The Incredible Shrinking Russia ; It Is Dawning on the World That among the Tremendous Changes in Russia since the Disintegration of the Soviet Union - Population Decline Is Perhaps the Greatest

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In the mid-1960s, William Odom was a young American officer assigned to keep tabs on Soviet troops in Communist East Germany. As he quickly discovered, the Russian Army looked healthy and tough.

"I saw thousands and thousands of soldiers," he recalls. "They were big, sandpaper-hard, rough, ready peasants. You could have hit 'em with a two-by-four and it wouldn't hurt 'em."

When General Odom, now retired, took a more recent first-hand look at Russian troops, he found something entirely different.

"They're sallow, thin, sick, poor," he says. "I physically observed that decline."

What has happened to the once-proud Russian Army has happened to Russia itself.

The former Communist giant and one-time superpower now faces an unparalleled 'people crisis.'

Russia's population is collapsing. Communicable diseases are spreading. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Birthrates are dropping. Alcohol poisoning is rampant. Sexually transmitted diseases have left millions of women infertile. Environmental problems like heavy- metal pollution have increased birth defects.

Joblessness, alcoholism, suicide, and divorce are putting intolerable strains on Russian families. A typical Russian man now drinks three half-liter bottles of vodka a week, according to a report in The Moscow Times. Abortions - the principal form of birth control in Russia - now outnumber live births by more than 2 to 1.

If that weren't enough, the officially reported economy shrank 45 percent from 1991 to 1999. Four out of every 10

Russians now lives below the poverty line, compared with only 1 out of 10 in neighboring China, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Odom, who ran America's super-secret National Security Agency in the 1980s, is blunt about what is happening: "Russia is the newest member of the third world." He adds: "From a human point of view, it is just heart-rending."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his countrymen: "If this continues, the survival of the nation will be in jeopardy."

Murray Feshbach, an authority on Russian demographics (editor in chief of the "Environmental and Health Atlas of Russia"), relates what he calls the "terrible detail" of the crisis. It includes: An epidemic of tuberculosis, including drug-resistant varieties; a spreading HIV/AIDS crisis; a soaring death rate among males, half of whom die before the age of 60; and a female population so devastated by disease that 30 percent of the women of child- bearing age are now infertile.

To illustrate the magnitude of Russia's health problems, Dr. Feshbach draws a comparison with the United States. Once American boys reach the age of 16, 88 to 90 percent of them go on to reach the age of 60. But in Russia, only 58 to 60 percent of 16-year-old boys reach the age of 60. In addition, Russian children's prospects are growing steadily worse.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at Harvard University and the American Enterprise Institute, says that based on the empirical data, Russia's overwhelming health problems are difficult to explain fully.

Excessive drinking, widespread use of cigarettes, sedentary lifestyles, and wretched prisons that serve as incubators for new strains of TB account for some problems - but not all of them. Dr. Eberstadt says there appears to be something else - "an 'R' factor, a Russian factor you could call it."

He describes the "R" factor as mental. It consists of Russians' harmful "outlook, viewpoints, and attitudes" - a kind of nationwide "mental-health problem," or "depression" that "cannot be measured very well." This mental crisis is having a devastating impact on the Russian people, he says.

From an American viewpoint, these developments are troubling, though the longer-range implications are not entirely clear. …