Environmental Policy and Law in the USSR

17 ELR 10068 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1987 | All rights reserved

Environmental Policy and Law in the USSR

Oleg S. Kolbasov

Professor Kolbasov, often regarded as the father of Soviet environmental law, is Head of the Department of Legal Problems of Environmental Protection, part of the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Professor Kolbasov is also Vice-Chairman of the Presidium of the All-Russia Society for the Protection of Nature. The Environmental Law Institute has served as host to Professor Kolbasov during his visit to the United States, pursuant to the 1972 Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection between the U.S. and the USSR, ELR STAT. 40327.

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The Soviet Union is the first country in which socialism as a philosophical concept has become a reality. Now the USSR is developing with the hope for a better future not only for its own people, but also for mankind. However, this development is not a smooth one. Going this way, we meet difficulties, we make miscalculations, and sometimes we are simply mistaken. Sometimes we go faster, but sometimes we go slower.

Nowadays, we are at the very beginning of the acceleration of socio-economic development of Soviet society. This direction was pointed out by the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). But even before the Congress, it was perfectly clear that the country needed to renovate all aspects of its policy. This new course was declared by the new Party and State leadership, headed by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. This new course is unanimously supported by the nation.

Similarly, environmental policy in the USSR has undergone some changes and acquired some new features. The main and general one is that at the present time environmental requirements are becoming more closely interconnected with the national economy. This does not mean that they are weakening. It means that they are much better safeguarded. In comparison with the previous decades, the top priority now is attached to such economic and technical measures as natural resources saving, introduction of low-waste and wasteless technology, and improved waste disposal techniques. In particular, it is planned that 75 to 80 percent of national need in energy and raw materials, etc., will be satisfied through saving and conservation through the year 2000.

Another new feature of the current environmental policy is that the participation of the public in socio-economic decisionmaking and enforcement of decisions taken will increase. For instance, the decision to divert part of the flow of the northern European and Siberian Rivers to the southern regions of the USSR (taken in 1978) has been revised under the pressure of public opinion. The diversion is cancelled.

Background on Soviet Law

The Soviet Union not only has the largest territory in the world, but also has a complex structure of government. In the Soviet Union there are 15 union republics (roughly comparable to American states), 20 autonomous republics, 8 autonomous regions, 10 autonomous area districts, 6 territories, 123 regions, 2,124 cities, 630 city districts, 3,936 settlements, 3,201 rural communities, and 41,782 villages.

For comparison, in the United States there are 50 states, 3,041 counties, 19,076 municipalities, 16,743 townships, and 28,588 special districts.

The structure of the government is very important for legal decisionmaking and law enforcement. In the USSR on the national level there are more than 1,000 laws in the field of environmental protection. Among them the most important are Fundamentals of Land Legislation (1968), Fundamentals of Water Legislation (1970), Fundamentals of Mining Legislation (1975), Fundamentals of Forest Legislation (1977), Air Protection Act (1980), and Wildlife Protection and Use Act (1980). These acts are keystones of environmental protection in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Constitution includes articles dealing especially with environmental protection. Article 18 provides that in the interest of the present and future generations, the necessary steps are taken in the USSR to protect and make scientific, rational use of the land, mineral and water resources, and the plant and animal kingdoms; to preserve the purity of air and water; to ensure reproduction of natural wealth; and to improve the human environment. Article 67 provides that citizens of the USSR are obliged to protect nature and conserve its riches.

In the individual Soviet republics' constitutions and laws there are also provisions that regulate the use and protection of the natural environment. Land, water, mining, and forests codes, and air and wildlife acts, are of great importance. On the national level there is no general environmental act, but on the individual republic level there are comprehensive environmental acts. Also each autonomous republic has its own environmental legislation. On other levels only subordinate legislation is enacted. For example, executive committees of the Soviet People's Deputies in territories and regions have acted to protect wild plants.

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Environmental legislation in the USSR is highly developed. However, improvements are necessary. In my opinion, it is necessary to enact at least three new laws of principal importance on the national level: 1) National Environmental Policy Act; 2) Wild Plants Protection Act; and 3) Reserves, Natural Monuments and National Parks Act. I have made this conclusion after analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of environmental legislation, both in the USSR and in other nations.

Recent Developments in Soviet Environmental Law

Today environmental enforcement, and prevention of violations in the first place, are the issues of greatest importance. These issues were the subject of special attention of the Supreme Soviet's July 1985 session. The Supreme Soviet enacted the Decree "On Observance of the Requirements of Legislation on the Protection of Nature and the Rational Utilization of Natural Resources" and outlined a number of measures to be taken for strengthening the environmental protection. These include measures aimed at increasing the liabilities of ministries, state committees, agencies, enterprises, organizations, collective and state farms, and individual citizens for fulfillment of environmental requirements and standards. Furthermore, measures were taken to improve planning and control, to perfect technology, to conduct scientific research, and to educate the populace.

Some governmental bodies, responsible for implementing the Decree of the Supreme Soviet, have also enacted laws. For example, the Supreme Court of the USSR analyzed this issue and in 1986 adopted the judicial act, aimed at increasing the activity of the courts in the field of environmental protection.

Overall, in the Soviet Union the role of governments at all levels in environmental control and management is increasing. This overlapping system is highly complex. One reason is that the multi-layered state administrative system of the USSR is itself complex. The other reason is that the jurisdiction of some ministries, state committees, and agencies were developed without proper balance and consideration of the environmentally significant aims.

To understand this system better, we must look at it from two points of view: as a system which has its own structure; and as a system that performs specific types of managerial functions.

From the first point of view, there are three levels of the state administration: 1) national (all-union, or federal); 2) republican (union republic); and 3) local (autonomous republic, provincial, etc.)

If we take the specific types of functions performed by the governmental units as a criteria for classification, there are three relevant types: 1) general administration, where the environmental protection is a part of broad social and economic policy; 2) special administration in the field of environmental protection and natural resources use control, independent of the branches of national economy; and 3) environmental administration within each economic branch. These organizations are outlined in the three tables below.

As you can observe, the special administration on a national level is a system of governmental units, where each unit controls separate areas of environmental protection. On the republic level, environmental committees are included in the system of special administration. The committees provide a comprehensive approach towards the environmental issues. However, this type of committee exists only in seven union republics.

The Central Committee of the CPSU, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers of the USSR enacted a joint decree on July 25, 1986, to develop adequately the system of environmental administration on the republic level. The Decree provides that the administrative bodies and their functions should be consolidated, and that the State environmental committee should be organized in every union republic.

But for a long time it has been obvious, and at present it becomes more and more obvious, that some administrative measures should also be taken on the national level. Thus, from the theoretical and practical points of view, there is a great need to create the USSR State Committee on Protection of the Environment and Control of Use of Natural Resources.

Public Involvement

In the USSR the role of public organizations in the environmental decisionmaking process is increasing.1 What are these organizations?

Among these public organizations, the societies for nature protection in 15 union republics are the most specialized and massive ones. They have about 70 million members, including students. This is approximately one-fourth of the Soviet public (280 million people). For example, the All-Russia Society on Nature Protection, organized in 1924, has 38 million members. It has its own statute, which determines its structure, members' rights and duties, and forms of its activities. In accordance with the statute, the Society fulfills three major tasks: 1) to provide informal environmental education to the Soviet people; 2) to involve citizens as volunteers in activities for maintaining and improving the environment; and 3) to provide public supervision over implementation of environmental rules and standards by state agencies, enterprises, and citizens.

Besides the All-Russia Society for nature protection, the Young Communist League, trade unions, scientific and technical societies (such as the All-Union Geographic Society), the societies for historic and cultural monuments protection, tourist organizations, and the societies of fishermen and hunters, also participate in environmental protection.

Environmental Education

Legal education is provided in the USSR by 40 law schools in universities, and 5 institutes of law. There are also different special schools and institutions of further professional development. Environmental courses for legal students include courses on land law, regulation of use of natural resources, and legal protection of the environment. The students must pass exams on environmental law.

Scientific research in the field of environmental protection is conducted partly by professors of schools of law, mentioned above, but for the most part by the research [17 ELR 10070] staff of the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the All-Union Institute of Soviet Legislation of the USSR Ministry of Justice, the Institute of State and Law of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, and the Institutes of Philosophy and Law of other Union Republics.

All important environmental issues are covered by research in these institutes. In the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences, for example, the field of research includes legal problems of land use, use and protection of forests, groundwater, wildlife, recreational territories, hazardous waste disposal, state administration, participation of the public in environmental protection, and also problems of international environmental law.

Organization of Environmental Administration in the USSR


The Supreme Soviet (Two Houses, 1500 deputies)

Two Permanent Commissions on Nature Protection and Rational Use of Natural Resources (35 deputies in each)

Presidium (39 deputies)

Council of Ministers


Commission on Environmental Protection and Rational Use of Natural Resources

State Planning Committee (Gosplan)

Nature Protection and Rational Use of Natural Resources Unit

Assessment Commission

State Committee on Science and Technology

Pollution Prevention and Wasteless Technology Unit

State Investment Committee

Environmental Assessment Commission

State Committee on Material Supply

Solid Waste Disposal Unit

State Committee on Standardization

Division on Environmental Standards

Ministry of Finance

Environmental Finance Planning Unit

Central Bureau of Statistics

Environmental Data Unit


State Agro-Industrial Committee

Soil Protection Service

Division on Nature Conservation, Agro-Forestry, Wildlife and Preserves

Commission on Pesticide and Fertilizer Control

Ministry of Water Economy and Land Reclamation

Department of Water Pollution Control

Department of Comprehensive Water Use Planning

Ministry of Geology

Department of Geological Control

Department of Fresh Groundwater Use Control

State Committee on Work Safety and Mining Control

Department of Mining Control

Department of Salt Groundwater Use Control

State Committee on Forestry (Various Departments)

State Committee on Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Hydromet)

Department of Environmental Monitoring

Inspectorate on Air Pollution Control

Ministry of Interior

Inspectorate on Air Pollution Control from Moving Sources

Ministry of Public Health

Department of Sanitary Services

Ministry of Fisheries

Inspectorate on Fishing Control


Ministry of Electricity

Environmental Control Unit

Ministry of Chemistry

Environmental Control Unit

Ministry of Coal Mining

Environmental Control Unit

Ministry of Iron Metallurgy

Environmental Control Unit

Ministry of Electro-Technical Equipment

Environmental Control Unit

Ministry of Oil Production

Environmental Control Unit

(Other ministries with the same environmental control units)

1. Cf. Yost, The Citizens' Role in Nature Protection in the U.S.S.R., 11 ELR 50051 (1981).

17 ELR 10068 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1987 | All rights reserved