The Disappearing Russian Family


Is there any nation as contrary in its demographics as Russia? While the world’s population police obsess about the ongoing “explosion” of the human species, Russia is on a depopulation slide and in danger of imploding. Again, while the world’s conscience is stirred by Asia’s 163 million missing females, Russia has a gender deficit of 10 million men. And, while “family planning” nearly everywhere else means preventing births at all costs, in Russia it now means reminding people to have a child or three.

The awful truth behind these Russian trends is confirmed by provisional figures from the country’s 2010 census. The population has declined from 145 million in 2002 to just under 143 million — less than half the population of its rival superpower, the United States (322 million), and far behind the rising powers of China and India to the east and south. If it were not for growth in immigration from former Soviet republics, the figure would be even worse.

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Basically, there are more Russian deaths than births. For a developed country, life expectancy is shockingly low, with an average of 66 years — 73 for women and around 60 for men, compared with 77 in the US and 80 in Japan. There is a lot that could be said about Russia’s “man problem” but it seems to be both a cause and an effect of the decay of the family that started in the Soviet era. Russia’s 700,000 orphans bear witness to that, along with high rates of divorce that have given way during the last two decades to low marriage rates and increasing levels of cohabitation. The latter trends, together with political and economic uncertainty, have further discouraged childbearing.

The net result is that Russians are not reproducing themselves. The total fertility rate has been below 1.2 children per woman but has risen to 1.4 — not far behind Europe’s, but still far short of “replacement”. Of the children that are conceived, a shocking number are aborted: official figures for 2008 put the number of births at 1.7 million and abortions at 1.2 million, but some say the true figure for abortions may be as high as 4 million a year. Some 10 to 15 per cent of abortions have complications, leaving at least 7 to 8 per cent of women sterile, which, ironically, has opened the way for surrogacy entrepreneurs.

Ideas for reversing these dismal statistics have not been lacking, and they range from the bizarre through the draconian to the highly creative. Bizarre: In 2002 ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposed introducing polygamy, with men being allowed up to five wives. This was actually debated in the Duma. Draconian: In 2006 a senior politician suggested reintroducing a Stalinist era “bachelor tax” — also known as a childlessness tax and also applying to some women — which was credited with keeping the birthrate at replacement level. “If you do not want to think about your social duty to your fatherland then you will have to pay for it,” warned Nikolai Gerasimenko, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee for Health Protection.

In the creative corner there was the Year of the Family in 2008, with July 7 nominated a Day of Family, Love and Fidelity — a new national holiday. For at least part of the year there was a ban on abortion propaganda in the media and even, in the Black Sea city of Novorossiysk, a “week without abortion” timed to coincide with the Russian Day of Motherhood on the last Sunday of November. During this pro-life lull the city provided open days in which psychologists and gynaecologists gave encouraging talks about motherhood, and universities screened films demonstrating the detrimental effects of abortion. (We wish…)

Novorossiysk also led the field with the somewhat crude instrument of a day devoted to “child making”, the city administration ordering that people be let off work early for the purpose of going home to boost the population. In the city of Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, this day was timed patriotically to be exactly nine months before the Day of Russia.

Another encouraging sign is the slow march of “children’s villages” across the country — the sixth is under construction — providing group foster home care to the country’s abandoned children as an alternative to its dismal orphanages.

Earlier this month a draft law to restrict abortion was debated in the Duma, a sign of a growing opinion against this inhuman and socially damaging “solution” to underlying problems — opinion which the President’s wife, Svetlana Medvedva, apparently shares. In a forum last year, according to the New York Times, she made references to the “rights of a child to life” and about economic and social pressures that drove women to abortion. “The state must help women keep their babies,” she said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been vocal about the demographic problem and the need for financial compensation for women. As president in 2007 he introduced a maternity allowance of 250,000 roubles (about $10,000) to encourage women to have a second child. Current president Dimitry Medvedev has promised to make another existing birth incentive, non-cash “maternity capital”, available this year to pay home mortgages. Although fertility has risen somewhat over the past decade it is not clear whether these schemes have had much influence on the birth rate.

It has to be said, though, that Russia is only doing what the rest of the developed world has done — going through what is euphemistically called “the second demographic transition” — although in the worst possible circumstances: with a Soviet hangover seen in the rejection of family responsibility (Papa Stalin/Big Brother would look after everything if you just toed the line) and in the demoralisation of men (in particular); and within a political and economic system that is still unstable.

In any case, it is in the area of values that the most important work remains to be done, and not only in Russia. This is the reason that the World Congress of Families is meeting in Moscow at the end of this month to hold a demographic summit on Family and the Future of Humankind. The New York Times has tried to write it off as exporting anti-abortionism, but as WCF managing director Larry Jacobs says, it is about much more: “Late marriage, cohabitation and the culturally induced desire for small families are among the many factors that have led to a 50 per cent decline in birthrates worldwide since the late 1960s.”

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has endorsed the summit, saying: “Since the creation of the Universe the family has a special purpose; by renouncing it the human race endangers the very foundations of its own existence. I am convinced that all the healthy forces of society must unite to preserve the institution of the family and moral values.”

The political importance of demographic issues was signalled again in April by Putin, who, during a two-and-a-half hour speech (interpreted as the launch of his 2012 presidential run) promised an investment of 1.5 trillion roubles in demography projects between 2011 and 2015. “First, we expect the average life expectancy to reach 71 years,” he said. “Second, we expect to increase the birth rate by 25 to 30 per cent in comparison with the 2006 birth rate.”

Russia must be strong to fend off foreign threats, said Putin. Of course. But internal threats to fundamental human values will need more than a “we expect” from the president, whoever he turns out to be, to be rolled back. For that, Russia needs the support of her traditional experts in values — in the first place the Church — and of an international community that also takes family values seriously.


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