Demographic challenges

   Russia is facing a demographic crisis as the country’s population is declining by at least 700,000 people per year. The phenomenon is particularly acute in the Far North and Russian Far East, but the emergence of “ghost towns” in European Russia is also becoming evident. Domestic and international observers predict a decline from the 2009 estimate of 140 million people to 80–100 million people by 2050. The complex network of demographic challenges includes low birth rate, high mortality rate, high migration rates, and an increasingly aged workforce. The most difficult situation is in Russia’s central and northwestern regions due to a high degree of urbanization, a dramatic fall in living standards (especially in the 1990s), and a greater number of retirees (many Russians who have worked in northern parts of Russia retire to the central and southern parts where the climate is very pleasant). The Pacific Rim and southern regions have enjoyed a more stable demographic situation, with young people outnumbering people of other age groups in the former, and the higher proportion of ethnic minorities, particularly of the Muslim faith, which have traditionally high birth rates, in the latter.
   The current demographic crisis has many causes. Historical factors include those stemming from Joseph Stalin’s purges and losses from combat and invasion during World War II. Another major cause of the crisis is the country’s rapid industrialization and urbanization, which resulted in a destruction of traditional lifestyles that privileged large families needed for agricultural work. Finally, the country’s health care system, with its crumbling infrastructure, is unable to tackle the health issues of the population; the crisis is exacerbated by high levels of alcohol consumption—an estimated one-third of Russian men abuse alcohol—and smoking rates remain some of the highest in the world. More recent factors include the rapid spread of illicit drug use, drug-resistant tuberculosis (caused and spread though Russia’s inadequate incarceration system), and HIV/AIDS, which remains a taboo issue, with heavy social stigma attached to victims of the illness. Environmental degradation and pollution are also increasing mortality rates: pollution in Russian urban centers has increased manifold since 2000 as the amount of traffic in cities has skyrocketed. Life expectancy for males is now at 58.4 years, the lowest in Europe.
   As in Western countries, Russian women tend to have few children and delay pregnancy because of professional fulfillment: the fertility rate is 1.2 children per woman and the average age of maternity is 25 years. High abortion rates (currently 130 abortions per 100 births), partly the result of Russia’s extremely conservative views regarding contraception, also contribute to low levels of fertility. As a result of the partial post-Soviet abandonment of state-sponsored health care, child mortality rates are also on the rise; current annual spending is a paltry $115 per capita. In 2009, the reputable British health journal Lancet blamed rapid privatization and economic shock therapy under Boris Yeltsin for the dramatic drop in life expectancy since Soviet times.
   In 2007, Vladimir Putin, who in his first major address in office identified a shrinking population as the nation’s greatest threat, introduced new measures aimed at improving the demographic situation in the country, including aggressive propaganda in favor of large families in mass media and monetary awards to women having two or more children. However, the government is reluctant to loosen laws regulating adoption and immigration. The government is concerned about an uncontrolled influx of immigrants, particularly from neighboring China and North Korea, as well as Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, in recent years, Moscow has improved its efforts to both stanch emigration and attract ethnic Russians from the near abroad and farther afield. In addition, Russian popular views toward adoption have begun to change from explicitly negative (an extension of the Bolshevik ideals of raising new Soviet citizens collectively) to moderately positive, with more well-off families adopting children from Russian orphanages. This and other improvements on the demographic front are a result of higher living standards and a massive public campaign that is run by the government on all levels.
   See also Far North; Rural life.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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