Russia’s Existential Crisis: No Signs Population Drop Will End

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Elderly Russians drink in Siberia.
Elderly Russians drink in Siberia.

Russia is facing a demographic crisis that threatens its very existence.

In the 20 years since the Soviet Union's dissolution, the new Russia has ridden a startling economic trajectory, drastically altering the former communist empire.

But among unexpected developments in post-Soviet Russia, the phenomenon of a declining population has proven most intractable.

Russia is caught in the grip of a devastating and highly anomalous peacetime population crisis, wrote Nicholas Eberstadt, an adviser at the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Washington think tank.

The problems of a falling birth rate and an aging population are familiar to citizens of western Europe and Japan. But Russia's unique straddling of Europe and Asia and a tumultuous history that includes nearly 75 years of communist rule mean explanations for its demographic calamity are anything but simple.

According to demographer Murray Feshbach, who has spent years assessing Russia's population loss, and others, the country could have as few as 72 million inhabitants by 2050. The U.S. population, on the other hand, could increase to as much as 450 million by then.

Contributing factors to Russia's demographic crisis include low fertility rates, aging, decreasing life expectancies for males, rising incidence of heart disease, HIV/AIDS and alcoholism.

Other factors play a role as well. Russia's public health care system has been ravaged since Soviet days, and there has been little public effort to improve it, making a reversal of the population unlikely anytime soon.

Estimates from the Human Mortality Database, maintained by the University of California, Berkeley, put life expectancy at birth in Russia lower in 2009 than it was in 1961 -- an otherwise unheard-of trend in a developed country.

Life expectancy at age 15 for Russians was more than two years below its level of 50 years earlier.

For young Russian men, life expectancy sank by almost four years in just over two generations.

The database further shows that although Russian women fare relatively better than their male compatriots, the mortality rate for working-age Russian females in 2009 was slightly higher than for working-age women in Bolivia, South America's poorest nation. In contrast, 20 years ago, Russia's death rate for working-age women was 45 percent lower than Bolivia's.

The International Business Times spoke with an demographics expert to explore Russia's crisis.

P. H. Liotta is the Thomas Hawkins Johnson visiting scholar at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. His latest book is The Real Population Bomb: Megacities, Global Security and the Map of the Future.

Liotta told IBT that the crisis has become so much a part of the human landscape today that this reality of a vanishing Russia is just taken as a hard reality that Russians must live with.

IBT: What, if anything, has Vladimir Putin's regime done to deal with falling birth rates? Has he discussed the demographic crisis openly?

LIOTTA: When Putin first became president, his first address to the National Assembly [both houses of parliament] zeroed in on Russia's demographic challenge as its greatest national security threat. He has never essentially spoken of it since -- as if the issue is too difficult to speak of, because it may prove too impossible to solve.

IBT: Does Russia now have a negative population growth rate? If so, how did this happen and when did Russia turn the corner?

LIOTTA: The truth of a shrinking Russia is harsh. At the end of World War II, Russia had a population of 100 million, the U.S. 150 million. In 1960, Russia had a population of 120 million. In 2002, Pakistan exceeded Russia's falling population of roughly 145 million. (By contrast, in 2000, the United States' population was 286 million.)

IBT: Do you expect Russia's population to keep declining?

LIOTTA: Yes. We should expect to see between a quarter and as much as a third of Russia's current population simply vanish in the next 35 years -- a loss of more than 30 million people.

Notably, Ukraine's population decline will be worse, where we will definitely see a loss of a third of its population during the same time-frame.

There is another problem Russia has as well. Its population is aging. Russians age 65 or older will comprise 20 percent of the population a decade from now.

IBT: Are life expectancy rates in Russia much lower than in Western Europe?

LIOTTA: Yes, by about a decade. In very rough terms, since life expectancies vary widely by states, life expectancies for western Europe are 77 years, for Russia they 67 years.

IBT: Women in Russia live much longer than men. Why is this? How does this affect birth and growth rates?

LIOTTA: Russian males have put themselves in a death spiral. Though estimates may vary for the average male's life expectancy -- from 54 to 59 years -- the life expectancy for Russian women is 72 years.

It seems a cliché but it's true: Russian males' fondness for vodka and unhealthy lifestyles only fuels the tendency toward lower and lower life expectancies. It is a cruel irony to realize that the life expectancy for a Russian male today is lower than it was during the feudal period under the tsar.

This disparity obviously does affect birth and growth rates. But there are deeper sociological factors and I would prefer to give a more personal answer here, based on direct observation and multiple travels throughout Russia -- especially Siberia.

The family unit  -- mother, father and children -- simply appears to be broken. Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg (and not even frequently there), I never saw the family unit in existence. Mothers were with their children, of course, and often grandparents joined in family celebrations, but I never saw fathers in attendance.

Males were elsewhere -- at bars, strip clubs, casinos, otherwise occupied.

IBT: HIV/AIDS is apparently a huge problem in Russia. Has this emerged due to massive drug abuse? How has this affected the birth rate?

LIOTTA: Aside from Central Asia (which contains several former Soviet republics); Russia has the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS rate in the world. Eighty percent of all those infected are under the age of 30. Moreover, some Russian officials have made the alarmist claim that 50 percent of the Russian population could be HIV-positive by the end of the decade.

To date, less than 5 percent of the cost necessary to combat HIV/AIDs has been spent in the public health care system. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the formation of the independent Soviet states, HIV/AIDS was definitely a low priority.

In addition, Russian medical professionals had almost no training in the recognition and treatment of the viral disease and related illnesses.

While prevailing thought suggests HIV/AIDs is a disease of the homeless and drug abusers, statistics do not bear this out. HIV/AIDS continues to grow throughout the Russian population. This makes the overall picture for Russia's vanishing act all the more frightening.

As many as 2 percent of Russians, for example, are intravenous drug users. Because of repressive controls and a non-supportive health care system, possession of needles and syringes are illegal.

Thus, 40 percent of IVDUs share the needles and syringes they have -- and the disease spreads like wildfire. Twenty-five percent of all IVDUs in Russia are HIV-positive; 80 percent of those infected are under the age of 30.

Another sad reality is that, in Russia, the risk of HIV transmission by blood transfusion still very much exists. While this type of risk may have been all but eliminated in the West, in Russia -- largely due to often-unnecessary blood transfusions -- [the country] had the highest HIV rate for children in Europe.

IBT: Russia has a problem with illegal immigrants from southern parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as Central Asia. Does Moscow allow for legal immigration -- and are there enough immigrants in the nation to prevent a serious decline in the birth rate?

LIOTTA:  The one saving feature, if we could use this term, is that Russia remains a country of positive migration -- taking in more immigrants than émigrés. The simple explanation for this is that the former Soviet Union now comprises 17 different states -- and post-Soviet life has not gone well for many citizens, especially in Central Asia. Russia remains a place to come to.

Russia needs to seriously reform its immigration policy (as do many other nations, including the U.S.). Moscow alone may be officially a city of 10 million residents, but its illegal immigrants account for several million more.

Even allowing for legal immigration, nonetheless, this will not accommodate for nor fill the gap in Russia's negative population growth.

IBT: Throughout the 20th century, Russia suffered horrific losses of life -- from war, starvation, famine and exterminations. Could these precedents have had a long-term negative impact on the population growth rate?

LIOTTA: Russia, in particular, suffered horrific losses coming out of the Second World War. Demographically, her problem resembles the dilemma Europe will face over the coming decades. In Europe, with a replacement fertility rate of 1.75 (where population replacement rate must exceed 2.1), 80 million fewer Europeans will exist over the next decades -- a decline greater than the Black Death of the 14th century.

Russia's problem, nonetheless, is even more complex than that of Europe.

IBT: If Russia's population keeps declining, will it gradually lose its political and military power and become weak and feeble?

LIOTTA: There is an easy, rather chilling, formula to remember what has been going on in Russia for decades: There are three burials for every two births. The combination of HIV/AIDs-infected youth, decreasing life expectancies for males and an overall aging population cumulatively result in a decreasing work force and population. This trend is in the pipeline and cannot be reversed in the short-term -- and will have a significant economic impact by 2020.

One could argue that a Russia with fewer people means a leaner, meaner state, but Russia is literally vanishing in eastern Siberia, making the region quite tempting for China. Too few people without enough immigrants for replacement labor could seriously affect Russia's future power.

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