Death rate casts shadow over Russia

Since Soviet Union's fall, life expectancy has fallen, and so has the birth rate

Is the country dying of despair?

June 19, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OIMYAKON, Russia - A few years ago, a retired math teacher named Tamara I. Vasileva began poring through diaries and records of births and deaths in this Siberian village of 950 people.

As the community's unofficial archivist, she studied the records of about 20 of the town's oldest families, dating back to the 1920s, and she noted something odd. Until roughly the 1960s, the records documented the lives of people who lived well into their 70s and 80s - one or two even into their hundreds.

But in the 1960s, as the Soviet Union's economy began to stagnate, the number of people in their 70s, 80s or 90s began to shrink. Among the small sample Vasileva studied, people were dying about five years earlier than they had a few decades before.

The names and figures Vasileva wrote on graph paper don't constitute a scientific study. But she had detected a tiny, local tremor of a far larger social and economic phenomenon, one that has brought premature death and grief to millions of Russians, and threatens this nation's future.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, life expectancy here has plummeted. No one really knows why. It is a phenomenon unprecedented outside of war, plague or famine. It also is one of the greatest medical mysteries of the early 21st century.

And it has broad implications for global health.

Russian men now live shorter lives than those in any other industrial country. Male life expectancy today is 59 years and 11 months. That is about 15 years less than men in Europe and the United States. It is also six years less than the average Russian lived in 1965.

Russian women on average live to be 73, about seven years less than in the West - and a year less than their grandmothers could expect to live in the 1960s.

A Russian man's risk of dying of stroke is seven times higher than for men in the United States. He is 12 times more likely than an American to die of alcohol poisoning. He is seven times more likely to suffer a fatal stomach cancer, and 78 times more likely to contract tuberculosis. Only the citizens of Colombia and El Salvador are more likely to die a violent death.

As well as experiencing an epidemic of premature deaths, Russia is suffering from a declining number of births. Russia's birth rate ranked 188th out of 193 countries surveyed in a 2002 United Nations report. The number of Russian women in their peak years of fertility - ages 20 to 29 - will fall from about 13 million to fewer than 8 million by 2012. After that, experts say, Russia's population will plummet.

According to the State Statistics Committee, Russia's population has slipped since 1989 from 148 million to 143.5 million, despite an influx of immigrants from Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. In January, Russia's National Security Council warned that by the year 2050 the nation's population could slip below 100 million.

The consequences of population loss are already visible across Russia, as forests and steppe reclaim scores of deserted villages. In years to come, Russia's factories and research institutes will find it difficult to recruit workers. School enrollments will shrink.

In a world in which national wealth depends on people with specialized skills, imagine a country with declining numbers of engineers, doctors and scientists.

Imagine the mindset of military officers with few soldiers but many nuclear weapons.

Imagine a nation that covers one-seventh of the earth's land surface but with a population smaller than that of Uganda or Vietnam.

The catastrophe

At the end of the 1960s, mankind stood at the threshold of a new era in public health. Thanks to new vaccines, antibiotics and other medical advances, life expectancy was advancing around the world. The only significant exceptions were the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.

After two decades of growth, life expectancy here stalled and began a gradual retreat.

At the time, only a few bureaucrats and experts recognized the problem. Soviet scientists could publish work on the issue only in classified journals with strictly controlled circulation.

But Western researchers, relying on the few public studies, began to notice the trend. In a celebrated paper in the 1980s, an American scholar compared figures for births and subsequent first-grade school enrollments to estimate infant mortality. She discovered it was much higher in the Soviet Union than in the West.

Then came the catastrophe. As the Soviet Union broke apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s, life expectancy in Russia plummeted by six years.

"There was an explosion of mortality from 1992 to 1994," said Dr. Vladimir M. Shkolnikov, a former Soviet epidemiologist who now leads the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostok, Germany. "We reached the absolute maximum."

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