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The Soviet Disunion: An Empire of Ashes

updated 01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1992 01:00AM

Of the chaotic days following the final lowering of the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag, former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said it best: "It is totally clear everything is unclear."

In doubt there is danger. As the depth of winter approaches, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leader of the newly born 11-member Commonwealth of Independent States, must guide the fledgling republics through an unmapped territory of price reforms, food shortages, civil unrest and shattered economies. To find out what lies ahead, PEOPLE turned to Murray Feshbach, a preeminent Soviet-watcher who may know more about the Russians and their Commonwealth neighbors than they do about themselves. For nearly 40 years, Feshbach, 62, an economist and research professor of demography at Georgetown University, has analyzed every Soviet number he could lay his hands on—statistics on nutrition, housing, education, birth and death rates. The bleak picture those numbers described often belied the Soviets' insistently rosy propaganda. So alarming was one study he issued in 1980 on soaring infant mortality rates that Feshbach even managed to provoke some action: The Soviets acknowledged—and then addressed—a problem they had covered up for years. This April his book Ecocide" in the USSR (written with Alfred Friendly Jr.), about health and environmental tragedies of the Soviet system, will be published. At his time in Silver Spring, Md., Feshbach spoke, to senior writer Susan Reed about the country's volatile situation.

What is the people's reaction to the Soviet flag coming down?

The reaction is mixed. Many people had real, genuine belief in the system. Many were completely and totally cynical. In the centers of government, many people's jobs depended on it, people who are suddenly unemployed. In Moscow 80 percent of unemployment is white-collar.

What's the mood on the streets?

The stress levels reflected on the faces of people are enormous, particularly the elderly. It's been unbelievably hard on them. And it's been a relatively warm winter so far. If it had been a colder winter, it would be that much harder to get out and stand in those miserable lines. Right now, people are buying anything that comes on the market. They never leave home without extra rubles and a string bag.

We've heard about the price rises on Jan. 2. Will there be enough food?

Right now food is being held up while suppliers wait for the price rise. In part, Ukraine and other republics are using food as leverage against Russia. They're saying, "We're not going to deliver until you compromise a little bit and stop being so empire-minded." We expect prices to rise a couple of hundred percent. I think a lot of food has been hoarded already. If enough food comes into the pipeline alter Jan. 2, the prices will come back down by virtue of excess supply. If not, there may be food riots. I think the producers and distributors—some controlled by their own mafias—will make an effort to get food to Moscow and St. Petersburg. That's where the decision makers, the media and the military are.

What should the U.S. do now?

Right now we need to save lives. The country needs medicines and basic medical equipment urgently. It needs basic food supplies equally urgently. At the moment, we need to convince the European Community, the Japanese, everyone, to help them survive the winter. It's that serious.

What are the health dangers?

There are desperate shortages that could lead to thousands of deaths this winter. Sixty-five percent of rural hospitals don't have hot water. Thirty-five percent of all hospitals don't have an electrocardiograph. Some don't have surgical-ward sutures; they use catgut or thread. Recently I saw an IV bottle where in place of a tube they were using a ribbon. The fluid was running down the ribbon to the patient's arm. At the leading All-Union Emergency Assistance Hospital in Moscow, they had 10 aspirin per day for 62 patients. We don't need to bring over fancy CAT scans and MRI machines that cost a million bucks each. We need to bring in basic sterilizing equipment and teach them how to use it.

Why should we help the Commonwealth when we hare so many needy people at home?

I think we have to help both. Chaos and anarchy in the new states will lead to large-scale environmental, health and population problems. The potential of massive numbers of refugees disrupting not only the fragile economies of Eastern Europe, but of Western Europe as well, could lead to right-wing fascist-like movements.

How real are the dangers of ethnic strife in the new states?

Very real. There are more than 100 nationalities in what used to be the Soviet Union. I helped brief President Reagan once, and the only time he became very alert was when I mentioned that the Soviets made movies in 46 languages. They used to teach elementary school in 52 languages. Then they cut it back to 18, but it could well go up to 100 because people want to be taught in their own language.

Some of the interethnic problems are much more serious than others. The situation I'm most worried about is the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. Besides the internal issues, both sides have tried to steal tactical nuclear weapons from military bases inside their borders. In each case they were stopped by the Soviet military. The incidents were reported by the Soviet media and Radio Liberty. If this situation doesn't resolve itself in a year or so, I'm afraid that it will turn into a religious war between Muslims and Christians. If that happens, Ireland or Lebanon will be nothing in comparison.

What about the nuclear threat?

I think the strategic side has pretty much been solved by the SALT and START treaty negotiations, which call for major reductions in strategic weapons. There will still be a number of "just-in-case" weapons, but nowhere near the seven-times-overkill number there used to be.

What's your opinion of Yeltsin?

Yeltsin became a very different man the day he walked out of the Communist Party in July 1990. And he made a remarkable political comeback. He's an arrogant guy, a real Siberian who's tough, heroic, a strong thinker who's very forceful. He's appointed good young people. Probably he'll come to understand that to hold power is much more difficult than to criticize somebody in power. I don't think he's had the full responsibility until right now. There was still Gorbachev to dump on. I think he's going to find that the situation is much more difficult.

There's also the question of his knowledge of foreign policy. Is he a good economist? Does he fully understand all of the nationality drives of the republics, the states, whatever we're going to call them? I don't think it's clear yet whether he can handle all of these. Few statesmen can.

Why wasn't Gorbachev able to succeed?

I think Gorbachev was brought in originally as an efficiency expert, to make the system work. His charge was to reform the system, not transform it. Over the years Gorbachev vacillated between what he knew were the needs then and satisfying the party traditionalists by not acting. He missed some historic opportunities. It was a pity. His Communist upbringing was too strong. At the same time he didn't understand the nationality issues that were building up.

What were his good points? Does he have a political future?

Gorbachev may have been inadequate in certain ways, but he was spectacular in many others: human rights, glasnost, the cutting of censorship. He allowed people to begin thinking for themselves. Although I don't think he'll run for President again, he will get the historical credit he deserves.

Could the new Commonwealth fall to another totalitarian dictatorship?

The threat is still there, but I don't think it will happen. The young people wouldn't accept it. The vast bulk of this generation is truly remarkable. Despite the problems, they see that there are opportunities for the first time. They're thinking for themselves. If the hard-liners try to bring off a coup again, there will be real blood this time.

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