Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Population Decline Affecting Russian Society Across the Board

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 11 – The continuing decline in the population of the Russian Federation has reached such “a critical point that it has become impossible for people there and elsewhere not to pay close attention to it,” according to one of Russia’s leading specialists on the sociology of the family.
But most of the discussions focus on the dimensions of this change, Moscow State University’s Ol’ga Lebed’ writes in the latest issue of “Demograficheskiye issledovaniya” rather than the broader consequences of those changes and thus have only limited value for policy makers (
To help remedy this, Lebed’ offers a list of ten major consequences that both the overall decline in the Russian population – now running at over a million a year – and its specific components have for the country. In each case, she provides both specific data and references to evaluations experts both in Russia and abroad have offered.
The depopulation of Russia, Lebed’ writes, began in 1992 but for most of the 1990s, it was obscured by in-migration of ethnic Russians and other Russian-language groups from the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union. But now that influx has ended and the Russian population is projected to decline from 142 million now to perhaps 80 million in 2050.
The first impact of depopulation combined with the influx of culturally distinct immigrants is a change in the national composition of Russia, and that in turn, Lebed’ says not only undermines the cultural face of the country but is likely to lead to the formation of ethnic enclaves and a growth in the number of ethnic conflicts.
The second consequence is the undermining of the self-consciousness of the Russian nation. Unless Moscow comes up with a system to promote assimilation, it is entirely possible that the grandchildren of today’s Russians “if they live in Russia” will do so in a country in which “the titular nationality will no longer be the Russians but for example the Chinese.”
In that event, Lebed’ says, the question will arise as to whether “there will remain a great nation of Russians or whether it will find itself in the position of a national minority, at least with regard to numbers?”
The third consequence, she writes, is the likelihood that without an increase in the birthrate, Russians will find it difficult to preserve their national identity. The country’s villages, the traditional forge of that identity, are dying, and the cities are ever less Russian both demographically and culturally.
Indeed, if current trends continue, she argues, “we will obtain urbanization and globalization with their lonely bachelors, egoistic, many times divorced, and with a one-child way of life” – all of which, she says, will undermine or possibly even destroy Russian national cultural identity.
The fourth consequence of the declining number of residents of Russia is the possibility of the emergence of a threat to the preservation of the territorial integrity of the country. The largest country on earth, Russia ranks 178th overall in terms of population density, a ranking that will almost certainly decline in the coming years.
Not only are there too few people to hold parts of the country should other neighboring states like China ultimately be interested in absorbing them, but there are already “not enough men “for the preservation of the territory of the country and above all of its borders,” again a situation that will grow more serious with time.
The fifth problem is the increasing shortage in the number of working age men and women, a situation that is compounded by the fact that many employers prefer to hire immigrants who will work for less and insist on fewer rights than Russians do. And that pattern in turn means that at least some Russians will be unemployed even with the labor shortage.
The sixth problem is one that ever more experts and government officials are focusing on: over the next 40 years, the number of those in non-working age cohorts relative to the number of workers will increase dramatically, to a point where one worker will have to support three or four non-workers by 2050, Lebed’ says.
That means that there will have to be a significant reduction in social welfare benefits to all groups and significant increases in the taxes paid by those of working age, shifts that will infuriate many groups, spark class conflicts, and thus make social peace far more problematic than it is at present.
The seventh problem arising from the depopulation of Russia, Lebed says, has received less attention but may matter increasingly over time. That is the near certainty that the gender imbalance between men and women will increase even though Russian society has not yet fully recovered from the impact of World War II.
Given that Russian women live about 13 years longer than Russian men, the Moscow sociologist points, there will fewer men available as marriage partners for many cohorts of women, something that will have a negative impact on marriages, lead to an increase in childbirth out of marriage, and other related phenomena.
The eighth problem is somewhat different. Many people in Russia and the West have been confused by Kremlin claims that the country has turned the corner demographically because there were more births last year than earlier, but that is incorrect and obscures what all serious scholars say is the expected “worsening of the demographic situation.”
“The small increase noted at the present time in the absolute number of births is explained not by an increase of the birth rate – that is, not by an increase in the intensity of the births of second, third, and more children in a family – but by an increase in the number of marriages and the accumulation of births, in most cases, of first ones,” she writes.
The ninth problem is one that has so far received little attention but that also will matter increasingly to the nature of Russian society, the Moscow scholar says. That is the fact that with only one child, the probability that a mother will survive her son is 29 percent and that she will survive a daughter is 12 percent.
“Even for mothers of two sons, the risk of losing both [before their own deaths] is not that small – almost nine percent. [Indeed,] only parents of three or more children have sufficiently reliable guarantees from losing all of them.” And as a result, there will be a constant increase in the number of elderly living in homes without any relatives nearby.
And the tenth social problem of depopulation, she writes, is that family relations will be replaced by societal ones as the deifiers of behavior of future generations. That may entail some serious consequences, not all of which have yet been identified or discussed, but many scholars believe that these changes will “undermine the foundations of any society.”
“The family will be replaced by relations resting on friendship, work, various kinds of hobbies and amusements, acquaintances and neighbors, a situation which will create the appearance of success and well-being but to a great extent will not save people from loneliness” or ensure the adequate transmission of cultural values.
Given the scope of these problems, Lebed’ says, “the task of scholars today is not simply to predict social changes but to search for variants or scenarios of the future in which their negative consequences will be eliminated by carefully directed actions.” Russia must do that if it is to overcome the current “institutional crisis of the family and thus preserve itself.”

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