Economic and social transition periods can have strong negative effects for the environment and for wildlife. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provides a striking example of social turmoil and transition to a new society. It is unclear, however, how humans affected the environment in the course of the collapse, and if institutions designed to safeguard the environment continued to fulfill their intended role. Our goal was to assess the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on forest canopy removal rates in protected areas, and how these rates varied by protected area status and over time. We monitored forest canopy removal within and outside of protected areas using a 1985–2010 time series of Landsat satellite images from the Western Caucasus. On average, we found surprisingly low annual forest canopy removal rates of only 0.03%. The highest canopy removal inside of protected areas of all types occurred after 2000. Among the protected areas, we found the highest canopy removal rates within Sochi National Park, attributable to construction for the Olympic Games and in spite of the Park’s protected status. Overall, it is encouraging that forest canopy removal rates in protected areas in the Western Caucasus are far lower than in other Russian regions. Because many local endemic plant and animal species are found in the Caucasus region, clear cuts are prohibited, and this regulation appears to be effective. However, forest canopy removal within protected areas caused by major social and political events such as the Olympic Games is of concern.