The sad, sick, poor and dwindling Russian people


Update 4/5/2016.   I now think that Mark Adomanis was right, that Russia is recovering and that Nick Eberstadt’s, Masha Gessen’s and my own views were out of date.

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.

Source: Nike Eberstadt

Source: Nike Eberstadt

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.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

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.

Source: Mark Adomanis

However, another demographer, Mark Adomanis, said Eberstadt’s and Gessen’s figures are out of date.  During the past 10 years, he wrote, the health and life expectancy of Russians have improved dramatically.  This may explain why polls indicate that Vladimir Putin is the most popular of the world’s elected leader.   I hope for the sake of the Russian people that the hopes Putin has aroused prove better-founded than the hopes of the Khrushchev and Gorbachev eras.

I read somewhere that the degree of happiness reported by people of various nations is closely correlated with literacy, longevity and income per person.  The exceptions are the people of Latin America, who are happier than expected based on their wealth, and the people of former Communist nations in eastern Europe, who are much less happy than expected based on their wealth.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

People who are religious can hope for happiness in the next life.   But materialists, such as the Bolsheviks, promise people a better life for their children and grandchildren.  The difference beween the materialist hope and the religious hope is that the materialist hope can be proven to be bogus.


Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Causes, Implications by Nick Eberstadt for the National Bureau of Asian Research (2010).  This PDF file is 300 pages long, not counting references, but the key points are in the Conclusion, which starts on page 281.

The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books.

Eight Things Masha Gessen Got Wrong About Russian Demography by Mark Adomanis for Forbes.

Russia’s Dying: a Postscript by Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books.

Russian Demography and Useful Idiocy by Mark Adomanis for Forbes.

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