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
"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
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
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
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. …