Russia is a nation whose population is declining because of a low birth rate and a high death rate. Its people are poor, sick and unhappy.
Its future is bleak. Its manufacturing industry is falling behind even what it was in Soviet days. Despite a high level of average education, its economic productivity is low. Russia in the coming decade can look forward to a decline in its working-age population and its military-age population.
Such is the conclusion of a study published in 2010 by a demographer named Nick Eberstadt. Its conclusions were highlighted in an article in the New York Review of Books by Masha Gessen.
The weakness of Russia isn’t necessarily good news for the United States, even from the standpoint of geo-politics. The fewer troops that Russia can muster, the more its government will fall back on use of nuclear weapons.
Russia isn’t the only country whose population is declining. The same is true of Germany, Japan and other countries. But these are rich nations with a low death rates, and with the potential to support an aging population.
Nick Eberstadt wrote that this not not the first time the Russian population has declined. Millions of Russians died in the famine and Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Even more millions died in the Second World War. But what has happened during the past 20 or s0 years, he wrote, is almost as devastating to the Russian population as in the 1930s and 1940s.
Based on the death rates in 2006, a Russian man aged 20 had less than one chance in two of living to age 65.
Eberstadt devotes a chapter to figuring out why Russia has such a high death rate for all age groups. Russia has a serious alcohol problem. Vodka is cheaper per liter than milk. Russian men, although not Russian women, are heavy cigarette smokers. Russia suffers from serious environmental problems.
But none of these, according to Eberstadt, explain its high death rate. The main killers of Russians are cardiovascular disease and death by injury.
Eberstadt pointed out that Russia lacks “social capital”. By this, he means that surveys indicate that Russians, compared to other peoples, feel distrustful, feel they don’t control their lives, and feel unhappy. Russians don’t belong to clubs, associations or sports teams.
There is a book, Bowling Alone, about how Americans don’t join associations, such as bowling teams, as much as they once did. By Eberstadt’s account, Russia is the extreme of a “bowling alone” nation.
The relevance is that mental health and physical health are connected. I remember reading once about a town in Pennsylvania where the people had poor health habits, but were extremely long-lived. People who studied the town thought that it was because the people had such warm family and neighborly relationships, and didn’t make themselves unhappy through stress and anxiety.
Eberstadt’s idea is that the reverse may be true of Russia. They have high rates of cardiovascular disease because they literally have broken hearts.