'Demographic collapse' in former Soviet Union

January 10, 1995|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Political chaos and economic decline in the former Soviet Union since the end of Communist rule have produced "an almost total demographic collapse," as birth rates have plummeted and death rates risen, according to a study released yesterday.

The collapse is most dramatic in Russia itself, said Carl Haub, the demographer who wrote the study. Even before the disastrous war in Chechnya, life expectancy for Russian men had fallen below the retirement age of 60, the result of the rising toll of stress-related heart attacks, alcoholism, accidents, murder and suicide, he said.

Russian male life expectancy at birth fell from 63.9 years in 1990 to 58.9 years in 1993, the lowest among industrialized countries. Female life expectancy has also fallen, to 71.9 years, but the 13-year gap between men and women is the largest of any zTC country in the world, said Mr. Haub. He is director of information and education at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit Washington group.

The rapid decline in births amounts to a striking vote of no confidence in the future, reflecting political turmoil and halting progress toward a market economy, Mr. Haub said. Instead of the fast progress toward democracy and prosperity that many Soviet people expected during the heady days in 1991 when Communist Party domination came to an end, the republics have experienced widespread bloodshed, huge refugee flows, rapid inflation and growing unemployment.

"People's outlook appears to be completely gloomy -- about whether or not they'll have a job, whether or not they'll have an apartment," Mr. Haub said. "People ask, 'Is this the kind of economy I can afford to bring another child into?' As far as a demographer is concerned, the answer right now is no."

The numbers, which show fewer marriages and more divorces, have ominous implications for Russian politics, Mr. Haub said. "If people are afraid to have children, afraid of the future, that tells us how they view their leadership," he said.

Murray Feshbach, a prominent American specialist in Russian demography, said the male life expectancy figure "is outrageous, because it's below the pension age." Since many people are disabled by illness for some time before they die, the shorter life span is likely to cut Russian economic productivity, he said.

Mr. Feshbach, a professor at Georgetown University, said the costly war in Chechnya is likely to exacerbate the current demographic trends by undermining economic reform and draining already inadequate resources for health care and environmental protection.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the former republics have followed diverse paths, from civil war and chaos in Georgia, for instance, to relative stability and rapid reform in Estonia. Those paths reflected great differences in the economy, culture and religion: Republics such as Latvia and Uzbekistan are as dissimilar from one another as Norway and Afghanistan.

But the fall in births has affected every one of the 15 former Soviet republics, even though birth rates in Central Asia remain far higher than in the European part of the former Soviet Union, according to Mr. Haub's study. He attributed the consistency of the trend to the uncertainty created by momentous political and economic change, which causes couples to postpone childbearing.

A low fertility rate can mean different things in different contexts. Historically, family sizes decline as a country develops, and the current "total fertility rate" -- the average number of children per woman -- in Russia, 1.4, is only slightly lower than the average for Western Europe, 1.5.

But Mr. Haub said the relatively stable rates in Western European countries reflect the small families that come with affluence and a high degree of development. In Russia, the precipitous decline in the fertility rate, from 1.9 in 1990 to 1.4 last year, reflects fear and pessimism, a conclusion widely drawn by Russian demographers and political observers, Mr. Haub said.

"The Russian demographic literature calls it a disaster," he said.

The Soviet Union suffered a series of demographic catastrophes during this century, including civil war and famine in the 1920s, Josef V. Stalin's purges in the 1930s and losses during World War II, which cost more than 20 million Soviet lives.

Recent research, based in part on the publication of suppressed census data from the 1930s, suggests that without these traumatic events, the former Soviet republics would have a collective population today 150 million greater than the actual population of 293 million, Mr. Haub said.

Mr. Haub's survey found one development in the former Soviet Union that may reflect the influx of Western, and particularly American, culture and mores since the late 1980s: Out-of-wedlock births, traditionally quite low, are on the rise.

The trend is most pronounced in the most Western-looking of the republics, notably Estonia, where 38 percent of births were outside of marriage in 1991.

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