Twenty years ago, when the Iron Curtain came down, the world gagged in horror as it witnessed firsthand the ravages inflicted on nature by the Soviet industrial machine.
Throughout the crumbling communist empire, sewage and chemicals clogged rivers; industrial smog choked cities; radiation seeped through the soil; open pit mines scarred green valleys. It was hard to measure how bad it was and still is: The focus was more on production quotas than environmental data.
Today, Europe has two easts: one that has been largely cleaned up with the help of a massive infusion of Western funds and the prospect of membership in the prosperous European Union, and another that still looks as though the commissars never left.
The contrasting story lines are written in the ripple and flow of two rivers.
Drifting along Ukraine’s Dnieper River, past this one-time powerhouse of Soviet rule, requires slicing through clouds of black-and-orange exhaust from a metallurgical plant.
Over a hill, passengers may catch a whiff of a burning garbage dump. Nearby fields are fenced off by barbed wire with signs warning of radioactivity. Farther along, the cruise passes the world’s third-largest nuclear power station.
Upstream from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the Dnieper picks up water from the Pripyat River, with sediment still laced with radioactive caesium-137 from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
To the southwest, in countries that have joined the European Union, another river, the Danube, is bouncing back. Pleasure boats sail past public bathing areas, and people of dozens of nationalities stroll down esplanades alongside a glittering waterway that inspired the music of Johann Strauss. Protected woods and wetlands are being extended along its meandering course.
In 1989, the stretch of Danube that flowed through the communist countries was like the Dnieper - an ecological disaster of epic proportions. Oil slicks glistened in rainbow colors on the water’s surface. Long stretches were empty of fish, and stinking algae proliferated along the banks. Worse than the visible pollution was the insidious invasion of microcontaminants that poisoned the ecosystem.
But at the intersection of geography and history lie insights into the rivers’ contrasting fates.
Originating in Russia and ending in the Black Sea, the Dnieper flows south through Belarus, cutting southeast across Ukraine, countries that have remained, in varying degrees, almost umbilically tethered over the past 20 years to the might of the Kremlin.
The Danube, on the other hand, traces a triumphant march through the European Union’s eastward expansion, starting in traditional EU heavyweight Germany and flowing through or forming the border of new member states - Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria.
The river ambles 1,775 miles from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. About 83 million people in 19 countries live in its basin.
Five years after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, most of the countries sharing the Danube signed a convention to manage the river, its tributaries, the basin and the ground sources. It was one of the iconic projects in a broader mission among Western powers to make billions of dollars available for a massive cleanup of Eastern Europe.
In five years of peak action from 2000, the Danube countries spent $3.5 billion building wastewater treatment plants in hundreds of towns and villages along the river and its 26 major tributaries. They spent $500 million more restoring wetlands and cleaning industrial spillage and agricultural runoff befouling the water.
Chemicals that feed plant-choking algae and threaten human health have dramatically declined since 1989, although their levels remain far higher than in 1950, before the industrial buildup and growth of riverside cities.
Along with direct Western aid, many poor ex-Soviet-bloc countries had a huge incentive to throw themselves into the region’s cleanup: EU membership. Racing to meet the bloc’s environmental standards, they put scrubbers into coal-fired plants, built water-purification stations and capped emissions that had been returning to Earth as acid rain.
It was a monumental task.
One area known as the Black Triangle at the junction of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic was notorious. A concentration of coal mines and heavy industry suffocated the region under industrial ash and gas.
For the Danube, the cleanup was more than just an environmental project. The Danube Convention changed mindsets, breaking down barriers between former enemies, forcing countries and riverside populations to work together across previously hostile borders.
“The Danube is a living river that is bound up with the culture and the peoples who live there,” says Philip Weller, the commission’s executive secretary.
“It is not a wild river, in the sense of salmon jumping or white-water,” Mr. Weller said. “It is the lifeblood, the circulation system” that connects the richest part of Europe in Western Germany to the poorest in Ukraine and Moldova.
The river is still not pristine, but “over the past 20 years much has changed for the better,” said Andreas Beckmann of the World Wildlife Fund. After 150 years of abuse and the loss of 80 percent of the river’s wetlands, “the Danube has significantly recovered.”
In contrast, Sergei Rudenko, a teacher at a vocational school in Dniprodzerzhynsk, has been throwing a fishing line into the Dnieper for 50 years. Springing from the mountains of central Russia, the 1,420-mile river was once rich at this spot in eastern Ukraine with perch, carp and bream.
Now its yield is miserly, he says.
Dniprodzerzhynsk, a name that combines the river’s name with that of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, once was so crucial to the Soviet economy that it was closed to outsiders. With 250,000 people, it has 60 factories, some looming over the city in a permanent haze.
On the outskirts of town eight fields are fenced off with barbed wire, hung with yellow triangles warning of radioactivity. Nuclear waste was dumped here many years ago. Uniformed officers patrol the area and stopped two Associated Press journalists to ask why they were there.
Next to a chemical plant is the city dump, where three decades worth of garbage is now a steaming landfill 100 feet deep.
“When the wind is from there, I can’t breathe,” said Gregori Timoshenko, a 72-year-old waste site employee, nodding toward the fresh garbage. He shrugs when asked whether working in such a polluted place affects his health. “I have lived my life, I have nothing to lose.”
Not far away, Evgen Kolishevsky of the Voice of Nature, a local environmental group, takes a reporter to the foot of a mountainous slag heap, below which runs the Konoplyanka river that feeds into the Dnieper. “This is the waste from chemical enterprises and of processing and enrichment of uranium,” he said.
Victor Lyapin, a local health official, acknowledges the damaging effects.
“The first mistake of the Soviet Union,” he said, “was to put factories and people shoulder to shoulder.”