It was Winston Churchill, unsure of the role the USSR would play in the Second World War, who declared Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Nearly 70 years later it is as much of a mystery as it ever was.
Take President Vladimir Putin, who can act and sound like an unreconstructed Soviet apparatchik and yet continually surprises Russians and the world with his pronouncements. Delivering his annual State of the Nation Address a month ago (just like President Bush) he defended his campaign against the likes of oil oligarch Mikhael Khodorkovsky and corrupt civil servants with an interesting quotation:
“In the working out of a great national programme which seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some short cut which is harmful to the greater good.”
No, that wasn’t Lenin talking up the Communist revolution, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt talking America out of the great depression in 1934. These were “ fine words”, said Putin, and he wished he had said them first, because they aptly describe his own approach to solving Russia’s stupendous economic and social problems. “At the foundation of [Roosevelt’s] solutions was a clear understanding that the state’s authority should not be based on excessive permissiveness, but on the ability to pass just and fair laws and firmly ensure their enforcement.” George Bush would no doubt agree with that.
Profiteering and corruption are two of the greatest obstacles facing Russia as it strives to build a full democracy and modern economy on the ruins of the Soviet era. Other major problems are separatist movements, the stalemate in Chechnya that drains money and men, and what Putin has called “paralysis of the social sphere”, which includes widespread crime and reckless behaviour endangering life and health.
But there is one problem –- and it is something of a mystery –- that stands out above all the others: a rapid decline in population that threatens every aspect of Russian life. In the last 10 years alone, Russia’s population has dropped by 9.5 million, despite the many thousands of Russians returning from former Soviet republics. The birth rate has fallen as low as 1.17 but edged up to 1.3, and the death rate – almost unheard of in an industrialised country during peacetime – has increased. The net result is that Russia is now losing an average of 700,000 people a year. By 2050 the population (around 145 million in 2002) could have dropped by a third, and by the end of the century it could be halved.
The decline of Russia from superpower to an ageing, under-developed backwater ripe for takeover is not to be contemplated by any patriot, and Putin, who evidently is a patriot, is now confronting the demographic problem head-on. In his recent address he named it “the most acute problem facing our country today”. Neither national security nor economic reform would have any meaning unless the country turned its attention to such basic things as “love, women, children… the family”, he said.
“The economic and social development issues our country faces today are closely interlinked to one simple question: who are we doing this all for?”
That is a question almost any current head of state in the developed world could ask, and for a similar reason, but none of them has –- at least, not precisely like that, acknowledging that love, the family and progress are inextricably linked. Another surprise from Vladimir Vladimirovich.
An appeal to the women
His solutions to the birth dearth are, however, quite similar to those of his European counterparts: maternity payments, childcare benefits, helping mothers to re-enter the workforce. Specifically, Putin is offering women who have a second child a bonus of 250,000 rubles (US$9,200) -– a generous sum in a country where average monthly incomes hover close to $330. He has also ordered monthly child support payments to be doubled – from 700 rubles to 1,500 for a first child and from 1,500 to 3,000 rubles for a second child -– and he wants the Duma to think about what can be done for larger families. In addition he wants orphans placed in families, who will also receive more funding.
Sceptics question how effective these financial incentives will be in boosting Russia’s birth rate. “Children for sale: Would $36,000 convince you to have another kid?” asks columnist Daniel Gross in the on-line magazine Slate, estimating the spending power in Russia of Putin’s baby bonus. It suggests that Russia’s oil profits would be better spent on government-backed cheap mortgages – something the country has already embarked on through its Affordable Housing project.
France and the Scandinavian countries are often cited as success stories for assistance targeting mothers since their parental provisions are the most generous and their fertility is the highest in Europe after Ireland’s. But even in those countries birth rates lag behind replacement level (let alone growth) so that without immigration they face rapid ageing and eventually population decline.
"Take care of the men"
In any case, Russia’s demographic problem has more to do with its men than with the aspirations of women. The wretched health status of the average Russian man is a bigger scandal than the corruption bedevilling the economy. American political economist Nicholas Eberstadt identifies Russia as one of three emerging markets, along with China and India, to face particular problems from ageing -– in Russia’s case mainly because the male population is so unhealthy.
Between 1962-62 and 2003, says Eberstadt, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for men. It also declined for women, though just slightly, making for an overall drop of nearly three years. To put it another way, death rates climbed by over 15 per cent for women and by a shocking 40 per cent for men. The trend among working-age Russians was even worse: “Between 1970-71 and 2003, for example, every female cohort between the ages of 25 and 59 suffered at least a 40 per cent increase in death rates; for men between the ages of 30 and 64, the corresponding figures uniformly exceeded 50 per cent, and in some cases exceeded 80 per cent.” Current life expectancy for men is 60 and for women 74, compared with 76 and 82 in Germany. In Russia today, 30 is the new 40
What is behind this deeply disturbing trend? Moscow academic Sergei Kapitska writing last year said it is “directly attributable to poor diet and high consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and, indirectly, to the stresses caused by the wrenching economic and political changes that began with Gorbachev’s perestroika 20 years ago.”
Yet, as Eberstadt’s figures show, the “men” problem goes back much further. Twenty-five years ago it was identified by Soviet demographer Boris Urlanis in a famous article entitled, “Take Care of the Men”. In it Urlanis argued that men, not women, are the more delicate creatures -– an argument, says Kapitska, “even more relevant now, with family life decaying, half of marriages ending in divorce, and the number of fatherless children rising to record levels.”
In the policy he recently announced, President Putin made lowering the death rate the top priority, ahead of migration and raising births. He mentioned measures to prevent the import and production of bootleg alcohol, and a focus in health care on detection, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease and other common causes of premature death. But, according to Eberstadt, a “negative momentum” in male health that has built over decades will make it very difficult to turn the trend around. The US Census Bureau thinks life expectancy in Russia will lag below India’s, Pakistan’s and even Bangladesh’s through to 2025, he says.
Men’s health impacts on population in another way –- it makes them unattractive as spouses. If a woman cannot find a husband she may risk having one child to rear on her own. But, even with Putin’s baby bonus, she is unlikely to try that twice. This partly explains why in 2004 an estimated 1.6 million Russian women had abortions, while only 1.5 million gave birth.
Freedom with responsibility
All this suggests that taking care of the men is central to resolving the population crisis. But how? Clearly there is more to it than providing access to health care and cracking down on grog smuggling. More to it even than affordable housing or family benefits. What men lack, now that the state paternalism of the Soviet era is gone, is a sense of their vocation as fathers and all the values that go with it.
In Sergei Kapitska’s view, the critical value is responsibility. It is not so much a question of society taking care of the men, he says, as of men taking care of themselves, so they can assume once more their role of protecting the children -– large numbers of whom are homeless as well as fatherless. But men and women alike have been let down by the custodians of values, who have failed in the cultural task Solzhenitsyn described as “ preservation of the people”. On this Kapitska is worth quoting at length:
“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, in 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 an 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 characterised 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.”
He insists, finally, that this crisis, which the West also faces, is not just a crisis of liberalism but something deeper –- “a lack of awareness of the paths and goals of human development”. In other words, we have lost the plot concerning our human vocation and Russia is feeling it more than most.
Love for the family
What Russia needs, evidently, more than entry into the World Trade Organisation or international recognition of the ruble, is another Tolstoy, or Solzhenitsyn -– something that would also find a ready market around the world. In the meantime it wouldn’t hurt to pay more attention to the Russian president, who sketched the outline of a good plot in wrapping up his recent remarks on the demographic question:
“[W]e cannot resolve the problem of the low birth rate without changing the attitudes within our society to families and family values. Academic Likhachev once wrote that ‘love for one’s homeland, for one’s country, starts with love for one’s family’. We need to restore these time-honoured values of love and care for family and home.”
It sounds like something an American president, or the Pope, could have said. In fact Pope Benedict did say something quite similar recently when addressing exactly the same problem, only to “love” he added the need for “faith and hope”. Who knows, but that Vladimir Putin will before long tell the Russians they need all three theological virtues.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet