‘All complaints are a recipe of the Social Democratic Party’: foreign capital, pollution, and local peoples in tsarist Russia

It often seems that the problem of industrial pollution of the environment is a fairly new phenomenon, which became a topic of wide social discussion only in the second half of the 20th century. Even more novel is the attempt to link environmental problems with issues of state security and protectionist measures. Historian Andrei Vinogradov, using the example of the Waldhof paper mill in Pärnu, shows that more than 120 years ago, issues of exploitation of nature, the imperialist confrontation between the “great powers” and the destruction of the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples were closely intertwined, and environmentalists often had to appeal to “state interests”, to be heard.

Cover: Ruins of the Waldhof factory, ajapaik.ee

A large foreign company decides to open a new factory in Russia and invites influential Russian officials in its management to help it deal with the possible challenges. Indeed, the problems are many – the factory causes significant environmental damage and hampers the state’s projects of developing health resorts in the neighborhood. While various agencies decide whose investments are more important, the local communities suffer the most, unable to pursue their traditional livelihoods, yet receiving little attention. All protests are blamed on the opposition’s efforts to destabilize the situation and turn residents against the incumbent authorities.

It sounds like something out of today’s news, but these events took place over a hundred years ago in Pärnu, Estonia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. This story is about a factory owned by the large German paper manufacturing corporation “Zellstofffabrik Waldhof”, now known worldwide for its brand named ZeWa. At the beginning of the 20th century, the corporation decided to invest its capital in the construction of its largest factory on then-Russian territory. At the time, the decision seemed rational, and little did anyone know that the factory would soon be at the center of a profound pollution conflict, with tensions between Russia and Germany becoming one of the causes of two of the biggest wars in human history.

In the environmental history of the Waldhof factory, we can find all the topics that would soon become the leitmotif of a new era – the export of industrial pollution, the clash of interests between a large corporation and local society, the struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples who are particularly closely linked to the environment. Such situations are often observed today in various regions of Russia and the world. However, pre-revolutionary Russia lacked important tools that we have today – sufficient scientific understanding of the dangers of pollution, media sphere, and environmental legislation. How was it possible to fight for the environment against a large corporation in such conditions? What can history tell us about which methods were effective and which were not?

Beginning with a brief but necessary excursion into the history of pollution, I will describe the environmental situation in the resort town of Pärnu after the factory started operating. Based on historical sources I’ve found, I’ll illustrate the perception of the conflict by different parties and explain why its unexpected outcome was quite predictable.*

1024px-Waldhofi_tselluloosivabrik.jpgThe Waldhof pulp factory in 1904. Photo: wikimedia.org

Pollution from a historical perspective

Why do the residents of Krasnoyarsk believe that the air in the city is extremely polluted, while the authorities disagree? Why is the public concerned about the environmental situation in Karabash city in the Urals, while the majority of locals seem to be indifferent? To understand how pollution works in our society, we must first “step out of the matrix” and realize that there is no scientifically established, objective level of pollution. Indeed, drinking water from a polluted river can make us sick, and some odors seem impossible to ignore. But that doesn’t mean our neighbors, officials, and people on social media will share our opinion. You can choose not to drink water from the river, or avoid walking past industrial zones, but someone still has to pay the citizens’ wages. Pollution as a concept is always a compromise, influenced by cultural norms and social order. The legal standards of maximum allowable concentration are not an objective truth, but rather the opinion of a particular group of people, codified into law at some point.

Pollution is therefore closely linked to cultural perceptions and social structures. Depending on how different social groups perceive economic progress and nature, the freedom of private property, and the interests of the state, they may view the owners of polluting companies as criminals and disturbers of public order, or as patrons and benefactors. The ability of local residents, the primary victims of pollution, to assert and defend their rights depends on the level of self-organization and the existence of relevant laws and institutions.

Material and cultural pollution are, in fact, different facets of the same phenomenon. Our notions of “pollution” in the broadest sense extend not only to material objects, but also to art, ethics (in this sense, “dirty” implies something vulgar or indecent), and even to people (including ideas of racial purity and the “cleansing” of territories of undesirable populations, for example during wars). It is important to bear in mind the cultural and social dimensions of pollution when considering the events surrounding the Waldhof factory.

24646535_original.jpgPushkinsky Boulevard in Pernov. XIX - early XX centuries. Photo: humus.livejournal.com

The economics and technology of cellulose production

In 1899, German industrialists registered a new “Russian Joint Stock Company of the Waldhof Factory in the town of Pernov” in Russia, and by the end of the following year, the factory was already up and running. In addition to German citizens, the management included the city mayor, Oscar Brackmann, and a government official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fedor Pauli. The factory was initially built to be a leader in its industry and soon became a major supplier of pulp to markets in the Russian Empire and Western Europe.

The Waldhof Corporation’s decision to build a factory outside Germany was justified by the fact that the price of wood, the primary raw material for cellulose production, was prohibitively high in Central Europe, while it was quite attractive in Russia. However, there may have been other reasons for this decision – particularly that the Grand Duchy of Baden, where the conglomerate was registered, was known for its strict approach to protecting rivers from pollution. In this case, we have one of the earliest instances in Russian history of pollution being exported from abroad: while some people on the fringes of the vast empire had to bear the environmental costs of production, all the profits were enjoyed by other people in a completely different country.

The environmental costs were indeed substantial. In 1909, the huge factory produced over 73,000 tons of bleached cellulose using the sulfite process, which made eight to ten tons of effluent for every ton of final product. It’s easy to calculate that the factory was dumping at least half a million tons of toxic effluent a year into the River Pärnu and the Baltic Sea – more than enough to make the water unfit for the daily needs of the local population and the fishing industry. This contradicted the state’s plans for the development of health and bathing resorts in Pärnu, the first of which were built in the early 19th century.

Encounters with pollution

In the history of the 19th century, it is often difficult to hear the voices of peasants and workers, mainly because few of them were literate. But the story of the Waldhof factory became an exception due to the conscientiousness of the police officer Petr Lippert, who in 1908 interviewed many locals as part of the case against water pollution, and meticulously documented his conversations with them. Lippert’s reports, still preserved in the archives of the city of Tartu, where I came across them, offer insights into the situation through the eyes of contemporaries. Here are a few examples.

Peasant Yuriy Janson, aged 33: he had been fishing in the River Pärnu and the Baltic Sea since he was born, but since the Waldhof factory started discharging its wastewater, both the water and the fish in it became unfit for consumption. He tried boiling, frying, and salting the fish he caught, but it always had a sour taste. After eating it, he felt sick and began to vomit, and had a stomach discomfort that lasted for a week. In addition, he could no longer grow apples and berries in his garden – they were destroyed by the acidic smoke from the factory chimneys.

Peasant Karl Lensment, aged 65: he has been a fisherman since birth, but lately he has only caught fish in the sea and no closer than twelve miles from the shore. But even that didn’t help: the fish were much scarcer than in previous years, and it was impossible to eat or sell it. Moreover, the seawater was so acidic that the nets literally dissolved in it: within two to three days they became porous and fragile, whereas previously the same nets would have been used for five years.

Peasant Yogan Somm, aged 45: he has been fishing since childhood, but in recent years he has lost more than he has earned and has been forced to give up the trade.

Peasant Mikhail Otenson, aged 33: tried to catch fish in the Pernovka River, but city guards spotted him and prohibited him from selling it. He secretly sold it to one of the restaurants, but the next day he was informed that all the purchased fish had to be discarded.

The peasants’ situation was indeed dire. Contemporary reports stated that more than half of them were forced to abandon fishing, but they had few alternatives because the soil around Pärnu was not particularly fertile. Ironically, one of the main sources of income for former peasants became the Waldhof factory. Involving people in wage labor during industrialization did not always happen voluntarily, and the history of the Waldhof factory shows that in this sense, the negative environmental externalities of production were even advantageous to its owners. By destroying the environment associated with the livelihoods and daily life of the local population, industrialists turned them into accessible and cheap labor.

Pilar-fon-Pilkhau_Adolf_Adolfovich.jpgBaron Adolf Pilar von Pilchau (1851-1925). Photo: wikimedia.org

During the investigation, not only peasants but also local representatives of the nobility were interviewed. Their opinions on the Waldhof Factory significantly differed. For example, Adolf Pilar von Pilchau, a baron, the court Hofmeister, and a land marshal, aged 59, claimed that the decrease in fish catches was the fault of the fishermen themselves, who were catching fish in excessive quantities. He stated he “knew nothing about the harm allegedly caused by the factory to fishing”, and he “had heard nothing about mass fish deaths in the Pärnu River and Pärnu Bay”, and no fisherman had told him about it. Perhaps the baron was genuinely unaware and spoke sincerely: pollution simply did not exist for him, he had no direct contact with it. Therefore, in concluding his testimony, he used an argument that is still actively applied to participants in environmental protests in Russia: “I am deeply convinced that all complaints from fishermen are just a recipe of the social democratic party, seeking in every way to incite one part of the population, the poorer, against another part of the population, the wealthier and more affluent”.

Government approach

After fishermen’s petitions against the Waldhof factory reached St Petersburg, the resolution of the conflict was in the hands of the state. It sought to rely on “scientifically based” principles and expert opinion. From 1905 until the factory’s closure, the legal disputes continued, with an increasing number of experts involved. Their conclusions contradicted each other: scientists hired by the factory consistently claimed that it was not responsible for the water pollution, pointing to other possible sources. State experts, however, found sulphuric acid and alkaline residues in the factory’s effluent, as well as cellulose fibers, confirming the need for the installation of purification facilities, the construction of which was entrusted to local authorities.

Such a strict approach by the state to the factory was not common in the 19th-century Russian Empire: the state often sought to protect industrialists who created jobs and paid taxes. In this case, however, the German origin of the owners played a significant role, making the entire factory an unwelcome element in the local landscape, as relations between the Russian and German empires were rapidly deteriorating. In this case, the attitude towards pollution corresponded to the attitude towards owners. The desire to develop Pärnu as a health resort only intensified the activity of the authorities.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the legal battles against the Waldhof factory were in full swing. But the company was not destined to see the outcome of these – in 1915 the factory was destroyed by German naval bombardment. This sad ending is not entirely irrelevant to the story told above: material pollution has always been part of the relationship between the two empires.

The only “odd” element left in the conflict was the peasants of the town of Pärnu. From the reaction of the St Petersburg authorities to the complaints received, it can be concluded that they tried to act in the interests of the fishermen. However, in many similar cases, the dissatisfaction of the locals was not an argument and scientific expertise provided conflicting conclusions, allowing any convenient decision to be made. In the case of the Waldhof factory, the dissatisfaction of the fishermen coincided successfully with the hostile attitude of St Petersburg officials towards the German capital and their own vision of the development of the city of Pärnu. However, the “resort project” took little account of the interests of ecosystems and indigenous people: they remained objects rather than subjects of governance, and in this respect, little has changed globally over the past hundred years.


* I am grateful to my comrade and colleague, Candidate of Historical Sciences Grigory Afanasyev, who drew my attention to the “Waldhof case” and published his research on the subject. To tell the story of the Waldhof factory, I will have to repeat much of what he has already written, but in my own way – this story is complex enough and can be viewed from different angles.