The Multinational Monitor


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Ecological Disaster:
Cleaning Up the Hidden Legacy of the Soviet Regime.

By Murray Feshbach.
New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995
157 pages, $9.95

THE LIST OF ENVIRONMENTAL SINS COMMITTED by the Soviet regime and surveyed by Murray Feshbach, a professor of demography at Georgetown University, is staggeringly long. Many of these offenses are not contained by international borders any more than was the radiation that burst from Chernobyl a decade ago.

One could hardly imagine a worse mess, a land where contamination, radiation, illness and death confront an already struggling society at every turn.

The most famous example of Soviet environmental neglect, Chernobyl, continues to be a severe problem. The containment vault designed to protect the world from the dead nuclear plant for decades already needs to be replaced. Workers who get close enough to the plant to build another containment vault will risk radiation poisoning, assuming of course the cash-strapped East could even afford another protective structure.

More than a dozen similarly designed reactors continue to operate in the nations of the former Soviet Union, and Feshbach warns that repairs and inspections on these toxic time bombs may not even be as rigorous as they were during the lax Soviet era.

But the nuclear troubles do not end there. Eastern Europe and Asia are littered with radioactive sites poisoned by secret military atomic energy research projects. In its rush to compete scientifically with the West, the Soviets cut environmental corners, using highly hazardous rocket fuels and operating a huge and reckless chemical weapons program. The secret programs then dropped the dangerous wastes wherever they pleased.

The bleak ecological story is the same throughout the former USSR, Feshbach shows. Energy-starved regions like Armenia are rapidly becoming deforested, and lakes across the new republics are either becoming polluted or simply drying up. People don't receive innoculations against diseases because clean, unused needles are an unaffordable luxury. Infants in the former Soviet Union are now dying at three times the rate of infants in the United States.

The Soviets left a continent and a half with fouled air, polluted rivers and untreated sewage. The toxic mess is so great that even the region's vastness cannot absorb the damage.

To help mitigate the continuing damage, which appears clearly beyond the capacity of the nations of the former Soviet Union to address, Feshbach proposes that the West fund major programs to place the new nations of the former Soviet Union on the right track with respect to health and environmental issues, most importantly a major immunization drive and a program to fund the construction of alternative power stations to allow early shutdowns of Chernobyl-like plants.

Feshbach, one of the leading U.S. authorities on environmental problems in the former Soviet Union, also urges the conversion of the old Red Army into a "Green Army," making many soldiers into foresters, park rangers and environmental cleanup experts.

Feshbach argues that contributions from wealthier nations would be a wise investment, since the toxics leaking from Russia can travel through air and water to contaminate neighboring nations in Europe, Asia and North America.

The book does not consider at length the likelihood that politicians outside the former Soviet Union will be as far-sighted and generous as Feshbach urges. Although some of Russia's closest affluent neighbors, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations, tend to see their self-interest in such international environmental cleanups, the outlook for contributions on the scale he proposes from other wealthier nations, including the United States, may be more grim. Feshbach's limited consideration of this topic may be what for this book is a rare effort to be optimistic.

-- Steve Farnsworth

Square Wheels:
How Russian Democracy Got Derailed

by Boris Kagarlitsky
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994
224 pages; $30 (hardback), $15 (paperback)

SQUARE WHEELS IS A TALE equal parts comic and tragic. Written by Boris Kagarlitsky, a radical political philosopher and Moscow City Council member from its founding in 1990 to its dissolution by Boris Yeltsin in 1993, it recounts the tumultuous years of Russia's flirtation with democracy in the perestroika years.

An easy and fun read, Square Wheels describes a City Council and Moscow politics characterized by pettiness, incompetence, blowhard showmanship, freewheeling plotting, factions and intrigue.

With much of the politics of the time little more than farce, Kagarlitsky has plenty of hysterical events to report, and he does so to hilarious effect.

Consider his description of the Council's early stages:

"The Council's downfall was computer games. Evey time some document had to be drafted, it would turn out that a bunch of deputies were tying up the computers with simulated tank battles or car races."

"By my calculaton, during the first session, 80 percent of the editorial commission's computer hours were devoted to games, the remainder to actual work. Much the same thing went on with the computers serving the standing committees. Still, it would be wrong to assume that this had a negative effect. If the computers hadn't been used for games, more likely than not they'd have been standing there idle."

The book describes similar absurdities with Council members' blustering efforts to wipe away memories of the Communist-dominated years by renaming streets. Soon, Kagaralitsky reports, street names were changing so rapidly that neither street sign makers nor Muscovites could keep up.

Another effort early in the Council's formation to discard the Communist legacy was the demand by some members that Lenin's bust be removed from the Council's assembly hall. With the Soviet Union still intact, the anti-Lenin-bust faction couldn't obtain majority support in the Council. Taking matters in their own hands, faction members wheeled the bust out of the chambers; another group wheeled it back. Finally, the Council leadership arrived at a compromise; the bust would stay, but it would face the wall. "Was Lenin turning his back on the deputies, or vice versa?" Karalitsky asks. "It depended on your point of view."

The emerging tragedy amidst the farce was the creeping authoritarianism that appeared at all levels of government, most vividly in Kagaralitsky's account in the City Council. In a country with no democratic tradition, many well-intentioned citizens and politicians were either unaware of the implications of slow but steady moves to centralized control, or uncertain of how to combat it.

The gradual process of democratic learning, of people discovering how to be active citizens able to help shape their future, was cut short. An alliance of Communists and power-hungry liberals took control of the Council (and, more broadly, of society). Despite the joy among the population over Moscow's first genuine election, the results assured the corruption of politics, Kagaralistsky asserts: "A bloc of communists and liberals, united in the common interest, had ascended to power in the city. The interest they held in common was plain and simple: public property had to be appropriated and shared out."

The three years following the election bore out Kagarlitsky's assessment. Democracy became progressively more eviscerated. Self-dealing flourished. The radical socialist program advocated by Kagarlitsky and a few others was shunted aside. And economic problems deepened.

Then, the coup -- the true tragedy of Square Wheels -- cut off the democratic experiment altogether. The coup which Kagarlitsky emphasizes is not the bungling effort to topple Mikhail Gorbachev, but the subsequent coup staged by Boris Yeltsin. Culminating with Yeltsin's attack on the White House, the Russian parliament building, Yeltsin's coup "violated the constitution so flagrantly that there could be no talk of his having 'made a mistake' or 'exceeding his powers.'" None of perestroika's democratic authorities, such as the parliament and the Moscow City Council, survived.

-- Robert Weissman

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