Among the many ad hoc terms coined during the reign of the Bush Administration, by both the administration itself and through the media’s efforts to adequately describe the phenomenon, there is the “zombie lie”. As described at Balloon Juice, a zombie lie is a story that just will not stay dead no matter how many times it is clubbed over the head and buried - it keeps coming back to eat our brains. Often such stories are simply recycled because that’s the construct of “conventional wisdom” – it’s true because nearly everybody comes to believe it is.
In this spirit, we’re going to look at the zombie myth that Russia is on the verge of fragmenting into tribal states, with Moscow brooding over its collapsed kingdom like Mordor, owing to massive depopulation and the gradual exodus of its remaining few inhabitants from the wasted countryside to major cities. The leader who has presided over this crippling failure is, of course, Vladimir Putin. The zombie trope that the decline in Russia’s population is a recent and terrifying phenomenon, not to mention that Putin has overseen this catastrophe, keeps pushing its way to the surface no matter how much dirt you shovel over it, no matter how many stakes you pound through its heart.
Look, I’m resigned now that there’s nothing – short of driving himself into a bridge abuttment at 160 kph – that Vladimir Putin can do to please the western press. He simply remains deeply unpopular with western journalists in spite of the demonstrable reality that his leadership in both major public-service positions he has occupied has been good for Russia. Dmitry Medvedev started out getting the rough side of the press corp’s tongue as well, and has been ridiculed on several occasions (most recently for his you-make-me-feel-like-dancin’, hip-flinging spasms on the fringe of the dance floor – which I snorted unsympathetic laughter at myself) but they appear to be mollified by his apparent willingness to take the west’s finger-wagging seriously, and he looks like the western favourite in 2012. If it must be United Russia’s candidate, of course; the west would much rather see one of its model “reformers” such as Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov take the reins, but seems to reluctantly acknowledge that’s not going to happen.
Anyway: enter – or re-enter – the myth of Russia’s out-of-control death spiral. Reintroduced with a spritz of crocodile tears by Miriam Elder at Global Post, it wouldn’t look out of place in one of Boris Nemtsov’s “Expert Reports”. The brief Elder piece is offered in support of a larger story, by Simon Shuster, in Time Magazine. The population of Russia, we are told, has shrunk 1.6% since 2002. Ms. Elder suggests that is “just a bland statistic…[n]ow we have a colorful story that illustrates just how tragic certain regions of Russia have become”. My, yes; a colorful story is always more fun to read than bland statistics; sometimes it’s better than reality.
Lopotova, a “dying village on Russia’s western edge” is portrayed by Shuster as – to use Elder’s words – a village where people have little to do but drink. For some reason, Lopotova is supposed to be symptomatic of Russia’s slow, agonized rotting away to nothing (if it’s possible for something to rot that is pickled in vodka). That Russia, demographically speaking, is on a brakeless bobsled bound for the seventh circle of hell is a treasured fantasy of western journalists, and they like to take it out periodically and look at it, caress its fuzzy little head, to be sure it’s still alive.
Let’s start with the hackneyed and dishonest implication that the wheels came off the state wagon in 2002. It’s quite true that was the date of the last full-scale census prior to the most recent one, but there are plenty of available statistics: it serves another purpose to begin there – it neatly brackets the tenure of Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. Boris Nemtsov is fond of this hand-jive as well, and likes to employ it in his scathing denunciations of the Kremlin; which less than a quarter of the population reads, and which bloggers such as Anatoly Karlin and Sean Guillory easily dismember without breaking a sweat, as they did here and here.
An old chestnut in the field of future forecasting is, “Statistics means never having to say you’re certain”. People paid to engage in crystal-ball-gazing naturally hedge toward a desirable endstate. Therefore the west tends to predict inevitable doom for the Russian state (because that is the hoped-for reality) while the state itself comes up with sunny projections that frequently prove to have a hole in them somewhere, sometimes big enough to drive a Kamaz through. The consequence that eventually obtains is usually somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
There’s no arguing, however, with statistics that have already happened. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this graph. We can immediately see the zero threshold – that level at which attrition was proceeding at an equal rate with population replacement – was actually crossed around 1992, cozily nestled between the slobbering western love-fest inauguration of Boris “The Liquor Magnet” Yeltsin and the 1993 Constitutional Crisis (as a direct result of which Yeltsin temporarily banned opposition parties and media, but the west’s memory always goes a little foggy on that point). Where was Putin then – maybe we can still blame it on him!! Ah, dammit; too bad – he was working for the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office, and fucking up the nation’s population growth was a little beyond his sphere of influence. However, it’d be unfair to blame it on Yeltsin, either: although he did nothing to arrest the slide, the trend had been inexorably downward since 1960, when Yeltsin was a sprightly lad of 29, and Vladimir Putin was only 8 years old. It was dead level from 1966 to 1975, but it’s important to remember that (a) that was still only a tenuous 1.5% above the zero threshold, and (b) the graph reflects gains from both births and from immigration. That’s the spike you see just before Putin took over the throttle; an influx of returning Russian expats which provided a steep and one-time gain, and which Anatoly Karlin discussed knowledgeably at the post I cited earlier. That brought population growth back (momentarily) to break-even status, and then it started to slide again, although nothing like the fall-off-a-cliff drop it took in the mid-60′s.
But in 2004, it began to edge upward once more toward positive territory, and it has never turned back since. It’s still negative gain, and the country is still struggling, but the trend is toward recovery. If population growth relied strictly upon the birth rate, recovery might be out of reach, and any faltering in the birth rate or uptick in mortality is pounced upon as evidence that Russia is resuming its descent into the inferno. Fortunately, immigration is also a positive driver. It has to be – demographers forecast Russia will need to admit 25 million immigrants to compensate for labour force decline over the next 20 years. For that to work to national benefit, immigration law will have to improve as well as incentives to register – some estimates put Russia’s undocumented economic immigrant population at 70% of the total. These immigrants are not captured in the census, and arouse the anger of “nationalist groups”; the government must cautiously walk a tightrope, because the “shadow economy” produces -directly and indirectly – nearly a quarter of GDP.
So, just to be clear; although the birth rate remains an unreliable way to dramatically increase the native population (and a falling birth rate is actually far more common than just Russia), the population continues to grow through immigration gains. At the same time, the net migration leaving Russia took a dive in 2006 – 2007, and remains much lower than in previous years. Meanwhile the natural birth rate continues to improve slowly, while mortality declines by about the same value. In the snapshot period discussed in this article (January – November 2009), over 333,000 new Russians received citizenship.
I’m sorry about Lopotova, but urbanization is simply a worldwide trend; Russia would likely stand out for ridicule if it were the only nation not to follow. People go where the work is, and as transportation becomes more expensive, long commutes look less and less viable. Small towns disappear altogether, while even large towns and smaller cities lose more and more of their inhabitants to larger cities. The United Nations has remarked on this long before now, and if it’s any comfort to Mr. Shuster, small towns are dropping off the map in the USA as well – in 2000, more than 80% of the American people lived in cities, and rural populations were shrinking fast.
Additionally Russia, with a nod to reality, went to a normative system in 2006 which linked to number of pupils as a criterion whether regional schools would be kept open or face closure and consolidation. Several schools in the Pskov region had less than 5 students, and teachers in such schools were sometimes those who couldn’t get a post anywhere else. While it’s an inconvenience to the families to no longer have a school a few doors down, it doesn’t mean those students have to join the line of ne’er-do-wells sitting on a log outside the general store drinking popskull vodka until their livers are as leathery as a dead armadillo. They still go to school, simply further away, and likely get a better education. Keeping the small rural schools going was a recipe for fiscal inefficiency that no developed country would allow to continue.
But just for fun, let’s pretend the alleged downward trend actually is irreversible, and Russia’s population is going to be reduced to half what it is now by 2014, around 70,500,000 people. That’d be quite the disaster, what? In fact, Russia in such dire straits might look quite a bit like….
Canada. Living in a large country that has a small population is something I know a little bit about, and I’m afraid I just don’t see the signs of decay and collapse around me that are supposed to attend the apocalyptic numbers the doomcriers keep dolefully croaking. If Russia’s population were cut in half tomorrow (I hope the first ones to vaporize are their hockey team), it would still be more than twice that of Canada. To be even more precise, there would still be about a half-million more than twice as many Russians in Russia than there are Canadians in Canada, in a country that is only 1.7 times the size of Canada. Is Canada in a panic to double its population overnight, rather than face extinction? Doesn’t look like it; our immigration target for this year is a maximum of only 265,000 people. And so far, the economy doesn’t look like it’s collapsing.
Rather than being gripped by an unresolvable crisis that can only end in national extermination, dreamy as that must be for some, what is far more likely is that Russia is simply adjusting to a population it can comfortably support after the artificialities of the Soviet period. This assessment is supported by the author of The Pentagon’s New Map; War and Peace in the 21st Century; Thomas Barnett.
“Russia’s population now heads toward a number it can sustain rather than one artificially manufactured by the state. That is not a tragedy. It is a reality Russia imposed on itself.”