Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Withering Away of Russia

In the midst of our problems, it is well to reflect on the even greater problems that are overwhelming our enemies and those who are not exactly friendly toward us. Oil prices below $40 a barrel are devastating Putin's Russia, Chavez's Venezuela, and the Islamic Republic (Iran). In addition, Saudi princes have reportedly lost billions of dollars on their American investments. That has to be bad news for their al Qaeda darlings.

Russia's problems extend far beyond the current budget shortfall, however, and they could not be more fundamental. The nation is simply disappearing. Marx predicted the withering away of the state under communism. Though in fact quite the opposite happened, what has been happening since the 1960s is a withering away of the Russian population ("The Incredible Shrinking People," The Economist, Nov. 29, 2008).

Russia’s demography befits a country at war. The population of 142m is shrinking by 700,000 people a year. By 2050 it could be down to 100m. The death rate is double the average for developed countries. The life expectancy of Russian males, at just 60 years, is one of the lowest in the world. Only half of Russian boys now aged 16 can expect to live to 60, much the same as at the end of the 19th century.

Population decline has obvious implications for economic life.

Russia’s demographic crisis is one of the main constraints on the country’s economy. Although Russia’s population has been ageing, over the past decade the country has enjoyed a “demographic dividend” because the age structure was in its favour. This dividend has now been exhausted and the population of working age will decline by about 1m a year, increasing the social burden on those that remain. Over the next seven years Russia’s labour force will shrink by 8m, and by 2025 it may be 18m-19m down on the present figure of 90m.

Behind the demographic crisis is a health crisis, and behind that is moral and political ruin. During the Cold War, "whereas the West invested heavily in health-care systems and better lifestyles, Russia was putting its financial and human capital into the arms race and industrialisation."

If life expectancy in Russia had improved at the same pace as in the West, the country would have had an extra 14.2m people between 1966 and 2000, adding 10% to the population. The Soviet Union’s spending on health care was less than a quarter of the American figure. The Communist Party elite was well looked after, but ordinary people were less fortunate.

Alcoholism is a particular problem. Russians are literally drinking themselves to death at a staggering rate.

Alexander Nemtsov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, ...estimates that nearly 30% of all male deaths and 17% of female deaths are directly or indirectly caused by excess alcohol consumption and that over 400,000 people a year die needlessly from drink-related causes, ranging from heart disease to accidents, suicides and murders. ...The average Russian gets through 15.2 litres of pure alcohol a year, twice as much as is thought to be compatible with good health. ...Tens of thousands a year die of alcohol poisoning, against a few hundred in America.

This moral and health problem stems from a long history of tyranny and the political culture it has fostered. "Russian history, particularly in the 20th century, has encouraged the view that life is cheap. But there is also a strong self-destructive streak in the national character. Drinking yourself to death is one of the most widely used methods of suicide."

The article also mentions AIDS ("By 1997 the number of cases had grown to 7,000. Now the official figure is over 430,000, the largest in Europe. The real number could be double that, according to the World Health Organisation. ...Some two-thirds are drug-takers, but the epidemic is now spreading to the general public.") and TB ("Last year 24,000 people died of the disease, almost 40 times as many as in America.").

For more details in a previous post, see "President of a Disappearing Russia."

Harold adds:

That's quite a terrible irony David lines out--Marxist theory called for the withering away of the state, but instead created the conditions for the destruction of the society it hijacked. This is a sobering thing to witness--the demise of a modern nation state within such a compressed time frame--and that too, under the aegis of Enlightenment-spawned "Reason", the supposed guarantor of life and light, peace and good will among men, called to their highest rational selves. So much for man on his own, and godless communism. Yet the gathering momentum of atheism in the West continues apace--as if the hellish outcomes of the French Revolution, the many and varied strains of attempted communism across the globe, and Hitler's anti-Jewish, anti Christian, fascist Reich had never happened. Our current crop of geniuses will no doubt succeed where these others have failed. The struggle against the principalities and powers sponsoring this attack on the true, the good , and the beautiful will not end until, as C.S. Lewis phrased it, the Author of the play walks on stage. Until then, we are all witness to tragedy.


Jeremy Roh said...

Dr Innes and Kildow,

One impression I have of Russia is that the country is relatively quiet for its size. By quiet, I mean no active revolutionizing thinkers or reformers in sight.

This week's murder of a Russian lawyer activist Markelov perhaps hints at why such reforms are hard in Russia. Perhaps it also explains why people do not see the bright future in their own country's politics, morality, and economy, thus falling back to drunken unproductive lifestyle.

As a student of the Six Party Talk,
how much effort Russia would put in the future of its extreme eastern part appears less clear and hopeful than ever before. (that is if Russia ever cared so much about its eastern front) Perhaps Russia should mind its own business first.

Thanks for the helpful info and insight,

David C. Innes said...

Thanks for the comment Jeremy. Yes, Old Russia has reassumed Czarist control of its serfs. Its international you might say revolutionary activity is limited to reacquiring imperial control of "the near abroad," viz. Georgia, the Ukraine, i.e. what they see as their rightful inheritance. They see them as runaway slaves.

On the eastern question, consider this passage from the Economist article:

"What makes a shrinking population dangerous for a country that has always defined itself by its external borders is the loss of energy it entails, Mr Vishnevsky argues. The Soviet Union did not just try to exploit the resources of its vast and inhospitable land, it tried to populate it. Now large swathes of land in Siberia and the far east are emptying out as people move to central Russia. The population density in the country’s far east is 1.1 people per square kilometre. On the other side of the border with China it is nearly 140 times that figure. "

Jeremy Roh said...

Dr. Innes,

Where can I find this article you referenced above? A link to the webpage would be helpful for me.
Perhaps I could cite this article in my paper if it is relevant.