Grim Reaper cuts swathe through Russia

Helen Womack on a demographic disaster in the making
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The Independent Online
Moscow - One of the most striking images of Soviet propaganda used to be the figure of the "hero mother", her broad bosom bedecked with medals for each of the ten or more children she had borne the Motherland. Even in the days when the Communist state provided relatively generous child allowances, the image was ridiculous, for there were few women outside Central Asia prepared to have large families. In today's Russia, it seems like a joke in bad taste.

Official statistics published this week show that Russia is suffering a catastrophic demographic imbalance, and is losing its population faster than any other industrial country not hit by war. In the first seven months of 1996 alone, Russia - still the biggest country in the world - saw its population drop by 300,000, enough people to fill three cities the size of York.

According to the figures issued by the State Statistical Committee, there are now 147.7 million Russians. Still a lot, you might think. But experts are worried. Sergei Zakharov of Moscow's Centre for Human Demography and Ecology said: "You're talking about a major decline in the workforce and a decline in the number of people to take care of and support the elderly ... The potential consequences are enormous."

Giving its bleak statistics, the committee did not go into any explanations for the latest fall in the Russian population. But the reason is, of course, a low birth rate - lower even than in Western Europe where replacement levels have ceased to be achieved - combined with a high death rate. Figures just published for Moscow show there were 34,356 births in the city from January to July compared with 66,586 deaths, and the picture is more or less the same nationwide.

"There's nothing like it anywhere," said Alexander Gasparishvili of the Moscow State University Centre for Sociological Research. Professor Murray Feshbach, an expert on Russian demographics from Georgetown University, compared the situation to a natural catastrophe. "Nowhere in the peacetime world," he said, "nowhere where there isn't an earthquake, a flood or some other disaster, would you have a situation where the birth rate is half the death rate."

Why is the Grim Reaper cutting such a swathe through post-Communist Russia? Factors include a deadly environment in many areas of the country; a health system that all but collapsed with the drastic drop in state funding; poverty and stress brought on by Russia's wild transition to the free market; the war in Chechnya; a fatty diet; smoking and alcohol abuse on a massive scale.

Men, especially, are dying before their time. By current Russian standards, President Boris Yeltsin, preparing himself for a heart bypass operation, has done well to reach the age of 65. Life expectancy for the average Russian male, which was 65.5 in 1991, the year the Soviet Union disintegrated, is now 58, lower than in many parts of the Third World. And the future for Russian men is not rosy.

A new assessment of the state of the world's health, sponsored by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, concluded earlier this month that people all over the world would be healthier in the next 25 years, with one exception - men in the former Soviet bloc. This was because, while infection would decline, people from former-Communist countries would be vulnerable to "injuries and non-communicable diseases that are the hallmark of an escape from extreme poverty and ignorance". The report meant, among other things, smoking and suicide.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that Russian couples, who are starting to marry later and divorce more readily, are reluctant to bring children into the world. Mr Gasparishvili said: "People are uncertain about tomorrow ... People live badly in Somalia, too, but they don't stop having babies. Education seems to contribute to the despair and hopelessness here."

The average salary is 850,000 roubles (pounds 110) a month, pitifully little for a large family.

Natalia Sokolova earns just over the average - but she has five children to feed. A former dissident, she stands on street corners selling pirated translations of popular Western authors. Her children supplement the family income by skipping school and selling newspapers to motorists in traffic jams.

In Soviet times Natalia, with her five children, would not have qualified for the allowances of a "hero mother", who had to have a brood of at least 10 to receive state help. But in the new capitalist Russia, where the state cannot yet collect taxes, let alone offer welfare, she is at least half a heroine.