August 3, 2008


Russia’s Population Implosion (Sergei Kapitsa, Project Syndicate)

Years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn coined the phrase “preservation of the people,” by which he meant Russia’s cultural survival. Today, it applies to Russia in a far more literal way.

Although I am a physicist, I began to study demography about15 years ago, in the belief that the key global problem was not so much the threat of nuclear annihilation as the dynamics of population growth. It was a grim recognition that Russia faces the opposite problem: a rapid decline in population that threatens every aspect of Russian life. [...]

Solzhenitsyn himself recently suggested that Russia’s national idea should be based on Ivan Petrovich Shuvalov’s proposal to Empress Elizabeth 250 years ago. “Every move, every law should be assessed in terms of whether it helps to preserve the people,” according to Solzhenitsyn. “If not, down with the law.”

Solzhenitsyn’s suggestion is crude, but right in a fundamental sense. Our public thought is fragmented, and the country’s intelligentsia, who are partly responsible for tending to society’s values and goals, are behaving in often-destructive ways. The live-for-the-moment mentality of hedonism and greed that they have encouraged is embodied in Moscow’s casinos, of which there are more than in the rest of Europe – or, for that matter, Las Vegas.

These values – reflected in the way people dress, how they behave in public, and the language they speak – are not the values of human life. A crime subculture is spreading in Russia, and it is attaining the status of official culture. Where the intelligentsia is not directly complicit, its members have, simply by remaining silent, refused to accept the responsibility that accompanies freedom. By contrast, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and other writers in Russia’s great literary tradition fully understood this responsibility.

The current Russian interpretation of freedom is instead characterized by a narrow, individualistic permissiveness that is incompatible with collective tasks. In other words, Russia’s population crisis is one manifestation of a crisis of ideas.

This, of course, raises the broader question of whether declining birthrates, in Russia and elsewhere, imply a crisis of the liberal idea of freedom, with its focus on individual rights?

Odd that there are still folk who think survival of the species is a physical imperative, rather than a spiritual drive.

[originally posted: 2/27/06]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 3:07 PM

First thing the next President should do is offer to buy Siberia. A price that's only slightly less than one year of GDP (i.e., ~$12 Trillion, I believe) would be more than worth it for both us and them...

Posted by: b at February 27, 2006 6:24 PM

offer them $1 and a gurantee it won't go chinese.

Posted by: toe at February 27, 2006 6:53 PM

I see new prisons in the future.

Posted by: Sandy P. at February 27, 2006 8:58 PM


Why Siberia ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 27, 2006 9:26 PM

Give global warming another couple years and Siberia will be nicely temperate and the world's new bread basket.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2006 11:17 PM

Russians tried to sell Kamchatka to the US at the same time as Alaska. Seward wouldn't buy because he knew how controversial the icebox was, but at least that was on North America. The pennisula was home to quite a few American whalers. I remember reading once where even Lenin offerred it a second time, but I'm not so sure as that.

I don't think America has the moxy anymore to expand culturally into a territory like that and make the necessary investments. Nor do I think having a toehold on Eurasia is really a good idea.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 28, 2006 11:19 AM

Michael: The Russians will never, ever be able to take advantage of the resources there. They don't have the money and soon won't have the people. We have both, in surplus. Someone will extract all the oil, minerals, etc., and better us than China. Plus, having a frontier is Good for America. One might even argue that it's necessary.

Posted by: b at February 28, 2006 11:38 AM

Manifest Destiny.

Posted by: ratbert at February 28, 2006 1:29 PM


Well, I agree about the frontier bit, but we don't really need to expand our geographical territories to get all of the resources that we want or need - there're 2 trillion barrels of oil under current American land & sea territories, for instance.

But, at the right price, it might be worth it.
The "right price" is FAR less than $ 12 trillion.
Maybe $ 500 billion, maybe half that.

Chris Durnell:

I think that we do have the moxie, but your point about the dangers of staking a claim in a potential future hot spot is well-taken.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 28, 2006 10:47 PM

If Russia's population is imploding, how come they have all the hot tennis babes?

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at August 4, 2008 8:36 PM
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