Russia and the Republics: Human-Environment Interaction

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Since the 1960s, irrigation policies in Central Asia have had a dramatic impact on the Aral Sea. A recent visitor to an old Aral fishing village described the change: “I stood on what had once been a seaside bluff . . . but I could see no water. The sea was twenty-five miles away.” The dried-up seabed had become a graveyard for abandoned ships. The powerful winds were covering local populations with polluted dust picked up from the seabed. Thousands of people have left the region, and those who remain risk illness, or even death. In this section, you will read more about the complex relationship between the environment and the people of Russia and the Republics.

The Shrinking Aral Sea

Between 1960 and the present, the Aral Sea lost about 80 percent of its water. Central Asian leaders now face one of the earth's greatest environmental tragedies.


The Aral Sea receives most of its water from two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Before the 1960s, these rivers delivered nearly 13 cubic miles of water to the Aral Sea every year. But in the 1950s, officials began to take large amounts of water from the rivers to irrigate Central Asia's cotton fields. Largescale irrigation projects, such as the 850-mile-long Kara Kum canal, took so much water from the rivers that the flow of water into the Aral slowed to a trickle.

The sea began to evaporate.


Agricultural practices in Central Asia caused other problems for the Aral Sea. Cotton growers used pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals were being picked up by runoff—rainfall not absorbed by the soil that runs into streams and rivers. The runoff carried the chemicals into the rivers that feed the Aral, with devastating effects. Of the 24 native species of fish once found in the sea, none are left today.

Soon the damage spread beyond the lake. The retreating waters of the Aral exposed fertilizers and pesticides, as well as salt. Windstorms began to pick up these substances and dump them on nearby populations. This pollution has caused a sharp increase in diseases. The incidence of throat cancer and respiratory diseases has risen dramatically.

Dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis have also become more common. Child mortality rates in Central Asia are among the highest in the world.


Scientists estimate that even to keep the lake at its present levels, you would have to remove 9 of the 18 million acres that are now used for farming. This would create terrible hardship for the farmers who depend on those fields for their livelihood. But many argue that only such drastic measures can save the Aral. The Russian Winter

The frigid landscapes of Siberia lie far from Central Asia. But the rugged inhabitants of Siberia are also familiar with hardship.


More than 32 million people make their homes in Siberia. The climate presents unique challenges to its inhabitants, especially during winter.

Scientists have recorded the most variable temperatures on earth in Siberia. In the city of Verkhoyansk, temperatures have ranged from –90°F in the winter to 94°F in the summer—a span of 184 degrees. But most of the time it is cold. Temperatures drop so low that basic human activities become painful. A worker in the Siberian mining center at Norilsk explained how he and fellow workers turned up their collars and turned down the ear flaps of their fur caps so that only their eyes were visible. “Even then,” he reported, “your eyes would be so cold that you'd close one until the one you were looking with froze, and then swap over.”

The change of seasons brings little relief. Warmer weather melts ice and snow and leaves pools of water that become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and black flies. The problem becomes severe in the spring. Swamps form when northward flowing rivers, swollen by spring rains, run into still-frozen water further north. Soon, enormous black clouds of insects are attacking Siberia's residents.

The climate also affects construction in Siberia. Permafrost makes the ground in Siberia iron-hard. However, a heated building will thaw the permafrost. As the ground thaws, buildings sink, tilt, and eventually topple over. To prevent such problems, builders raise their structures a few feet off the ground on concrete pillars.


Russia's harsh climate has caused difficulties for its inhabitants, but it has also, at times, come to their aid. In the early 1800s, the armies of the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte were taking control of Europe. In the spring of 1812, Napoleon decided to extend his control over Russia. He gathered his army together in Poland and from there began the march on Moscow.

But as his troops advanced, so did the seasons. When Napoleon arrived in Moscow in September, the Russian winter was not far behind. Moreover, the citizens of Moscow had set fire to their city before fleeing, so there was no shelter for Napoleon's troops.

Napoleon had no choice but to retreat during the bitter Russian winter. He left Moscow with 100,000 troops. But by the time his army arrived back in Poland, the cruel Russian winter had helped to kill more than 90,000 of his soldiers. Some historians believe that Russia's “General Winter” succeeded in defeating Napoleon where the armies of Europe had failed.

Crossing the “Wild East”

At the end of the 19th century, Siberia was similar to the “Wild West” of the United States. Travel through the region was dangerous and slow. For these reasons, Russia's emperor ordered work to start on a Trans-Siberian Railroad that would eventually link Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

Rail Routes Across Russia


The project was a massive undertaking. The distance to be covered was more than 5,700 miles, and the tracks had to cross seven time zones. Between 1891 and 1903, approximately 70,000 workers moved 77 million cubic feet of earth, cleared more than 100,000 acres of forest, and built bridges over several major rivers.


Russian officials did not undertake this massive project simply to speed up travel. They also wanted to populate Siberia in order to profit from its many resources.

Ten years after the completion of the line in 1904, nearly five million settlers, mainly peasant farmers, had taken the railway from European Russia to settle in Siberia.

As migrants streamed into Siberia, resources, such as coal and iron ore, poured out. Siberia, one author wrote, began to yield riches that “she has under guard of eternal snow and ice, so long held in trust for future centuries.” In the years that followed, the railroad would aid the political and economic development of Russia and the Republics, which you will read about in the next chapter.