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.
Militarily, Russia's conventional forces have shriveled. But the nation of Tolstoy and Sputnik still brandishes an arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Some American analysts worry that a weakened and fearful Russia, if threatened, could be quicker to pull the trigger, particularly against its neighbors.
Feshbach, for example, talks about the potential danger of a Russian "man on horseback," a would-be dictator with nothing to lose who says, "Apres moi, le deluge" - essentially, "I might as well kill everybody, and they'll kill me."
Around the Russian perimeter, the border with China seems the most sensitive. In Russian Siberia, the ethnic Russian population is shrinking, while China's billion-plus people are pressing hard against Siberia's thinly settled frontiers. It is a situation that could easily become inflamed.
Many Americans may not comprehend the tremendous changes that have swept Russia since the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
When it was still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its population was 287 million: 40 million more than the United States at the time. It spread over 8.6 million square miles - 2-1/2 times the size of the US. It led the world in output of steel and oil and was a pacesetter in the design of tanks, submarines, missiles, and aircraft.
The Soviets proudly held numerous records for space flight, and were major players in a number of areas of research, such as nuclear fusion.
When the USSR broke up, it lost nearly one-half of its population and nearly one-quarter of its territory. With the end of Communist rule, and the arrival of greater press freedom, decades of hidden problems came to light. There is almost unimaginable environmental degradation. An estimated 36 percent of all babies in Russia are born ill. Suicides are escalating. Corruption is endemic.
Last summer, when newly elected President Putin spelled out his agenda, he put the population crisis with all its ramifications at the top of his list. He warned the country that it could lose another 22 million people by 2015.
A decade ago, Russians numbered 150 million. By July 2000, the CIA estimated that had dipped to 146 million.
Now the decline is accelerating - as predicted. Though thousands of ethnic Russians have returned to their homeland since the end of communism, Russia still shrank by 700,000 people in 1999. The loss quickened to perhaps 1 million in 2000 because Russians now are dying nearly twice as fast as they are being born.
Various analysts predict that Russia's population in 50 years will sink to 128 million (Population Reference Bureau estimate), or 121 million (United Nations estimate), or even go as low as 80 to 100 million (Feshbach). A leading Russian health authority, Nicolai Gerasimenko, has reportedly said if current trends continue, Russia could dip to 50 million to 60 million people by 2075.
No one sees Russia growing
Even if the UN's middle-of-the-road projections were correct, Russia's populace in 50 years would be smaller than Mexico (147 million), the Philippines (131 million), or even their current ally, Vietnam (127 million).
If Feshbach's gloomier projection of 80 million to 100 million were right, Russia would have fewer people in 2050 than either Turkey or Egypt.
There is growing agreement among Russia-watchers that Feshbach, and not the UN, has the better estimates. The UN will release newly revised population estimates for Russia and other countries on Feb. 28.
Meanwhile, in 50 years, neighboring China will have climbed to 1.48 billion - 12 to 18 times the size of Russia. To the south, the Islamic Republic of Iran at 115 million would be near population parity.
In the big-power game, Russia would have become a minor player.
Odom says: "There is this delusion on the part of Westerners that Russia is a strong state, or it's going to return to become one soon. I don't see the empirical evidence for it."
What amazes Russia analysts is that a tragedy this great could happen to a country that is so technically and educationally advanced.
Harvard's Eberstadt says the growing crisis in Russia is "unprecedented for any organized, literate society." He explains that at its root, Russia's population implosion is "primarily a health crisis" - one that extends "as far as the eye can see." He calls the UN's estimates of Russia's future population "too optimistic," and says that there is no visible way in which Russia could halt its population decline in the next 25 years.
From the Kremlin's perspective, the security implications for Russia are obvious, starting with Siberia. With more than 5 million square miles, Russian Siberia shares a 2,265-mile border with China. Approximately 31 million Russians live there, but only 7 million of them are in the Far East near the eastern border with China. The number of ethnic Russians in the Far East shrinks every year because the best educated people head toward better jobs and easier living in European Russia. Left behind are the pensioners and less-productive workers.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Chinese (some say the number could be as high as 5 million) have migrated across the Russian border as traders and settlers. No one in Russia has found a way to stop it.
Are there serious dangers here?
Certainly for Russia. Siberia is rich in natural resources, particularly oil, gas, timber, and precious metals. China has a growing appetite for those resources, particularly the oil, to keep its economy humming.
What will China do?
William Taylor, senior adviser in international security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that if China did have aggressive designs on Siberia and its oil, any military action by Beijing is probably still "decades" away.
Eberstadt also doubts that China will engage in provocative acts against Russia in the near future. He explains:
"It would be far more advantageous for Chinese interests to 'rent' the place - to purchase the resources. Taking over a territory [the size of Siberia] would be a lot more trouble than it is worth. And it would also set in motion all sorts of big repercussions which would cause trouble [that] China isn't even dreaming of right now."
Eberstadt continues: "If they think there's a problem shooting off little missiles near Taiwan, you can't imagine what would happen if they took a couple million square miles [from Russia]."
For the Pentagon, Russia's military and economic decline provides some breathing room. It gives the US an opportunity either to bring forces home from Europe, or to re-deploy them in areas where there is greater urgency, such as Asia.
Occasionally, it is suggested that with Russia growing weaker, the US might find it advantageous to help its former adversary - perhaps the way the US helped Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.
Leading analysts caution that such a course would be fraught with difficulties for at least two reasons.
A Marshall Plan won't work
Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon's foremost futurist, recalls the experience of the famous Marshall Plan, named after then Secretary of State George C. Marshall after World War II. The plan was designed to rebuild war-torn Europe, including Germany. But as Andrew Marshall observes, the plan had the advantage of starting with Germany's "existing infrastructure - physical infrastructure, but also legal and institutional."
Today, Mr. Marshall observes that "the Russians still have a lot of this to create. The legal system, the court system, property rights, all these things that historically are the things required to have economic growth."
Odom cites another factor that could undermine Western efforts to help Russia. He notes that after World War II, the Allies occupied Germany with troops while they "cleaned out the old Nazi elites." He says: "I don't think we have 30 or 40 divisions to occupy Russia" while we get rid of the old Communist elite and replace them with people who "really buy into Western institutions." Putin, a former KGB official, represents the old Communist past.
Without liberal institutions, Odom says, "I think Russia can't get out of this easily."
That is Russia's challenge. There are no easy answers. The country's internal struggles could go on for decades with the outcome uncertain.
Today's Russians may be confronting the most serious national crisis since Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee of 453,000 men captured Moscow in 1812 and nearly brought the land of the czars to its knees.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society