Effects on the environment in Czechoslovakia from Soviet influence during the Cold War


After World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 put in place five-year plans in the East European countries imitating their own five-year plans in order to recover from the war. The Soviets believed that the economic policies that helped them recover would similarly help the Eastern European counties recoup. Countries in the Eastern Bloc
Eastern bloc
The term Eastern Bloc or Communist Bloc refers to the former communist states of Eastern and Central Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact...

 were instructed to build up the industries present in the Soviet Union – regardless of whether or not they had the natural resource
Natural resource
Natural resources occur naturally within environments that exist relatively undisturbed by mankind, in a natural form. A natural resource is often characterized by amounts of biodiversity and geodiversity existent in various ecosystems....

s to support those industries – or to concentrate on developing pre-existing industries which could benefit the Soviet Union. In the case of Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

, the state was told to concentrate on heavy industry
Heavy industry
Heavy industry does not have a single fixed meaning as compared to light industry. It can mean production of products which are either heavy in weight or in the processes leading to their production. In general, it is a popular term used within the name of many Japanese and Korean firms, meaning...

. This concentration on heavy industry depleted the country's natural resources at an extraordinarily fast rate and produced an excessive amount of pollution
Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into a natural environment that causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem i.e. physical systems or living organisms. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances or energy, such as noise, heat or light...



The pollution
Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into a natural environment that causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem i.e. physical systems or living organisms. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances or energy, such as noise, heat or light...

 produced by heavy industry seriously degraded air quality. The air contained high concentrations of sulfur dioxide
Sulfur dioxide
Sulfur dioxide is the chemical compound with the formula . It is released by volcanoes and in various industrial processes. Since coal and petroleum often contain sulfur compounds, their combustion generates sulfur dioxide unless the sulfur compounds are removed before burning the fuel...

 because the energy production was largely based on combustion of fuel high in sulfur. As a result, 50 percent of the forests were either dead or dying. Cases of bronchitis
Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the large bronchi in the lungs that is usually caused by viruses or bacteria and may last several days or weeks. Characteristic symptoms include cough, sputum production, and shortness of breath and wheezing related to the obstruction of the inflamed airways...

 and asthma
Asthma is the common chronic inflammatory disease of the airways characterized by variable and recurring symptoms, reversible airflow obstruction, and bronchospasm. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath...

 in children almost doubled with the increase in the use of sulfur dioxide. The water, too, was affected by the excessive pollution, both from industrial fertilizer
Fertilizer is any organic or inorganic material of natural or synthetic origin that is added to a soil to supply one or more plant nutrients essential to the growth of plants. A recent assessment found that about 40 to 60% of crop yields are attributable to commercial fertilizer use...

s and oil spill
Oil spill
An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially marine areas, due to human activity, and is a form of pollution. The term is mostly used to describe marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters...

s. The lack of water waste treatment
Waste treatment
Waste treatment refers to the activities required to ensure that waste has the least practicable impact on the environment. In many countries various forms of waste treatment are required by law.-Solid waste treatment:...

 meant that a large portion of the water was undrinkable for the population, and some of the water was so bad that it was even unusable by the industry. Conditions were worst in Northern Bohemia
Bohemia is a historical region in central Europe, occupying the western two-thirds of the traditional Czech Lands. It is located in the contemporary Czech Republic with its capital in Prague...

, which was a part of the so-called ‘triangle of death’ that also included South-East East Germany and South-West Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

, but the effects were also felt beyond the region in which the pollution originated. The Danube River carried much of the pollution to other areas of the state and other countries, and acid rain
Acid rain
Acid rain is a rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it possesses elevated levels of hydrogen ions . It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen...

 brought the pollution directly to the cities, where it could eat away at the buildings and statues.

The government's role

While pollution was increasing, records and information relating to pollution became increasingly inaccessible to the public. Students who tried to make the public aware of the problems were arrested and detained by the police. Often no records were even kept on the industrial effects on the environment. There were some people involved with non-governmental organizations that tried to correct the situation, but these groups were largely interested in acting as an adversary of the state. Under the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia
1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia
The Constitution of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic , promulgated on 11 July 1960 as the constitutional law 100/1960 Sb., codified the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia...

, the state was legally required to protect the quality of the environment as far as necessary to protect human health, but in northern Czechoslovakia, pollution reportedly shortened a person’s life by three to four years. The government even acknowledged these poor living conditions by offering a bonus to people who lived in the area for more than ten years – called burial money by the people in the area.

The government face problems in trying to solve environmental problems because there was no central branch responsible for environmental safety and protection. Instead, there were many different branches responsible for different aspects of the environment – one for water, one for land, one for air, etc., and these different branches often had conflicting interests. Each branch would try to enforce its own environmental priorities without regard to the overall environmental picture. Furthermore, these branches were in charge not only of the environmental issues in their area, but also of the economic issues, giving each branch a set of conflicting priorities, and economic needs would generally win out. When the government imposed fines for failures to comply with pollution regulations, it would also help industry pay off the fines, leaving industry with little incentive to change policies.

Further reading

  • Crampton, R. J.; Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century – and After. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1997.
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