Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Currently Failing to Address Russia's High Death Rates

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 4 – In its effort to stem Russia’s demographic decline, Moscow has sought to increase the birthrate by restricting access to abortions and subsidizing women who have more than one child. But it has done little to deal with the other half of this problem: unprecedently high death rates among adults.
According to a survey of Russian demographers published in the current issue of “Russkiy bazar,” mortality among working-age Russians of both sexes is now 4.5 times higher than in the countries of the European Union, and death rates among Russian men aged 25 to 39 are now at the same level they were in 1907.
As one demographic expert noted at a recent meeting, Russia now is the only industrial society in which death rates among adults are so high, and except for some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it is the only state where live expectencies continue to fall (http://www.russian-bazaar.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=11402).
“We are dying,” Sergei Baymukhametov writes, “like in a war. And this is not a metaphor, not a figure of speech used for effect.” Instead, as several Russian specialists have pointed out, “the losses of healthy men [in Russia now] are comparable to the losses of the USSR” in World War II.”
This tragedy raises two inter-related questions: On the one hand, why is this national tragedy taking place? And on the other, why has the Russian government, whose leaders talk so much about addressing the country’s demographic problems, done almost nothing about it?
With regard to the first, there are obvious proximate causes, he suggests, although the deeper underlying ones are difficult to identify. The sad state of the country’s factories and roads, he notes, means that accidents are more likely, and a fatalistic attitude toward life among many Russians often keeps them from avoiding disaster.
In the countryside, where one might expect things to be better, he says, things are even worse. Demographers report that death rates there are 20 percent higher than in the cities. Why? Because of “the complete absence” of medical care and the widespread consumption of moonshine (‘samogon”)..
“The majority of [Russian] villagers,” he points out, “have never had a thorough medical examination” and thus die from diseases that might be treated if caught earlier. And “samogon,” which officials used to fight, is now flowing in most rural areas “like a river,” often leading people in a drunken state to violence and even murder.
That in turn helps to explain why the number of murders in the Russian Federation is now so high – far more than the 30,000 acknowledged by official statistics – and why one demographer recently told the Duma that “Russia [currently] occupies first place in the world in terms of the number of intentional murders.”
Given these social problems, Baytursunov said, it is hardly suprising that there is now “a chain reaction” leading to more aggressiveness and widespread stress,” qualities that not only predispose individual Russians to behave badly toward others but that have the effect of undermining their own health.
In the face of all this, Baymukhametov notes, the Russian government had made getting an abortion more difficult and offered subsidies to women who have several children, in the confident expectation that this will lead to a boost in the birthrate, even though Moscow officials routinely point to a world-wide trend toward smaller familites.
But addressing the problems that lie behind the extraordinarily high death rates among adult Russians – women as well as men – would require massive investment in the country’s economic infrastructure and public health, something the current regime, despite its high oil and gas revenues, does not appear prepared to do.
Unless it does, however, its pro-natalist policies, even if they should unexpectedly prove far more successful than any scholars working in this area believe, Moscow will not solve Russia’s demographic problems. Instead, the regime may soon find that whatever gains it makes in the one area will be more than lost in the other.

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