Saving the Sacred Sea: Baikal Environmentalism from Iron Curtain to Global Modernity
Brown, Kate (Anne Katherine) Pride
What is the effect of globalization on the development of civil society? This dissertation examines the relationship between these two phenomena by examining environmentalist efforts in Irkutsk, Russia. Environmentalism has a long history in Irkutsk, largely due to the city’s proximity to Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest and most voluminous body of freshwater on Earth. When industrial encroachment began to threaten the lake’s unique ecosystem in the 1950s, a spontaneous outpouring of environmental activism began in Irkutsk: a flourishing of citizen initiative that was without precedent in the Soviet Union. Environmentalism has continued in the region ever since, providing a unique opportunity to examine civil society both behind the Iron Curtain and in the context of contemporary globalization. The data for this dissertation come from ten months of ethnographic field work in Irkutsk. I conducted participant observation amongst members of local environmental groups. I supplemented these field notes with 53 semi-structured interviews with activists, their partners, and their supporters, locally and abroad. Trips to South Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Seattle and Moscow yielded additional data, as I traced the transnational ties of Baikal environmentalists. To gain knowledge of Soviet environmentalism, I accessed the archives of the Irkutsk branch of the All-Soviet Society of Nature Protection (VOOP), as well as gathering articles from two regional newspapers and two local newspapers. I find that globalization’s impact on the formation of local environmental civil society in Irkutsk is complex, with multiple factors that strengthen or weaken it in different ways. The ability to reach across borders helps local activists to transcend local crises and become permanent players in the public sphere. Moreover, exposure to the “Other” can result in creative inspiration and expanding perceived efficacy in a previously authoritarian society. However, economic elites also learn from their peers abroad how to channel civil society organizations in ways that render them less threatening to their own dominance. Still more problematic is the state. When transnational ties threaten the political elite, they can use the law to “manage globalization,” selectively targeting their opponents through legal and supra-legal means.