connecting collections

Environmental movements under Socialism

Environmental movements under Socialism

Before the regime change the socialist one party states allowed assembly only for the purposes of the official ideology, on assigned places, and only if the event were organized by the state. The ones who did not respect the rules, were labelled as hostile. State security aimed to repress the will for protest and to reduce their number by massively training special forces, police and army for the possibilities and methods of crowd control.

Basic concepts

  • ecology
  • right of assembly
  • state security


The students should

  • understand the role of environmental movements – or of their void in the politics of the socialist regime
  • understand the strategies of the environmental movements, the diversity of local contexts and times
  • get to learn the methods of these movements within the frames of the system


The students should

  • interiorize the basic importance of environmental protection in human life
  • learn through the exercises and be aware of the increasing important of the environmental protection, and their responsibility
  • gain respect for the resistance acts


The students should

  • be able to find the appropriate information within their own countries
  • be able to browse effectively in the COURAGE Registry and other data bases
  • be able to compare information and apply source criticism

by Barbara Hegedüs

Right of assembly and environmental protection under Socialism

Before the regime change the socialist one party states allowed assembly only for the purposes of the official ideology, on assigned places, and only if the event were organized by the state. The ones who did not respect the rules, were labelled as hostile. State security aimed to repress the will for protest and to reduce their number by massively training special forces, police and army for the possibilities and methods of crowd control.

There were various issues that brought people to the streets. Environmental protection was among the most important ones. Environmental protection is a social act, ideology and a movement too, which aims to prevent, minimize or avert ecological damages caused by humans. There are several organizations worldwide that represent the idea of environmental protection, from the civil sphere to the political institutions. During the decades of socialism, however, ecological thought remained in the background next to the centralized economical interests, following a Soviet pattern. From the fifties on there were factories and entire cities that were built up with a complete ignorance of their environmental impact. Later on, the dominant idea was that in Socialism, there is no need for environmental protection separately, because the economic agents would automatically pay attention to environmental protection, driven by their internal moral motivation.

Despite of the ignorant attitude of the state, there were mobilization that emerged around larger issues that moved the public opinion more broadly, and could reach success in certain environmental problems. These issues also proved that collective protest could work effectively under the dictatorship, and several times these acts grew beyond the environmental problems and turned into a criticism of the entire system – at many cases, for the first time since the socialist regimes took over. This lesson will discuss a few of such important, exemplary issues.

The Daugava valley

In 1958 in Latvia 55 scholars and well-known people from the sphere of culture signed a petition against the building of the planned Pļaviņas water power plant. The plant was about to be built in the Daugava valley, one of the most spectacular areas, rich in archaeological and historical relics, which also had a symbolic importance in the national mythology. The signatories of the petition acknowledged the importance of building a water power plant, but asked the designers to take environmental aspects into consideration, next to the economic interests. This was the first mass mobilization in Latvia since WW2, but it had been gradually disrupted, at the plant was eventually constructed in 1966. The construction did not spare the historical and environmental areas, and the failure had become a symbol of the general ineffectiveness against the Soviet authorities.

The Daugava valley came to the centre of attention again in the ‘80s. In 1986-1987, in the town of Daugavpils Soviet officials wanted to build another water power plant but had to face a serious opposition. The campaign against the construction was the first case in Latvia since the Soviet opposition when – contrary to the failure in Plavinas – a mobilization to save a natural resort was successful. An article by Dainis Ivans and Arturs Snips was published in the weekly journal Literature and art in 1986 about the ecological and economic consequences of the planned constructions. The article raised a lot of attention and provoked heated debates, and even though the authorities did not want to bother with the issue, they eventually had to stop the construction, due to the massive pressure (the petition was signed by 34 000 people). Both the documents related to the Plavinasi and the Davagpils power plant can be found in the Daugava River Museum (while there are very few on the first one, due to the Soviet authorities that had repressed the protests).

Phosphorite mines

A significant environmental movement emerged in Estonia, too, at the end of the ‘80s, which eventually turned into a starting point of the revolutionary events in the country. The Soviet Union planned to open phosphorite mines in Estonia, however, phosphorite mining threatened to cause serious environmental damages in the region. Juhan Aare television reporter, journalist and politician started a massive campaign against opening the mines in February 1987. At a broadcasting of television programme Panda, a show on environmental issues, spectators were asked to send letters to the authorities as a sign of protest. The call initiated a massive protest wave, and as a result of the so-called phosphorite war, authorities eventually resigned from their initial plans. Aare collected the documents related to the show Panda and founded his own private collection.

The water power plant of Gabcikovo-Nagymaros

In 1977, the states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia signed a treaty to build a joint barrage on the river Danube. The goal was to produce energy, to provide navigability and to improve flood protection and regional development. Constructions started in 1984, and the documents related to the plans were encrypted. The Danube Circle was formed on the 1st of August, 1984, and it firmly opposed the plan to build the destructive dam. The civil movement that was lead by biologist János Vargha, among others, and aimed to prevent the building of the plant by public protests, debates and through distributing samizdat papers. They argued that the dam would cause an ecological disaster, destroy the natural environment in the region, and thousands of people would have to leave their homes. The activities of the Danube Circle pointed out the mistreatment of the environment by the socialist regime, and thus the environmental issue raised into a broader critic of the socialist state – in 1988 there were tens of thousands of people who protested against the building of the power plant, which had been documented by the illegal samizdat video journal Fekete Doboz (Black Box). The project had been stopped and restarted several times, and eventually the constructions were closed down in 1989, due to the massive protests, and the international treaty was broken in 1992. The documents of the Danube Circle were donated to the City Archives of Budapest by György Droppa of the Danube Circle.

Bratislava aloud

Slovak environmentalists published samizdat Bratislava aloud (Bratislava nahlas) in 1987, and pointed out at the environmental problems of the Slovak capital. Bratislava aloud discussed the extremely high air and water pollution, the neglected monuments, the potentially catastrophic consequences of the Gabcikovo- Nagymaros power plant. The collection of the Slovak Association of Environmentalists shows the crucial role of environmentalists in the Czechoslovak movement – besides the successful demonstrations they also preserved a number of monuments and old cemeteries, with voluntary work.

Ivan Dejmal

Ivan Dejmal

Ivan Dejmal was an important figure of the Czech resistance. He graduated a secondary school of gardening, and studied agriculture at the University of Prague. Since he was among the leading student activists of the Prague Spring and member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, he could not complete his studies and was imprisoned two times. As an important representative of the environmental movement, he participated in the foundation of the Environmental Society. He became the minister of environment in 1990-91, and the head of the Czech Environmental Institute in 1994-1995.

The Ruse movement

One of the most impressive, massive environmental protests in Bulgaria was generated by an industrial chemical factory on the Romanian side of river Danube, in 1980. The factory cause serious environmental problems in the neighbouring city of Ruse, which was compounded by the impact of the factories in Ruse. Both governments were aware of the scales of the pollution, but tried to cover up the problem. On the 28th of September, 1987, hundreds of people protested against the factory in Ruse, which became the first street demonstration in communist Bulgaria. By November, the number of people increased to several thousands, which was kept silent by the state media. The documentary filmmaker Yuri Zhirov, however, filmed the entire protest and the film Breathe, based on that was presented in 1988, directed by Malina Petrova. The Ruse Environmental Committee was founded immediately after the premier, as the first institutional anti-totalitarian organization in Bulgaria, which was soon followed by the formation of several other movements, too. The Independent Society Ekoglasnost, founded in April 1989, which focused on important environmental issues, played an important role in the political changes. The last environmental protests in Ruse took place in 1991.

Protests in Omiš

In April 1979, a protest movement was being formed against the plans to build a factory in the Croatian town Omis. The petition against it was signed by more than 3000 people, which resulted in further professional and public debates. A referendum was held during the summer, with a high number of participants, where almost 98,7% voted against the construction. The protest was successful, the authorities withdrew from building of the factory.

Environmentalism became stronger in the region after the regime change, and the green movements have had a large support and a strong voice up till today.


Beginning of the class:

What do you do for the environment? Do you think that the protection of the environment is similarly important in a less free world or in a dictatorship (e.g. selective waste collection etc.)?

What kind of possibilities do you see in a dictatorship to make your voice heard?

What kind of protests, political or other gatherings have you heard about in the past or recently?

What kind of current environmental organizations do you know?

COURAGE Registry:

Read thoroughly about the history of the Black Box. What else did they document besides the protest actions of the Danube Circle? Prepare a presentation!

Find collections, persons, documents (Zlatko Elenski, Women in Society, etc.), and try to reconstruct the events! You can accomplish the task online (in a ppt) or with a group work, on large posters, with the use of drawings, photographs, posters; you can prepare protest banners or write the biographies of the participants.

Find pictures of the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros protest events on Fortepan. Put them in an order as you prefer and tell their story!

True or false? Decide with the help of COURAGE Registry! If the information is false, find the correct answers!

Polish Arkadiusz ‘Owca’ Zajączkowski contributed significantly to the exhibition archives of Fuck 89.

The topic of the exhibition Women in Society is the ecological disaster of Ruse and the active role of women in movements.

The largest ecological library of Hungary, the Library of the Association of Cultural Innovation can be found in district Újbuda, next to the MU Theatre.

The boxes called Protests, demonstrations, mobilizations in the Historical Archives of the State Security Service contain secret service documentation of protests in Budapest before 1989.

The German group Initiativgruppe Leben was formed in 1987 in Leipzig, from the already existing Working Group on the Environment. They also dealt with civic rights and politics, among others, next to ecological issues.

Playful tasks:

  • Sew a retro bag from old clothes that you are about to through out. Prepare placards, banners from trash, bottlecaps, stickers for an imagined environmental demonstration! It is important that you don’t buy anything for the purpose and use only existing waste materials.
  • After learning from the COURAGE Registry, form small groups. The groups receive brief information about persons, events, groups, museums that participated in ecological movements (through a ppt, gradually moving from simpler to more complex information). If one of the groups can guess the answer, they should put in on a piece of paper and show it to the teacher. If the answer is correct, they can throw the crumpled paper to the paper basket in the middle of the room. If they can hit into it, they receive one point. The group that collected most points wins.

For example:

János Gyurkó

  1. Grew up in Pestlőrinc as the eldest son of seven siblings, in a Catholic, intellectual family. His mother was a doctor, his father was the chief chemical engineer of the Budapest pharmaceutical factory.
  2. He defended his doctoral dissertation with the title Typology of Hungarian Churches under the Árpád era in 1986 at the Technical University of Budapest, Faculty of Architecture.
  3. In 1980 he participated in a number of independent initiatives as a samizdat author and distributor, and as a diligent volunteer of the Danube Circle and the Transylvanian solidarity movements.
  4. In 1987-88, he played a key role in the data collection of a 400 pages long documentation prepared by dozens of volunteers and participated in the presentation on Transylvania’s threatened multicultural architectural heritage.
  5. In 1993 he became the minister of environment and regional development of the Antall, and the succeeding Boross governments.