The New York Times is running a series of “Red Century” articles extolling some of the virtues of communism on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Last August, the Times showcased a Yale University lecturer rhapsodizing about the Soviets’ environmental record in a piece headlined, “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors.” The piece hailed Lenin as “a longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping” who “agreed that protecting nature had ‘urgent value.’” The article extolled the nature preserves that the Soviet regime created early in its reign.
The Soviets long enjoyed good PR in the West for environmental policy. This had nothing to do with the actual facts on the ground; instead, communism was presumed benevolent because capitalist regimes presumably cared for nothing but profits. According to Marxist theory, environmental problems could not occur in socialist countries because man and nature were inherently in harmony. But that was one of the biggest pro-communist delusions fostered by the Western media.
When I roamed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany in 1987, I saw environmental ravages that made northern New Jersey look almost bucolic. After World War II, the Soviet Union imposed a “forced industrialization” policy on Eastern Europe — overhauling the economies and directing almost all resources to heavy industrial production. Since most of those countries lack both raw materials and domestic energy supplies, the heavy industrial model was grossly inappropriate and led them to pursue development in an area where they had no comparative advantage over other countries.
In Leipzig, once one of the prettiest cities in East Germany, the windward sides of monuments and buildings look as if they were scorched in a fire, thanks to nearby factories. At the Thomas Church, the right side of a statue of the Virgin Mary’s face showed a beautiful, tranquil smile — perhaps as beautiful as when the church was constructed 200 years ago. But, the left side of her face appeared to have been dipped in acid — it was gnarled, hideously disfigured, with the eye and ear looking as if they had been pounded with a heavy shovel. The monuments and buildings of Leipzig looked as if they had been struck by a plague.
In Molbis, a town downwind of Leipzig, the air was so dirty with the emissions of chemical plants that drivers sometimes had to turn on their headlights during the day. Neighbors could not see each other’s houses, and visitors often vomited after a night of breathing the air. In nearby Bitterfeld, the capital of East Germany’s chemical industry, signs proclaimed, “Chemistry brings prosperity, beauty, and bread.” But nice slogans could not compensate Bitterfeld’s citizens for a chronic bronchitis rate five times higher than elsewhere in East Germany. Bitterfeld had become a synonym for poison and filth. It was a common saying, “Who was once in Bitterfeld thinks it is beautiful everywhere.”
In Prague, mothers were advised not to give their babies tap water — even after boiling it. In northern Bohemia, the most heavily industrialized area of Czechoslovakia, life expectancy was nearly 10 years shorter than elsewhere in the country. Rates for skin disease, stomach cancer, and mental illness were twice as high as in the rest of the country. Sixty percent of teenagers suffered from respiratory diseases, serious skin diseases, or digestive ailments. Northern Bohemia had become a land of permanent near-zero visibility. The government considered a mass evacuation of northern Bohemia in 1986 but refrained, in part to avoid causing a panic reaction. Elsewhere in Czechoslovakia, 75 percent of the residents of the town of Jelšava abandoned their homes because of omnipresent magnesium dust.
Factories were killing trees en masse throughout the Eastern Bloc. The Erzgebirge mountains along the Czech-East German border were rapidly becoming a huge tree cemetery — the world’s best showcase of the effects of acid rain. Half way up a mountain, the trees suddenly seemed frail — then another hundred feet, and they seemed blighted — and then another hundred feet, and they were dying en masse — and then, close to the top, there was nothing left — only hundreds of stumps remaining from once healthy trees. At the top of some mountains, not a single tree survived — just barren landscape with a few remaining stumps. The Czech government concluded that trees no longer grew above an elevation of 3,000 feet.
Poland was also suffering horrendously from pollution. In Kraków, the Polish National Lawyers Association reports that cancer, heart disease, and artery problems are two to eight times higher than in the rest of Poland, and the infant mortality rate is more than three times the national average. Poland also faced a catastrophic water shortage. Only 1 percent of the country’s water was clean enough to drink, and almost half the water was so polluted that it was unfit for any use. Temporary water shortages affected 120 cities and 10,000 smaller towns.
Socialism also ravaged farmland. Socialist governments tended to view chemical fertilizers as a panacea. Czechoslovakia used more than twice as much fertilizer per acre as any other industrial country. The profusion of fertilization profoundly affected the quality and safety of the food. Other agricultural policies created widespread off-site damage. East German crop-sprayer pilots were required to meet Planned Targets for pesticide application. As a result, they often flew even during high wind, which meant that chemicals and poisons were blown everywhere. East German veterinarians advised that sheep should no longer be eaten — only used for wool production.
Praying for wind
Though East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were suffering the most, other Eastern-Bloc countries also ravaged their environments. In Romania, Prof. Virgil Ianovici, chairman of the National Council for Environmental Protection, admitted in 1982 that some industrial cities had lead concentrations in the air 40 times the acceptable limit. Romanian institutes of public health noted that “there is almost no industrial area in Romania where pollution does not have negative effects on public health, leading to lead poisoning, pulmonary disorders, anemia, tumors, rickets, and — typical for Eastern Europe — pervasive chronic bronchitis.
After 1980, the Soviet Union sharply reduced oil deliveries to its allies, and Eastern Europe scrambled to find domestic energy sources. East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia increasingly turned to brown coal. It takes five tons of soft brown coal to produce the energy of one ton of black coal, and brown coal has a very high sulfur content. In East Berlin, the air was so bad that visitors felt as though they had spent the whole day standing behind a diesel bus.
Communist countries were perennially obsessed with “conspicuous production” — heavy industrial production was the most important measure of success in five-year economic plans. Communist governments preferred impressive steel-production statistics over healthy citizens. In the 1980s, Eastern European governments still saw smokestacks as symbols of economic success — regardless of their increasingly sick and dying populaces. In the city of Most, Czechoslovakia, posters proclaiming the regime’s anniversary featured workers standing in front of belching smokestacks — even though pollution was devastating the lives of Most’s citizens. Polish tour posters featured pictures of historical sights — often prominently showing a smokestack in the background.
In most countries, the environmental policy consisted largely of praying for strong winds. In Czechoslovakia, factories were often exempted from pollution regulations when their output was declared to be “in the interests of the entire community.” In Hungary, more than half the factories hit with pollution fines did nothing to reduce their pollution. Pollution controls in Polish factories were frequently turned off to save energy. The Polish Academy of Sciences noted that an “‘anti-environment mentality’ is formed due to the economic mechanisms which handed out bonuses to those who achieved a high output at any cost.”
In Eastern Europe, government was both protector and polluter — and that conflict of interest was almost always resolved by maximizing production and shafting the environment. As a result, Eastern European economies were left up the pollution creek without a paddle.
Some Eastern-Bloc governments denied that any environmental problem existed: East Germany blamed its dying forests on storms and heavy snow. One Czech Communist Party ideologist blamed environmental problems on “nonsocialist individuals still surviving in the country.” A top Polish Communist Party official bragged that his nation had the best environmental law in the world. Throughout Eastern Europe, environmental protesters were routinely denounced and harassed for “interfering with the building of socialism.” Any industrialized country unable to produce enough toilet paper for its citizens was unlikely to be concerned with “abstractions” such as clean air or unpoisoned groundwater. But no amount of government repression of ideas and people could hide the growing evidence of pervasive poison.
As I wrote in the New York Times on April 26, 1987 after returning from the Eastern Bloc,
Pollution could be the final nail in the coffin of East European Socialism. Unfortunately for Eastern Europe, there is no export market for brown snow and dying trees.
The Times headlined that piece, “Headlights at High Noon: A Silent Spring in Eastern Europe.”
After the Iron Curtain fell, the Western media finally noticed the pervasive environmental devastation in reputed socialist paradises. But, as the recent New York Times accolades indicate, the damning facts on socialist environmental wreckage seem to have vanished into the Memory Hole. That was convenient for international campaigns by progressives and statists for international agreements that would give government far more control over economies, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, which Barack Obama signed and Donald Trump renounced.
The history of environmental policy provides other reasons not to blindly trust any government. In the United States, the Pentagon has long been the biggest polluter. As the Mint Press News reported last May, “Producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined, the U.S. Department of Defense has left its toxic legacy throughout the world in the form of depleted uranium, oil, jet fuel, pesticides, defoliants like Agent Orange and lead, among other pollutants.” The large majority of the remaining Superfund sites in the United States are military sites or factories that previously produced or currently manufacture supplies for the Pentagon. The nation’s most famous Marine Corps base, Camp Lejune in North Carolina, recently made headlines for its toxic groundwater. American generals and politicians ignored military-related pollution the same way that Communist Party poohbahs ignored Eastern-Bloc pollution.
For the future of liberty, it is vital not to expunge Leviathan’s criminal record. And the contempt that the Soviet Bloc showed for the health and survival of its own subjects should never be forgotten.
This article was originally published in the January 2018 edition of Future of Freedom Foundation.