Soviet Pollution: A Lethal Legacy

In their ruthless drive to exploit their nation, Soviet leaders gave little thought to the health of their people or the lands that they ruled. No country is free from the scourge of pollution, but the Soviet example is one of horrifying extremes, one that stems from decades of neglect and the abuse of a vast and once beautiful land.

From Vilnius to Vladivostok, a beleaguered environment bears witness to a legacy of irresponsibility: the rivers of the former U.S.S.R. are open sewers of human and chemical waste; the Aral sea is drying up; in many Soviet cities the air is so polluted that it puts millions at risk of respiratory diseases. Tons of nuclear waste is spread out all over the country and toxic chemicals have poisoned the soil.

Images of the bald children of Chernobyl and the limbless children of Moscow disclose a deeply disturbing truth: birth defects and infant mortality — not just in the vicinity of a major atomic catastrophe, but even in the ailing empire’s once proud capital — strike the peoples of this land at twice the rate found in the industrial nations of the West.

In pursuit of documenting this universe of pollution that comprises one-sixth of the world’s landmass, I spent 5 months on assignments for National Geographic Magazine. The result is an impressive, yet often appalling set of photographs that can serve as a lesson to us all.

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