On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his audience during his annual address to the Federal Assembly.  Most of his hour-long speech had gone as expected: He spoke on economics, technological innovation, and the need to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.  Then the former KGB officer shifted tack: “And now for the most important thing.”  After pausing, he asked the audience, “What is the most important thing?”

“Love!” shouted Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, in an apparently staged exchange.

“I want to talk about love, women, children,” Putin agreed.  “I want to talk about the family and about Russia’s most acute problem today—the demographic problem.”

The Russian president went on to outline a three-part program designed to lower mortality rates, attract suitable immigrants from the former Soviet states, and raise birthrates.  He described the Soviet-style birthrate program in some detail, offering state subsidies for prenatal care, cash for mothers, and more state subsidies for childcare in state-run kindergartens.  Women giving birth to a second child would receive a one-time cash bonus of 250,000 rubles—a substantial amount in a country with an average monthly income of less than 10,000 rubles.   Women out of the work force while caring for a newborn (up to 18 months) would be guaranteed 40 percent of their salaries (up to a set ceiling).  The Kremlin, awash in petrodollars, was finally taking the demographic disaster seriously, or so most observers thought.

Russia is literally dying; while birthrates have plummeted, death rates have soared, magnifying the demographic problem exponentially.  According to U.N. statistics, there are 16 deaths and just 10.6 births per 1,000 Russian citizens annually, leading to a catastrophic population decline of somewhere between 700 and 800,000 per year.  If present trends continue, Russia’s population will decline from about 140 million today to around 104 million in 2050, with Russia dropping from the 6th-most-populous country to the 17th.  Birthrates bottomed out in 1999 at 1.17 births per woman and have increased a bit to 1.34 since, but they are still well below the replacement level of 2.1.  Thus, low birthrates are, indeed, a big part of Russia’s demographic decline, and economic incentives, as well as attracting educated Russian-speakers from the “near abroad,” might help the situation somewhat.

Putin, however, barely mentioned the need to decrease mortality rates, which are particularly high among working-age males.  The male life expectancy in Russia now stands at about 59 years, a dismal figure for an industrialized state.  (By comparison, French males have a life expectancy of 74.)  Russian mortality rates are similar to those in African states.

There are several reasons for the high mortality rate: Russians are heavy smokers, have a poor healthcare system (only one third of Russian newborns are healthy), and work under dangerous conditions.  (A quick read of Russian press reporting on industrial accidents tells the story in horrific detail, let alone the all-too-frequent stories of rail crashes, collapsing buildings, and exploding gas pipelines, all part of the collapse of Russia’s infrastructure.)  The poorest Russians live well below the poverty line, struggling daily to survive.  Russians, in general, have a poor diet.  And proverbial Russian fatalism must not be discounted as a factor.  For example, any outsider who has had any extended contact with Russians (particularly Russian men) knows of their propensity for reckless driving.  (According to the World Bank, about 100 Russians per day die in traffic accidents, about twice the rate of other G-8 countries.)  The Russian army has an appalling rate of non-combat-related deaths, even as a guerilla war against Islamic separatists continues in the North Caucasus.  Suicide and murder rates are high, as is drug use and the number of Russians with AIDS; 80 percent of those infected with HIV are under 30.

Putin also failed to mention the one factor that likely contributes most of all to Russia’s abysmal mortality rate among working-age males: alcoholism.  Heavy drinking not only destroys the health of many Russian men but is a contributing factor to the accidents, murders, and suicides that have helped make Russia a demographic black hole.  So far, this high death rate has held off a social-welfare crisis: Many Russian men simply do not live long enough to collect a pension, often literally drinking themselves to death.  According to researchers Daria Khalturina and Andrei Korotayev, 40,000 Russians die of alcohol poisoning each year.  Khalturina and Korotayev estimate that, between 1990 and 2001, alcohol played a role in the deaths of seven million Russians.  Russians consume more hard liquor than any other country in the world, with the majority of the booze being vodka and samogon (Russian moonshine).  The World Health Organization considers a pure alcohol consumption level of eight liters per capita as dangerous.  As of the late 90’s, Russians were consuming in the range of 13 to 14 liters annually.  (A more current estimate is 18 liters!)  It has long been said that “Drink is the joy of the Russians,” but, before 1917, alcohol consumption among Russians was at one third of today’s level.

So why did Putin ignore this elephant in the room?  Russian journalist Yulia Latynina has a plausible answer: Commenting on Putin’s speech, she noted that the Kremlin is currently shelling out billions of rubles for “national projects.”  Apart from the birthrate program, there are efforts to boost pensions, teachers’ salaries, and the pay of other “budget workers,” such as doctors, bureaucrats, and army officers.  In fact, there seems to be a national project for everything—a clever political move by the Kremlin, which is hoping to boost the fortunes of the dominant political party, United Russia, as well as a Putin successor, as elites prepare for the 2007-08 election cycle.  So Putin would not want to do anything as unpopular as embarking on a replay of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign of the 80’s.  “Gorby’s” campaign did have a positive effect, lowering death rates (according to Latynina, the campaign lowered alcohol consumption by 27 percent, while male mortality rates fell by 12 percent), but it also helped to make Gorbachev quite an unpopular figure.  Putin is smart enough to remember that.

Putin is also well aware that one of the bastions of the regime’s support is the ever-growing state bureaucracy.  As Putin’s Kremlin has strengthened the “power vertical,” expanding the state’s reach in the economy and reasserting the prerogatives of the “center” over the regions, the bureaucracy has grown like the proverbial mushrooms after the rain.  According to Russian-press sources, the number of state employees grew by ten percent in 2005 alone.  Even excluding military and security personnel, the total is currently 1.46 million, or about one bureaucrat for every 100 Russians.  Being a bureaucrat, a chinovnik, can be a most rewarding occupation: According to sociologists, the amount of money paid in bribes to state officials has soared under Putin, whose image is that of a law-and-order president.  One of the things those bureaucrats regulate is the production and sale of alcohol—a source of lucrative bribes and kickbacks.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also played a part in the demographic crisis.  In exchange for loyalty to the state, the hierarchs enjoy concessions for importing tobacco and alcohol products on the cheap, reaping profits on the sales of the items that are contributing to the physical destruction of their nominal flock.  And, sadly, the term nominal is appropriate: A 2000 poll on church attendance and religious belief showed that, while 56 percent of Russians called themselves Orthodox Christians, 31 percent said they were atheists.  Only six percent said they go to church more than once per month.  (According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Americans say they attend church at least once per week.)

As Putin made clear in his address, fewer and fewer Russian women are having children.  Those who do rarely have more than one child.  Economic conditions alone cannot explain this.  First, wealthier European states are also experiencing a birth dearth.  Second, Muslims in Russia tend to avoid self-destructive alcoholism and have higher birthrates than ethnic Russians, despite having concentrations in some of the poorest regions of the Russian Federation.  (Latynina reports that the Russian North Caucasian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia have the highest life expectancy of any in the Russian Federation.  At the same time, the republic with the highest birthrate is reportedly Chechnya.)

True, all of the developed nations have birthrates below replacement level, while many Third World countries reproduce at much higher levels.  The areas with lower birthrates in Russia tend to be urbanized.  Life in the North Caucasus is centered on the village.  And the Chechens, Ingush, and other peoples of the region have maintained stronger family and clan ties, which are, in turn, probably related to the more rural and small-town character of the region.  At the same time, Islam, as both a religion and an ideology, has experienced a revival in the North Caucasus and among Russia’s Muslims in general.

Religious faith among other nationalities has never recovered from 70 years of atheist rule.  The lack of religious faith probably helps explain another problem: the prevalence of abortion.

Russian abortion rates are staggering.  By most accounts, there are more abortions than live births in Russia.  In 2004, at least 1.6 million women had abortions (one fifth of them were under the age of 18, and health officials say many abortions go unreported), while about 1.5 million gave birth.  The most common reason given for the stunning number of abortions is that the birth of a second (or even a first) child will push the family (or couple) into poverty.  So, again, economic incentives may help to alleviate some of the problem.  But, as anyone familiar with Soviet and Russian history knows, in the atheist Soviet Union, abortion became the most common means of contraception.  The unbelieving Russian masses were desensitized to the killing of an unborn child, but life under the Soviet dictatorship was always cheap.

Yulia Latynina suggests that ethnic Russians may be facing a spiritual and social crisis.  She relates a story about a 16-year-old Chechen boy who was preparing to leave his village to join the Chechen insurgents.  Fearing death in combat, he insisted on being married first, so that he might leave behind a child to carry on.  While Latynina “deeply respected” the boy’s rationale, she recognized that such thinking is simply no longer possible for most Russians.  The state has destroyed the Russian village and, with it, the family.  “It would be funny,” she writes, for Putin to “appeal to the traditions of the Russian village community, the obshchina,” sinceit no longer exists, like the Roman legions or the Greek polis.”

Latynina speculates that some women in the Russian Federation might follow the “Chechen model” and give birth to and rear children as a matter of course.  Such a mother would defend her child with her life.  There are two other kinds of mothers in Russia, however, whose ranks, she implies, are far more numerous.  Some mothers follow the “Western model” and avoid marriage and family in favor of an “apartment, a car, and work,” not even considering children until they have a “house on Rublyevka (a pricey Moscow area boulevard).”  And others—those to whom Putin’s program would be attractive—are the sort who expect the socialist state to provide for all of their needs.  “I don’t know what kind of mother she will be,” remarked Latynina, “but she will be a good Putin voter.”

Putin, who has close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, said nothing about religious faith or abortion in his Federal Assembly address.  As Latynina put it, Russia’s demographic crisis is “too serious a subject” to manipulate in “electoral games.”