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Sunday, November 1, 1992

Ecocide in the USSR

The authors focus on the tragic health conditions in the former Soviet Union.


That Communism in Russia failed is an undisputed fact, but for the most part knowledge of its demise has come to us in vague and fragmentary images. We are familiar with the notion that the system collapsed under the weight of its “internal contradictions” (i.e., the impossibility of profit and loss calculation, first pointed out by Ludwig von Mises), and we know that central economic planning impoverished the Soviet people. But the reality that lies behind the political upheavals in the Eastern Bloc has been hidden for years behind false government statistics and propaganda. In recent years, however, the media have gained access to more reliable information. The ruins of the Soviet empire have been opened to reporters, and more accurate statistics are being kept. In Ecocide in the USSR, two journalists bring the new statistical data to life with on-the-scene reporting.

Despite its title, Ecocide is much more than an environmental horror tale; it is a panoramic look at man-made human misery. The authors are not concerned so much with “the environment” as an end in itself, but with the human environment. Hence, they focus on the tragic health conditions in the former Soviet Union.

A piecemeal statistical profile is slowly taking form. Seventy-five percent of the former Soviet Union’s surface water is polluted, and 25 percent is completely untreated. Over one-third of the former subjects of the Soviet empire live in cities with air containing five or more times the legal limit of pollutants. Eighty percent of rural hospitals have no running water, and half have no sewer connections. Three-quarters are overcrowded.

The health consequences are staggering. Average life expectancy, always low, has actually dropped since the mid-sixties—from 66.1 years to 63.8 years in 1989. Infant mortality runs at 33 deaths per 1000, comparable to that of Malaysia. In 1990, only half of those eligible for the draft were healthy enough to serve.

Much of the problem lies in the corruption that pervaded the Soviets’ politicized society. The Soviets boasted of an abundance of licensed physicians, but many of them bribed their way through medical school. As a result, 40 percent of medical school graduates cannot read an electrocardiogram, and half of working pediatricians are “completely ignorant about the properties of 16 widely used drugs.” In one region of Turkmenistan, 70 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists lack surgical skills, and half of their patients died in operations as a direct result.

The authors tell of one woman who paid 300 rubles in bribe money to receive a modicum of care at a maternity hospital when she gave birth in 1987. She received no additional attention, and no gynecological examination afterward. Other mothers learned to circumvent the system of “free” medicine through the black market, bribing medical personnel for syringes, sterilizing equipment, and medicines they could administer themselves.

Ecocide also examines the problems facing Soviet agriculture and heavy industry, painting a -bleak picture of the laborer’s existence in what once was touted as a “worker’s paradise.” Pesticide use on the Soviets’ collective farms was so mismanaged that many workers succumbed to pesticide poisoning while in the fields. Industrial workers fared much worse; in some steel-smelting plants the fumes from the primitive open-hearth furnaces were so thick that employees couldn’t see one another and had to grope around. Ironically, Soviet Communism actually created the very conditions its advocates had imputed to 19th-century capitalism. While life spans and health conditions advanced rapidly in market economies, Soviet living standards stagnated and workers toiled in what the authors, echoing William Blake, call “dark, satanic mills.” Dickens and Sinclair together could not have painted a bleaker picture.

Rampant alcoholism, a major detriment to human health in the USSR, grew out of the spiritual malaise of Soviet life. Soviets turned to the bottle as their principal form of escape in many communities. In one village an average adult consumed 60 bottles of vodka a year. Some estimate that 30 million Soviets were chronic drunks in 1989, and on-the-job intoxication was a major social problem.

Ecocide is valuable not only as an indictment of Communism, but of environmentalism, which blames economic growth for human health problems and prescribes central planning as a cure for environmental ills. The authors note that the Soviets needed something far beyond the healing arts: a healthy standard of living. In the midst of the accelerating economic failures of the 1990s, the basic indices of Soviet daily life—income, food, and housing—all pointed down, not up. Poor nutrition alone eroded overall public health and jeopardized the survival chances of many newborn children.

The authors properly attribute the problems of the Soviet economy to Communism’s inability to perform cost calculations. Although they refuse to dismiss the possibility of central planning, they note that “without a market mechanism to determine the value of credit, goods, and services, [the planners] assigned arbitrary costs and prices to capital, labor, raw material, and equipment.”

Ecocide is a valuable addition to the growing literature on Communism’s demise. Freedom affords us not only economic prosperity and dignity as individuals; it also brings a cleaner, healthier society.

Matthew Hoffman is an adjunct policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.