Russia and the Environment

Forestry in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation
Posted by: , November 28, 2011, 4:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,


More than one-fifth of the world’s forested areas are located in Russia (Hitchhock, “Russia’s Boreal Forests”). They are the largest forested area on the Earth spanning over 12 million km2 of the Russian landscape (Russia’s Boreal Forests). Due to the extreme temperatures, there is little biodiversity in Russian forests in comparison to other forests, such as the Amazonian rainforests. The four main types of trees in Russian forests are birch, pine, spruce, and fir (“Russia’s Boreal Forests”).

Although large areas of land within Russia are not inhabited (for example, vast regions of the Sakha republic), various indigenous groups such as the Selkups and Evenks depend on the forests for survival. For these individuals, the forest provides food such as mushrooms and berries, land for traditional agricultural needs, and allows for hunting (“Russia’s Boreal Forests”).  There are many issues that affect how Russian forests are managed today, including hunting and poaching, deforestation, and most recently – annual summer fires. As of 2010 there were approximately 36 national parks, 69 wildlife refuges, and more than 10,000 nature monuments located in the Russian Federation (“Russia’s Boreal Forests”).

Source: World Wildlife Fund


Russian forest management has a long and, at times, complex history. In Kievan Rus from the 8th to 12th century, there were no laws or regulations managing the use of Russia’s forests. One of the first written documents discussing the preservation of forests was written in a protective deed. One of the first written documents discussing the preservation of forests appeared in a protective deed from 1477-8 to the Vyazhitsky Monastery, which prohibited the keeper of the monastery from harming any flora or fauna. Almost 200 years later in 1649, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich passed into law the Council Code. Article 23 of chapter seven allowed the servants of the tsars “to cut trees in any private forest without taxation” (Lehmbruch et. al.). Articles 220 and 223 stated: “If anyone, even an heir or landlord, cuts the forest without permission or violates other regulations leading damage of the forest including [intentional] fire, [they] will be prosecuted and punished and fined” (Lehmbruch et. al.). One of the earliest documented cases of hunting reserves dates back to Tsar Aleksei (1629-1676). The tsar was known to be an avid hunter and set aside seven islands as the “tsar’s reserve” (Essick et. al.).

In the 1600s the Russian government saw that the forests had three main values – establishing a military defense line, maintaining borders, and reaping economic benefits from the commercialization logging. During Peter the Great’s rule, from 1682 to 1785, over 200 decrees and other documents were written outlining various issue we consider today to be simply known as “forest management.” One of Peter the Great’s most symbolic and important decrees was the decree of November 9, 1703. This decree required a survey of all forested areas within approximately 30 miles of the capitol. At this time, Peter the Great wanted to ensure that there would be enough wood for shipbuilding. Those that disobeyed the law and cut down trees illegally were faced with the death penalty (Essick et. al., Lehmbruch et. al.)

Pavel I (1754-1801) established the Russian Forestry Department in 1798. In this newly established system forests were managed by provincial forestry departments. From 1798 to 1811, the forestry department fell under the jurisdiction of the Navy because of the need for wood to build ships. In 1811, the Forestry Department was moved to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance and was reestablished as the Forest Division (Lehmbruch et. al.). In 1898, the first forest tax was imposed. As a result, the tsar was able to impose fees on logging companies and collect a royalty for the estimated costs of reforestation (Lehmbruch et. al.).

While much of the world was using coal during the 19th century, wood became the primary fuel source in imperial Russia. Due to a property rights system more outdated than most European nations, “there was no awareness of forests as a limited resource”  (Lehmbruch et. al.). Steam engines and factories relied on wood as a fuel source. With the advent of the telegraph and telephone and a decreasing amount of forested area around the major cities, wood from far away could be ordered. This allowed for an increase in deforestation in also the more rural areas of Russia. Deforestation had devastating effects the rivers and climate of Russia. For example, cold winds from the north wreaked havoc on orchards and farms (Lehmbruch et. al.).

Tsar Alexander III hunting

After the October revolution in 1917, Lenin attempted to emphasize the importance of managing the nation’s forests, yet no practical changes occurred. As a result of nationalization during the first Five-Year Plan, citizens were given more freedom in logging in the forested areas. The first attack on forestry management occurred under the leadership of M. G. Zdornik in 1929: “As long as we need forests we will harvest them in accordance with our needs without any theoretical discussions” (Lehmbruch et. al.). Soviet forestry management occurred with practically no changes until the enactment of a Forest Code in 1977. One positive aspect of forestry management that occurred during the Soviet period was the system of reforesting. In exchange for helping replant the forests, citizens were given hay, timber for building, and firewood. It has been estimated that forestry employed approximately seven percent of the total Soviet workforce (Lehmbruch et. al.).

The Forest Code of 1977 centralized forest management mirroring the management system that occurred before 1917. There were three main flaws with this forest code. First, the code did not put in place adequate mechanisms to allow for the mechanism of the code to be implemented. Second, the code did not successfully bring together efforts made by the legislative, general executive and departmental levels. The third problem “was the exaggerated role that subsequent, departmental regulations came to play within the framework of the Forest Code” (Lehmbruch et. al.).

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the first law designed to focus on forestry management was the “Foundations of the Forestry Legislation of the Russian Federation” in 1993. This law introduced new concepts to Russian forestry that had been absent from Soviet law such as “forest classification schemes and various government sphere of competition.” Four years later, the Forest Code was signed into law in 1997 and “was a great deal more comprehensive than the 1993 law” and attempted “establish a legal basis for all aspects of the ‘rational use, conservation, protection, and reproduction of forests’ (Hitchcock).

The 1995 Russian federal law states that protected areas are “areas of land and water surface and the air space above them, where natural complexes and objects of special nature conservation, scientific, cultural, aesthetic, and recreational importance are located. These areas are fully or partly withdrawn from economic use on the decision of state authorities, and a special regime of protection is established for them” (“Russia’s Boreal Forests”). 

Lena River, Baikial-Lena Reserve


Deforestation in the 21st Century

Deforestation has always been a concern in Russia. Unlike government-sanctioned logging that attempts to limit harm to ecosystems, illegal logging does not follow government-sanctioned rules pertaining to the preservation of ecosystems. Russia’s timber industry is essential to the country’s economy and therefore must be managed appropriately (Hitchhock). According to the World Wildlife Fund “Recent estimates of rates of deforestation in Russia’s forests are as high as 20,000 km2 annually, comparable to the annual rate of forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon Basin.” One reason for the increase in timber extraction from Russia’s forests is the increasing demand for resources in China and Europe (Russia’s Boreal Forests). Furthermore, the passing go the Forest Code of 2006 has exacerbated the problem – illegal logging increased 38% from 2006 to 2007 (Hitchcock). It has been estimated that illegal logging has results in an annual lost of $1.5 billion to the Russian economy (Essick).


Forest Code of 2006

Enacted on January 1, 2007 the Forest Code is basic law that the management, control and protection of forests in the Russian Federation. The Forest Code is comprised of 16 chapter and 109 articles that both deal with the preservation and exploitation of Russia’s forests. According to Hitchcock, the Forest Code of 2006 showed three main issues – it revealed the inability of the Russian government “to design and draft effective legislation, its lack of commitment to environmental issues and its weak capacity in terms of imposing its preferences on the legislative process.” The first draft of the Forest Code would have permitted the privatization of parts of Russia’s forests. Due to complaints from citizens and non-governmental organizations this suggestion was scrapped from the final draft. Nevertheless, the Forest Code “is a law primarily focused on the commercial stimulation of the forestry sector” due to the government’s desire to “attract investment” (Hitchcock).

The Forest Code attempted to decentralize the management of Russia’s forests. For example, the Code requires that individual oblasts (states) are required to submit forest plans. These forest plans outline how the oblast will use, develop and protect the forest within their boundaries. One concern with this aspect of the law is that there is virtually no enforcement of this aspect of the law. As a result, oblasts may have little motivation to comply with the law and establish and implement forest management plans. As a result of this decentralization, there is a fear that negative results such as an increase in illegal logging will only be exacerbated (Hitchcock).

According to the Taiga Rescue Network, there have been three main changes in the forest since the 1997 Forest Code. First, the new law does not require developers and users of forest land to submit environmental impact statements. Second, restrictions and have been eased on developers in forested areas. Last, protected areas are no longer protected from logging limitations. Additionally, the Taiga Rescue Network argues that the Forest Code does not protect the rights of indigenous people by guaranteeing them the right to use forests for subsistence (Lehmbruch et. al.).


Forest Fires

In 2010, Russia saw its hottest summer on record (Bryanski) and the worst record of forest fires since 1973 (Yaroshenko). Most of Moscow and the surrounding areas were filled with thick smoke from the peat fires. It has been argued that the most recent Forest Code of 2006 was in part to blame for the severity of the fires by decentralizing the Russian forestry service and “turned the country’s vast forests into a virtual no-man’s land” (Bryanski).


Baumgartner, D. M., Everett, R. L., Kuzmichev, Y. P., Teplyakov, V.K. A History of Russian Forestry and Its Leaders. 1998.

Bryanski, Gleb. Opposition says Putin law cripples Russia fire-fighting. Reuters. 4 August 2010.

Lehmbruch, B., Malmlöf, T., Mashkina, O. Editors: Carlson, L., Olsson, M. Initial Analyses of the Institutional Framework of the Russian Forest Sector. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. June: IR-98-027.

Essick, C. Crisis in the Forest: The Environmental Impact of Illegal Logging under the New Russian Economy. Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy. 15(2). 2004. 246.

Hitchcock, Ellen. The 2006 Forest Code of the Russian Federation: An Evaluation of Forest Regulation in Russia. Austrailian Slavonic and East European Studies. 24 (1-2): 19 – 39. 2010.

ОХОТА И ПОЛИТИКА. 29 October 2011.охота-и-политика-охота-николая-ii-напом/

Russia’s Boreal Forests: Forest Area Key Facts and Carbon Emissions from Forest Deforestation. World Wildlife Fund. 16 November 2007.

Yaroshenko, Aleksei. Russian Fire. 11 August 2011.


Further Reading

Forest Code of the Russian Federation. 4 December 2006.

 Khatchadourian, Raffi. The Stolen Forests: Inside the Covert War on Illegal Logging. The New Yorker. 6 October 2008.

Federal Law on Voluntary Fire Protection. 6 May 2011.


Related Links

Russian Forestry Museum.

Wild Russia: The Secret Forest. National Geographic. 1 June 2011.

Forest Fires Ravage Russia.

Nightmare Continues: Ghost villages, ruined lives left by forest fires. RussiaToday. 5 August 2010.

Comments Off on Forestry in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation