Air Date: September 3, 1996||
Doug Goudy, Research Analyst,
Center for Post-Soviet Studies
Greg Guroff, Senior Associate,
Center for Post-Soviet Studies
GREG GUROFF: What they were dealing with was a legacy of 70 years, maybe more, of
disregard by the central government for the quality of life, quality of land, quality of air, and
quality of water throughout the country.
KEITH PORTER: The environmental and health problems facing Russia on this edition of
GUROFF: The hopeful side of this is that there is and has developed a serious concern in
Russia for environmental and health issues.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The book sells for around $100.00. It includes over 300 color maps and their explanations.
Printed in both Russian and English, the book is called The Environmental and Health Atlas of
Russia. It really is a guidebook to some of the worst manmade disasters in the world.
GUROFF: It’s clear to anybody who travels to Russia, or then to the Soviet Union, that
there were enormous problems. Part of the issue was a level of complacency in Russia, because no
data really existed or was suppressed. What they were dealing with was a legacy of 70 years,
maybe more, not necessarily only Soviet actions, of disregard by the central government for the
quality of life, quality of land, quality of air, and quality of water throughout the country.
For those who were concerned to begin to mobilize public concern, they needed to begin to put
together the information. We are one part of that process. There is a lot else going on.
In addition to that, there has always been a question, and remains a question, and that is the
relationship of environmental degradation to health issues. If you are an epidemiologist, if
you’re a scientist your demand for correlation is very high. It becomes also impossible to
satisfy scientifically to say that this particular condition of the water or these particular
issues in the environment are related to this particular disease; because they’ll say, “Well,
there are all sorts of other factors.” But what faces the Russian political system and leadership
are making very specific decisions of resource allocation. What became clear is that the
situation is worse than most people had thought, because the resources required to repair some of
these are so enormous in a society that is relatively poor and has all sorts of other economic
problems. This atlas became kind of the first weapon to be used in the overall battle for
The specifics are frightening, and the solution is not simple nor clear. If one can encapsulate
the situation, it has been a central regime in Moscow making decisions particularly about
economic development that has left and not taken into consideration at all the consequences of
any of their actions.
PORTER: That is Greg Guroff, who along with Murray Feshbach and scores of scholars and
computer experts in Russia and the United States, put together the Environmental and Health
Atlas of Russia. Guroff, a senior associate at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies, tells us
about one horror covered in the book. The environmental wreckage that used to be the vast body of
water known as the Aral Sea.
GUROFF: The Aral now is not in Russia. It is on the border of Russia in Kazakhstan,
Uzbekistan. Under the Soviets, the decision was made to specialize industries. And the decision
was made that Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, would become the cotton-producing area. For
anybody from this country who has ever looked at the development of cotton you know how tough it
is on the soil. The issue for the central government was only the production of cotton, nothing
else. What happened was, increasingly, in order to maintain the levels of cotton production, you
needed more water. To pull more water out of the Syr and Dar’ya Rivers you needed more
fertilizer, and didn’t pay any attention to the toxicity of it.
A number of things began to happen. The Aral Sea, which is one of the great inland seas of the
world, began to be reduced in size. If you go back to Persian times, you could read about the
silk route through the Aral. It was a major center of civilization. Over a period of 25 years of
this cotton mania the Aral Sea was reduced in size by about two-thirds. The port city of Aral’sk
is nowhere near the sea. The runoff from the cotton fields, particularly the fertilizers, are so
toxic they killed everything in the sea. Moreover, the sand around the Aral became so toxic that
every time there was a wind it would blow toxic waste back over the fields. Obviously, the
climatic change is dramatic in the area, but more so is the health condition.
PORTER: It seems to me that certainly some of the most dramatic indicators of how well
life is are life expectancy and child mortality rates. Tell us how those have changed, not just
in the 70 years of Soviet rule but in the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
GUROFF: Perhaps for an analyst the most difficult problem is to know the secular trend,
because lots of the data that we have for the Soviet period is not very good. But what seems to
be clear is that the principal indicator of male longevity has dropped in about a period of five
or six years, from the mid-1960s to about 57. While that may level out, that compares to, what is
it, 72 in this country? And the United States is not the highest in the industrial world. While
life expectancy has been gradually moving up in the industrial world and Russia is skyrocketing
in the reverse direction, it is a product of many, many things. It is a product of the rise in
violence. It is the increase in industrial accidents as discipline in the economy has broken
down. It is a rise in deaths from alcohol abuse. There are serious environmental issues and
increases in heart and cancer rates. There are a number of infectious diseases which have now
appeared. It has major impact, but lesser so on women because there’s a lesser impact of things
like smoking, alcohol abuse, and violence—but it is so dramatic when you look at this society.
We have only estimates for the similar drops in longevity in the other countries that make up the
DOUG GOUDY: Females have also declined, although not as remarkably. The urban males have
declined more than rural males, as is to be expected.
PORTER: Also joining us is Doug Goudy, a research analyst at the Center for Post-Soviet
GOUDY: In certain industrial cities life expectancies are incredibly lower, especially in
the northern industrial cities of Nikel and Noril’sk. The great Siberian combines that were
created during the Stalinist industrialization push, where huge amounts of industries were put
into a single city—Magnetogorsk or Aftozhovad(sp?)—some of these major cities that have a
single industry or multiple industries, life expectancy for men, for everyone, has dropped too.
There’s one figure, is it 34 or 36? Something I have heard quoted in Nikel, something that is a
city where they had to build a pipe to bring in fresh air to run the blast furnaces, because the
air was so polluted inside the city they could not make the blast furnaces work.
PORTER: How did childhood mortality rates compare with the rest of the industrialized
GUROFF: Infant morality rates are reasonably flat. There has not been a great increase in
infant mortality, but it wasn’t very good to start with. What appears to be a major change is in
what is called morbidity, and that is in the health of young people. In some cities there is only
a small percentage of the children who at age three, four, or five are judged to be healthy. This
has to do a great deal with nutrition, lack of vitamins, decrease in vaccinations against
childhood diseases, as well as the environmental degradation. So what is even a greater concern
and reflects itself on the longevity side is that while there has not been any major increase in
childhood mortality or in infant mortality there indeed is a decline in the overall health of the
PORTER: What are the long-term impacts of that then, if children three and four years old
now are not healthy?
GUROFF: One of the impressionistic bits of evidence that you have, and it’s worse but not
new, is that there is one of our colleagues who has an index of the time lost for work, which
involves if you die prematurely but also from health statistics. Russians in general show up at
work at a much smaller percentage of the time than Westerners. This reflects itself in attendance
in school. The military authorities are worried about it as they look at 18-year-old recruits and
the health problems they have to deal with. There are some indicators of changes, and that is
that diseases virtually unknown elsewhere are beginning to reappear—and some virulently,
particularly tuberculosis and diphtheria. I don’t remember Doug, you have the figures…
GOUDY: …It averages out to about three to five a year in the United States, even though
Americans are not inoculated against diphtheria in any greater numbers than the Russians.
However, it’s not present in this country and is not a threat. In Russia, the numbers are
increasing extraordinarily; not exponentially, but for awhile they were, from a hundred to a
thousand to multiple thousands of cases. Finally, hundreds of deaths for the last year that we
have figures that are good, 1994 and 1995.
GUROFF: Some of the things that have also driven our work and have perhaps been of more
interest are the international implications of both the health and environment crises. The most
obvious one that Americans look at… we discovered something called pathway scientists, I didn’t
know they existed before. But for any of a thousand reasons, when Russian submarines were
decommissioned they simply tossed the generators into the North, into the Arctic Ocean. Nobody
paid any attention to it. The level of radioactivity and nuclear waste in the arctic makes
Chernobyl look like very small potatoes indeed. What happened is that the, from basically western
Russian, this is north of European Russia, what we’re beginning to see is the nuclear
contamination of the Arctic. People are beginning to follow the flow of radioactive materials.
One of the problems is the early theory was that it didn’t matter very much because what would
happen is that it would hit the open sea, it would dissipate, and it wouldn’t be… in one way
that’s probably true. On the other hand, what we also know from our own experience with things
like cesium and fallout are that they tend to reconcentrate in animals. We are beginning to see
in birds and fish in the area that indeed they will drink lots of water and retain the
radioactive waste, so that the long-term implications are quite alarming. The Russians have, both
in the Pacific and in the Arctic, recognized the problem and then said basically, “We don’t have
any money to do anything else.” They’re basically blackmailing the Japanese by saying either you
help us with the nuclear cleanup and economic development in the Far East or we’ll just keep
dropping these radioactive generators into the Sea of Okhotsk.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground about health and
environmental conditions in Russia. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are
available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of
the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: Our guests, Greg Guroff and Doug Goudy from the Center for Post-Soviet Studies,
worked with Murray Feshbach and many others to produce the massive Environmental and Health
Atlas of Russia. In its review of the atlas, the New England Journal of Medicine said
the book will serve for years as a benchmark for evaluating the health and environmental
situation in a part of the world that stretches through 11 time zones. The Journal went on
to say this publication has no peer.
GUROFF: While all the legislation now says that no information about health or
environment can be secret in Russia, in Russian you say, “There is always one but….” And in the
secrecy laws there’s, the buts are information which would expose or lead to uncovering secret
information about the military. So if you find out that there’s, in fact, an enormous amount of
radioactive or toxic chemical dumping, then you will find out where the military plants are.
Therefore, there’s a case of a Russian naval captain who was arrested for helping the Bologna
Foundation look at nuclear waste in the area around Murmansk. So people are alittle bit worried
about it. The answer in short is yes, it is largely from the military, but not exclusively. It’s
from a lot of the energy generation. And there are sites that are absolutely mind-boggling… The
city of Chelyabinsk. If you look at the amount of radiation released by Chernobyl, it’s a small
percentage of what’s been released over the years in Chelyabinsk. And it’s not new. I come from a
Russian family. I was born here, but I spent a lot of time there. During the mid-1960s I was in
Russia and met with a cousin of mine who lives in Semipolatynsk(sp?), which is one of the testing
stations. She told me (she was in charge of all the kindergartens and nurseries) about the
genetic mutations and the rise in leukemia that were occurring from something previously not
known. That was a major nuclear explosion, perhaps spontaneously generated from a nuclear waste
dump in the Urals. It spread straight across Kazakhstan. Demographers, geographers knew about it
because in the 1960 census some towns just disappeared that had been there in the 1950s. I mean
the little villages just weren’t there. I don’t think the Russians actually, or the information
really came out until the early 1980s when Goerges Medhved(sp?) wrote about it and then they had
to admit to it. But there have been a series of nuclear disasters. Not so much from the testing,
which has also not been good, but from the disposal. The Chelyabinsk is largely, simply the
dumping of nuclear waste into a reservoir with all of the things, that is saying you know, it’s
all self-contained, nothing’s going to happen. It’s absolutely clear that they have been lying
about it since it started.
GOUDY: They also stored the control rods from one of their reactors in an open field,
which had caused the very first (that was back in the 1960s) explosion. It was just the first of
many. Of course, the latest was at Tomsk, the Tomsk 7 problem, where they had been storing
radioactive waste as well. Which again, an explosion. Only localized pollution, or so they say.
But again, these things happen not on a regular basis, but they’re alarming nonetheless.
PORTER: For our American audience, tell us what the environmental and health problems in
Russia mean to those of us who live outside of Russia. We know what it’s done to the Russian
people. What are the threats to the rest of the world?
GUROFF: The nuclear issues are high priority. The spread of nuclear pollution is
critical. One thing we’ve learned from Chernobyl is that nobody really understood how fast, how
broadly, radioactivity leached through the soil, through the water, and spread. While the nuclear
reactors in the Ukraine or in Ukraine. Byelorussia and Russia are now the major areas where the
radioactive concerns are, because every time scientists have predicted how far and how fast this
contamination will spread they have underestimated it. The same thing is true in the Arctic.
Another area that is critical and which has been paid very little attention to, and we are
worried about is the rain forest. In fact, the Siberian forests are much more important to global
climatic change, and the rate at which they’re being ravaged for timber is quite extraordinary.
Only recently has anybody paid much attention to it and have industrial or environmental groups
around the world begun to rally to try to figure out how to deal with the devastation of the
Another in the health area is the reappearance of many infectious diseases, which become not only
a problem in Russia, but as Russians travel a great deal more people visit, these things can’t be
isolated. I think there is a series of issues beyond the obvious one of the devastation this does
to Russia itself and the political and social instability it is likely to create in a major
superpower. Which, if one looks at it from a point of view of national security, one ought to be
concerned about it.
The hopeful side of this, maybe not as hopeful as we would like, is that there is and has
developed a serious concern in Russia for environmental and health issues. Thwarted because of
the devastation to the economy in this transitional period, which has put wages and food and
things like that on a very high, as well as crime, which is a major concern for most Russians.
But questions of environment and health as political issues have risen and continue to rise.
Organizations are involved in serious attempts. It is surprising to me that it has not become a
greater political issue for the leadership. Because indeed many of the major sources of pollution
can be stopped. The immediate demonstration of the positive impact on the welfare of people
living in the area is clear, for which political authorities could take responsibility. That’s
not a message that seems to have gotten through to the leadership very much. Although Michael
Gorbachev has become a Green. Unfortunately, he has become a Green when his popularity and
influence in Russia have dropped to near zero.
PORTER: Doug Goudy, any comment for us on the threats that those of us outside of Russia
face from these problems?
GOUDY: I would second what Greg has said especially about the diseases. Perhaps 50 years
ago it was not a problem if you had a diphtheria outbreak, but now you can climb on a plane and
be from Moscow to New York in eight hours. Once you are here it can spread, especially highly
communicable diseases. I would also say that I think in the Far East the spread of
radioactivity… I know people in Alaska are particularly worried. A number of these atlases have
gone up to the North Slope area of Alaska. They seem to be some of our best customers up there,
as far as I think there’s a definite concern, especially in Alaska and northern United States,
and Canada as well. I would think that is very important. I think anyone who has compassion for
people suffering from very bad environmental problems, we should worry about it. I know we’ve got
a lot to worry about here at home, but I definitely think that if this is not turned around it
could be a real problem, not many years down the road but in the short term as well.
PORTER: Greg Guroff, I’ll give you the final word. Is there reason to be hopeful?
GUROFF: There is always reason to be hopeful. As with many problems, awareness of the
problem becomes the first step in the solutions. Over the last five years the amount of attention
that both the scholarly and policy community have devoted to these areas has increased sharply.
And the number of prominent activists who have been able to have a sort of public impact has
grown quite substantially. It’s a long, long battle. We know from our own experience that it’s
easy to destroy a river, and it’s very hard to clean it up. Particularly to deal with the
argument of economic benefit versus environmental benefit, and for people to understand that it
doesn’t have to be a trade-off. You can have both. You can save many, many lives by cleaning up
much of the environment. A lot of the toxic waste issues are as complicated as the nuclear waste
issues in that they have long-term effects. So it’s not simply a question of shutting down a
plant and then saying, “Well, the river is going to be clean and the area around it is going to
be clean.” But the technology exists in many of these areas to do it. It’s a question of
determination. In Russia, it’s largely a question of improving economic conditions that will
allow people to focus on more long-range problems. My belief is that the Russian economy has
turned that corner, that the rapid level of impoverishment, particularly of the older generation,
has slowed. The economy is leveling off, and they will be able to begin to deal with economic
problems and then, hopefully with assistance from the outside, with the environmental and health
issues. I remain an optimist, but not a short-term optimist.
PORTER: That is Greg Guroff. Our other guest has been Doug Goudy. Both men are from the
Center for Post-Soviet Studies. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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