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Is Russia Dying Out?

Some years ago, the German writer Günther Grass published a novel entitled “Headbirths or The Germans Are Dying Out.” That apocalyptic title now appears to be coming true, but for Russians, not Germans. So severe are Russia’s demographic problems nowadays that I was recently invited to speak on the subject at a session of the Russian Security Council. The past decade hit the bulk of Russia’s population hard. Since 1992 the balance between the birth rate and death rate has been negative, producing a natural depletion of Russia’s population. Indeed, today’s birth rate in Russia is only a half of that necessary to replace the current generation of parents. The major factor at work in creating Russia’s demographic catastrophe is the astronomical death rate among Russian men. Average life expectancy among men nowadays is 60 years, while women live 12 years longer, and 80% of those who die at an able-bodied age are men. In general, if the current death rate persists, only 58% of those now 16 years of age will live to the ripe age of 60. Just imagine: Russia lost approximately 7 million people through this depopulation over the past nine years. Some of these losses were made up, to a degree, by a positive balance in migration – ie, many Russians are returning to their homeland from countries that became independent when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet despite this inward migration, Russia’s population has fallen from 148.3 million in 1992 to only 144.8 million at the beginning of 2001. I do not wish to paint a doomsday scenario, but if current trends continue unabated, Russia may be heading toward self-destruction. Forecasts show that in the first 15 years of the 21st century Russia might lose another 12 million people. According to United Nations calculations, if current trends persist, Russia will have a population of only 55 million by the year 2055. For whom does the bell toll? Judge for yourself. Were these dire predictions to come through, the demographic disaster would have incalculable domestic social and political consequences, including a direct threat to Russian national security and, indeed, to the preservation of Russia as a state. It would also be a phenomenon with wide geopolitical implications, beyond the confines of Russia itself. The demise of Russia as a large country is likely to create instability across Eurasia and pose a threat to world peace. An equally alarming factor is the physical deterioration of Russia’s people – Russians are not only dying off, but are also becoming more unhealthy in almost all aspects. The communists used to talk about Russia’s marching steadily towards a better and brighter future. In fact, each new generation of Russians has a worse health potential than the preceding one. One reason for this is the close link between the health of children and the health of their mothers. Between 1990 and 1997, anemia during pregnancy increased 3.1 times. Today, 40% of future mothers are anemic. Moreover, diseases and ill health are damaging more and more children. Infants’ health weakens during the first year of life, and this deterioration continues, albeit not as fast, throughout the rest of their lives. For example, only about 10-12% of pre-school children are deemed fully healthy. By the time they reach general school, only 8% are in robust health. This falls further to 5% in high school. Russians’ health is also being ravaged by social problems. According to the latest research, a total of 15 million Russian citizens – or 10% of the population – suffer from social diseases such as alcoholism, drug addiction, tuberculosis and HIV. Another 10% of the urban population is struggling to survive at the bottom of the income ladder. The figures for psychic health, moral state, literacy level, and state spending on education also testify to a sharp fall in human potential. But even these averages do not fully reveal the grimmest truths. Because there is a vast gap in conditions among Russia’s regions, the mean does not even begin to expose the dire conditions that exist in some cities and rural areas. Indeed, it is clear that two Russias now coexist simultaneously, and that they are moving ever further from each other. Populations within these Russias lead different lives; they have different shops, are educated in different schools, pursue different priorities. Ten years of economic and political reform have brought many unfavorable consequences to the Russia’s population. Social development programs and liberal economic strategies seemed to benefit only the top 20% of the Russian people. That 20% now has the opportunity to live an active life, to develop, to work effectively, and to satisfy their various requirements. The remaining 80% seem to be invisible; they are remembered only when a certain minimum standard of life required for elementary survival is granted to them by the ruling 20%. Meanwhile, ill mothers bear ill babies and poor families reproduce poverty. Society is being sucked ever deeper into a “social vortex.” It will take generations to get out of that downward spiral, and then only if the state and society make it their priority.