Vladimir Putin’s presidential election victory on March 26 was hailed by businessmen both East and West as a new beginning for economic reform in Russia. One German executive praised what he called Putin’s “open, friendly attitude” to investors, while others longed for Putin to become a Russian Pinochet, a strongman who would use an “iron fist to force reform. The “national patriots,” the loose alliance of communists and nationalists who had decried the “anti-people” regime of the Yeltsin years, are in a state of shock. The People’s Patriotic Union has all but dissolved, some of its members having opted to back Putin rather than the coalition’s candidate. Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov. Zyuganov himself campaigned quite cautiously, rarely criticizing Putin personally, appearing satisfied that he had somehow kept the party together. After all, Putin’s actions in Chechnya, his talking back to the West, and his promises of law and order made him a difficult target for the “patriots.” The Russian public sees the confident, even cocky, little man as their best hope for the rebirth of a great Russia.

There are, however, some facts that will likely queer the pitch of any Russian leader with visions of a rebirth of Russian greatness dancing in his head. For instance, there can be no rebirth of a great Russia without the birth of Russians. On March 22, the Russian State Statistics Committee issued a report on the “socioeconomic situation” in the Russian Federation and the situation is not good. In January 2000, there were 195,500 deaths and 93,900 births. (The numbers were 178,200 and 94,500 in January 1999). Thus, the mortality rate was nearly 11 percent higher than one year ago, and the birthrate continues to drop. According to the report, “the natural decrease in population (the number by which deaths exceed births) stood at 103,600 in January 2000, compared to 83,700 in January 1999, which means that this index grew by 23.8%.” Meanwhile, the number of marriages decreased by five percent in the past year (54,300 m January 2000, compared to 57,200 one year ago) and the number of divorces increased by 23 percent (44,400 compared to 36,000). Life expectancy for Russian men has dipped below 60, alcoholism is rampant, and drug abuse is increasing, as is the incidence of suicide and abortion. The army is having difficulty finding enough healthy conscripts to fill its already understaffed units, while the cream of the Russian military is disappearing as casualties mount in Chechnya.

Russia, to make a long story short, looks like an exhausted, aging, sick country, a country which borders both the Muslim world (where birthrates are much higher) and a China of over a billion people, which is just beginning to flex its economic, political, and military muscles. Demographically speaking, Russia is a country in decline, and it appears unlikely, if not impossible, that any leader can hope to man Russian industry (or the Russian army) and realize the “rebirth” of a country whose people are not even reproducing themselves. Meanwhile, Russia’s porous borders are being violated daily by Islamic holy warriors in the south and Chinese migrants in Siberia, as well as hosts of Third World migrants who use Russia as a transit point to the West. All have brought more crime, disease, and instability with them. Without a spiritual and moral awakening—a prospect which even Putin, the “patriots,” and the Orthodox Church barely mention—to renew Russian confidence, there will not be any kind of social, much less economic or military, rebirth in Russia. The decadent West, troubled by many of the same problems, should take note.