In dire straits: The struggle with industrial water pollution in the late Russian Empire (1870-1917)
Industrial pollution is one of the first and the most alarming environmental issues and in many ways promoted the formation of modern environmental policy. The struggle with contamination of water by industrial wastes created new forms of communication between citizens, experts, and officials and contributed to the development of comprehensive environmental legislation. In this regard, pollution – as “matter out of place” – was closely related to social order, class, and discrimination; early modern environmental policies were a product of political ideologies and civil culture. The history of early environmental movements therefore must be viewed from local perspectives: although many environmentalist ideas had undoubted global importance, they only could be understood and implemented in the regional context.
There are a wide range of studies in the history of the struggle with water pollution in Western European countries and the USA, but Russia remains almost unexplored from this point of view. Hardly any research has been done into the extent to which Russia participated in the global discussions on water pollution and protection in the 19th century. At the same time, the Russian Empire, an autocratic state with well-developed science and industry and a vast territory, could be a rich source of examples for better understanding of the first anti-pollution policies. We will argue that environmental goals were a factor in Russia’s historical development long before the Soviet industrialization: anti-pollution movements created a legacy and institutions which proved strong enough to survive the political turmoil of 1917 and influenced the environmental policy of the USSR. By considering the environmental history of tsarist Russia from a transnational perspective, it becomes possible to situate it within the larger global history of struggle with industrial pollution of the environment. For this reason, an important component of the proposed study will be networking with scholars studying the history of water pollution in other nations around the world.
The 3-year project will be based on archival research in the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Tver, and Baku in Azerbaijan. Through studying conflicts between local people and industrialists, environmental issues resulting from oil extraction and transport along Volga waterways, and the activities of state anti-pollution commissions made up of experts, officials, and industrialists, we will show the main milestones in the creation of early Russian environmental policies.