- - Friday, May 29, 2015

Recently, the Moscow Metro celebrated its 80th birthday and the city government put on a big show. In a cool, hipster idea, the audio announcements that play automatically on the subway were changed to the voices of famous Russian actors and actresses. I have to admit, it was a nice touch. The metro in Moscow is stunningly efficient and over-the-top beautiful—a most pleasurable experience for someone used to the grind and filth of the New York subway.

But the most interesting thing I have found about the Moscow metro recently is the announcement to give up your seat to the elderly and pregnant women. I was riding the subway with a Russian friend and upon seeing a pregnant girl get on the train, he instinctively gave up his seat. I stood to join him and he leaned over and whispered, “They are our future.” That statement crystallized for me the state’s emphasis on the Russian demographic problem. Much has been written about this issue; however, what is the real situation?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the birth rate in Russia plunged dramatically and for almost a decade, the population of the Russian Federation lost about a half million people a year. It has only been since Russia President Vladimir Putin was elected and enforced economic stability on the country has the birth rate started to rise again. The federal government just released their recent demographic statistics and there was a slight rise in the population of only a few hundred thousand to a level of approximately 144 million, indicating that population growth is stagnant and could very well again be decreasing.

Most experts say that that Russian population growth has leveled out due to economic prospects dimming in the near future with the collapsed price of crude oil and the impact of Western sanctions on Russia. I would agree that economics are the root cause to a point, but I would take the argument one step further. I would say Russians are most worried about survival.

If you are not employed in the petroleum industry, life is difficult in Russia. Jobs are becoming more scarce; income levels are dropping. Russia had a nice run over the last decade as the profits from $110 oil streamed into the country, and oil may very well be back on the upswing. As I look today, the price of Brent crude is approaching $70 a barrel. If it stays in this range, this will take a lot of pressure off of the Kremlin’s economic agenda.

However, there has not been a diversification of the economy over the last ten years; on the contrary, wealth and industry have become even more concentrated around natural resources. This foments an sense of instability in the real economy. When you combine this with the lack of the rule-of-law and endemic corruption pervasive throughout the country, it is very difficult for small businesses to survive, much less thrive.

The main cause of death for men and women, besides heart disease, is accidents. It is common to see horrific car crashes on the highways and crazy drivers weaving in and out of traffic at high rates of speed. There is simply a sense of wanton abandon in Russia that causes the instinct for survival to make its way to the top of the Russian Maslov hierarchy.

It is in this environment where a woman has to decide whether or not to bring a child into the world. If she’s lucky enough to be in Moscow or St. Petersburg, she may be earning the equivalent of a thousand U.S. dollars a month. If she’s in a village, her income would be much lower. There is mandatory maternity leave of three years with partial pay but this actually can reduce the prospects for women of childbearing age to be hired, due to the employer’s fears of paying her while she takes care of a child.

Feminism has not really taken hold in Russia. Many Russian women still depend on a male for support. In a society where marriage is in decline, having a child could make it more difficult to find a mate and financial well being. Maternal care outside of the big cities is not up to the job. In fact, many health care facilities have been cut due to the recent budgetary pressures.

On the flip side from the birth rate, many Russians have emigrated due to the political crackdown in Russia. Immigration has also slowed as the economy has weakened. These facts will put additional pressure on the population numbers going forward.

It seems that if Russia really wants to tackle its demographic problem, it should make it much easier for Russian citizens to survive in everyday life. However, this seems unlikely in a situation where a small group of powerful people control the fate of the man and woman on the street.

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