Mourning Mother Russia

By DAVID BROOKS

New york Times

April 28, 2005

Vladimir Putin gave a bizarre speech this week in which he described the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and said that an "epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself."

The sad thing is he is half right.

Most of us are grateful for the fall of communism, but the phrase "epidemic of collapse" is not a bad description of what Russian society is suffering through right now. You can measure that collapse most broadly in the country's phenomenal population decline. According to U.N. projections, Russia's population will plummet from about 146 million in 2000 to about 104 million in 2050. Russia will go from being the 6th-most-populous country in the world to being the 17th.

That population decline has a number of causes. The first is the crisis in the Russian family and the decline in fertility rates. Between 1981 and 2001, marriage rates in Russia dropped by a third, and divorce rates rose by a third, according to Russian government estimates. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out recently in one of the last issues of The Public Interest, Russia now has three divorces for every four marriages, an astounding rate of family breakups.

As the Soviet regime disintegrated, Russian fertility rates fell through the floor, from 2.19 births per woman in 1986-87 to 1.17 in 1999. Birth rates have now recovered somewhat, but they are not even close to replacement levels. According to Eberstadt, Russia currently has about 160 deaths for every 100 births.

The more shocking reason Russia's population is declining is that people are dying younger. Russians are now much less healthy than their grandparents were in 1960. In the past three decades, Russian mortality rates have risen by 40 percent. Russian life expectancies now approximate those in Bangladesh and are below India's.

The health care system is in shambles. The risk of suffering a violent death is nine times as high for Russian men, compared with men in Israel. There's an explosion of heart attacks and strokes, thanks to smoking, increased vodka consumption and other ruinous lifestyle choices. The H.I.V./AIDS epidemic hasn't even been fully factored into the official statistics. According to Russian statistics, a 20-year-old man in 2000 had only a 46 percent chance of reaching age 65. (American 20-year-olds had about an 80 percent chance.)

What we are seeing, in short, is a country with nuclear weapons that is enduring a slow-motion version of the medieval Black Death. Perhaps we should be thankful that the political and economic situation there isn't worse than it is.

For, indeed, the paradox of Russia is that as life has become miserable in many ways, the economy has grown at an impressive clip. We can look back on this and begin to see a pattern that might be called Post-Totalitarian Stress Syndrome.

When totalitarian regimes take control of a country, they destroy the bonds of civic trust and the normal patterns of social cohesion. They rule by fear, and public life becomes brutish. They pervert private and public morality.

When those totalitarian regimes fall, different parts of society recover at different rates. Some enterprising people take advantage of economic recovery, and the result of their efforts is economic growth.

But private morality, the habits of self-control and the social fabric take a lot longer to recover. So you wind up with nations in which high growth rates and lingering military power mask profound social chaos.

This is what we're seeing in Russia. It's probably what we would be seeing in Iraq even if the insurgency were under control. And most frighteningly, it could be what we will be seeing in China for decades to come.

On the surface, China looks much more impressive than Russia. But this is a country that will be living with the consequences of totalitarianism for some time. Thanks to the one-child policy, there will be hundreds of millions of elderly people without families to support them. Thanks to that same policy, and the cultural predilection for boys, there will be tens of millions of surplus single men floating around with no marital prospects, no civilizing influences, nothing to prevent them from assembling into violent criminal bands.

At some point the power-hungry find a way to exploit social misery. At some point internal social chaos has international consequences. Fasten your seat belts. We could be in for a bumpy ride.