Orange Alert

From Russia With Love

Murray Feshbach ’50 has made a career out of watching the Russians. That’s good news for us—and them.

Jan. 31, 2013, by Rob Enslin

Murray Feshbach ’50 admits that Syracuse University did not influence his career path—that honor goes to Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, which he heard in high school—but it certainly taught him the value of interdisciplinary research.

“I had two professors who gave me more explanatory power in my future research and lecturing than any other single discipline could afford,” says the noted Russian scholar, speaking by phone from his home in Rockville, Maryland. “William Hotchkiss emphasized the philosophical and military differences [of Greek and Roman history], as well as the political, cultural, and societal differences in a way that anticipated my later experiences with [Columbia University historian] Jacques Barzun. … George Cressey showed me that geography was multifaceted, in that it encompassed not only political boundaries, but also economics, population distribution, and the vector of mountains and transportation to receive goods and services.”

Feshbach was so taken by Cressey’s teaching that in his landmark book, “Ecocide in the U.S.S.R.: Health and Nature Under Siege” [Basic Books, 1992], co-authored by The Washington Post's Alfred Friendly Jr., he inserted maps before every chapter, as a memento to Cressey's tutelage.

Intrigued by Churchill’s famous description of Russia being a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” Feshbach, 83, would go on to become the foremost expert on Soviet statistics and lies—the more arcane, the better. Feshbach’s discovery that Russia had not published a single economic or broad statistical handbook between 1936 and 1956 arguably set the stage for his life’s work. “Only three years after the death of Stalin did Khrushchev authorize the publication of these materials,” says the Korean War veteran, adding that such books were not terribly long or in-depth. Did Russia—which had been challenging the United States for ideological and physical supremacy—have something to hide, he wondered?

Part of the answer lay between the covers of the first Khrushchev-approved national handbook, which Harry Schwartz, an SU professor and a New York Times editorial writer, loaned Feshbach in the early ‘50s. “Being a junior employee [at the National Bureau of Economic Research], I was allowed to read it for only a short time, but it was enough to sufficiently ‘destroy’ about six months of research I had been doing at the New York Public Library,” says Feshbach, a history major in SU's College of Arts and Sciences who earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Columbia and American universities, respectively. “It taught me a lot about the various sources of information available and how they can be manipulated.”

It would be the first of many times throughout Feshbach’s career that he knew better than to trust official Russian data. “It always seemed to require further investigation, as to its accuracy or political manipulation or whatever,” he says. The situation was exacerbated by the Soviet Secrets Act, which Feshbach says prohibited the publication of any “serious statistical information” that might reveal how weak Russia had become after World War II.

In 1957, Feshbach joined the U.S. Bureau of the Census, where he spent the next two decades trying to convince everyone of Russia’s growing vulnerability. Nobody listened. As chief of the bureau’s U.S.S.R. Population, Employment, and Research & Development Branch, Feshbach functioned like an encyclopedist—cataloging, preserving, and dispensing vast amounts of Russian data, ranging from health and mortality rates, to population trends, to scientific training and industrial productivity. Feshbach also traveled nonstop, especially during the ‘70s, when he was part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. joint commission on scientific and technical cooperation.

“He drove the Soviets bananas,” William Carey told The Atlantic Monthly in 1983. Carey, then leader of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, made numerous trips to Moscow with Feshbach, who acquired the reputation of a “hair shirt.” “If a member of the Soviet delegation tried to slide by with an evasive or general reply, Murray wouldn’t let him get away with it,” said Carey. “He would hang on like a terrier. He could always cite this or that article in some obscure Soviet publication. … And he constantly interrupted the translator.”

Carey, who went on to publish Science magazine before his death in 1998, said the Russians tried everything to make Feshbach’s life difficult, including routinely mixing up his hotel reservations. It got so bad that the American delegation bought Feshbach a camping hammock. “The Soviets obviously respected Murray. They knew an expert when they saw one,” he added.

Since retiring from the U.S. government, Feshbach has held down a series of scholarly jobs, including research professor at Georgetown University, Sovietologist-in-residence in the Office of the Secretary General of NATO in Brussels (Belgium), and a fellow of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution. Upon being appointed Georgetown’s first research professor emeritus in July 2000, Feshbach returned to the Wilson Center as a senior scholar. These days, much of his focus is on policy implications of demographic, health, and environmental crises in Russia.

Over several emails and phone calls, Feshbach zeros in on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which he says is spiraling out of control in Russia. Hardest hit have been drug users, pregnant women, and members of the military. (On average, 200 people in Russia are diagnosed with HIV every day.) “Russia badly wants a modern military, but it doesn’t have the manpower to deal with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons,” he says. “AIDS is changing the way families are formed, not to mention the way cities are being built and populated, and jobs are being created.”

Feshbach continues: “What is taking place right now in Russia is going to define, to a large degree, the future of the AIDS epidemic globally. Russia’s size, population, and geography will impact what happens in Europe, Central Asia, China, India, and even the United States.”

A 2004 New Yorker article by Michael Specter echoes these sentiments. “[Feshbach] has never wavered from his view that disease and the effects of environmental poisons are the biggest threats that Russia faces,” writes Specter, who served as co-chief of The Times’ Moscow bureau during the ‘90s. “Eventually, though, American leaders, and then many of the Russians who had once mocked him, began to admit that Feshbach was right.”

Recent years have been kind to Feshbach, who finally has been getting some long-overdue recognition. On the eve of Specter’s New Yorker article, Feshbach traveled to St. Petersburg State University to receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Related Problems, sponsored by the Russian Biomedical Research Center. At a different event in Moscow, more than 70 Russian scholars, reporters, and officials turned out to hear Feshbach speak in Russian at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Never mind that on another occasion, his visa failed to appear but was quickly issued overnight, after U.S. and Soviet ambassadors intervened.

Feshbach’s eight books and hundreds of articles, chapters, and conference papers have also become required reading for Russian scholars all over the world. Witness the impact he has had on Duke Professor Emeritus Vladimir G. Treml, author of "Censorship, Access, and Influence: Western Sovietology in the Soviet Union" (University of California Press, 1999): "Several of my colleagues and I visiting Moscow in the early 1980s heard Soviet demographers and economists saying that 'Feshbach saved thousands of infant lives in the Soviet Union' and that his study … on infant mortality 'was made available to high Soviet authorities, who directed certain apparently beneficial changes in public health policies.'"

Similar Feshbach anecdotes have appeared on “60 Minutes” and in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and People magazine.

“I’ve been to Moscow 59 times to do research, to lecture in Russian, and to negotiate on international science and technology issues. I’ve also been to Paris close to a hundred times, even lecturing in French at the École nationale d'administration [National School of Administration]” says Feshbach, who is listed in “Who’s Who in the World” and “Who’s Who in America.” “I suppose I should settle down one of these days. But not anytime soon.”

Media Contact

Rob Enslin