October 10, 2004


THE DEVASTATION: Since 1965, life expectancy for Russian men has decreased by nearly six years. And now there is AIDS. (Michael Specter, 2004-10-04, The New Yorker)

In 1991, on the day the Soviet Union was dissolved, Russia’s population stood at a hundred and forty-nine million. Without the huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet republics which followed, the country would have lost nearly a million people each year since then. If Russia is lucky, by 2050 the population will have fallen by only a third, to a hundred million. That is the most optimistic government scenario. More realistic predictions suggest that the number will be closer to seventy-five or eighty million—a little more than half the current population. And none of these figures allow for the impact of aids, which remains, in many ways, unrecognized and unreckoned with. The World Bank has estimated that by 2020 at least five million people will be infected with H.I.V.; a more pessimistic, but equally plausible, figure is fourteen million. Even without aids as a factor, working-age people are starting to disappear. (In the United States, fifteen per cent of men die before they retire; in Russia, nearly fifty per cent die.) By 2015, the number of children under the age of fifteen will have fallen by a quarter. There will be at least five million fewer people in the workforce. The Russian Ministry of Education projects a thirty-per-cent drop in school enrollment. Russian women already bear scarcely more than half the number of children needed to maintain the current population, and the situation will soon get worse. Between 2010 and 2025, the number of women between twenty and twenty-nine—the primary childbearing years—will plummet from eleven and a half million to six million. Unless there is sudden new immigration on a gigantic scale, fertility will fall even from today’s anemic level.

A serious aids epidemic promises to compound each of these problems immensely: of all H.I.V. infections registered in Russia, ninety-nine per cent have been reported in the past five years, and sixty-five per cent in the past three years. Just at the time when the country will begin to reel under the burden of its shrinking labor force and an increasingly disabled population, it will have to find a way to cope with millions of aids patients, too.

The Russian government has recorded two hundred and ninety-two thousand people with H.I.V., but doctors and aids workers estimate that there are at least seven hundred and fifty thousand. Most epidemiologists, including those from the United Nations aids Program and the World Health Organization, believe that there may well be twice that number. Russia’s spotty system of medical accounting makes it impossible to know. People can be treated only in cities where they are “registered” as residents. Official statistics are based on cases—whoever walks through the clinic door. Yet millions of people live illegally in places where they cannot register—in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other big cities—and so they are not counted and therefore cannot be helped.

“You can tell a politician that this country is going to vanish in twenty years if we don’t start dealing with the aids epidemic now, but they don’t listen,’’ Vadim Pokrovsky told me. Pokrovsky is in charge of the Russian Federal aids Center, in Moscow, and for two decades he has been the public face of Russia’s efforts to curtail the epidemic. “They only pay attention when people are dropping dead in the streets. That is going to happen. We can no longer pretend it won’t. It’s just a matter now of how many will die.’’ So far, that message has not sunk in. No senior Kremlin official was willing to discuss aids policies with me, because, as one explained, “we don’t have an aids policy to discuss. There is no plan, no goals, nothing. It’s not even on our radar.”

For most of its history, Russia has defined itself physically: as the biggest country on earth and as the place where Europe and Asia come together. Today, however, a nation’s significance is determined more by people than by land. Twenty-five years ago, the population of Russia was a hundred and forty million, and that of its neighbor Pakistan was eighty million. Within twenty years, that ratio will have reversed itself. If United Nations projections hold true, even Yemen will soon have more people than Russia. The prevailing view, initially, was that Russia’s sharp decline would be brief—a reflection of the chaos and uncertainty confronted in the nineteen-nineties by a new and deeply troubled society. But the trend actually began decades ago. In an era of antibiotics, molecular medicine, and universal literacy, the life of the average Russian man is almost six years shorter today than it was in 1965. Just fifteen years ago, the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower was unquestioned; today, the country is so weak that it is hard to see how it could ever regain that status.

Russia’s desperation seems to be driving the country in exactly the opposite direction. Last month, in the southern town of Beslan, Chechen separatists killed hundreds of children they had taken hostage at a school. Federal troops were given so little support during the siege that they had to borrow bullets from local civilians. The nation responded with shock, but President Vladimir Putin responded cynically: he seized greater power for himself.

More than military or political power, however, more than guns, revolutions, or monarchic decrees, demography is what has often shaped the relationships between countries. It was, after all, an unknown epidemic that wiped out a quarter of the Athenian army and at least as many of its citizens in 430-429 B.C. and helped end Athens’ reign as the capital of the world. Plague and cholera took tens of millions of lives, and played an essential role in creating the balance of power that existed in Europe for centuries. Even the size of China’s population can be attributed in part to its relative distance from epidemics that devastated other countries. The economic future of a sickly nation with a shrinking population cannot be bright. “Russian health statistics are so bad that we have all run them, many times,” Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute who has written widely on Russia’s health crisis, told me. “They never get better. The country just keeps going down—in numbers, in health, and in its possibilities for the future. It seems to get worse every year, and I don’t see even the slightest suggestion that that is going to change. Russia, like Africa, I am very sorry to say, is taking a detour from the rest of humanity as far as progress is measured by improving general health.’’

Its decades of Communist rule have left Russia worse off than the rest of Europe when it comes to the demographic pathologies that plague the secular West, but it's just the canary in the coalmine.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2004 2:28 PM

Beautiful reference to The Police's "Canary in a Coalmine."

Posted by: John Thacker at October 10, 2004 2:55 PM

Robert Heinlein and his wife took a trip to Russia in the early '60s, and did a bit of freelance intelligence work. He did things like count barges on the river and watch traffic on the streets, while his wife had friendly chats with various Russians, including how many kids they had, etc. He concluded that the population of Moscow was far lower than claimed. His account is in the book Expanded Universe.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 10, 2004 3:46 PM

Well, yes. And centuries of tsarist rule had left Russia worse off than even the most backward parts of Eastern Europe before the Bolsheviks took over.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 10, 2004 3:50 PM

Its economy was growing rapidly in the early 20th Century and barring the Communist Revolution would have developed along normal Western political lines.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2004 3:55 PM

Russia is impoverished by centuries of misrule and has more arable land than needed to feed a shrinking population.

Solution: Sell everything between Irkutsk and Vladivostok to the mainland Chinese, while you can still get a pretty trillion or two.

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 10, 2004 6:13 PM

The Chinese begin dwindling soon too.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2004 6:44 PM


Yes, but even when they have shrunk back to one billion, the Chinese will be too numerous for the amount of land they have.

Soil depletion, rising expectations, a more varied diet, and of course the part of Mandchuria that should be theirs but was torn off in WW II.

The Russians sold Alaska, they will sell (part of) Siberia, too.

Incidentally, Walter Russell Meade proposed such a sale to the U.S., but it makes more sense for the Chinese to buy.

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 10, 2004 6:54 PM

Could it be that the core values of the dominant civilization have always had survival value and men disregard them at their peril? Impossible! Those old "family values" were the invention of the evil, ancient "patriarchs" in ages gone by to cement the oppression of women and homosexuals.

You remember those "patriarchs," as in, "Ye holy Patriarchs and Prophets, pray for us."

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 10, 2004 6:55 PM


They've got too much empty land as is, with everyone flocking to the cities.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2004 7:01 PM

If the Russian population is only going to be 75 million in 2050, maybe that's why the Russians haven't done anything with their oil windfall profits to expand their economic base: They don't need to.
Arabia makes oodles of money from oil, and has the ultimate welfare state - I've read that no native Arabian works, unless they want to. However, massive population growth is straining even their vast coffers, and the House of Saud can see a day when their oil profits will no longer provide for all Arabians. It's a problem they're working on, with little success, so far.
In Russia, with the size of the population in freefall, maybe they're convinced that there'll be plenty of oil money to go around during the 21st century, and they may well be right.

It's not just the secular West that's experiencing a demographic shift. The US are a modestly religious nation, and yet, without immigrants, the US' fertility rate would be slightly under replacement level. That doesn't present a robust contrast to Europe.

Lou Gots:

Those old family values certainly cemented the oppression of women.
At least in the US, it's been the freedom of women from oppression that has resulted in a low fertility rate.
Men have lost the ability to force their progeny upon women, and broadly speaking, don't care enough about having kids to learn to sweet-talk women into having them.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 11, 2004 1:31 AM

Eugene is right. The Chinese will do the deal. Part of the reason people leave the land is that there is not enough land to cultivate. Opening more land would help relieve the burden on the cities. Even a shrinking China will be very populous. The other thing is that such a move will enable Russia to consolidate its population West of the urals.

If Putin is as autocratic as everybody says he is, he should impose a religious revival on Russia and make orthodoxy the State Religion.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 11, 2004 1:57 AM

Putin has ratified a bill which essentially permits 4 official religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. All other faiths are limited in their ability to reach into society there.

Michael, according to the World Almanac 2004, the excess of births over deaths in the US(the rate of natural increase) is .57%, significantly above repalcement level. Immigration may be necessary for other reasons but it is not needed to maintain the existing population.

The alcoholism and lack of general hope in society really cost Russia. Supposedly, both of these are changing for the better.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 10:46 AM


That's correct, but is the result of first generation Americans having more kids than the national average.

If you strip out immigrants and first-gen Americans, the remaining women do not have a replacement fertility level, although they're close.

Therefore, if America desires population growth without much changing the current culture, immigration is vital.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 11, 2004 11:23 AM

Still blaming the tsars? Isn't that just a bit, you know, revanchist? Like trying to make up for a lost century?

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 11, 2004 1:57 PM

Tsars, Mongols, Huns . . .

Russians never have a nice day.

There's probably a historical reason why the country with the largest Marxist party never had a Marxist government, but one with the smallest Marxist component did.

The tsar was an autokrat. Nothing essential changed in 1917

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 11, 2004 3:41 PM

Except that he, like his fellow monarchs before him, was evolving towards more liberal governmental structures. Bolshevism set that back seventy years, but did turn out to be just a momentary pause in the normal course of things.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 3:59 PM


That is patently untrue. Nicholas II was moving in precisely the opposite direction from that which tsars had been more or less lumping along since Peter the Great. He was a primitive, retrograde gangster who deserved worse than what happened to him. His only competent minister, Count Sergei Witte, said he was more superstitious, bigoted and ignorant than the lowest peasant in all the Russias.

But I shouldn't hate him that much as he is the reason my mother's family came to America.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 6:32 PM


He wasn't decisive enough to move backwards even if he wanted to. A normal reformist movement could have pushed him forward pretty easily.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 7:33 PM

He was the same Tsar who closed down the Duma which he had been forced to adopt by the local 'normal reformist movement' after he was nearly toppled in 1905. The guy was a moronic psychopath who just didn't have a clue.

His indecision only occured during wartime, when it was most harmful.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 7:53 PM

"nearly toppled" being the point--that's not normal reform.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 8:03 PM

The Bolsheviks only won because the Kerensky government stupidly insisted on continuing the war effort, so I don't know why you're so all-fired up over defending Nicholas II.

The revolution in 1905 occured because Nicholas had been rolling back the reforms that his predecessors, particularly Alexander II, had instituted. Even Nicholas I, who was considered a retrograde figure, was more progressive than the last of the tsars.

Posted by: Bart at October 11, 2004 8:39 PM

Kerensky was undoubtedly preferable to the Bolsheviks, but that's a pretty low bar.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2004 9:48 PM

It's hopeless, Bart. Orrin is psychotic when it comes to the subject of Bolshevism, apparently because they murdered millions of people without bothering to invoke God's grace.

The term 'autokrat,' in Russian constitutional and legal practice prior to the Revolutions had specific meaning, Orrin, and it precluded any movement toward 'reform.'

Until you can show that the doctrine of 'autokrator' was renounced -- which of course you cannot -- all talk of reform or gradual evolution/devolution is just moonshine.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 12, 2004 1:13 PM


All Christian monarchies evolved towards liberal democracy, especially once they developed enough economically to have a vital middle class. Russia was well on its way.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2004 1:31 PM

I don't mind that you call me a Bolshevik, but I'm actually a Constitutionalist.

If the Constitution vests all authority in an autokrat, then the only possible paths of devolution are a grant from the autokrat, which never happened; or a revolution, which did.

Evolution was impossible

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 12, 2004 9:48 PM

He granted the end of autocracy in 1905.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2004 11:49 PM

And then reversed himself, and since there was no non-tsarist forum of legitimacy, he made it stick.

He was never not the autokrat

You need to read your Pobedonotsov

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2004 4:46 PM

Pipes and Solzhenitsyn cover it sufficiently. Reform was slow but inevitable.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2004 4:52 PM

Maybe inevitable. No one can say, as it had never started before the Old Regime disappeared.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2004 11:28 PM

Where'd the Constitution come from?

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2004 8:28 AM