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Published: 1/16/2001

A disappearing people

Despite the high hopes some Russians had for freedom from the Soviet yoke, it appears that, because of rising mortality rates and a drastic decline in birth rates, the country is committing national suicide.

A New York Times article quotes a woman who has both brains and wit, her own business, an apartment, and a car: “There are no normal men,” she complained. “They've all got an inferiority complex because they can't earn enough money to support a family. All of them live with their mothers. They all earn 1,000, 1,500 rubles a month (roughly $35 to $55). Who would want to bear a child with a man like that?”

At 37, the businesswoman is facing one of life's inevitabilities, the biological clock, which limits a woman's reproductive years. In her town, Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, the marriage rate has plummeted 30 percent, the divorce rate is up 60 percent, and the birthrate is down 40 percent.

That is a mirror of the entire nation. In just 10 years, the birthrate has declined from 13.4 per thousand people to 8.4. Because of the collapse of health care in many areas, the shortage of hospital space, the binge drinking of many people, especially men, the rise of infectious disease, and poverty wages for doctors, Russia is becoming a land with a shrinking, aging population.

The country's population peaked in 1992, and it has lost 3.3 million since then. An expected baby boom failed to materialize. The United Nations projects that Russia's current population of 145 million will sink to 121 million in the next half-century. Population is likely to decline even if the birth rate were to rise sharply in the near future. The economic uncertainties and the decline of Russian families make that unlikely.

Infertility among Russian couples is another problem. One reason for this, some medical authorities believe, is the prevalence of abortion as the main birth-control method. For this, the old Soviet regime bears a good deal of the blame because it opposed contraception, partly for ideological reasons. So women resorted to abortions instead. Excessive use of alcohol and venereal disease also play a role in lower birth rates.

Some observers believe there can eventually be a baby-birth bounce, as there was in this country following the years of the Great Depression. But they also believe Russia must drastically overhaul its health-care system. That may be difficult as long as government officials turn a deaf ear to the pleas of international observers who believe that curbing alcohol abuse holds the key to arresting Russia's population decline. So far the Putin government has lacked the courage to tackle that knotty social problem.



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