Vienna, January 19 – Russian babies weigh less and are shorter now than they were at the end of Soviet times, an indication not only of the social and economic difficulties members of that nation have faced over the last two decades but also a development certain to cast a shadow on Russia’s already difficult demographic situation.
According to a new study of the weight and height at birth of 70,000 Russians born in St. Petersburg between 1986 and 2005, demographic historian Boris Mironov tracks what may be one of the most universal physiological measures of the impact of socio-economic change on that population (www.idelo.ru/375/15.html).
He begins his argument by noting that most demographers, including those at the World Health Organization, now say that approximately two-thirds of the explanation for changes in birth weight and birth height is environmental, including during the pregnancy of the mother, rather than entirely genetic as many had assumed earlier.
According to Mironov, male children born at term in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1985-86 had a weight of 3575 grams and a length of 52 centimeters, making them the largest of any group of newborns in Soviet times. (The corresponding figures for girls for this year and others are smaller but precisely track the trends for girls, Mironov adds.)
But over the next five years – the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika – there was a dramatic decline in both the weight – down by 1.9 percent -- and the length – off by 144 grams -- of male newborns there, developments Mironov suggests that “were observed during Leningrad blockade when length fell by 1.9 centimeters (3.7 percent) and weight by 607 grams (17.8 percent).
Between 1991 and 2003, Mironov says, this trend entered a period of “stagnation,” in which these figures sometimes increased and then decreased with no over-all pattern. “Only since 2004,” he notes, have these figures increased but they remain “essentially lower than those of pre-perestroika times.”
Such anthropometric figures are especially useful in assessing the impact of socio-economic change on a population because they “reflect all the actual consumption and thus all incomes,” declared and otherwise, Mironov continues, as well as broader social changes in the standing of women in society and of their attitudes toward children.
What they do not directly reflect but which make the demographic situation even worse are dramatic increases in the number of premature births over this period (up by a factor of two), the number of late births (up by a factor of 4.6), and the number of inborn anomalies at birth (up by a factor of 2.3 between 1985 and 2005).
But what is even more disturbing, Mironov concludes, is that the figures for Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, are almost certainly not as bad as for the Russian Federation as a whole because in most places incomes have fallen further and medical care has gotten significantly more difficult to obtain than in the northern capital.
The same day Mironov posted his findings another researcher posted another data set highlighting Russia’s demographic difficulties. Over the last year, official government reporting shows, the population of six of the seven federal districts has fallen by from almost 7500 in the Far East to almost 239,000 in the Central District (zhanna1984.livejournal.com/13372.html).
The only one of these districts showing an increase was the Southern, which had 17,228 more people at the end of 2008 than at the beginning, the product of dramatic increases in Daghestan (up 30,113) and Chechnya (up 26,812) overwhelming declines in Rostov (down 20,229) and Krasnodar (down 15,836).
The commentator suggests that the reasons for this pattern are not far to seek: Where growth rates are high, “the air is pure, people take walks in the mountains, and they eat healthy food. But the main factor is that the population in these republics is more religious. … And Islam and alcohol are incompatible.”
That is not the case for the historically Orthodox Russians, the researcher continues, and high rates of alcohol consumption are one of the leading causes of a very disturbing pattern: In Russia since 1989, mortality among people under the age of 19 had fallen by half while among those 20 and over, it has increased more than 30 percent.”
Because these trends are now affecting not only on Russia’s draft pool but on the country’s economy and budget, Russian academics and officials are beginning to recognize that “health is an economic category” and have launched a country-wide survey to try to come up with answers (www.regrus.info/anounces/3/665.html).
In Russia today, the decision to talk about such problems in terms of their economic consequences is indeed a healthy development, one that makes it more likely Russian officials will take such issues seriously. But whether even that new seriousness will do more than produce additional disturbing data unfortunately remains very much an open question.