Russia’s tumultuous history includes one legacy little known outside its borders—a vast system of protected lands that conservationists have fought for decades to study and protect. Some are so remote and guarded that few of Russia’s own citizens have ever stepped foot in them.
A century ago, in one of its last acts before the Russian empire collapsed in the 1917 revolution, Tsar Nicholas II officially set aside land near Siberia’s Lake Baikal for Russia’s first “zapovednik”, or strict nature reserve.
Russian zapovedniks—from the Russian word meaning “commandment”—are some of the most highly protected areas in the world. The unique nature reserve system now covers an area the size of France and is rated by the UN as the highest status of protection for wildlife anywhere in the world.
The aim of the first zapovednik was to protect the Barguzin sable, an animal with fur so dense, dark, and luxurious (nickname: “soft gold”) that tsars from Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great had worried for its future. Tsar Nicholas II himself was an avid hunter. But by 1917 he felt impelled to act: the carnivorous mammals with the lucrative pelts were facing extinction.
By March of that same year, Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne, and in 1918 the Bolshevik revolutionaries executed him, along with the rest of the Romanov family. The seven decades of Soviet history that followed were marked by hardship and war—the Germans invaded in 1941; the Russians ultimately defeated them at a cost of millions of lives—and after that, by rapid industrial development and an arms race with America.
Yet despite this turbulent history, the Barguzin sable did not go extinct. Nor did the Baikal seal, brown bear, and forest reindeer that call that same region home. They were saved by Nicholas’s creation, the Barguzinsky zapovednik. And today there are 102 more reserves like it.
Sergey Donskoy, Russia’s current minister of natural resources and the environment, says that while the system of protected areas is a century old, “it really began to advance during the post-Soviet period.” Since 1992, he says, the number of federally protected areas “has grown by 95 percent—it’s almost doubled.”
However, that system faces a big challenge: Few Russians understand how to publicly support, enjoy, or help safeguard it because they’ve traditionally been excluded from it.
Whereas in American parks the goal is “conservation plus recreation,” says Igor Chestin, CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature Russia, “in Russia it is conservation plus science. These zapovedniks were originally established as field labs with limited access, if any, for private visitors.” Even today a special permit is typically required to visit a zapovednik. Few people do.
“We’re all proud of our nature,” he says, “but only one percent of us actually does anything for nature” through volunteerism or other efforts.
One aim of the Year of Ecology and Protected Areas, announced at the beginning of this year, is to change that. The Russian government would like to increase public visitation of its National Parks, which are already more accessible than the zapovedniks.
The government says it wants to expand the system. By 2020, Russia is planning no fewer than 18 new federally protected areas, including at least five new zapovedniks, at least 11 national parks, and two federal refuges as well as the expansion of previously protected areas. One new national park and a zapovednik will be established in the Arctic.
Last August, on the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama announced a massive expansion of national marine monument in the Hawaiian Islands, the Russian government enlarged the existing Russian Arctic National Park to include the icy, biodiverse islands of Franz Josef Land.
“It’s the northernmost archipelago in the world and home to walruses, polar bears, and bowhead whales,” says National Geographic’s Pristine Seas founder and explorer-in-residence Enric Sala. “It’s a historically magical place only discovered in the late 1800s.”
Another example of Russian leadership on environmental matters, Sala says, was last year’s protection of the Ross Sea in Antarctica, on which Russia collaborated with the U.S., the European Union, and other countries. All that makes him hopeful for this centenary year of the first zapovednik—hopeful that Russians will keep working to preserve “some of the most extraordinary places on our planet,” the ones in their own immense country.