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The city is not yet in sight when the forest along the highway starts to die away. Before long, the dark green ocean of birch, aspen, pine and fir of the Kola Peninsula in the far northwestern corner of Russia dissolves into a post-apocalyptic wasteland -- a landscape broken only by the charred stumps of trees and leaning hydro poles.

Finally, Monchegorsk, the "City of Metallurgy" and one of the more polluted places on the planet, comes into view. In the distance, it looks like a misshapen grey birthday cake with perhaps a dozen red and white candles burning on top. Around it, for several kilometres in all directions, everything but the odd patch of shrubbery is dead.

The candles are actually smokestacks from the city's enormous nickel and copper smelter, the source of the devastation that surrounds us. The "cake" is a surrealistic collection of decaying buildings that pump brown clouds into the atmosphere. Built at a time when the Soviet Union was desperate to match the West's industrial production, it's an experiment that went wrong.

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The air here is thick with the acrid smell of sulphur. A mist seems to cling to the city, reducing visibility and making even a short walk a respiratory ordeal. Come here only if, in the words of one travel guide, "you've ever had a notion to visit hell."

The locals have developed a grim sense of humour. "North American cinema-makers spend a lot of money building movie sets to look like the Earth after it's been devastated by alien invaders," says environmentalist Elena Vasilyeva. "We could make a lot of money renting Monchegorsk out."

The annihilation of nature here is truly shocking. But what's more stunning is the fact that it's just one of dozens of environmental disasters that pockmark Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. A few kilometres to the north, rotting hulks of nuclear submarines dot the Siberian shoreline, radioactive bombs waiting to explode. To the south lies Chernobyl, the bomb that did go off, and 16 years later, the soil of Ukraine and Belarus are still polluted.

Farther south on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the once-revered Aral Sea has shrunk to a fraction of its former majesty -- the victim of wayward Soviet irrigation practices. Even the mighty River Volga is losing 20 per cent of its water every year to agricultural and industrial use. Some worry that before long the "lifeblood of Russia" will be little more than a polluted stream. And in south-central Russia, a factory town called Chelyabinsk claims the dubious distinction of being the most polluted place on the planet, the legacy of a 1957 accident at the nearby Mayak nuclear reactor that produced one of the biggest atomic explosions ever.

Ten years ago, the ground-breaking Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro deemed the monstrous challenges facing the former Soviet Union to be among the world's most pressing environmental issues.

Now, with the next summit just two weeks away in Johannesburg, it is striking to see how little has been done to clean up one-eighth of the globe's land surface.

By almost any measure, the former Soviet Union's record on environmental protection is the world's worst. With its land despoiled, lakes poisoned and cities massively polluted, Russia has seen its population begin to decline. Since the early 1990s, the annual loss has been more than a half-million people -- nearly 400,000 in the first five months of this year alone -- and scientists believe the environment has been a major factor. In some regions, up to 40 percent of recorded illnesses are due to poor air and water quality, as well as contaminated soil.

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At the time of Rio, the respected Moscow News reported that 300 locations in the Soviet Union -- 16 per cent of its total area -- were simply "unfavourable for human population." Since then, little has changed. In fact, many observers believe the Russian situation has worsened under President Vladimir Putin, who puts great emphasis on economic development and whose government often turns a blind eye to environmental abuses.

Less than six months after taking office, Mr. Putin abolished the federal environmental-protection committee. Now, less than 1 per cent of the federal budget goes to environmental programs. "Only banana republics spend less," Moscow News environment reporter Yelena Subbotina wrote recently. The plant at Monchegorsk is one of the world's three largest copper and nickel operations. Located 1,200 kilometres north of Moscow, the town was built by slave labourers in 1938 at the height of dictator Josef Stalin's attempts to propel his empire to the industrial forefront.

The Severonikel ("northern nickel") plant opened the following year. Emissions have always been high -- often sulphur dioxide per year than produced by all of Norway -- but they spiked in the 1970s when the Politburo ordered a five-fold increase in output. The treeless "dead zone," reminiscent of the one that once encircled the giant nickel plant at Sudbury, Ont., spread, its growth rate accelerating with the use of underground nuclear explosions to increase mining yields. Now there are almost no trees within an 18-kilometre radius of the city centre, and for another 12 kilometres in every direction, the picking of berries and mushrooms -- summertime passions in Russia -- is banned.

This is far from the only blight on the once-pristine Arctic landscape. Thirty kilometres to the north, another massive smelter at Nikel creates a sulphur-tainted dead zone to rival that of Monchegorsk. And between the two lies the naval centre of Murmansk, where spent nuclear fuel from Russia's Northern Fleet is such a worry (the region contains 18 per cent of the world's nuclear reactors) that neighbouring Norway has moved in to help clean up.

"It's a very dangerous situation," says Andrey Zolotkov, local head of Norway's Bellona Foundation, which has tried for years to raise awareness of the problem. "But everybody understands Russia does not have the money" to solve the problem.

What impact do all these toxins have on the region's residents? Sixty-one-year-old lung-cancer patient Vitali Andrushka is currently between chemotherapy sessions at Murmansk's oncology centre. He admits to being a life-long smoker but is convinced that living here for 20 years is at least partly to blame for his illness.

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He remembers, years ago, being caught in a powerful rainstorm while out walking. He put on a plastic raincoat and dashed for home. By the time he got there, he claims, the sulphur dioxide-laden raindrops had eaten through his jacket. It looked "like a sieve," he says. "It was the same as the way the trees were eaten by the acid rain. If nature perishes because of the emissions, why would man not?"

Eduard Kurilenko, Mr. Andrushka's doctor, hotly denies any environmental connection. Although scientists have estimated that some cancers are almost 50 per cent more common here than elsewhere in Russia, he brandishes a sheet of official statistics showing Murmansk as better than average among Russian cities when it comes to cancer cases per capita. Yes, life expectancy has been in sharp decline (from 62 years on average in 1961 to less than 50 today), but Dr. Kurilenko blames this on social, rather than environmental causes. "The income of the population has decreased rapidly," causing increased alcoholism which has been shortening lives.

In private, some of his own subordinates disagree with him. "I'm sure that the rate of diseases is higher among residents of Monchegorsk and Nikel than almost anywhere else because of the polluted air," one radiologist insists moments after Dr. Kurilenko has proclaimed the exact opposite. "I'm sure of it."

More than just local pride is at stake here. Local authorities know full well that Russia's constitution now gives citizens harmed by pollution the right to seek compensation, so big money may be at stake.

Alexei Yablokov, an outspoken former adviser to Boris Yeltsin, says he has seen figures showing the incidence of respiratory diseases and birth defects to be three or four times that of the national average. In a conversation at the the Moscow think-tank he founded when Mr. Yeltsin left office, he claims that, if the "real" stats became public, Russia would risk a crippling flood of lawsuits. "Three or four years ago, the head of the statistics committee and 19 top managers were arrested for falsifying data," he says. "You have no right in Russia to believe the official statistics."

For Mr. Yablokov, this is a personal issue. "Both my father and mother died of cancer. On their birth certificates, it says they both had heart attacks."

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"My parents, too," the translator adds quietly. The famous harbour at Murmansk is now a sight to behold. The shoreline is a mountain of urban waste: vodka bottles on top of toilet seats on top of dirt-covered children's toys. There is a pool of yellow slime, some discarded luggage, then the rusted shell of a Lada.

Out to sea, the scene becomes surreal. The otherwise flat waters of the Kola Inlet are split by grey metal -- chunks of two, perhaps three, Second World War ships scuttled by the Soviet Navy and left to rot in water too shallow to conceal them. The waves that slowly push ashore have a rainbow hue, hinting that the wrecks have not yet been pumped clean.

But a walk through the core of this city of 400,000 -- the largest settlement anywhere north of the Arctic Circle -- hints at a less obvious and potentially more dangerous legacy of the Cold War. On busy Schmidta Street, which separates downtown from the port district, an electronic sign informs passers-by of three things: the time, the temperature and the radiation level.

Most days, the figure flits between seven and nine microradions per hour, well within the acceptable range. But residents remember that just a few years ago levels were two to three times that, high enough to cause concern. City officials decided the device was being "too sensitive" and -- presto -- the levels went down.

The radiation comes from nearby Severomorsk, a city closed to outsiders because it houses the headquarters of Northern Fleet -- and another place no longer what it once was. With the end of the Cold War and its subsequent economic collapse, Russia could no longer maintain itself as a global maritime power. Ships aged and were decommissioned. Submarines that once prowled the world's oceans now sit rusting in the harbour, their nuclear reactors still intact -- almost 70 of them are believed to be in one bay alone.

Mr. Yablokov says that each vessel represents a "floating Chernobyl," and contends that, "if one nuclear sub goes off, the radioactive cloud would cover all of Norway, Sweden and Finland." The navy, meanwhile, alternates between claiming the rotting reactors present no danger at all and asking for urgent international help to get rid of them.

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Such requests have been taken more seriously since 1995, when the fleet had its electricity cut off for not paying a $6-million bill. When the back-up cooling system failed, one reactor began to overheat, and soon troops were sent to force the power company to restore service. The navy later admitted it was hours from a major disaster.

Norway, whose northern border isn't far away, is now pouring tens of millions of dollars into helping Russia store the sub reactors properly and eventually dispose of them. The spent nuclear fuel, which contains a potentially dangerous blend of enriched uranium, plutonium and fission products, remains highly radioactive and could be used to make nuclear weapons.

So now Russia is shipping out 10 trainloads of fuel a year from Murmansk. But each shipment accounts for slightly more than the contents of one sub. At this pace, it will be seven to 10 years before all the decaying vessels at Severomorsk are stripped, not to mention all the material at Vladivostok, the navy's Pacific headquarters.

In the interim, much of the fuel is being kept "to cool off" on board holding ships or in crumbling depots on shore. As much as 10 per cent of it is damaged and can't be moved. The plan for the rest is to send it east to the Ural Mountains for processing at Chelyabinsk's notoriously accident-prone Mayak reactor -- a scenario some consider even more frightening than the current state of affairs.

Such concerns irritate Lyudmilla Petrovna, the federal department of nuclear energy's top official on the Kola Peninsula. She dismisses the "floating Chernobyls" notion as alarmist and "populist," and says that, even if one reactor were to blow, the radiated area would be comparatively tiny -- a local problem rather than another Chernobyl.

She is also angry that Elena Vasilyeva and other environmentalists link radiation from Severomorsk with the region's increasingly ill population. Eight years ago, newspaper reports said Ms. Petrovna herself had commissioned a study of 20,000 illnesses potentially connected to the environment in Nikel, Monchegorsk and Murmansk. Today she denies the reports and and argues that no such study is needed, like Dr. Kurilenko citing the reassuring federal statistics. "This is data obtained by the leading research centres of our country. If you don't believe them, you won't even believe God."

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Yuri Banjko, who works for a company that stores and ships some of the waste, takes a more philosophical approach to the situation. "Is it good or bad to have a nuclear fleet? You can look at it as an achievement of science and technology . . . or as an atomic monster. It's the same with cell phones. Some say they're cancer-causing, others love them."

But the dogged Ms. Vasilyeva has a very personal reason for doubting the official line. She joined Murmansk's fledgling environmental movement in 1985 when her son, Yevgeny, turned one year old and doctors found a tumour in his throat. His grandfather was chief of a nuclear submarine repair plant at Severomorsk, where his father had worked as well, and Ms. Vasilyeva couldn't believe that their exposure to abnormal amounts of radiation and her son's illness were mere coincidence.

Once the tumour had been removed and Yevgeny was safely out of hospital, she began researching the links between radiation and cancer, and found 45 other cases like her son's in the Murmansk region. A crusader was born.

Today, Ms. Vasilyeva heads The Green Club, a motley crew based in her apartment living room and striving to raise public awareness of environmental health concerns. They are largely ignored here, but young Yevgeny, now 16 and an active club member, recently wrote a report on nuclear deposits in the nearby Barents Sea that is to be presented at a youth conference being held in conjunction with the Johannesburg summit. As Ms. Vasilyeva points out, "it's a very personal thing for us, all this."

Emotion, however, is up against some cold, hard facts: Without the smelters, there would be no Monchegorsk or Nikel, and Murmansk would be less than one-third its current size if it weren't for the Northern Fleet. Residents may not like the pollution, but they need jobs.

"We realize we can't stop the plant, because the plant is the city," concedes 20-year-old Oksana Yakimenko, one of a dozen or so young people who make up Monchegorsk's green movement. "We're trying to change mentalities. The Russian mentality is to blame everybody else and not do anything yourself." Finland lies directly to the west of the Kola Peninsula, and the spas and resorts found just across the border are packed almost year-round. Wealthy vacationers come to camp and fish in the summer and to ski in the winter. Theirs is rich nation, and one that takes great care with the environment.

In neighbouring Russia, the standard of living outside the industrial centres plunges visibly. The few hotels are rarely busy (there is no spillover effect from the burgeoning eco-tourist trade so close by) and people survive as best they can. That often means picking wild berries or mushrooms to sell or scavenging scrap metals from abandoned industrial sites.

This cross-border economic gap is the largest of its kind in Europe, and it's reflected in the amount of attention each country gives to environmental problems. Last year, the World Conservation Union measured the human and natural "well-being of nations," ranking Finland second and Russia a distant 65th (but still ahead of most other former Soviet republics).

This kind of embarrassment leads critics to accuse President Putin of sacrificing nature to economic progress, but it's worth noting that his actions are widely popular. The Russian economy is growing faster than most in Europe, and Mr. Putin's approval rating remains sky-high.

"Our ecological problems won't be solved until we're a rich country," Mr. Yablokov concedes. Economists say that moment may be decades away, and in the Russian north, people appear to accept that. No one pays much attention to the radiation metre in downtown Murmansk, and even those willing to speak out understand why.

"In our city and the whole of Russia, people are busy surviving, and those who are not busy surviving are busy drinking," says Alexei Mikhailov, 23, an activist in Monchegorsk. "Ecology and the environment are a long way from people's minds, and you can't blame them for that."

Mr. Mikhailov's parents died of cancer six years ago, just one month apart, and he says that most people he knows are ill somehow. In their hearts, they all know why but say nothing. And even he expects that, like his father and grandfather, he will spend his life working at Severonikel -- and die early because of it.

It's a fatalism echoed across Russia's polluted landmass -- perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in a tiny Tatar community at the foot of the Ural mountains, where the Mayak reactor has created a nuclear wasteland and "everybody is just waiting to die."

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