Lethal Legacy

This image shows the human and environmental effects of industrial pollution in the former Soviet Union. Photo by Gerd Ludwig

This image shows the human and environmental effects of industrial pollution in the former Soviet Union. Photo by Gerd Ludwig

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. were open sewers of human and chemical waste; the Aral sea is drying up; in many Soviet cities the air was so polluted that it put 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 the major atomic catastrophe, but even in the extinct empire’s capital – strike the peoples of this territory 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, Gerd Ludwig spent 5 months on assignments in the Former Soviet Union. The result is an amazing and appalling set of photographs that can serve as a lesson to us all.
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