The Olympics: a grand tale of hope, scandals, Nazi propaganda, and corporatization

The massive corporate, sport, and media spectacle that is the Olympics is underway. The Games’ charter, in idealistic language, calls for “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Who doesn’t want that.

Crowds cheer the start of the London Summer Olympics.

I’m a fan of the spirit of international cooperation and competition that are the “ideals” of the Games, but not the dark underbelly that is associated with them and has always been associated with them.

First, the positives. They bring out our best. They can lift you up. I simply loved watching Usain Bolt grab gold in the 100m and 200m sprints in Beijing in 2008, and also the fact that he became an instant positive icon to hundreds of millions of people around the world. (Since then he has become a self-styled global brand.) Or better, I continually marvel at the crop of Kenya’s world-class middle- and long-distance runners, such as Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, who won the marathon in Beijing with style with a blistering 2:06:32 time and then tragically died in mysterious circumstances in 2011.  Kenyans grabbed 14 medals in all in 2008, compared to Jamaica’s 11 – both amazing outcomes for countries that are relatively poor by all measures, and thus less capable of funding national sports programs. To me, these are the Games’ positives.

Kenya’s phenomenal male and female runners, who shine in the Games every four years, especially stand out for me, because most of them are running to escape poverty and build a better life for themselves and their families. A profile of them on the NPR pegged the success of the Kenyan athletes to their training regime at high altitudes in the Rift Valley, discipline, and also the country’s limited economic opportunities, with many of the best runners hoping to win big-money marathons like Chicago’s or Berlin’s.

Of course the dark side of the Olympics is the corporate control of every facet of the Games. As The Nation notes, the Olympics, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch, a certifiable Spanish fascist, “was transformed from Cold War spectacle into a neoliberal Trojan Horse: an invading corporate sledgehammer of privatization and payoffs.”  The Games have a recent history of corruption (at both the Sydney and Salt Lake City Games). According to the Daily Mail, taxpayers are subsidizing what many critics of the Games say is a giant corporate schmooze event. Taxpayers are underwriting the games by an 8-1 margin compared to private investors. A year before the games began, the Daily Mail noted that “corporate fat cats” got more than half of top games tickets for showpiece events, which are handed out to corporate sponsors, Olympic bigwigs, and their various VIP guests. Only 32,000 out of 80,000 seats in the Olympic stadium – about four in ten – were available to the public for the marquis events.

Transparency International has pointed out the multiple ways corrupt practices taint the Games, through ticket allocations, corporate hospitality, media contracts, match fixing (not proven), construction allocation, old-fashioned cronyism from corrupt states who bring large entourages, and corporate sponsorship itself.  According to Transparency International’s Robert Barrington, “of the 53 official corporate sponsors in London … several have also been subject to investigation under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or equivalent laws.”

The Olympics in my lifetime have always been mired in problems and issues of the day, and they have reflected conflicts boiling on the international stage and larger cultural and racial currents. Memorable controversies in my lifetime have been the massacre of hundreds of civilians by Mexican government forces just prior to the start of the Mexico City Games in 1968, the brutal killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games by Palestinian gunmen who also were killed in a botched rescue,  the boycott by 62 nations of the 1980 Moscow games following the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and retaliatory boycott by 14 nations in response of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and the terrorist bombing that killed two persons at the 1996 Atlanta Games by a right wing U.S. extremist, murderer, and abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. There are other scandals I could mention, but will not.

Sculptor Karl Abiker’s “Discus Throwers,” Nazi statues embodying the Third Reich’s racial ideology that was showcased at the 1936 summer Olympics, stand guard outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

Perhaps the most abysmal moments in Olympics history were the summer and winter Olympics games in Nazi Germany in 1936. While many claim Nazi ideology of racial superiority was destroyed by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track, the Games largely were a massively successful propaganda operation, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, by the Nazi state as it was marching toward implementing policies that later resulted in genocide against Jews and Gypsies and a war that claimed tens of millions of lives. It is worth watching the documentary of those games by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. The opening ceremonies show national squads like France’s marching into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium with their arms raised with a “sieg heil” salute to future mass murderer and then-dictator Adolf Hitler (go to 4:47 of the clip on this video — it is truly chilling).

South African Tsuana tribesmen Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani (right) both ran the 1904 marathon barefooted.

In the city near where I grew up, St. Louis, the Olympics were hosted in conjunction with and likely in the same spirit as the World’s Fair in 1904 (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the fair, and know it well). This was a time of imperial expansion, the prevalence of racial eugenics in scientific and political thinking, and entrenched racism and segregation in the United States. The fair was the single largest gathering  of human beings from other cultures ever put on display like a zoo. More than 5,000 persons from different cultures and countries were displayed, the largest group being Filipinos, whose country was taken over by the United States a few years earlier during the Spanish American War. Some of those humans on display, two tribesmen from South Africa, who were part of the “Boer Exhibit,” actually competed in the Olympics marathon and did surprisingly well, placing in ninth and 12th place. They were also the first Africans to compete in the notoriously racially segregated Games at the time.

The 1904 Olympics marathon is notable for many reasons, including a famous scandal and my odd connection to it. I used to live in University City, Mo. (next to St. Louis), and run on a road that was part of the marathon route and see an official marathon mile marker every time I ran, about three times a week. It connected me to the Games in a personal way. That marathon had 32 racers; only 18 finished. The race began at 3 p.m., in 90 fahrenheit (in Midwest humidity!). The winner, Thomas Hicks, doped and nearly died (on strychnine). A false winner , John Lorz, cheated by being driven most of the race. Still another runner nearly died inhaling road dust kicked up by automobiles on dirt roads that were used for the race.

Mile Marker along the route of the 1904 Olympics marathon, a route I partially ran three times a week while in high school — my personal connection to the Games.

While the scandals and problems that were there nearly at the beginning of the Games remain to this day, I still would like to think of the Games as something to inspire. In many ways, I credit that Olympics’ mile marker sign for motivating many of my early morning runs in the dark in high school. I have not stopped running since.

A massacre in Colorado and public health’s chilling silence to gun violence

Like many people in the United States and around the world, I was horrified by the news on July 20, of yet another mass murder in the United States involving firearms. We still do not know as I write this post the motives of the alleged suspect, a 24-year-old medical student named James Holmes. Nor do we know yet how he acquired the multiple firearms—a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol, according to initial reports—used to kill 12 people and leave 59 wounded. Press reports quote police officials saying he bought his firearms legally along with 6,000 rounds of ammunition. We do know that neither President Barack Obama or GOP presumptive contender Gov. Mitt Romney uttered the word “gun” in their public comments the day after the mass murders.

Alleged mass murderer James Holmes in a photo published by many media sources.

For his part, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who does not have to worry about his political career even if he is voted out of office and who can afford to defy special interest groups because of his great personal wealth, was quick to criticize both presidential candidates for failing to put forward plans to address gun violence, which is a concern of many elected officials in any sized city. “Soothing words are nice,” said Bloomberg, “But maybe it’s time the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.”

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson wrote on July 21: “Gun control has so completely disappeared from debate that John Rosenthal, founder of the Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence, told me this week before the Aurora shootings: ‘I’ve never seen more spineless cowardice and lack of national leadership. Can you imagine the outrage if instead, 83 Americans a day died from hamburgers?’ Instead the conservative Supreme Court struck down urban handgun bans. Last year saw record gun sales in America, based on FBI background checks, as the gun lobby whips up utterly false fears about Obama taking people’s guns away.”

Such mass killings like we saw in Aurora, Co., now occur with alarming frequency in the United State. Where I live, Seattle, we have experienced a wave of mass shootings during the last two months, the most lethal at a University District area restaurant called Café Racer and elsewhere in the city on May 30, that left six dead, including the alleged gunman.

From a purely statistical perspective, firearm violence is a national health issue, if not a crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of firearm homicides in 2010 in the United States was a whopping 11,493, or 3.7 deaths per 100,000. And the role of firearms in suicides was nearly twice that rate. The CDC for 2010 attributes firearms in the suicides of 18,735 persons in the country, or a rate of 6.1 per 100,000. All told firearms are linked to 30,228 deaths annually at last count. This is a truly staggering figure, and one that should have the entire medical and public health community demanding that moral and political leaders in this country develop a broad array of interventions to reduce these numbers, the way we mobilize yearly to dress in pink and run against breast cancer or embrace other campaigns designed to save lives and promote health. By contrast, Japan counted 11 homicides related to firearms in 2008, or a rate of 0.0 per 100,000 in epidemiological terms.

So why is the medical and public health community silent? Well, the answer is simple. It is about politics and money. Specifically, it is about the lack of federal money. And of course those who should be out front on this issue, including heads of hospitals and medical associations as well as faculty and heads of health sciences universities, are not demonstrating the needed moral courage to speak truth to the supporters of the NRA, business interests, and political groups, who exploit American fears about government and who seek to maintain the status quo politically through fear-mongering. That job is mainly falling to journalists and citizens groups mostly, as well as victims of crimes and their families.

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University reported in February 2012 that the gun industry’s main lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association (NRA), has “systematically suppressed data about gun violence and the impact it has on Americans’ lives.” The  CDC in the early 1990s was releasing studies that found that guns in the home presented a greater danger to the occupants than potential home invaders. In response the NRA helped to prevent the funding of research on firearms’ death and injury. As a result, reports the foundation, the CDC appropriations bill the last 15 years has contained this language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  And this year, the NRA successfully added a similar amendment to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appropriations language.

The most well-known advocacy group that promotes strict gun regulation, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, was extremely critical of the CDC in 2011 for, in its words, requiring researchers financed by the CDC to give the CDC a “head’s up” when they prepare to publish firearms-related research. The CDC, in turns, shares that information with the NRA as a courtesy. “If the CDC is allowing the NRA to review its studies, it’s a deeply troubling practice,” said Brady Center President Paul Helmke. “To have a government agency open itself and its science to the influence of any interest group, particularly one whose policies undermine the safety of our families and communities, is improper, offensive, and unjustifiable. We need science that we can trust.”

One has to look no further than the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHSS) exhaustive annual report called Health, United States, 2011. It lists the word firearms just nine times, and buries firearms data deep into the report, making that information effectively unimportant in the overall health assessment for the country. Meanwhile the introduction to that report profiles motor vehicle deaths (about 40,000 deaths annually) and does not profile death by firearms (suicide or homicide, which number more than 30,000 annually). One has to wonder how connected the funding ban is to this type of editorial decision by the DHSS and the CDC, which publish this document.

Of course many proponents of very limited gun control disagree firearms-related violence is a “health” issue. One pro gun blog, published by a group called AmmoLand.com, calls those who would choose to address firearms safety “elite gun banners.” (The those being criticized is the CDC.)

Which item does the CDC and many public health research universities consider more of a public health threat, and which receives more research dollars and scholarly attention?

What we are seeing, at least at public health departments through funding mechanisms, is a full-court press on chronic disease linked to unhealthy food like, oh fatty french fries. When it comes to clogged arteries but not loaded semi-automatic weapons, the CDC doles out millions dollars ($103 million at last count) through Community Transformation Grants. It continually baffles me how trained scientists who work in health care flat out follow the money to pursue research grants to get more people to eat fruits and vegetables and stop smoking while keeping mostly silent as people in their communities are gunning themselves down and others.

I never understood this during my studies at the University of Washington School of Public Health, where there is not one course where firearms issues are addressed as a public health priority, at least according to my understanding of the courses offered. I did a quick search on the UW SPH web site on July 21 and found just seven references to firearms, six to guns, and 233 references to obesity. (UW researchers were involved in a joint study published in 2012 about gun storage cabinets in Alaska, but one would expect more given the numbers.) But this is no different than at any publicly funded health research university that relies on large federal grants to sustain its faculty and facilities. Clearly this impacts what future public health leaders are taught. During my two years in my program at the UW SPH, which used problem-based learning and cases that touched on everything from obesity to smoking to HIV/AIDs to homelessness to influenza, our classes never discussed firearms violence as a public health concern. (Note, that changed this year for the class behind me thanks to comments raised by my cohort to faculty for suggesting new topics).

In my frustration today, I even wrote to my member in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Jim McDermott, by clicking the on the topical area of “gun control” to submit my email to his staff. I know from past experience that federal lawmakers never read 99% of such emails, and their replies usually do not address the contents of constituent communications, instead relying on general policy statements that amount to little substance. Still, I felt compelled to express my continued disappointment at the failure of leadership that he and others are demonstrating on this health and policy issue:

“As a public health professional and as your constituent, I am writing today to ask if you can inform your constituents what you and your allies, including in the health community and law enforcement community, are planning to do in terms of a meaningful policy response to address the proliferation of firearms and in terms of providing funding to health professionals to begin to address this issue as a legitimate threat to the health of U.S. citizens? Can you provide any details about how you are working locally with groups seeking to have upstream and federal actions to begin to chip away at the powerful special interest groups that have hijacked the public debate on firearms? Are you seeking to challenge blue dog Democrats or Republicans who continue to communicate talking points that equate the Second Amendment of the Constitution with the sale of personal weapons that in no way correspond to the wording or intent of the Constitution or the intent of the framers of the Constitution? I await your leadership. If there is to be no action, than one wonders why there continues to be cynicism of citizenry about the leaders we elect to Washington to do the people’s business, not the business of special interests that are allowing weapons manufacturers to profit from the misery of innocent citizens wiped out by a completely controllable problem, were there true courage and leadership to face down the attack ads. People can lead, but well, so can the leaders we elect. I await to hear your strong voice.” 

Portland: hip, healthy, homogeneous, and house of the homeless

I just visited Portland, Ore., twice now in the last nine days. Though I moved away in 1987, I have returned countless times. I still love it, as I have since I first visited the Rose City back in April 1983. I went to college in Portland from 1983 to 1987, and I have always felt comfortable studying, living, and working there. I fondly remember my outdoor summer job painting homes during the day and being able to commute nearly everywhere by my bike to my work locations.

I was enamored by the quirky stores like Corno’s on MLK Boulevard, which closed sadly in 1995 (RIP Corno’s we loved you!), and by the many urban gardens I saw in southeast Portland around the campus of Reed College. I also liked that I could bike throughout the city and feel relatively safe that bike commuting was accepted and more secure than in other cities because of the budding efforts by city planners to make that city bike friendly. Portland’s famous mayor from 1985-92, Bud Clark, a former Reed College dropout and tavern owner, made biking cool to a national audience by biking to his job in downtown nearly every day (way to go, Bud!). Mayor Bud made a big impression on me when we overlapped in Portland.

Portland is well-loved by its fans. Some call it one of the healthiest cities because of its many trails in the hills above the city, in Forest Park, an Olmstead Brothers designed gem from 1903 that today encompasses more than 5,100 acres and miles of multi-use trails and many critters.

Portland also defied a national trend by preventing a major highway construction project planned for Highway 26 from plowing through the downtown (the Mt. Hood Freeway). Instead, famed Gov. Tom McCall diverted highway funds ($23 million) in 1974 to build the now famous public transit system that laid the groundwork for the visionary light rail line known as MAX. Portland still has its freeways and gridlock, but it did go its one way. A highway was torn up in downtown and turned into a riverfront park. In essence, Portland has been making policy changes for many years that promoted an alternative vision to the sprawl development that has fueled this country’s destructive and costly obesity epidemic and proclivity to chronic diseases.

Portland is not perfect, however. By becoming trendy with progressives and attractive for lifestyle refugees, it is becoming more expensive and perhaps less diverse in some measurable ways.

First, on the plus side, many have praised the benefits to the “new urbanism” in Portland, for which the city is becoming increasingly famous. I’m not entirely convinced the high-end makeover of parts of Portland, such as the Pearl District, where the once famous Henry Weinhard’s brewery was converted to pricey condos and office/retail, is a good thing. Portland also has lots of farmers markets, parks, green spaces, and policy measures promoting healthy lifestyles and food choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts this as “healthy community design.”

On top of design features, such as denser developments that are pedestrian friendly and built to promote interactivity, the city is now ranked No. 1 as the most bike-friendly, knocking rival and bike-loving powerhouse Minneapolis-St. Paul back down to the No. 2 slot, according to Bicycling Magazine. “After being named runner-up in our last round of best bike city rankings in 2010, Portland reclaims the top spot. The only large city to earn Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists is a paragon of bike-friendliness, with 180 miles of bike lanes and 79 miles of off-street bike paths. Always quick to embrace cyclist-friendly innovations, Portland was the first city in the United States to implement bike boxes at intersections and elementary-school bike commuting trains. Among the city’s many bike shops is newcomer Go By Bike, which is located under the aerial tram and offers valet parking, rentals, and repairs.”

Of course there’s a downside. The Oregonian newspaper in 2011 analyzed 2010 census data and found the “whitest city” in the country– that would be, yes, Portland–became even less diverse in the last decade, while surrounding areas have grown more diverse. This is also a national trend in other major cities, where exurbs and suburbs are becoming more diverse ethnically.

The April 30, 2011, article in the Oregonian (In Portland’s heart, 2010 Census shows diversity dwindling), noted: “Of 354 census tracts in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, 40 became whiter from 2000 to 2010, according to The Oregonian’s analysis of the 2010 Census. … The city core didn’t become whiter simply because lots of white residents moved in, the data show. Nearly 10,000 people of color, mostly African Americans, also moved out.” Census data show that of the city’s 584,000 residents, 76% are white, compared to Oregon’s whopping 86% figure. Latinos are the next largest racial/ethnic group at 9.4%, followed by Asian Americans (7.1%), and African Americans (6/3%). And not everyone is living well, riding overpriced road bikes, and sipping microbrews. About one in six residents lives below the poverty line. The unemployment is slightly higher than the nation’s, though on average four in 10 residents has a college degree. One person who works in public health I talked to about job prospects in Portland told me, many PhDs were pouring beers and waiting tables while looking for professional work on the side; don’t come here without a job.

The most glaring example of the problems I saw during my two visits was the crush of humanity that was waiting at the entrance to the Multnomah County Library as it opened its door on a sunny July 3 morning. I counted about 60 persons, the majority of whom were clearly homeless or indigent. There are about 1,700 people living on Portland’s streets. Many persons I saw that morning were carrying all of their possessions in backpacks or large plastic bags. Many had not had a shower in some time. The library provided both a restroom to use and Internet access and simply a shelter. It basically resembled libraries in Seattle that serve as de facto homeless shelters during business hours.

I decided not to photograph the clear signs of economic distress I saw on the streets or at the library’s gates and focused on snapshots of the downtown features that make the city fun and livable – its downtown streetcar, the MAX light rail, beautiful open spaces, yummy food carts, a downtown farmer’s markets, bike infrastructure that made me salivate, and a vibe that keeps my teenager’s crush alive and throbbing.

Looking back at a North Carolina landfill, and who got dumped on

I have finally compiled my graduate thesis on environmental racism into a more easy to read PDF format. This document dates from July 1993, when I completed my MA in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For my research project, I examined how a then-small, historically African American and poor community, Holly Springs, was chosen to become the site of Wake County’s new mega municipal landfill. Holly Springs, N.C., already had multiple open and closed landfills, and the rest of the county had not equitably assumed the same burden for waste generated in the most populous county in North Carolina, which is also home to the state capital, Raleigh.

The Raleigh News & Observer published this photo of the South Wake County landfill, in Holly Springs, in March 2012, found here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/03/15/1931937/wake-county-plans-future-development.html.

My efforts to publish an investigative series for a regional alternative weekly serving Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C., were nixed by a number of forces, including pressure from senior Wake County officials who communicated with the weekly I had approached and successfully led that paper to disassociate itself from me and this project before it was published. (That is my version of events.) However, I did publish the thesis online in 1998. The articles were found by residents of Holly Springs in 1998, who contacted me, and my research became part of a major legal dispute that went to the North Carolina Supreme Court and federal courts, where litigants eventually lost and then finally settled with the county for remediation work to lessen the impact. Many of the legal issues raised in the case were cited first in my thesis. After years of legal wrangling, the Wake County Commissioners finally voted to approve a major municipal landfill in 2006.

I am proud of this work. It is factually sound, rigorously investigated, fair to all parties, and written in the spirit of good enterprise journalism on behalf of persons who had the least power and resources to advocate for themselves against much more powerful and organized interests (in this case Wake County’s government).

Here is the abstract to my original 1993 thesis titled: Environmental Racism in Our Own Backyard: Solid Waste Disposal in Holly Springs, N.C.

For more than two decades, the historically black and poor township of Holly Springs in Wake County, N.C., has been targeted for landfills.  The pattern continues with Wake County’s proposed 471-acre landfill, scheduled to open in Holly Springs by 1998.  Each facility was sited adjacent to existing black communities, whose residents never participated in the siting process.  The first story of this thesis’ three-article series examines the inequitable pattern for distributing these dumps countywide and how their placement fits a national pattern.  The second article and Appendix A discuss the new “environmental justice” movement, whose grassroots and minority activists are protesting unwanted pollution and alleged environmental discrimination.  The movement’s members have coined the term “environmental racism” to describe the unfair apportionment of environmentally noxious facilities.  Article three discusses whether municipal solid waste landfills can cause ground water contamination.  Federally mandated landfill technology to be installed at the planned landfill may not provide pollution protection for ground water, used by Holly Springs for its municipal water source.

A travelogue about Siberia paints a vivid picture of beauty and pain

It is often through really good travel writing that I am exposed to the world around me, more than from stories I gather from the news media. Perhaps it requires a personal perspective on places, people, and problems to make another land or culture come alive. That is what happened for me when I read Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia.

His travelogue, covering five separate trips to Siberia, and other parts of Russia, over a nearly 15-year period makes this region and its people and history suddenly meaningful, even though I have never stepped foot in Siberia. (I once flew less than 50 miles from its easternmost point, however.) As Frazier notes: “A tiny fraction of the world’s population lives in Siberia. About 39 million Russians and native peoples inhabit the northern third of Asia. … For most people, Siberia is not the place, but a figure of speech.”

Upon finishing Frazier’s book, I was left with great sadness and great curiosity about Siberia. During my six years working and living in Alaska, I had a chance to meet many Siberians who visited Alaska for official government programs. These included Chukotkans, who are linguistically and ethnically related to Inupiaqs of Alaska and the Inuit and Greenlanders. But because I did not speak Russian, I never was able to learn first hand their tales of their province, which lies just across the Bering Straight from Alaska.

I also once worked a year with a former doctor from Novosibirsk, in central Siberia. She had immigrated to the United States and worked in social services. She never talked much of her time there, except to describe persecution of Christians by the Soviets. She gave me an account of one Christian prisoner, who was interned in a Soviet prison in Kamchatka. I have forgotten that book’s name, as I could not read it at that time because it was too depressing a topic. I gave it to a local library, where I hope it was checked out.

Frazier manages to avoid this harshness and allows Siberia’s beauty come alive. And Siberia has that in an order of magnitude greater than most of us can imagine. The tragic side to Siberia’s story, of course, are the penal system of the Tsars, which exiled its enemies to the Russian empire’s eastern provinces, and the gulag system of Josef Stalin’s USSR, one of the greatest prison and killing systems in the history of humanity. The region covers more than 5 million square miles, much with arctic and subarctic climates that give way to brief summer months when mosquitos and gnats reign. It also has the world’s largest forest, the taiga.

During his cross-continental road trip from Leningrad to Vladivostok in the summer of 2001—one of the greatest road trips I have read about—Frazier and his two Russian guides and companions encounter Siberia’s amazing natural beauty, but also the scars of the Soviets’ and Russians’ treatment of their environment. From coal-choked cities to litter-strewn roadways to heavily polluted places in between, Frazier constantly encounters examples of poor or no governance or any form of regulation. He describes empty barrels (used to bring in fuel), which are strewn across the tundra in places as far as the eye can see.

The CIA, which some may not consider to be a neutral arbiter of Russian affairs, notes the following environmental health problems plaguing Russia: “air pollution from heavy industry, emissions of coal-fired electric plants, and transportation in major cities; industrial, municipal, and agricultural pollution of inland waterways and seacoasts; deforestation; soil erosion; soil contamination from improper application of agricultural chemicals; scattered areas of sometimes intense radioactive contamination; groundwater contamination from toxic waste; urban solid waste management; abandoned stocks of obsolete pesticides.” Frazier did not encounter all of these hazards, but certainly confirmed many.

Frazier’s later trip to the Russian Far East in 2005, to Yakutsk, and north along the dilapidated Topolinskaya Highway, finally allowed him to visit a former Soviet gulag, or penal colony. Gulags, or “lager” as they are known in Russia, are where Stalin’s regime sent political prisoners and undesirables by the hundreds of thousands to die in harsh prison conditions and be worked to death building railroads or roads, or mining gold in the most notorious of all slave mine systems, in Kolyma in central Siberia. Gulags played a pivotal role in the Soviet economy. Prisoners in gulags mined one-third of all the Soviet Union’s gold, and extracted nearly all of its coal and timber. The gulag population also numbered about one out of every 50 workers in the Soviet Union.  An estimated 6-9 million persons perished in what is known as the Great Terror, during the purges of the 1930, and the great famine of 1932-33, according to some estimates.  The most famous account of the gulag, of course, is the Gulag Archipelago, the 1973 chronicle of the penal system by the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Frazier also details the deteriorating conditions in Russia that is leading to the nation’s depopulation in many cities and communities in Siberia. We catch glimpses of those problems in his sad descriptions of rampant alcoholism and a food safety issues. But Frazier barely touches on the public health catastrophe that is befalling Russia and its Siberian provinces.

According to United Nations (U.N.) figures, the average life expectancy for a Russian man is 59 years, or 166th place. Women can expect to live 72 years. Overall, Russia now ranks 163rd in overall life expectancy. The gap between expected longevity for men and for women-14 years-is the largest in the developed world.

The main killers are: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, suicides, smoking, traffic accidents. The Russian government, according to critics, is doing little to stem the tide.

Tuberculosis deaths in Russia are nearly three times what the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as an epidemic. What’s more, alcohol consumption per person is twice what the WHO considers dangerous to human health. In addition, more than 1 million people in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to WHO figures. Russia also has the 6th highest suicide rate in the world, peaking after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

There are many factors that have led to Russia’s much publicized population decline. According to the Rand Corporation, the collapse of the old Soviet social system in the 1990s was a major factor. In the Soviet era, nearly all health care was provided free by the state, with a system that emphasized the quantity of medical services, not quality of those services. When the centralized economy broke down, the public-health sector fell into a fiscal disrepair without a means of surviving in a market system. According to demographers, Russia’s population has dropped from 149 million a decade ago to just over 144 million today. And, that decline is accelerating.

Despite the gloom that is the public health calamity inside of Russia, and Siberia, I am now intrigued about visiting that vast but very unpopulated space on this planet, just as I was when I first flew over Greenland in 1997 and came back three years in a row to visit the world’s largest island. As Frazier himself says, “Siberia is …  a flyover country. I’m always interested in the thing that people don’t think about. Certain geographic places exist in your brain. You have a sense of Siberia. Everybody knows what they think Siberia is, just like in America everybody knows what they think the American West is.”