The Politics of Catastrophe

Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege

by Murray Feshbach, by Alfred Friendly Jr.
Basic Books, 376 pp., $24.00

The Truth About Chernobyl

by Grigori Medvedev, translated by Evelyn Rossiter, foreword by Andrei Sakharov
Basic Books, 274 pp., $12.00 (paper)

No Breathing Room: The Aftermath of Chernobyl

by Grigori Medvedev, translated by Evelyn Rossiter, Introduction by David R. Marples
Basic Books, 213 pp., $20.00

Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl

by Piers Paul Read
Random House, 362 pp., $25.00

A case can be made that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the way it treated the environment. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ruled one sixth of the earth’s surface, squandered the resources of an immensely rich country and created an ecological catastrophe. As much as anything else, this undermined support for the regime by exposing as fraudulent its claim to have invented a new type of “scientific” policy-making and by showing how little it cared for the well-being of its citizens. In the Gorbachev years, when public opinion became a political force, environmental issues provided a major source of popular protest and separatist sentiment.

In Ecocide in the USSR Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr., provide a detailed and depressing inventory of the environmental degradation of the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse. Feshbach is well known for earlier work in charting the decline of life expectancy and the increase in infant mortality in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. He and Friendly argue that damage to the environment was a major cause of the decline in public health. Extensive use of pesticides and defoliants contaminated the rivers feeding the Aral Sea, for example, so that mothers in the region who breast-fed their babies ran the risk of poisoning them. Besides, these rivers were used to irrigate the cotton mono-culture of Central Asia, with the result that the Aral Sea shrank by two thirds, and storms spread toxic salts from its exposed bed. Three quarters of the country’s surface water was unfit to drink, and one third of the underground sources contaminated. Nuclear accidents at Kyshtym and Chernobyl spread radioactive fallout over large areas of agricultural land and damaged the health of thousands of people. The health care system was in crisis. Eighty percent of rural hospitals and polyclinics had no hot water in 1990, reflecting the low priority of health care as well as the backwardness of the countryside.

The Soviet Union was of course not the only country with environmental problems, but it had special features that made the situation worse. Land, air, and water were as much victims of Stalin’s ruthless policies as the people of the Soviet Union were. “We cannot expect charity from nature,” Stalin said. “We must tear it from her.” Planners regarded the country’s natural resources as limitless. No effort was made to conserve these resources, which were used with great profligacy; they were priced cheaply, so that no one had an incentive to use them economically. And although political repression was eased after Stalin’s death, the basic premises of economic policy were not revised. The Party leaders continued to stress production above all else, and to ignore the social and environmental costs of the drive to catch up with the West.

Public opinion could not provide a counterweight to these policies. The Party and the government bureaucracy withheld information on environmental conditions and tried to stifle any expressions of …

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