[Paleopsych] Public Interest: Russia, The Sick Man of Europe

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Feb 1 18:33:25 UTC 2005

Russia, The Sick Man of Europe
Winter 2005
By Nicholas Eberstadt

    The Russian Federation today is in the grip of a steadily tightening
    mesh of serious demographic problems, for which the term "crisis" is
    no overstatement. This crisis is altering the realm of the possible
    for the country and its people--continuously, directly, and adversely.
    Russian social conditions, economic potential, military power, and
    international influence are today all subject to negative demographic
    constraints--and these constraints stand only to worsen over the years
    immediately ahead.

    Russia is now at the brink of a steep population decline--a peacetime
    hemorrhage framed by a collapse of the birth rate and a catastrophic
    surge in the death rate. The forces that have shaped this path of
    depopulation and debilitation are powerful ones, and they are by now
    deeply rooted in Russian soil. Altering Russia's demographic
    trajectory would be a formidable task under any circumstances. As yet,
    unfortunately, neither Russia's political leadership nor the voting
    public that sustains it have even begun to face up to the enormous
    magnitude of the country's demographic challenges.

                          Negative population growth

    On New Year's Day 1992--one week after the dissolution of the Soviet
    Union--Russia's population was estimated to be 148.7 million. As of
    mid 2004, according to the Russian State Statistics Committee
    (Goskomstat), the Russian Federation's population was 143.8 million.
    During its first eleven and a half years of post-Communist
    independence, Russia's population had apparently declined by almost
    five million people, or over 3 percent.

    In proportional terms, this was by no means the largest population
    loss recorded during that period. According to estimates and
    projections by the U.N. Bureau of the Census, over a dozen states with
    a million people or more experienced a population decline between mid
    1992 and mid 2004, 11 of these amounting to drops of 3.1 percent or
    more. Unlike some of these drops, however--Bosnia, for example, whose
    population total fell almost 10 percent--Russia's decline could not be
    explained by war or violent upheaval. In other places, population
    decline was due entirely to emigration (Armenia, Kazakhstan), or
    nearly so (Georgia). Russia, by contrast, had absorbed a substantial
    net influx of migrants during those years--a total net addition of
    over 5.5 million newcomers was tabulated between the territory's
    Soviet-era January 1989 census and its October 2002 population count.

    Despite the mitigating impact of immigration, Russia's post-Communist
    population decline was larger in absolute terms than any other
    country's over the past decade. Furthermore, continuing population
    decline--at a decidedly faster tempo--is envisioned for Russia for as
    far as demographers care to project into the future. The only question
    is how steep the downward path will be. The U.S. Census Bureau, for
    example, offers the relatively optimistic projection of a "mere" 14
    million person drop in Russia's population between 2000 and 2025--an
    average net decline of about 560,000 persons a year. The U.N.
    Population Division's (UNPD) "medium variant" projection, by contrast,
    suggests a drop of more than 21 million over that same quarter
    century--about 840,000 persons a year for the period as a whole.

    In the years ahead, Russia's population decline will continue to
    accelerate because the prospective flow of net migration into Russia
    is drying up. The officially tabulated annual levels of immigration
    to, and emigration from, Russia have declined markedly since the early
    1990s-and officially measured net inflows to Russia have likewise
    dropped very significantly. These official numbers reflect the
    swelling, cresting, and spending of the migration wave of ethnic
    Russians from the "near abroad" who resettled to the Russian
    Federation during and immediately after the breakup of the Soviet

    The draw of Russia to the (now smaller) pool of overseas Russians
    appears to have been much diminished, while the allure to foreign
    ethnics of living on Russian soil does not seem to be increasing
    appreciably. Russia's reported economic growth rate in the very first
    years of the twenty-first century has been has been positive, even
    brisk. Nevertheless, according to official figures, the net inflow of
    migration to Russia totaled less than 80,000 in all of 2002, and a
    mere 25,000 in the first seven months of 2003. By the first quarter of
    2004, according to official statistics, the officially tallied surfeit
    of immigrants over emigrants was barely 4,000 persons.

    With in-migration flows thus subsiding, Russia's population must
    mirror, with ever-greater faithfulness, the actual balance of births
    and deaths within the country. And in post-Communist Russia, the
    current disproportion between deaths and births is stark, indeed

    Russia, to be sure, is not the only European country registering more
    deaths than births nowadays--according to the Council of Europe's
    numbers, fully 19 European states currently report "negative natural
    increase." But, in other European settings, the balance is often still
    quite close. For example, in Italy--the poster child in many current
    discussions of a possible "depopulation" of Europe--there are today
    about 103 deaths for every 100 live births. Russia, by contrast,
    currently reports about 160 deaths for every 100 births.

    Examples of extreme surfeits of mortality over natality are, to be
    sure, familiar from human history. But in the past, these were
    witnessed only during times of famine, pestilence, war, or mass
    disaster. As a peacetime phenomenon it is utterly new, and while it is
    not unique to Russia these days--the excess of deaths over births is
    nearly as great today in Belarus, Bulgaria, and Latvia, and even more
    exaggerated in Ukraine--the Russian Federation is perhaps the most
    important example of this post-Communist demographic condition.

    Russia's abrupt and brutal swerve onto the path of depopulation began
    during the final crisis of the Soviet state. Over the two decades
    before Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985 accession to power, Russia's births
    regularly exceeded deaths; natural increase typically ranged from
    700,000 to 1,000,000 during those years. After 1987, however, births
    began to fall sharply, and deaths to rise. Both tendencies were
    further accentuated after the collapse of the USSR. The first full
    year of post-Communist governance for Russia, 1992, also marked the
    shift to negative natural increase for the Russian Federation, with
    200,000 more deaths than births. A decade later, Russia's death total
    was over 50 percent higher than in 1987 (2.3 million vs. 1.5 million),
    while its birth level was over one million lower (1.4 million vs. 2.5
    million). In 1987, Russia recorded a natural increase of 968,000; in
    2002, deaths surpassed births by almost exactly the same magnitude

    This is an extraordinary result, but it is hardly exceptional.
    Tabulated deaths have outnumbered births by 900,000 or more in Russia
    in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002, by nearly 900,000 in 2003, and by over
    420,000 in the first half of 2004. In all, between the eve of 1992 and
    the summer of 2004 the Russian Federation evidently recorded 10
    million more burials than births.

                       Where have all the babies gone?

    Russia's current depopulation bears all the trappings of a
    "demographic shock," reflecting the vast, historic change from Soviet
    totalitarianism to a commercial democracy. Though it might seem
    reasonable to expect that earlier, more "normal" demographic patterns
    would reassert themselves as the reverberations from Russia's
    "transition" subside, there are good reasons to believe that Russia's
    current, seemingly anomalous population trends define a new norm for
    the country. Remarkably low birth rates and terrifyingly high death
    rates can accurately be described as regular, rather than transitory,
    features of the new Russian demographic terrain. A powerful and
    self-reinforcing network of social factors--forces typically resistant
    to rapid or easy emendation--will likely keep fertility low and
    mortality high in the Russian Federation. Until these fundamentals
    change, depopulation and tragically foreshortened lives will be the
    distinguishing features of the Russian population profile.

    Consider Russia's current fertility patterns. In a society with the
    Russian Federation's present survival patterns, women must bear an
    average of about 2.33 children per lifetime to assure population
    stability over successive generations. In the late Soviet era, Russian
    fertility levels were near replacement: The country's total fertility
    rate (TFR) fluctuated near two births per woman from the mid 1960s
    through the mid 1980s. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
    Russian fertility rate likewise collapsed, plummeting from 2.19 births
    per woman in 1986-87 to 1.17 in 1999. Moreover, extreme subreplacement
    fertility is not peculiar to certain regions of Russia today; to the
    contrary, it prevails across almost the entire territorial expanse of
    the Federation.

    Since 2001, there have been some indications of a resurgence of
    fertility in the Russian Federation. For the year 2002, according to
    Goskomstat, the country's total fertility rate has risen to 1.32. And
    for the year 2003, according to Russian Federation President Vladimir
    V. Putin in his 2004 New Year's Day address, an "especially joyous"
    auspice was the absolute increase in births over the previous year.
    According to Goskomstat, Russia's total births rose in 2003 to 1.48
    million-by that report, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
    Birth figures for the first half of 2004, for their part, are 2
    percent higher than for the first half of 2003.

    These signs of improvement raise the question: If Russian fertility
    fell suddenly and sharply with the demise of the Soviet Union, might
    it not also rebound vigorously in an auspicious political and economic
    environment? That possibility cannot be entirely ruled out.
    Demographic science, after all, lacks any robust techniques for
    accurately predicting future fertility patterns. But even supposing an
    improvement in social conditions and an increase in general levels of
    confidence (improvements, it should be pointed out, not entirely
    independent from the demographic trends under discussion here), there
    are a number of factors weighing against a significant upsurge in the
    Russian birthrate--much less a return to earlier, Soviet-era, levels
    of fertility.

    First, Russia's poor and declining overall health patterns extend to
    the area of reproductive health. Notably, involuntary infertility is a
    more significant problem for Russia than for any other Western
    country. And the problem is getting worse, not better. To be sure,
    data on infertility for contemporary Russia are not entirely reliable.
    According to some recent reports, however, 13 percent of Russia's
    married couples of childbearing age are infertile--nearly twice the 7
    percent for the United States in 1995 as reported by the National
    Center for Health Statistics. Other Russian sources point to an even
    greater prevalence of infertility today, with numbers ranging as high
    as 30 percent of all males and females of childbearing age. Whatever
    the true level, medical diagnoses of infertility in Russia are clearly
    on the rise--suggesting that the 13 percent estimate and others of its
    ilk are more than just a statistical fluke.

    With respect more specifically to female infertility, Russia suffers
    today from two pronounced and highly unusual risks. For one thing,
    Russian womanhood has, quite literally, been scarred by the country's
    extraordinary popular reliance on abortion as a primary means of
    contraception--with the abortions in question conducted under the
    less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine. A
    Russian woman nowadays can expect to have more abortions than births
    over the course of her childbearing years. In 1988, at the end of the
    Soviet era, Russian women underwent an officially tabulated 4.6
    million abortions--two for every live birth. In 2002, the country
    officially reported 1.7 million abortions--over 120 for every 100 live

    And the problem of involuntary infertility in Russia today is further
    exacerbated by the current explosive spread of potentially curable
    sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to official figures,
    for example, the incidence of syphilis in 2001 was one hundred times
    higher in Russia than in Germany, and several hundred times higher for
    Russia than a number of other European countries. One recent survey in
    St. Petersburg calculated that 15 percent of the college students
    questioned had at least one sexually transmitted disease. Since
    untreated or inadequately treated STIs can result in sterility the
    potential for inadvertent impediments to childbearing for Russia's
    young men and women due to such infections could be appreciable.

    A second obstacle to an increase in the Russian birthrate is the
    Russian family itself. Russian patterns of family formation have been
    evolving markedly over the past generation--and not in a direction
    conducive to larger families. Simply put, young Russians are now much
    less likely to marry--and ever more likely to divorce if they do.

    Between 1981 and 2001, marriage rates fell by over one third, while
    divorce rates rose by one third. In 2001, Russia recorded three
    divorces for every four new marriages--a breakup ratio even higher
    than Scandinavia's. The human import of these trends can perhaps be
    better understood by thinking in terms of a woman's odds of getting
    married or divorced. In 1990, under Russia's then-prevailing
    nuptiality patterns, marriage was almost universal--and the odds of
    eventually divorcing were about 40 percent. By 1995, the odds of
    getting married were down to 75 percent--while the odds of eventual
    divorce had risen to 50 percent. In just five years a Russian woman's
    odds of forming a lasting marriage dropped from about three in five to
    three in eight. Since then, the odds of having a lasting marriage in
    Russia seem to have declined still further.

    At the same time that Russian marriages were becoming less common--and
    more fragile--the disposition to childbearing outside of marriage was
    increasing. In 1987--the recent high-water mark for Russian
    fertility--about 13 percent of the country's newborns were out of
    wedlock. By 2001, the proportion had more than doubled, to nearly 29
    percent. The overwhelming majority of Russia's newly emerging cohort
    of illegitimate children, it seems, were being raised by single
    mothers. Consensual unions and cohabitation still account for the
    living arrangements of only a tiny fraction of Russia's young adults.

    The rapid decline of the two-parent family in contemporary Russia
    undercuts prospects for substantial increases in national fertility
    levels. Relative to available household resources, all other things
    being equal, raising children in a mother-only family is a much more
    expensive and difficult proposition than in an intact family. It is
    true that fertility rates in Russia are currently 20 to 30 percent
    below those of the Scandinavian countries, even though the level of
    marital commitment in the Nordic countries is low, and the level of
    illegitimacy is high. But unlike the Scandinavian welfare states,
    Russia does not provide generous public benefits to help mothers raise
    their young children--nor could the Russian state afford to do so even
    if it were so inclined.

    The third, and perhaps most important, obstacle to higher Russian
    birthrates is that Russian fertility rates are reflective of larger
    European trends. True, Russia's levels currently list toward the lower
    end of the European spectrum. Even so, they are actually higher than
    for some other post-Communist areas whose "transitions" to democracy
    and free markets look rather more complete--and are scarcely lower
    than the current levels in a number of the established market
    democracies of the European Union. Viewed over a longer horizon,
    Russia's postwar fertility levels and trends look altogether
    "European." Although the precise timing of Russia's fertility decline
    is distinct, Russia has nevertheless clearly followed the same general
    path as Italy, Spain, and Germany.

    From a European perspective, in short, Russia's current levels of
    extremely low fertility would hardly stand out as exceptional. It is
    thus far from obvious that the further suffusion into Russia of
    "European" norms and attitudes about family size (to the extent that
    such attitudes and norms are not already firmly rooted in Russian
    soil) should serve to buoy childbearing in the Russian Federation.
    Quite to the contrary. It is equally possible that an embrace of
    particular aspects of childbearing patterns currently manifest through
    much of the European Union (EU) could actually depress birth rates in
    Russia in coming years. Throughout the EU, for example, the median age
    at marriage for women is the late 20s, while it is still about 22 in
    Russia; Russia's median female age at first birth, correspondingly, is
    distinctly lower than in most EU countries (23 vs. 27 to 29). A shift
    toward these EU patterns of marriage and maternity would have the
    immediate effect of postponing births, and thus probably lowering
    annual fertility further.

                            The grim reaper cometh

    If Russia's low fertility rates are cause enough for concern, its
    mortality rates are scandalously high. Broad segments of the Russian
    populace have suffered a disastrous long-term retrogression in health

    A marked deterioration of public health in an industrialized society
    during peacetime is counterintuitive and highly peculiar. At first
    glance, the very fact that Russia's mortality catastrophe looks so
    anomalous might seem to suggest that the problem should be
    intrinsically remediable--if not positively self-correcting. The
    particulars of Russia's health and mortality woes, however, underscore
    just how difficult it will be to achieve even modest improvements in
    the years immediately ahead--and how vulnerable Russia remains to
    further degradations of public health.

    Over the four-plus decades between 1961-62 and 2003, life expectancy
    at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for males; it also
    declined for females, although just slightly, making for an overall
    drop in life expectancy of nearly three years over this four-decade
    span. Age-standardized mortality rates cast an even grimmer light on
    Russia's continuing health crisis: Between the mid 1960s and the start
    of the twenty-first century, these rates underwent a long and uneven
    rise, climbing by over 15 percent for women and over 40 percent for

    Russia's upswing in mortality was especially concentrated among its
    working-age population, and here the upsurge in death rates was
    utterly breathtaking. Over the three decades between 1970-71 and 2001,
    for example, every female cohort between the ages of 20 and 59
    suffered at least a 30 percent increase in death rates; for men
    between the ages of 40 and 59, the corresponding figures uniformly
    reached, and some cases exceeded, 60 percent.

    What accounted for this peacetime collapse in public health standards?
    To go by Russia's (admittedly less than perfect) cause-of-death
    statistics, nearly all of the increase in mortality rates for men--and
    absolutely all of the increase for women--can be traced to an
    explosion in deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease (CVD--heart
    disease plus strokes) and injuries. Between the mid 1960s and the end
    of the twentieth century, CVD mortality rates in Japan, Western
    Europe, and North America fell sharply. Russia, by contrast, suffered
    an explosion of cardiovascular death over the same period. Between
    1965 and 2001, Russia's age-standardized death rate for CVD surged by
    25 percent for women--and it soared by 65 percent for men. Today,
    CVD-related mortality in Russia is four times higher than in Ireland,
    five times higher than in Germany, and eight times higher than in

    As for mortality attributed to injury--murder, suicide, traffic,
    poisoning, and other violent causes-age-adjusted levels for Russian
    men and women alike more than doubled between 1965 and 2001. Among
    contemporary societies at peace, Russia's level of violent deaths
    places the country practically in a category of its own. For men under
    65 years of age, Russia's death rate from injury and poisoning is
    currently over four times as high as Finland's, the nation with the
    worst rate in the EU. Russia's violent death rate for men under 65 is
    nearly six times as high as Belgium's, over nine times as high as
    Israel's, and over a dozen times that of the United Kingdom. As is
    well known, men are more likely than women to die violent deaths--but
    in a gruesome crossover, these death rates for Russian women are now
    higher than for most western European men.

    Russia's dismal health record can be explained in terms of a
    multiplicity of unfavorable social, behavioral, and policy tendencies:
    pervasive smoking; poor diets; sedentary life styles; increasing
    social atomization and anomie; the special economic stresses of
    Russia's "transition"; the unimpressive capabilities of the Soviet
    medical system and the limited coverage of its successor. At the end
    of the day, however, it is impossible to overlook the deadly
    contribution of the Russian love of vodka.

    From the sixteenth century--when vodka was first introduced to a
    receptive public--up to the present day, Russians have always
    demonstrated a predilection to drink heavy spirits in astonishing
    excess--a fact remarked upon by visiting foreigners for centuries.
    Russia's thirst for hard liquor seems to have reached dizzying new
    heights in the late Soviet era, and then again in the early
    post-Communist era. By 1984, according to some estimates, the per
    capita level of alcohol intake in Russia was roughly three times as
    high as in 1913 (that pre-revolutionary era not exactly being
    remembered as a time of temperance). By the mid 1990s, Russian per
    capita alcohol intake may have even slightly surpassed its previous,
    Communist-era, zenith. In 1994, for example, the estimate of pure
    alcohol consumed by the population aged 15 and older amounted to 18.5
    liters per capita annually--the equivalent of 125 cc. of vodka for
    everyone, every day.

    As it happens, in recent decades variations in alcohol consumption
    seem to track fairly closely with changes in Russian mortality (and
    especially with male mortality)--the former being a leading indicator
    for the latter. Heavy drinking is directly associated with Russia's
    appallingly high risk of deadly injury--and Russia's binge drinking
    habits also seems to be closely associated with death through cardiac

    At the moment, the expert prognosis for Russian mortality in the years
    immediately ahead is pessimistic. The U.N. Population Division, for
    example, estimates the life expectancy for Russian men today to be
    lower than the average for men from the world's "less developed
    regions" (such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America)--and though UNPD
    projections envision improvements for Russia in the coming decades,
    Russia does not reach the level of the less developed regions until
    around 2020. The U.S. Census Bureau, for its part, estimates that life
    expectancy for Russian men over the coming two decades will
    approximate the levels for their counterparts in Bangladesh and
    Pakistan--and will remain steadily below the levels anticipated for

    Yet somber as these readings appear, they may nevertheless prove
    excessively optimistic. The Census Bureau projections for Russian
    mortality, for example, have tended to err on the high side: Where the
    Census Bureau projections in 2002 put Russian male life expectancy for
    2002 at 62.3 years, Goskomstat's actual data for that year turned out
    to be three and a half years lower. And although the UNPD is imagining
    unexceptional improvements in male health levels over the next two
    decades--less than four years' increase between 2000-5 and
    2020-25--there are reasons to think such a goal highly ambitious under
    Russia's current circumstances. The problem, simply put, is that
    today's Russians seem to be less healthy than their parents.
    Consequently, merely managing to re-attain the survival rates reported
    by that earlier generation will take some doing. It is an
    accomplishment that cannot be taken for granted.

    Comparing the mortality schedules of successive birth cohorts in
    Russia places the problem of "negative health momentum" in even
    clearer perspective. In industrialized Western societies in the
    postwar era, younger generations have come routinely to enjoy better
    survival rates than their predecessors. Sometimes these improvements
    have been truly dramatic. In contemporary Japan, for example, men born
    in the early 1950s have, over their life course thus far, experienced
    death rates roughly half as high at any given age as those that were
    recorded for the cohort born 20 years before them. By contrast, there
    has been no improvement in survival schedules for rising birth cohorts
    among the two generations of Russian men born between the late 1920s
    and the late 1980s. Quite the opposite: Over its life course, each
    rising cohort of Russian men seems to be charting out a more dismal
    mortality trajectory than the one traced by its immediate

    The "negative momentum" apparent in Russia's modern-day mortality
    trends makes the objective of broad, sustained improvements in public
    health especially unlikely in the years ahead. And this analysis, it
    is worth noting, has yet to take into account the possibility of
    additional new health troubles on the horizon. Yet such problems are,
    quite plainly, gathering today. Foremost among them may be Russia's
    still-mounting epidemic of HIV/AIDS. As we have already seen, curable
    STIs are now rampant in Russia--and generally speaking, epidemic
    levels of curable STIs seem to serve as a leading indicator for the
    spread of HIV.

    Russian authorities have registered a cumulative total of just under
    300,000 cases of HIV, while the U.N. Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS
    (UNAIDS) estimates that over 800,000 Russians were living with HIV as
    of 2003 (with an upper estimate of 1.4 million). The U.S. National
    Intelligence Council (NIC) suggests that the true number as of 2002
    could have been as high as 2 million. If the UNAIDS central estimate
    were accurate, Russia's adult HIV prevalence rate would be over 2
    percent; by the NIC's 2002 estimates, it could already have been as
    high as 2.5 percent in 2002. The future course of Russia's HIV
    epidemic is likewise clouded in uncertainty. Clearly, though, HIV has
    the potential to cancel any prospective health progress in Russia over
    the coming generation.

    Progress is, of course, to be prayed for--and under the right
    circumstances, some progress may be achieved. But major reductions in
    Russia's awful toll of excess mortality do not look to be in the cards
    any time soon.

                   The tightening demographic straitjacket

    Russia's demographic trends have unambiguously negative implications
    for Russian development and security. The ramifications are manifold
    and far-reaching, some of them complex--but the basic outlines of the
    more important considerations can be briefly and simply adduced.

    Russia's lingering health and mortality crisis promises to be a brake
    on rapid economic development. In the modern era, the wealth of
    nations is represented, increasingly, in human rather than natural
    resources--and the richer the country, the more pronounced the
    tendency for "human capital" to overshadow or replace physical capital
    in the production process. Human health figures importantly in the
    overall composition of human capital, and thus the correspondence
    between human health and economic productivity has been fairly robust.
    In recent years, to judge by U.N. and World Bank data, an additional
    year of male life expectancy at birth has been associated with an
    increment of GNP per capita of about 8 percent.

    The relationship between health and economic productivity, to be sure,
    is multidimensional and simultaneous--improved wealth also makes for
    better health, and does so through a variety of avenues. But it is
    difficult to see how Russia can expect, in some imagined future, to
    maintain a western standard of living if its work force suffers from a
    third-world schedule of survival--or worse.

    Skeptics might argue that health does not seem to be constraining
    Russia's economic progress today--recorded growth rates, after all,
    have been high for the past several years. Perhaps poor health will
    not overly constrain Russian economic development in the years ahead,
    since Russia can earn large dividends from the exploitation and sale
    of its abundant natural resources. But Russia's dependence upon
    extractive industries only emphasizes just how limited the role of
    "human capital" is in Russia's current international trade profile.

    Russia's poor health prospects, furthermore, stand to influence its
    economic potential far into the future. According to year 2000
    survival schedules, for example, a 20-year-old Russian youth had only
    a 46 percent chance of reaching age 65 (compared with a 79 percent
    chance for an American counterpart). That discrepancy will surely
    affect the cost-benefit calculus of investments in education and job
    training--and not to the benefit of Russia's younger generation or its
    overall economic outlook.

    In the short run, the collapse of Russian fertility may have little
    practical (as opposed to psychological) import for daily life or
    affairs of state. If, however, extreme subreplacement fertility
    persists, current and continued childbearing patterns would directly
    shape the Russian future. In some nontrivial respects, it could
    materially limit Russian national options. In the decades immediately
    ahead, for example, Russia looks set to contend with a sharp fall-off
    in the nation's youth population. Between 1975 and 2000, for example,
    the number of young men aged 15 to 24 ranged between 10 million and 13
    million--but by 2025, in current UNPD projections, the total will be
    down to barely 6 million. Those figures would imply a 45 percent
    decrease between 2000 and 2025 in the size of this pivotal population
    group--as compared with a projected 15 percent decline in Russia's
    overall population.

    The military implications of the envisioned disproportionate shrinkage
    of the age group from which the Russian army draws its manpower are
    obvious enough. But there would also be serious economic and social
    reverberations. With fewer young people rising to replace older
    retirees, the question of improving (or perhaps maintaining) the
    average level of skills and qualifications in the economically active
    population would become that much more pressing. And since younger
    people the world over tend to be disposed toward, and associated with,
    innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking, a declining younger
    population could have intangible, but real, consequences.

    In a world of still-growing populations and generally improving health
    conditions, Russia would seem to face an uphill struggle. Between 2000
    and 2025, by UNPD medium variant projections, Russia's share of total
    global population is envisioned as shrinking by a third, from 2.4
    percent to 1.6 percent. Over the same period, improvements in Russia's
    life expectancy are expected to under-perform the global average
    somewhat. Simply to maintain its share of world output, Russia's per
    capita economic growth would have to exceed the world's average by 1.6
    points a year for the quarter century under consideration to
    compensate for relative population decline. To some important extent,
    a country's relative economic potential limits its international
    political influence and its international security. Russia's
    demographic prospects thus establish an obvious challenge for the
    nation over the coming generation. Can it avoid, through compensatory
    economic policies and foreign policy stratagems, the geopolitical
    marginalization to which demographic trends alone would seem to
    consign it?

                         The politics of depopulation

    Russia's political leaders are by no means incognizant of the
    demographic vise gripping their nation. The country's politicians and
    policy makers talk about the nation's population constantly. However,
    Moscow has done almost nothing worth mentioning to reverse the
    demographic catastrophe that has been unfolding on Russian soil over
    the past decade.

    To the extent that Russian policy makers have concerned themselves
    with the country's negative natural increase problem, they have
    focused almost entirely upon the birth rate--and how to raise it. Not
    surprisingly, this pro-natalist impulse has foundered on the shoals of
    finance. In plain terms, serious pro-natalism is an expensive
    business, especially when the potential parents-to-be are educated,
    urbanized women accustomed to careers with paid recompense. To induce
    a serious and sustained increase in childbearing, a government under
    such circumstances must be prepared to get into the business of hiring
    women to be mothers--and this is a proposition that could make the
    funding of a national pension system look like pin money by
    comparison. Consequently, Russia's government has concentrated most of
    its pro-natalist efforts on attempting to "talk the birth rate
    up"--and as a century of experience with such official chatter in
    Western countries will attest, that gambit is almost always utterly

    In 2003, the Russian government began experimenting with another
    variant of "pro-natalism on the cheap": a quiet attempt to restrict
    the previously unconditional availability of abortion on demand. There
    are, of course, ethical reasons for opposition to the promiscuous
    destruction of fetuses. But from a strictly demographic standpoint,
    the dividends derived from a slight and gradual tightening of the
    rules on pregnancy termination are distinctly limited.

    Reducing the number of abortions, after all, does not mechanistically
    increase birth totals. If it did, there should have been a baby-boom
    in post-Communist Russia. (Remember: Russia had about three million
    fewer abortions in 2002 than in 1987--but also about a million fewer
    births.) To the extent that Russia's tentative steps toward the
    regulation of abortion may be seen as a factor boosting the nation's
    fertility, the effect would largely be felt through the eventual
    enhancement of fecundity--which is to say, fewer Russian women would
    be rendered involuntarily sterile through such procedures in the years
    ahead. But in the greater scheme of things, that could hardly be
    described as much of a stimulus.

    While Russian policy circles trained their attention on a literally
    fruitless and largely misdirected effort to revitalize the birth rate,
    they treated the country's catastrophic mortality conditions--upon
    which sustained interventions would have yielded some predictable
    results--with an insouciance verging on indifference. Indeed, Russian
    authorities have adopted a remarkably laissez-faire posture toward the
    calamitous conditions that currently lead to the "excess mortality" of
    something like 400,000 of their citizens each year.

    Russia's devastating cardiovascular epidemic and its carnage from
    violent death might not be immediately controlled or completely
    prevented, but their cost could be at least somewhat contained through
    carefully tailored public policies. Yet government policy makers have
    shown no interest in pursuing such options.

                             Crisis in democracy

    Moscow's feckless approach to its ongoing national health emergency
    would be regarded as a scandal in most foreign quarters. But to
    Western eyes it also constitutes something of a mystery: How is it
    possible that such a manifestly inadequate health regimen is tolerated
    in a still somewhat open and pluralistic political system? The
    proximate explanation for this puzzle is that, until now, no great
    political pressure has been brought to bear for correction or
    adjustment of the government's course--and the absence of such
    articulated pressures reflects in turn a lack of perceived political
    concern by the public at large. Russia may have already lost the
    equivalent of its casualties in two, or more, World War I's through
    premature mortality since 1992. But as yet there has been almost no
    public outcry about this peacetime outrage, and none of the dozens of
    competitive parties in Russia's new electoral environment have seen
    fit to champion the promotion of the nation's health as its own
    political cause. This is more than a health crisis. It constitutes
    nothing less than a fundamental test for Russia's troubled fledgling

    This essay is based on the author's "The Russian Federation at the
    Dawn of the Twenty-First Century," NBR Analysis 15, no. 2 and is
    published with permission of the National Bureau of Asian Research
    Copyright of The Public Interest, Issue #158 (Winter 2005), National
    Affairs, Inc.

    Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at
    the American Enterprise Institute, and is a member of the Publication
    Committee of The Public Interest.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list