By Oliver Bullough
POLUKARPOVO, Russia (Reuters) – On Moscow’s crowded streets
you would never sense Russia had a population crisis. But go to
Polukarpovo — or thousands of villages like it — and the
emptiness hits you.
As the mobile shop made its twice-weekly visit, the
village’s inhabitants gathered — three pensioners, a young
woman and two boys — on a dirt track lined with boarded-up log
The faint calls of a giant V of geese flying south high
overhead and the rustle of falling leaves barely disturbed the
“There used to be a family in every house, probably 30
families. Now there’s just us. No one helps us. No one pays
attention to us any more,” said Vera Malchanova, 58, wrapped up
against the autumn chill as she came to buy bread.
Villages such as Polukarpovo, which is halfway between
Moscow and St Petersburg, line Russia’s country roads — mute
and rotting witnesses to a population collapse that is eating
out the heart of the world’s biggest country.
In particular, a rising death rate among adult males is
hitting both the pool of army conscripts and the size of the
workforce, forcing a revision of military and economic planning
in decades to come.
A climbing mortality rate will see Russia’s population fall
by some 790,000 — the number of people in Cyprus or South
Dakota — out of 143 million total over the next year.
Many Western nations are seeing declining populations as
well, but the Russian population is falling much faster. It is
driven above all by a high death rate, rather than fewer births
or emigration, said Anatoly Vishnevsky, head of Russia’s Center
of Demography and Human Ecology.
His institute, based in a tower block in southern Moscow,
has a Web site that keeps a running total of Russia’s
population. Refresh www.demoscope.ru every few minutes and you
can watch the population fall in real time.
“One of the main reasons is the high mortality of adult
men,” he told Reuters. “Child mortality is higher than in the
West but the trend is positive. But adult mortality is rising.
And in recent times the level of female mortality has started
rising faster than for men.”
“If you look at how long a 30-year-old man can be expected
to live, there is basically no change since the beginning of
the 20th century.”
Russian consumption of vodka is legendary and alcohol
poisoning killed 39,000 Russians last year. Additionally, it is
seen as a key cause of the 39,000 deaths in traffic accidents,
the 36,000 murders and the 46,000 suicides.
“You have to ask why people drink so much. Here there are
cultural and historical roots, but in general it comes from the
unfortunate social situation,” said Vishnevsky.
“A major difference (between Russia and the West) is death
from external causes — murder, accidents, and so on. These are
healthy people, but often they are drunk and they are not
showing care for their own life.”
Some officials have suggested payments to young mothers and
tighter control on alcohol sales as measures to halt the
crisis, but analysts say their response will necessarily be
limited by ordinary Russians’ opposition to living healthily.
“Above all, of course, we need to think of ensuring social
and economic stability in the country,” said President Vladimir
Putin in an address to the nation last month, in which he
stressed the need to reduce deaths among working-age adults.
“Drunkenness, drugs, deaths at work, traffic accidents, a
health system not being organized the way it should be … all
of this together creates our problems.”
The population collapse must drastically alter military and
economic planning, since the rise in deaths has gone together
with a fall in births as experienced in the rest of Europe.
The number of Russian men of conscription age will fall by
nearly 40 percent to 1.4 million in 20 years.
Forecasters predict Russia’s lengthy borders will have
fewer than a million young men to defend them by 2050 — less
than half those eligible for conscription now.
The work force will peak in the next few years and then
drop by 20 million from the present 85 million by the middle of
Vishnevsky said there was little the government could do
about it because of the lack of pressure for healthy living,
citing the case of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev,
whose attempt to ban alcohol was a major cause of his
“Fighting against drinking and smoking is not happening
here as it is in the West. No politician will do this because
the people will not support such a campaign,” he said.
And in Polukarpovo, the villagers doubted their demoralized
and impoverished neighbors had the resources to drag
themselves up from the general depression on their own.
“When the men do not work, they begin to drink. And when
they drink, they can’t work,” said Boris Andreyev, 60, as he
gloomily watched a kitten playing in the dust of the road.
“That is our younger generation. There it is see, playing
with that leaf,” he said with a sad smile, before tucking his
loaf of bread under his arm and returning to his nine sheep.