocted a “nest method” of planting trees based on the notion that tree seedlings planted in dense formations would collectively defend themselves from other species, reducing the amount of labor required to clear areas for planting. Here, however, Lysenko was opposed at every step by Sukachev, who countermanded his orders on the ground several times and reported to the Ministry of Forest Management in 1951 that 100 percent of the forest seedlings planted in the Ural territorial administration with Lysenko’s nest method had died.

From 1951, two years before Stalin’s death, and continuing until 1955, Sukachev, as the dean of Soviet botany—director of the Academy of Science’s Institute of Forests, head of the Academy Presidium’s Commission on Zapovedniki, and editor of the Botanical Journal—courageously launched an intellectual war against Lysenko. In article after article that he wrote and edited for the Botanical Journal and the Bulletin of the Moscow Society of Naturalists (the journal of Russia’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society) Sukachev, in what Weiner has called a “monumental battle against Lysenko,” sharply criticized Lysenko’s theories and methods. Later, in 1965, Sukachev was to accuse Lysenko of fraudulent practices. Young biologists viewed Sukachev as a hero and secretly flocked to his banner. In 1955 Sukachev was elected president of the Moscow Society of Naturalists (MOIP), a position he occupied until his death in 1967. This symbolized a dramatic decline in Lysenko’s power and a shift in Soviet ecology (although Lysenko’s final removal as head of the Institute of Genetics was not until 1965, under Brezhnev). Following Sukachev’s election as president of the MOIP, a concerted campaign to reestablish the zapovedniki began. At that point the Soviet conservation movement began to rise out of the ashes. Membership in VOOP grew to 136,000 in 1951, and by 1959 had topped 910,000. The 1960s saw the spectacular rise of student conservation brigades nurtured by the MOIP under Sukachev.

Meanwhile, Soviet climatology had been making extraordinary advances through the work of figures such as E.K. Fedorov (Y.K. Fyodorov), famous for his work on the Arctic, and Mikhail Ivanovich Budyko, who specialized initially in the emerging field of energetics, focusing on exchanges of energy and matter in a global context. Budyko’s pathbreaking Heat Balance of the Earth Surface, published in 1958, earned him the prestigious Lenin Prize. In this work he developed a method for calculating the various components of the heat balance of the entire earth system. This was crucial in opening the way to the founding of physical climatology as a field. Appointed in 1954 as director of Leningrad’s Main Geophysical Observatory, at age thirty-four, Budyko played a crucial role in delineating multiple aspects of “the global ecological system.” He was to be awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 1998 (the same year as David Brower in the United States) for founding physical climatology, early warnings on the accleration of global warming, developing the nuclear winter theory, and pioneering global ecology. Budyko built his theoretical and empirical analysis on Vernadsky’s biosphere concept and saw Sukachev’s work on the biogeocoenosis as “essential in developing modern ideas of interrelations between organisms and the environment.” (Sukachev was to rely in turn on Budyko’s energy flow analysis in his own work.)