Orange Alert

End of the world as we know it?

Musings of a scholar of Russian reality

April 19, 2013, by Rob Enslin

Photo of Russian man with mask
Photo of Russian man with mask
Murray Feshbach ’50 has spent most of his career telling people what they don’t want to hear. Lately, it has involved a series of demographic, health, and environmental issues plaguing Russia.

“What’s happening right now in Russia is going to define the future of the AIDS epidemic all over the world,” says The College of Arts and Sciences alumnus, speaking from his office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Russia’s size, population, and geography are so big that they affect what goes on in Europe, Asia, India, and most of North America.”

For nearly half a century, Feshbach—first as a Russian expert at the U.S. Bureau of Census and then as a scholar at Georgetown and NATO—has been mining mostly arcane data, in hopes of convincing world leaders of Russia’s growing vulnerability. At first, nobody listened—not even the Russians. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse in the ‘80s, people began to take notice. The late William Carey, who made numerous trips with Feshbach to Moscow, said his friend acquired the reputation of a “hair shirt.” “The Soviets respected Murray,” the science administrator told The Atlantic Monthly. “They knew an expert when they saw one.” 

Over the span of several weeks, The College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) communicated with Feshbach (MF) and a colleague of his (Anon.), who preferred to remain anonymous, about a variety of “hot button” topics, ranging from sequestration, to higher education, to health care. The following is part of our correspondence.
Murray Feshbach '50
Murray Feshbach '50

A&S: Murray, you probably know more about Post-Soviet Russia than most Russians.

MF: I try to follow, in detail, the demographic and health care situation in Russia and in some of the former Soviet Union states. I’m interested in the interdisciplinary aspects of politics, which affect everything in the military, which, in turn, affects Russia’s population, which is large and has some 100 or more nationalities. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of corruption [in Russia], which draws down money that otherwise could be used for health care or infrastructure.

Also, there is a wide range of topics that interplay with one another on the local, national, and global levels. For instance, I have been following the interplay between HIV/AIDS and narcotics—more specifically, tuberculosis and HIV.

A&S: Why do these issues concern us in the West?

Anon:  MDR-TB [Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis] has been recognized as a global health concern. There was a recent cover story in Time [March 4, 2013] that discussed MDR-TB in Russia, India, and several other countries. The same article also stated outright that TDR-TB [Totally Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis] could send us back to the Dark Ages. The piece ran in Time's international edition, not in the U.S. one. Go figure.

As we saw with SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], a disease can cross borders almost immediately. MDR-TB can be a threat when visitors who have the disease come into our country. It also can be a threat to our allies in Western Europe, where many Americans travel and do business. It’s in our self-interest to do something about it, but there are costs, too.

I should add that there have been some major developments in Russian politics, including the recent separation of the healthcare and social development ministries.  ... The new minister of healthcare, Veronika Skvortsova, is a vast improvement over her predecessor, Tatyana Golikova, a blond bombshell who was appointed probably more for her looks than anything else. I wouldn’t have believed anything that came out of her ministry. With Skvortsova, Russia has a chance to be more, um, technically correct with their information. I’m not saying “totally correct” because we sometimes have trouble with our own intelligence. But her appointment is a big step forward.

Right now, Russia is allocating a major portion of its budget for the military, largely as a result of what happened in the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. That crisis showed how poorly combat-ready Russia was. Since then, [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin has been spending enormous amounts of money on the military, leaving little left over for health care. That country has a real problem with resource allocation.

A&S: Where does that leave higher education?

MF: In Russia, there’s been an almost total annihilation of research at the higher-ed. level. The quality [of teaching] is poor, money is rare, and few people are getting hired by the private sector.

In a recent U.K. survey [The “Times Higher Education”'s World University Rankings, 2012-13], not a single Russian university made the Top 200. The Russian government was thoroughly upset about it, despite the reputations of Moscow University [formally known as Lomonosov Moscow State University], the Higher School of Economics, and some of Russia’s military-related academies.

Right now, people are calling for the resignation of Russia’s education and science minister, Dmitri Livanov. That country has a long way to go to get back to where it once was.

A&S: What’s different about American higher ed.?

MF: Russia doesn’t have private philanthropy like we have. There are all sorts of donors here, such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who can write big checks to universities. There are some of these kinds of individuals in Russia but not many. Moreover, there’s no systematic approach there to philanthropy.

Anon.: We have our own problems. Sequestration, for example, is “death by a thousand cuts.” This is how Osama Bin Laden wanted to take down the United States.

Higher education is one of our greatest gifts to the world. If we hurt higher ed., we hurt one of the biggest renewable resources we have. Lest anyone forgets, private donors are not the only ones giving money to colleges and universities. Money—a lot of it—also comes from the federal government. We can’t put ourselves into a position where we’re spending less on higher education.

With sequestration, we crossed a line that had never been crossed before. That has serious consequences for higher education.

A&S: What do you mean?

Anon.: Often when a line is crossed, a psychological barrier goes down. For instance, if a person who is not a murderer kills someone, he becomes different. The rules change. You see it a lot in wartime, in which the so-called “laws of war” get violated. These violations become the new normal.

We banned dum-dum bullets [i.e., bullets that expand upon impact] in the First World War. Guess what? Expanding bullets are now used by everybody. It’s this creeping normalization that puts down real roots, takes hold of people and institutions, and can be harder than hell to come back from.

Shrinking higher-ed. budgets, along with an apathetic electorate, can lead us to the brink of disaster, unless we start making different choices.

Shortly after our conference call, Feshbach’s colleague follows up with a voicemail message, expounding the merits of an American higher education. His intensity is apparent: “The importance of universities to our future, through both education and research, cannot be overstated. Why do people from other nations covet a U.S. university education?”

The answer? The hope for a better future. “[It is] a marriage, through higher education, of attaining both practical know-how and what George Washington assuaged us all to seek,” he says, “namely, some spark of that celestial fire called ‘conscience.’”

Our caller continues this line of reasoning a few days later, after the publication of a Washington Post editorial (March 20) about government spending.

Tuition, alone, is not enough to keep higher education going. Tuition is already through the ceiling in most places, and I don’t see how many people will be able to afford an education. … Education is the best investment in our future because it creates a better future, including an outstanding foundation for research that produces manifold benefits to humanity. Without education, the form in which the future comes will be far darker.

Which is why we can’t let the current situation [i.e., federal spending cuts] stand unopposed. In Russia, there’s been a gigantic drop-off—maybe 50 percent—in university admissions. And universities that close there may never open again.

A similar pattern could develop here in the United States. When federal aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, are compromised, schools, colleges, and universities are endangered. Again, when something shuts down, it may never reopen.

On Monday, March 29, Feshbach shares with me the latest in a parade of media articles about Russia’s various health crises. This one is by Kathy Lally, The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief, who covers the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union. Her article about TB and HIV/AIDS, latter of which is the third-largest cause of premature death in Russia, follows one she wrote a week earlier about life expectancy and differential gender rates among Russians. The upshot of Lally’s article, which quotes Feshbach, is that a global health study has found Russia’s disease profile to be closer to Gabon’s and Bostwana’s than to those of developed countries. 

MF: The tuberculosis situation [in Russia] is not only complicated, but also horrendous. … In the United States, whose population is 316 million, we get 10,000-11,000 new cases a year. Compare that to Russia, whose official population count is 143 million and records anywhere from 87,000 to 214,000 cases a year. The sources vary. This results in about 500 to 600 deaths in the United States and about 20,000-plus deaths, several thousand of whom are children under the age of 14, in Russia.  

And with the growth of MDR-TB in countries such as India, Russia is the only country in Europe categorized by WHO [World Health Organization] as a “high-burden country.”

I expect the number of deaths from TB, in conjunction with HIV, will increase more than the Russians hope. In the early ‘90s, the share of TB during autopsies of HIV-infected Russians was about 50 percent; several years ago, it was 66 percent. Not a good pattern.

I don’t hear from Feshbach, who falls ill, for the next few weeks. When he resurfaces in mid-April, he emails me to say he is feeling better and is entertaining a couple of speaking invitations: one in May at the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C., and another in October at an ecocide symposium in Oslo.

For someone who has been to Moscow nearly 60 times to conduct research and lecture in Russian, Feshbach seems unfazed by the attention.

“I’ve spent most of my career trying to make sense out of data that can potentially help people,” he says. “Sometimes people listen to me, sometimes they don’t. I just hope they realize, before it’s too late, that disease and ecocide are changing the world as we know it.”

Says his colleague: “Whether in the United States or Russia, each of one of us has a responsibility to work with and help the other. Through this sharing, we can learn from our mistakes and benefit from the good each country provides."

Media Contact

Rob Enslin