Monday, January 07, 2008

The Demographic Descent of Russia

“…The forces that have shaped this path of depopulation and debilitation are powerful and by now deeply rooted in Russian soil. Altering this demographic trajectory would be a formidable task under any circumstances. Unfortunately, neither Russia's political leadership nor its voting public have begun to face up to this enormous challenge…
…For example, in Italy--the prime example in many current discussions of a possible depopulation of Europe--there are today about 103 deaths for every one hundred live births. Russia, by contrast, reports more than 170 deaths for every one hundred births….
…Russia's current depopulation bears all the trappings of a "demographic shock," reflecting abrupt and violent changes in the nation's vital rates in the immediate wake of a momentous, system-shattering, historic event. This shock is probably not just a temporary disturbance: there are good reasons to believe that Russia's population trends define a new norm for that country….
…First: Russia's poor and declining overall health patterns extend into the realm of reproductive health, meaning that involuntary infertility is a more significant problem for Russia than for Western countries, and possibly a worsening one. According to some recent reports, 13 percent of Russia's married couples of childbearing age are infertile--nearly twice the figure for the United States in 1995. Other Russian sources point to an even greater prevalence of infertility today. Russian womanhood has been scarred by the country's extraordinary popular reliance upon 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. As one expert (Murray Feshbach) has noted, "approximately 10 to 20 percent of [Russian] women become infertile after abortions, according to numerous reports." Add to this the explosive spread of potentially curable sexually transmitted infections. According to official figures, the incidence of syphilis in 2001 was one hundred times higher in Russia than in Germany. Second: 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. In 2001 Russia recorded three divorces for every four new marriages. Third, and perhaps most important: With the end of the Soviet system, Russia has in some real sense commenced a rejoining with the rest of Europe--and in present-day Europe, Russian fertility rates are by no means aberrant. While Russia's levels tilt toward the lower end of the European spectrum, they are actually higher than for some other post-Communist areas whose "transitions" to democracy and market order look rather more complete (Slovenia, 1.21; Czech Republic, 1.14)--and are comparable to the current levels in a number of the established market democracies of the European Union (Austria, 1.31; Greece, 1.29; Spain, 1.26; Italy, 1.24). Viewed over a longer horizon, Russia's postwar fertility levels and trends look altogether "European." But Russia's death rates do not look European at all. Over the four decades between 1961-1962 and 2002, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for males; it also declined for females, though just slightly. Desperately poor health conditions are distributed with a wretched evenness across the land….
…As for mortality attributed to injury--murder, suicide, traffic, poisoning, and other violent causes--age-adjusted levels for 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 sixty-five, the death rate from injury and poisoning is more than four times that of Finland, the nation with the worst rate in the European Union…
…As for the effect of population decline on daily life and affairs of state: in the decades immediately ahead, Russia seems likely to contend with a sharp falloff in its youth population. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of young men ages fifteen to twenty-four ranged between ten million and thirteen million. By 2025, on current UN projections, the total will be barely six million. Apart from the obvious military implications of this decline, there would be economic and social reverberations. With fewer young people rising to replace the older retirees graduating from the Russian workforce, 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 certain kinds of discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking, a pronounced choking off of younger blood could have real consequences for Russia's social capabilities and economic responsiveness…”

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