Ailing Russia Worrisome statistics: More deaths than births

fewer people marry amid uncertainties.

November 04, 1996

THE RUSSIAN malaise, so evident during the final years of Soviet stagnation, continues. Forget opinion polls. There is a better measure of how ordinary people feel about their lives. That gauge is population statistics. They show Russia's population fell by 350,000 people this year to 147.6 million. In other words, the death rate exceeds the birth rate. In just one year, the number of marriages fell by 14.2 percent. Many newly-weds say life is too difficult and they cannot afford children.

These demographic trends have political implications. They feed the insecurity many Russians feel about their country and its future. Some irresponsible political groups, including extreme nationalists and communists, even hint darkly that the population loss is due to a Western plot to gradually strangle Russia.

Although some early Bolsheviks advocated free love and loose liaisons, Stalin era legislation passed in 1936 outlawed common law family relationships and banned abortion. Large families were encouraged and allowances were paid from the fourth child onward. Mothers of more than five children received medals and the Order of the Mother Heroine were awarded to mothers of 10 children.

After Stalin's death, abortion on economic grounds was once more authorized in 1955. But while family allowance was paid for each child, most Soviet women preferred to have either one child or none at all. As contraceptives were in short supply, abortion became a routine method of birth control. Even in the 1980s it was not unusual to encounter a Soviet woman in her 50s who had had as many as 15 abortions, often without any anesthesia whatsoever.

By the end of Soviet rule, crowded living conditions and widespread alcoholism among men had created a situation in which the population growth had stopped, as many women chose not to marry or bear children. The introduction of a market economy further changed people's goals in life and added economic pressures that discouraged family formation.

Russians' reluctance to marry or have children may be largely due to harsh economic conditions. But it also suggests that five years after the collapse of communism, many people do not have faith in the future and do not want to take on added responsibilities.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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