Associated Press Writer DNIPRODZERZHYNSK, Ukraine—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; 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, whose sediment is still laced with radioactive caesium-137 from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
To the southwest, in countries that have joined the EU, 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 2,857 kilometers (1,775 miles) from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Some 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.