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"Demographic trends in Russia limit its economic potential and social well-being," remarked Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C. at a 5 February 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute. These trends, Eberstadt continued, also limit the potential for improved productivity and Russia's ability to have influence on the international stage.

Since the end of Communist rule, Eberstadt noted, Russia has experienced a drop in overall population due to a conjuncture of birth decline and mortality increase. Eberstadt argued that barring an unanticipated influx of foreign nationals, Russia's population will continue to decline.

According to Eberstadt, there is nothing inherently worrisome in the short-term about a situation in which the number of deaths exceeds the number of births. In Russia today, fertility levels are extremely low: less than 1.2 births per woman per lifetime, if current trends continued indefinitely. Yet it is not the low levels of fertility, Eberstadt argued, that makes for Russia's demographic crisis.

The crisis, Eberstadt stated, is due to the great increase in mortality in Russia over the past decade--and the prolonged period of stagnation in life expectancy during the late Soviet era. Over the past forty years, Eberstadt remarked, the Russian Federation has suffered a retrogression in health levels that is unprecedented for any urbanized literate society during times of peace.

Certain industrialized countries--such as Japan and West Germany--have experienced sharp declines in life expectancy, only to have health levels quickly restored and economic progress revitalized by those health improvements, Eberstadt stated. Yet those very cases highlight the differences in Russia, Eberstadt argued. In Japan and Germany, reversals in life expectancy were a result of war. When the war ended, prosperity returned and health levels rebounded. In Russia today, there is no war to end. Moreover, the maladies and afflictions experienced by the Russian population are inherently more difficult to deal with than the earlier health problems of other Western countries subject to mortality crisis.

To illustrate this point, Eberstadt gave the example of Japan in the early 1950s, in which the mortality level was slightly higher than Russia's mortality level in the mid-1990s. The causes of death, however, were quite different. In Japan, respiratory diseases and tuberculosis killed a larger proportion of the population than is the case in Russia today. Those diseases responded to relatively inexpensive public health measures that could suppress infectious communicable mortality.

In Russia today, Eberstadt noted, the greatest killer of men and women is cardiovascular deaths, such as heart disease and stroke. Cardiovascular disease represents the "accumulation of a lifetime of insults"--often having to do with behavioral factors. The second greatest cause of death in Russia is due to injury and poisoning--many of which are alcohol-related.

According to Eberstadt, there is a great deal of "negative momentum" in Russian health patterns. To judge by mortality levels, contemporary adult Russian men and women are not as healthy as their parents were a generation ago.

Eberstadt offered a further comparison with Japan--which, despite disastrous losses in World War II, currently has the healthiest population in the world. According to Eberstadt, each successive birth cohort in contemporary Japan has had a dramatically lower death rate than birth cohorts 5-10 years earlier would have had at the same age. In contrast, in Russia, for people in their late 20's, the highest death rates experienced are for the generation that is now in their late 20's; for people in their late 30's, the highest death rates in the recent past are for people who are now in their late 30's. What this means, Eberstadt elaborated, is that it will take a great improvement of the existing "health stock" in the Russian Federation to simply re-attain their parents' level of health.

The health situation in Russia is a human tragedy, but there are economic implications as well. Eberstadt argued that in the 21st century, the wealth of a nation lies primarily in its human resources. When human resources are degraded, the economic potential of the country is constrained. According to Eberstadt, there is a strong correlation between a country's level of health and its productivity--wealth brings health and vice versa. On the international level, Eberstadt added, there is a strong correlation between life expectancy and per capita GNP.

Russia is not destined to continuing economic decline, Eberstadt observed. Yet Russia may suffer relative economic decline in the decades ahead, if its economy, due partly to health constraints, registers positive growth, but grows more slowly than other regions of the world. Over the next twenty-five years, Russia's working age population will almost surely decline, Eberstadt stated. That decrease, combined with the implications of constrained per capita worker productivity, suggests the possibility that the Russian Federation's ranking among world economies might drop further in the decades ahead.

Eberstadt concluded that Russia currently seems to be in a period of historically unnatural weakness. The demographic trends suggest the possibility that today's weakness for Russia may only foreshadow continued relative decline.


About the Author

Jodi Koehn

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more