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Russia: what demographic crisis?

Mary Dejevsky
26 September 2006

The demographic crisis has become one of the clichés in discussion about post-Soviet Russia. And it is true that the population is shrinking, wracked by a pernicious combination of alcohol, tobacco and political upheaval. It is also the case that President Vladimir Putin himself, in his "state of the nation" address in May 2006, has identified the decline as the "main issue" facing the country. Most Russians, used to bad news over the centuries, tend to accept the gloomy prognostications with customary fatalism, even as the country's many foreign critics blame what they see as Putin's repressive policies for the population trend.

The official statistics, which echo those of international agencies like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), certainly are pessimistic: some estimates even project a fall in Russia's population from 146 million in 2006 to 80-100 million by 2050.

There is an important distinction to be drawn, however, between short life-expectancy (of Russian males especially) and the low birthrate. The first reflects the appalling illness and accident rate, and this will change only over time. The seeds of today's deathrates were sown over many years, even decades ago, in the prolific alcohol and tobacco consumption and poor diet of the Soviet years. Putin alone cannot be blamed for this.

The second trend, however, the apparent reluctance of Russians to bring children into the world, is no longer true. The historic low of 1.5 million births in 2004 was followed by 1.7 million in 2005, and the first nine months of 2006 have seen a further increase. Official statistics are finally catching up with what has been visible on the streets of Russian cities in the last five years or so: namely, that Russia is experiencing a renaissance - still timid, but evident - of family life.

Mary Dejevsky is a columnist and chief editorial writer for the Independent

Also by Mary Dejevsky in openDemocracy:

“The west gets Putin wrong” (March 2005)

“Kyrgyzstan questions”
(March 2005)

"Germany’s travesty of democracy”
(October 2005)

“Russia’s NGO law” (December 2005)

“The new class society”
(February 2006)

This was already detectable when I returned to Russia in 2001, nine years after working in Moscow as a correspondent. Each time I have returned since, families out enjoying themselves have become a more and more familiar sight - conspicuous because they were so absent in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, you see new parents proudly pushing prams down crowded shopping streets. Cars have sprouted child-seats. For two years now, Moscow's maternity hospitals have been oversubscribed.

This is a complete turnaround from Soviet times. Then, most children were consigned to the care of kindergarten or grandmother; couples often spent their free time separately - by necessity or choice. Even holidays were often taken separately because package trips were provided by the employer. You rarely saw families at leisure together.

True, the demographic outlook for Russia is far from ideal. Putin's heartfelt plea in his May 2006 speech to go forth and multiply is a signal of deep concern at the highest official levels. But with statistical confirmation of a reversal in the sharp drop in the birthrate nationally has come a new theory that both explains the upturn and predicts its continuation.

A pause, not a halt

The essence of this theory is to identify the 1990s as an exceptional period in Russia's modern history. It rejects the view that the decade witnessed an extension of a long-term population decline or the end of Russian childbearing. Rather, it marked the transition from the "Soviet" family model to a pattern more akin to that in the rest of Europe.

In the Soviet Union, couples married early. In the countryside, they were often still in their teens. It was common for students to marry, especially in their final year; in many cases there was a baby already on the way. Marriage to someone with a city registration was one way to avoid being sent to a regional backwater on a two-year postgraduate work assignment, which was the requirement for most state-funded students.

To me, a British exchange student in the Russian provinces in the 1970s, it was soon apparent than any female student not pregnant, betrothed or married before graduation was already considered "on the shelf".

There were other advantages to being married early with a child: a double room in the student hostel (rather than one shared between five) and a small flat or bedsit after graduation. Plentiful kindergarten places meant that a child was less of a burden, even for a single working mother, than in many other countries. But young marriages often ended early, as couples grew apart. Divorce was simple, and there were few assets to divide.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, many of the conditions that had produced this pattern of marriage and childbearing ceased to exist. Money became a more decisive factor; grants and benefits for children were worth much less; kindergarten fees rose, and students could find a job by themselves, rather than go where the state sent them.

Moreover, times were volatile. The precipitate end of the Soviet system meant career paths were no longer secure. Then, just as confidence was returning, came the rouble crash of 1998. Savings were wiped out overnight. Lives were plunged back into uncertainty.

Eight years have elapsed since then, and times are more settled. Many of the temporary symbols of the transition - scruffy street-stalls, currency speculators and impoverished pensioners selling second-hand goods at railway stations - are retreating into memory. And Russians are starting to have children again.

But the pattern is now rather different from the late Soviet era. Marriages are later; the new parents are richer - they know how much it now costs to have a child without a blanket of state aid. There are opportunities for family life: housing is gradually improving, with the proliferation of private houses and flats - many bought on mortgages. New playgrounds, sports centres and family-friendly restaurants - McDonalds included - have sprung up in the main urban centres.

It will take more than this still tentative increase in the birthrate to banish the long-term effects of Soviet deprivation and the social turbulence that followed - including on Russia's economic and security outlook. Russia will still have a smaller population than it might have done, had circumstances been different. But if the new theory (and my own observations) is right, then the much-vaunted demographic crisis will soon need to be talked about in far less apocalyptic terms. Russians are not dying out; they simply paused in their childbearing while the shape of the family caught up with their post-Soviet reality.

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