Rotting Russia

Russia outer face is one of a reemerging, “assertive” power while its inner core is rotting.  That’s what demographer Murray Feshbach argues in his latest comment, “Behind the Bluster, Russia is Collapsing,” in the Washington Post.

Russia’s demographic problem is well known.  Russia’s population declined by 237,800 in 2007, as the number of deaths was greater than the number of births by 477,770.  This was better than in 2006 when the the number of deaths exceeded births by 687,100, but figure remains startling nonetheless.  The main projection most experts cite is that by 2050, Russia’s population will decline by 30%.  Not much for a resurgent power to celebrate there.

The Russian government has taken notice, but in pure campaignist fashion has turned to making June 12, Russia Day, into “sex day” to promote procreation.  Officially called “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia Day,” was the brainchild of Ulyanovsk governor Sergei Morozov to get women to squeeze out a few more for the Motherland.  A variety of incentives are offered to couples who gave birth of this golden day: refrigerators, TV sets, washing machines and also cold hard cash.  According to Yasha Levine, the grand prize was a brand new Russian jeep aptly titled the UAZ-Patriot.

Russia’s efforts to increase births don’t stop at the ridiculous.  There are other practical, though also ineffective, measures being taken to increase the population.  One is an emerging anti-abortion movement.  Americans will be surprised to find that in Russia anti-abortionists don’t reside in the church.  Rather, they are found among the very people and in the very clinics that perform abortions. Nor is the concern about some soul filled zygote or the threshold of life, but about women’s health and population decline.

Still, however noble these efforts my be, the problem as Feshbach outlines is not more breeding as it is keeping the ones you have alive and healthy.  As he rhetorically asks, “So what’s killing the Russians? All the usual suspects — HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, suicides, smoking, traffic accidents — but they occur in alarmingly large numbers, and Moscow has neither the resources nor the will to stem the tide.”

Here is a sample of his startling statistics (these are also statistics he presented at a talk at UCLA last spring, which for any naysayers are not his concoction but are based on Russian government figures and the work of Russian demographers):

Three times as many Russians die from heart-related illnesses as do Americans or Europeans, per each 100,000 people.

Tuberculosis deaths in Russia are about triple the World Health Organization‘s definition of an epidemic, which is based on a new-case rate of 50 cases per 100,000 people.

Average alcohol consumption per capita is double the rate the WHO considers dangerous to one’s health.

About 1 million people in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to WHO estimates.

Using mid-year figures, it’s estimated that 25 percent more new HIV/AIDS cases will be recorded this year than were logged in 2007.

He goes on,

And then there’s tuberculosis — remember tuberculosis? In the United States, with a population of 303 million, 650 people died of the disease in 2007. In Russia, which has a total of 142 million people, an astonishing 24,000 of them died of tuberculosis in 2007. Can it possibly be coincidental that, according to Gennady Onishchenko, the country’s chief public health physician, only 9 percent of Russian TB hospitals meet current hygienic standards, 21 percent lack either hot or cold running water, 11 percent lack a sewer system, and 20 percent have a shortage of TB drugs? Hardly.

TB, the famed disease of the 19th century taking 24,000 lives a year and the reasons for its death touch are inadequate medicines and facilities.  That’s scary indeed.

I have only one quibble with Feshbach.  And it’s not about his figures or the seriousness of the issue.  It’s about his juxtaposing Russia’s recent projecting of its external power with internal decay as if it is some kind of contradiction.  Not so in the least.  It is precisely when a power begins to rot from the inside does it flex its imperial muscle on the outside.  There’s just nothing better, or it seems more ideologically effective, than displacing an internal crisis on to the body of the external Other.

Thanks to frequent SRB commentor Kolya for pointing to the article.