How The Soviet Union Poisoned Its Own Wells


Murray Feshbach & Alfred Friendly Jr.

Basic Books -- 376 pp -- $24

About 20 years ago, Soviet scientists and engineers, trying to bridge a widening gap between food production and consumption, came up with a chemical process that turned oil-refinery byproducts into animal fodder. Pigs ate the new food with gusto and got fat quicker.

The man-made protein earned its creators numerous awards and job promotions. Valery A. Bykov, director of the huge plant in Kirishi, near St. Petersburg, that pioneered the technique, polevaulted all the way to the Kremlin, where he was made Medical Industry Minister. The trumpeting of the new achievement of Soviet science drowned out the few voices who warned against making an untested product an essential link in the human food chain. Also ignored were warnings about Kirishi's poorly designed exhaust-filtering systems.

Later studies found that meat from the animals fed the fodder is potentially carcinogenic and that polluted air had sent the incidence of asthma and lung cancer around Kirishi zooming.

Poisoned air and dead rivers, dying land and sick people--such is the legacy left by thousands of shortsighted bureaucrats and managers after 74 years of Soviet communist rule. "It is theoretically impossible to live in every seventh Russian city," said a top Russian ecologist three years ago. Citizens' groups want to put many of the party's functionaries on trial for failing to deliver the healthy lives promised by every Soviet leader from Joseph Stalin to Yuri Andropov.

Prosecutors would find invaluable help in Ecocide in the U.S.S.R. Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. have managed to put together a comprehensive--and shocking--catalog of the damage that the Soviet system has inflicted on man and nature.

Page after page, the litany of horrors goes on: the Aral Sea destroyed by senseless irrigation, groundwater and rivers in Central Asia poisoned by cotton herbicides, life expectancies in one region after another falling to Third World levels.

But Feshbach, an authority on Soviet health and demographics, and Friendly, a former Newsweek Moscow bureau chief, go beyond listing ills to look deep into the causes of ecological suicide and to try to predict whether the present situation can ever be healed.

At the root of the current crisis is the fact that a healthy environment was never counted among the values in the Soviet catechism. There were no procedures for planners and managers to factor in the costs of cleaning up dirty air, water, and land. And ecological data were kept secret from the public.

The authors say the prognosis is bleak: "In the midst of internal political stalemate and economic collapse, wholesale environmental rehabilitation could only be a distant dream." First is the cost problem. Clean water alone would eat up the entire budgets of the new nations. Keep in mind that the U.S. has been spending more than $24 billion a year for 15 years to get rivers and lakes to their current degree of cleanliness.

As industrial production sinks and budgetary constraints mount, investment into ecologically safe technologies and upgraded pollution control at existing sites is becoming more doubtful. "It's rich countries that can allow themselves the luxury of comprehensive environmental protection," says Yury Shcherbak, Ukraine's Environmental Minister and a moving force behind the Ukrainian parliament's decision to shut down the three remaining reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station.

Making matters worse, the new republics have widely varying approaches to dealing with ecological problems. In 1989, Russia treated two-thirds of its waste waters, Azerbaijan treated one-fourth, Georgia less than one-fifth, and Armenia, almost none. The river Dniestr, the main source of drinking water for 2.6 million people in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, carries pesticide runoff from Ukrainian farms to Moldova and from Moldovan farms south again into Ukraine. At a time of growing ethnic paranoia, the chances of conflict over who polluted what seem high.

A final barrier to change is the region's immensely monopolistic corporate structure. Attempts to shut down unsafe chemical plants, for example, have led to immediate and acute shortages of drugs that use ingredients made by these facilities. And closing dangerous nuclear plants would black out vast regions.

Yet unbearable ecological conditions in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and parts of Russia have begun to change the mindset that nature should be the servant of the people. A number of former eco-radicals have been placed in power as their initiatives have grown into movements and parties. Already, the authors note, some regions have "begun to move down the long, potholed road from protest to reform."

How long is that road? The poisoning of one-sixth of the earth's landmass and hundreds of millions of people was committed by the Soviet system. That system is now on the scrapheap of history, and limited reform movements are under way. But that doesn't mean an effective cleanup will take place anytime soon. Detoxification will come hard and and at great cost, succeeding only if it becomes a national goal. As a woman from Rostov wrote recently to the weekly Nedelya: "We need a mass party that would unite around the issue of healthy environment. It's the only way we can restore our nation."

More calls to arms such as Ecocide in the U.S.S.R. should speed the process.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE