George Will

Nicholas Eberstadt's essay "Drunken Nation" in the current World Affairs quarterly notes that Russia is experiencing "a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation." Previous episodes of depopulation -- 1917-23, 1933-34, 1941-46 -- were the results of civil war, Stalin's war on the "kulaks" and collectivization of agriculture, and World War II, respectively. But today's depopulation is occurring in normal -- for Russia -- social and political circumstances. Normal conditions include a subreplacement fertility rate, sharply declining enrollment rates for primary school pupils, perhaps more than 7 percent of children abandoned by their parents to orphanages or government care or life as "street children." Furthermore, "mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits" -- including poisonously impure home brews -- "is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on." Male life expectancy is lower under Putin than it was a half-century ago under Khrushchev.

Martin Walker of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, writing in The Wilson Quarterly ("The World's New Numbers"), notes that Russia's declining fertility is magnified by "a phenomenon so extreme that it has given rise to an ominous new term -- hypermortality." Because of rampant HIV/AIDS, extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) and alcoholism, and the deteriorating health care system, a U.N. report says "mortality in Russia is three to five times higher for men and twice as high for women" than in other countries at a comparable stage of development. The report, Walker says, "predicts that within little more than a decade the working-age population will be shrinking by up to 1 million people annually." Be that as it may, "Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war."

According to projections by the United Nations Population Division, Russia's population, which was around 143 million four years ago, might be as high as 136 million or as low as 121 million in 2025, and as low as 115 million in 2030.

Marx envisioned the "withering away" of the state under mature communism. Instead, Eberstadt writes, the world may be witnessing the withering away of Russia, where Marxism was supposed to be the future that works. Russia, he writes, "has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history."

"History," he concludes, "offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline." Demography is not by itself destiny, but it is more real than an arms control "process" that merely expresses the liberal hope of taming the world by wrapping it snugly in parchment.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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