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Russia's Ticking Time Bomb
Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Bureau of Asian Research has written extensively on Russia and its demographic disaster. Following are a few of his latest thoughts from an essay in the November/December 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. In light of last weekend’s Duma elections, wherein Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party fared poorly, the demographic time bomb is yet another reason why Putin’s return to the presidency next year is not such a sure thing.
“December marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Soviet dictatorship and the beginning of Russia’s postcommunist transition. For Russians, the intervening years have been full of elation and promise but also unexpected trouble and disappointment. Perhaps of all the painful developments in Russian society since the Soviet collapse, the most surprising – and dismaying – is the country’s demographic decline. Over the past two decades, Russia has been caught in the grip of a devastating and highly anomalous peacetime population crisis. The country’s population has been shrinking, its mortality levels are nothing short of catastrophic, and its human resources appear to be dangerously eroding….
“Even in the Soviet years, Russia was less than a paragon of a healthy society. The syndrome of long-term stagnation and then decline in public health, never before seen in an industrialized country, first emerged during the Brezhnev era and continued to dog Russia until the downfall of the communist system. Still, in the late 1980s, the days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, Russian births exceeded deaths by an average of more than 800,000 per year. But the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and then of the Soviet Union itself sent a series of demographic shocks reverberating across the Eastern bloc: virtually every former Warsaw Pact country experienced a sharp drop in births and a spike in deaths, as if beset by a sudden famine, epidemic, or war. Most of these perturbations were temporary – but not in Russia, where they proved to be more extreme and more enduring than in virtually any other former communist state….
“Globally, in the years since World War II, there has been only one more horrific surfeit of deaths over births: in China in 1959-61, as a result of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward.
“As a result of this imbalance, Russia has entered into a process of depopulation….Since 1992, according to official Russian figures, Russia’s population has fallen nearly every year (1993 and 2010 are the exceptions, with the latter experiencing an increase of just 10,000 people). According to these figures, between 1993 and 2010, Russia’s population shrank from 148.6 million to 141.9 million people, a drop of nearly five percent….
“The overall magnitude of Russia’s downward health spiral is catastrophic. According to estimates from the Human Mortality Database, a research consortium, overall life expectancy at birth in Russia was slightly lower in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available) than in 1961, almost half a century earlier. The situation is even worse for Russia’s adult population: in 2009, life expectancy at age 15 for all Russian adults was more than two years below its level in 1959; life expectancy for young men sank by almost four years over those two generations. Put another way, post-Soviet Russia has suffered a cumulative ‘excess mortality’ of more than seven million deaths, meaning that if the country could have simply held on to its Gorbachev-era survival rates over the last two decades, seven million deaths could have been averted. This figure is more than three times the death toll World War I inflicted on imperial Russia….
“In 2009, overall life expectancy at age 15 was estimated to be lower in Russia than in Bangladesh, East Timor, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, and Yemen; even worse, Russia’s adult male life expectancy was estimated to be lower than Sudan’s, Rwanda’s, and even AIDS-ravaged Botswana’s. Although Russian women fare relatively better than Russian men, the mortality rate for Russian women of working age in 2009 was slightly higher than for working-age women in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country; 20 years earlier, Russia’s death rate for working-age women was 45 percent lower than Bolivia’s….
“Understanding why such death rates are so high in an urbanized and literate society during peacetime, however, is another question altogether. Russia’s deadly romance with the vodka bottle certainly has something to do with it; smoking, diet, and poor preventive and curative health care surely exact their toll as well. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2004, daily smokers accounted for a higher fraction of the adult population in Russia – 36 percent – than in any other country in Europe. Yet even given all these factors, Russia’s health levels are worse and its death levels are higher than Western public health models would predict. The brute fact is that no one understands why Russians are as unhealthy as they are: it could very well be related to attitudes, viewpoints, and attendant patterns of behavior that fall under the rubric of ‘mental health.’ Without delving into cultural or psychosocial speculation, however, suffice it to say that Russia lifestyles are extremely hazardous to one’s health – and result in far higher mortality levels than would be expected of a country at such a relatively high income level….
“Russia’s educational system appears to be broken, or at least the country seems unable to derive the expected benefits from it. All around the world, high levels of education generally correspond with better public health, yet Russia bucks this trend: despite boasting a proportion of adults with a postsecondary education that is 30 percentage points higher than the OECD average, Russia nevertheless manages to achieve an overall adult life expectancy that is barely higher than Senegal’s. Part of that problem is that although many Russians go to school, college, and university, that schooling is terribly subpar….
“Family formation trends are a further cause for concern. Between 1987 and 1993, the number of births in Russia dropped precipitously, from 2.5 million to 1.4 million, and it ultimately fell to 1.2 million in 1999, before commencing a turnaround of sorts. In 2010, Russia celebrated 1.79 million births, the highest national total in 20 years. Even so, this total was 25 percent lower than a quarter century earlier and represented a pattern that, if continued, would average out to a long-term fertility level of just over 1.5 births per woman, which is 27 percent below the level required for long-term population stability….
“No less important is domestic migration, especially in terms of the vast expanse of Russia’s Far East, a region of over two million square miles and barely six million inhabitants. One-sixth of the population of this harsh and forbidding territory has moved out since 1989, and the exodus continues. Many Russian analysts and policymakers are worried about what will become of this resource-rich area that adjoins a rising and densely populated China. Some Western scholars, such as Maria Repnikova of the University of Oxford and Harley Balzer of Georgetown University, see great and as yet unexploited opportunities for economic integration between the Russian Far East and its neighbors, especially China. Yet leading Russian demographers have a more dramatic vision: they fear that the region could cease to be part of Russia sometime in the current century, an outcome they see as carrying great geopolitical portent….
“Russia’s monumental demographic and human resource crisis cannot be remedied without a commensurately monumental nationwide effort by the Russians themselves. Such an effort will require a historic change in Russian mentality, both in the halls of power and among the general population. On the bright side, with hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign exchange in its vaults, Russia probably has the means to finance the education and public health campaigns needed for such a transformation….
“And when necessary, foreign policymakers, businesspeople, and officials from nongovernmental organizations should be ready to publicly shame the Russian government for its patent neglect of its people’s well-being. After all, a healthy, robust Russia is not just in the interest of the Russian people; it is in the interest of the rest of the world, too.”