Russian Language Blog

Three Ways the USSR Was Unintentionally Environmentally Friendly Posted by on Jun 15, 2015 in when in Russia


When people think of the soviet Union or present-day Russia, environmental protection is not the first thing that comes to mind. After all, in its quest for rapid industrialization, the USSR wrecked the environment in many ways, from air and water pollution to deforestation to desertification to nuclear meltdowns.

At the same time, when I hear about the measures people are encouraged to take to protect the environment (ме́ры по защи́те окружа́ющей среды́), I often catch myself thinking “This is totally like the USSR.” Perhaps the environmental consciousness (забо́та об окружа́ющей среде́) in the Soviet Union was probably motivated by material scarcity and government quotas more than anything else, but there are certainly some practices that could be revived to reduce our impact on the environment.


It’s no secret that the level of consumption (у́ровень потребле́ния) was much lower in the USSR than it is in present-day developed countries. Soviet people were encouraged to look down on material goods as bourgeois, not to mention the fact, that any imported goods were often hard to get by (“дефици́т”). As a result, things like clothes were often passed down, and people often made their own.


Plastic bags (полиэтиле́новые паке́ты) were virtually unknown in old Russian stores. As a result, people would bring their own bags. An infamous example is the mesh cloth bag known as the аво́ська. People also had reusable plastic egg crates (многора́зовые пластма́ссовые лотки́ для яи́ц).

When plastic bags came to Russia by the 80s, many people embraced them as the more convenient option. Even then, people often saved, washed, and reused these bags until they looked quite worn.


Surprisingly, recycling (перерабо́тка отхо́дов) was widespread in the USSR. People collected paper waste (макулату́ра) and scrap metal (металлоло́м). Bottle return (verb – сдава́ть буты́лки) was widely practiced. The motivation for these actions was slightly different than our current environmental awareness.

For example, there were mandatory paper collection quotas for every school class. Some books could only be bought by collecting tokens from turning in recovered paper. Once you collected the first 20 kilograms of scrap paper, you got a booklet where you put stickers for every so many kilograms you turned in. Once the booklet was filled, you could exchange it for a book.

Again, the rationale behind some of these actions is questionable, and industrial pollution tipped the scales for the USSR toward the environmentally unfriendly. Still, perhaps in its newly won access to consumer goods Russia could look back and adopt from green practices from its past.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. David Roberts:

    It wasn’t much different in the UK for the first 10 years or so after the war. “Make do and mend” recycling bottles (you got a penny refund for taking a bottle back to the shop)…Domestic rubbish consisted almost exclusively of ashes from the coal fire (if these weren’t used in the garden) and dust from cleaning the carpets (hence in the UK the garbage bin is still called the dustbin). In fact, talking to friends who were brought up in Communist Eastern Europe I’m often struck by how similar their 1960s and 70s seem to have been to our late 1940s and 1950s.

    • Maria:

      @David Roberts David, interesting observation. You do hear that in Russia a lot, that Russia is 10-20-30 years behind Europe/the US. This usually refers to the adoption of technology.
      It makes sense that people with fewer resources leave a smaller environmental footprint, if you will. I don’t wish poverty on anyone, but maybe we could cut some of the excess from our lives and be a bit more like people of limited means in that respect.