Seven Decades of Degradation

October 09, 1992

On top of everything else, the former Soviet Union is filthy. It may have run industries that were uneconomic, run a labor force with no incentives and denied its people consumer goods that are essential in Taiwan or Spain. But beyond that, the Communist Party monopoly on power and communications polluted the country and its citizens on a scale not equaled elsewhere.

This was always suspected. News of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 could not be suppressed, though its dimensions were. But just how badly the system of Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev degraded the soil, water and air of Russia and bodies of Russians was made clear in government reports on the environment and public health which President Boris Yeltsin presented to the legislature. Sun correspondent Kathy Lally has reported just how devastating these accounts are.

One-fourth of drinking water is unsafe. More than one-third of the people live in air pollution exceeding Russia's permitted levels by ten times. Forty-two percent of hospitals have no hot water and 12 percent no running water. Half the people lack vitamin C. Virtually the entire population has bad teeth. Eleven percent of babies are born with health problems.

In some areas, no person is medically fit for military duty. Life expectancy, now at 63 years for men and 69 years for women, is going down. The danger is of many kinds: nuclear wastes, industrial pollution of all major rivers, belching smokestacks, poor food and diet. "For the first time we are telling the population openly and honestly about the scale of the ecological disaster we have inherited and the state of the population's health," Mr. Yeltsin said in making the reports public.

But of course there is a motive for candor. "The Soviet economy was developed at the expense of the population's health," said Vladimir Pokrovsky, head of the Academy of Medical Sciences. So blame it on the discredited 70-year experiment of communism, not on the post-Communist reformers. That is important because things are getting worse.

The system that demanded industrialization without restraint and forbade whistle-blowing is dismantled. But its works survive. And to close a plant would throw more people out of work. It will be a long time before fatal practices stop, longer still until degradation is cleaned up.

The reports admit to using unreliable data, no other kind existing. But the exercise serves to warn the developing world of the dangers where scrutiny is forbidden. And it shows the developed world that bringing Russia and sister republics into -- modern productive life will be even more costly than previously was reckoned.

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