Russia’s population crisis is one manifestation of a crisis of ideas, writes Moscow physicist Professor Sergei Kapitsa.
Years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn coined the phrase “preservation of the people”, by which he meant Russia’s cultural survival. Today, it applies to Russia in a far more literal way.
Although I am a physicist, I began to study demography about 15 years ago, in the belief that the key global problem was not so much the threat of nuclear annihilation as the dynamics of population growth.
It was a grim recognition that Russia faces the opposite problem: a rapid decline in population that threatens every aspect of Russian life. Indeed, just in the last 10 years, Russia’s population has dropped by 9.5 million, despite the many thousands of ethnic Russians returning from former Soviet republics.
The birth rate has increased somewhat beginning since 2000, and now stands near 1.5 million a year, but this is 700,000-800,000 below the replacement rate.
Many observers argue that Russians are not having enough children because life is so harsh. But the problem is not so simple. The United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada have all seen declining birth rates, as well. In Spain, the birth rate of 1.07 per woman is even lower than in Russia.
Russia’s uniqueness stems instead from the high rate of early death among males, which is directly attributable to poor diet and high consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and, indirectly, to the stresses caused by the wrenching economic and political changes that began with Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) 20 years ago.
The Soviet demographer Boris Urlanis wrote a famous article entitled “Take Care of the Men”, which caused a sensation when it was published around 25 years ago.
Urlanis’s argument – that men, not women, are the more delicate creatures – is even more relevant now, with family life decaying, half of marriages ending in divorce, and the number of fatherless children rising to record levels.
Here is where the revised meaning of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “preservation of the people” comes in. Solzhenitsyn himself recently suggested that Russia’s national idea should be based on Ivan Petrovich Shuvalov’s proposal to Empress Elizabeth 250 years ago.
“Every move, every law should be assessed in terms of whether it helps to preserve the people,” according to Solzhenitsyn. “If not, then down with the law.” Solzhenitsyn’s suggestion is crude, but right in a fundamental sense.
Our public thought is fragmented, and the country’s intelligentsia, who are partly responsible for tending to society’s values and goals, are behaving in often destructive ways.
The live-for-the-moment mentality of hedonism and greed that they have encouraged is embodied in Moscow’s casinos, of which there are more than in the rest of Europe – or, for that matter, Las Vegas.
These values – reflected in the way people dress, how they behave in public, and the language they speak – are not the values of human life.
A crime subculture is spreading in Russia, and it is attaining the status of official culture. Where the intelligentsia is not directly complicit, its members have, simply by remaining silent, refused to accept the responsibility that accompanies freedom.
By contrast, Solzhenitsyn, Leo Tolstoy and other writers in Russia’s great literary tradition fully understood this responsibility.
The current Russian interpretation of freedom is instead characterised by a narrow, individualistic permissiveness that is incompatible with collective tasks. In other words, Russia’s population crisis is one manifestation of a crisis of ideas.
This, of course, raises the broader question of whether declining birth rates, in Russia and elsewhere, imply a crisis of the liberal idea of freedom, with its focus on individual rights.
Clearly, liberalism may be a contributing factor, if and where it is primitively understood to entail for the individual no countervailing obligations before society.
Clearly, the belief that liberalism is at fault for declining birth rates and dysfunctional families has gained currency in the West.
But I think the crisis is deeper, reflecting a lack of awareness of the paths and goals of human development – an ignorance that cannot be reduced to Western-style democracy or liberal ideas.
For Russia, the issue is simple because the crisis – which has led to more homeless children than after either the 1918-22 Civil War or World War II – is so stark.
“Preservation of the people” requires nothing less than that our men take care of themselves so that they can take proper care of our children.
- Sergei Kapitsa is a professor at the Institute of Physics, Moscow. This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of Project Syndicate.