Dangerous environmental conditions came to the attention of the public in the Soviet Union under the glasnost policy of the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91), which liberated the exchange of information in the late 1980s. The three situations that gripped public attention were the April 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl' Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, the long-term and ongoing desiccation of the Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, and the irradiation of northern Kazakstan by the Semipalatinsk (present-day Semey) nuclear testing site. The overall cost of rectifying these three disasters is staggering, dwarfing the cost of cleanups elsewhere, such as the superfund campaign to eliminate toxic waste sites in the United States. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, such conditions had become symbols of that system's disregard for the quality of the environment.
Since 1990 Russian experts have added to the list the following less spectacular but equally threatening environmental crises: the Dnepropetrovsk-Donets and Kuznets coal-mining and metallurgical centers, which have severely polluted air and water and vast areas of decimated landscape; the Urals industrial region, a strip of manufacturing cities that follows the southern Urals from Perm' in the north to Magnitogorsk near the Kazak border (an area with severe air and water pollution as well as radioactive contamination near the city of Kyshtym); the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest, where nonferrous mining and metallurgical operations, centered on the region's nickel reserves, have created air pollution that drifts westward across northern Scandinavia; the Republic of Kalmykia, where faulty agricultural practices have produced soil erosion, desertification, and chemical contamination; and the Moscow area, which suffers from high levels of industrial and vehicular air pollution and improper disposal of low-level radioactive waste. The experts also named five areas of severe water pollution: the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov north of the Black Sea, the Volga River, and Lake Baikal.
Each of Russia's natural zones has suffered degradation of specific kinds. In the tundra, the greatest damage stems from extraction and transportation of mineral resources by crude techniques. In delicate tundra habitats, oil spills, leaks in natural gas pipelines, and the flaring of natural gas destroy northern marshland ecosystems, which take many years to purify naturally. Also endangered are reindeer grazing lands, upon which indigenous peoples traditionally have depended for their livelihood. In the permafrost zones that constitute about 40 percent of Russia's territory, lower air, water, and ground temperatures slow natural self-cleansing processes that mitigate contamination in warmer regions, magnifying the impact of every spill and leak.
In the taiga, or forest, zone, the overcutting of trees poses the greatest threat, particularly in northern European Russia, the Urals, and the Angara Basin in south-central Siberia. Uncontrolled mining operations constitute the second major source of damage in the taiga. In the broad-leafed forest zone, irrational land use has caused soil erosion on a huge scale. Urbanization and air and water pollution also are problems.
The forest-steppe and steppe regions are subjected to soil exhaustion, loss of humus, soil compacting, and erosion, creating an extremely serious ecological situation. The soil fertility of Russia's celebrated black-earth (chernozem--see Glossary) region has deteriorated significantly in the postwar period. Overgrazing is the main problem in the pasturage regions of the Russian steppe and has severely affected the Republic of Kalmykia in southwestern Russia and the region east of Lake Baikal. In Russia's limited semiarid and arid territories, poorly designed irrigation and drainage systems have caused salinization, pollution, and contamination of surface and underground water, but not to the degree that these problems exist in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan.