Russia’s Demographics Revisited

The LA Times Moscow correspondent Kim Murphy published a lengthy three part story this past weekend titled “The Vanishing Russians.” The series exposes some frightening facts and stories about the state of Russia’s demographic crisis. The explanations for this crisis bounce between a sordid legacy left by the Soviet Union and the current politics of Russia. Still, her ricocheting between past and present is left without structural logic. This is to her credit as well as to her fault. While the human toll of Russia’s demographic crisis can be touched, the very structural nature of role of capitalism as a system is left to run freely roughshod over the bones of its victims without indictment.

This point will be addressed below. First, some summary and discussion of her nevertheless excellent investigative series.

Part one of the series, “A Dying Population” introduces the problem via personal stories and statistics. The demographic crisis in Russia is now well known. Increasing mortality and declining birth rates since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has created a population scissors crisis in the nation of 142 million people. Still the narratives and figures continue to be striking. For example, according to Murphy, abortions outpace births by 100,000 with 10 million Russian women infertile because of botched abortions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost 700,000 people a year. During Soviet times, Russian men’s average life expectancy is 59 years old, with a 48.5 percent chance of them dying between the age of 15 and 60. Finally, according to Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the upper Duma, “if the trend didn’t change, the population would fall to 52 million by 2080.”

Other factors have helped Russia’s population slide. AIDS, illness, alcoholism, drug use, and suicide have all been factors in exacerbating the demographic crisis. The latter, suicide, was an increasing escape from the hardships of the 1990s. Economic collapse, social instability, and of course the harsh dark Russian winters certainly added to people’s propensity to off themselves. Murphy writes,

Russia’s suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on , a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:

I’m going out.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s up or down.
Or who’s holding your hand, an angel or otherwise….
The cold has worn me out.

“People have a lack of hope,” Zavada said in an interview. “That all their efforts are in vain. And also, they have a feeling of eternal emptiness.”

Such narratives read similar to archival documents I’ve read about incidents of suicide from the 1920s.

The increasing gap between deaths and births is only one aspect of the problem. This gap is being aiding by an increasingly corroded health care system. This is the subject of part two, “For the Sick, No Place to Turn.” Not longer with the support of the state, Russian health care is wilting under capitalist reforms. Like most countries, the welfare state has met its death knell. The mantra of privatization is even heard in Russia. As the public system crumbles, those who can afford the emerging private system do so, while those who can’t, must rely on a public system that is losing the competitive war as more would-be state doctors are entering private practice. The logic of the market is draining the public sector of means and minds, and the private grows fat on the corpses of the former. A small present of chocolates, tea, or even blat gets you very far today.

The poor status of Russians’ health is not simply because of alcohol and bad health care; it is also because the widespread environmental damage caused by the Soviet state. Soviet socialism was to make man the ultimate tamer of nature, but nature’s revenge is an indiscriminant litany of effects: cancers, poisoning, birth defects, suffocation, and contamination.

If a crumbling health care system is the second pillar of demographic crisis, the third is migration and higher birthrates among non-Russian populations. Part three, “The Future Looks a Lot More Diverse”, points to an issue that is not just indicative of Russia. Sometimes derisively called “the Empire Strikes Back” in academic parlance, Russia is part of a regional shift as former colonial subjects from all former European empires are now tipping the demographic scales by flooding into the metropole. And like in Britain, France, and Germany, the face of the burgeoning domestic Other is not white or Christian; he/she is dark and Muslim. With political Islam (a term I’ve adopted from Mahmood Mamdani) replacing “communism” and “nationalism” in the discourse of global politics, these Muslims are more and more simply being associated with “terrorist.” Via what Mamdani calls “culture talk,”, the “good” Muslim is eventually eclipsed by the “bad” Muslim. In the end, the political effects of demographic crisis are multifaceted. The population decline of Russians will eventually correspond to a decline in cultural and political influence.

“Demographic trends,” Murphy writes,

suggest that the decrease is likely to continue. Although most experts are skeptical, a former U.S. government expert on Russian nationalities recently predicted that Russia would have a Muslim majority within 30 years.

In addition to its own Muslim population, Russia is home to an estimated 10 million illegal immigrant workers from the largely Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The city of Moscow has swelled to 10.4 million people, and one-fifth of them are Muslims. The Russian capital has the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.

Along Moscow’s wide boulevards, minarets rise next to the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Across the country, there are 8,000 mosques, up from 300 in 1991, when Soviet strictures on religious observance were lifted. Markets more often than not are run by immigrants from Azerbaijan. Construction sites would come to a halt if not for low-paid workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

These developments explain the sharp rise in Russian nationalism, racism, and racial violence in a nutshell.

There are roughly three explanations given to explain the ills that inflict Russian society. The first is derived from an argument in academic and policy circles that Russia is still in a state of “transition.” Suspended somewhere between state socialism and capitalism, this argument says, the ills of “development” are harsh, but necessary. It is the birth pains of Russia entering the globalized world. Under this logic social and economic inequality is acceptable because it will condition the spoiled population to embrace a Protestant work ethic.

The second argument lays the blame solely on Putin. By this logic capital is not the problem; Putin is because he has put breaks on a process of liberalization that so flourished in the 1990s. The usual crimes are listed: the persecution of the oligarchs, especially Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the centralization of power, the transformation of United Russia into a party/state, the revival of Soviet traditions, and political repression. These are crimes for sure, but as a Russian friend recently told me, “I don’t like it when Americans explain Russia’s ills to me. The 1990s were so difficult that I understand why many people choose stability over freedom.”

The third explanation is an extension of the second. Russia’s problem is Russians themselves. They drink too much, don’t work enough, are slavish to power, and are racists as well as other reductionist reasoning. The problems let alone the solutions have no social existence—they reside in genetics itself. Such reasoning only makes Russians defensive toward their Russianness. And rightly so.

The point of the matter is that all three of these explanations are merely mystifications. The first posits what Fredric Jameson calls a “singular modernity”: all roads may seem different, but there is only one road to capitalist modernity, a road where the length and severity of overcoming backwardness is measured according to that of “Western” norms of development. The second shrouds the severe costs of the Soviet Union’s collapse as it does smooth over the tremendous wake which spreads to this day. The third is one facet of the worse forms of neo-Darwinism.

1991 was supposed to bring prosperity. It did to some. But that is the nature of capital. It only ever brings prosperity to some. Given the Third Worldesque nature of capitalism in Russia, where Moscow stands at the center with the gravitational pull of the sun, the ruinous effects of the market are only that much greater. This is not to belie the responsibility of the Soviet Union. If that system worked in the first place, it wouldn’t have collapsed. But to constantly evoke the ghosts of the past masks the realities of the present. The same could be said for placing people like Putin at the apex of Russia’s misery. No doubt, his role is crucial but there is no reason to give him more credit that he deserves. There are some real structural reasons for the crises Murphy explores in her series. She gives attention to some of them.

There is one, however, that remains buried in the human narratives she presents. It is capital and its inherently contradictory nature. Within its very being, as Karl Marx observed, are wondrous powers of creation but those creative qualities are not without wonton destruction. Russia is and will continue to be a reflection of capital’s janus face.