Russians prefer alternative reality.
In the days since Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, the Russian people are once again feeling good about their country. A robust 63 percent of them say they consider Russia a “great power,” according to a survey released this week by the Levada Center, a respected Russian polling firm. The survey also found that Putin’s approval rating is now at 80 percent, a 17-point rebound from his all-time low, just one year ago.
In 2000, when Putin had just been elected the first time, I wrote a profile of him for this magazine. The reality I discovered in the numbers then was shocking. They represented the greatest challenge Putin faced: the dire demographics of Russia.
I found that two out of three Russian men who died, died drunk. The country’s death rate far exceeded its birth rate: in 2000, life expectancy for men was only 58, and for women 71. The syphilis rate among girls 10 to 14—a statistical category that boggles the mind—had gone up 40 times the previous decade, and only 30 percent of boys between the ages of 15 and 17 were considered healthy. Cheap heroin from Afghanistan was rolling in, and an H.I.V. epidemic spread by dirty needles was taking hold. Predictions then were that Russia, with a population of 146 million, could become a nation of fewer than 100 million people by 2025, and hardly a superpower: The country was aging and the birth rate was plummeting. Putin himself in his first State of the Nation address in July 2000 warned the Russian people, “We are in danger of becoming a senile nation.” When Putin annexed Crimea, I only half facetiously wondered whether this was his way of tackling the population deficit.
But overall I assumed there had to have been a nice bounce since 2000. After all, Russia was now considered a BRIC, a major emerging economy. Moscow had gained in population by 1.5 million. Like everyone else, I had read the endless style-section stories about rich Russian “It girl” art collectors and the billionaire Russian oligarchs cavorting in St. Tropez. Russia won the most medals—33—in the recent Winter Olympics, held on its home soil in Sochi.
But when I started calling specialists in Russian demography, I learned otherwise. “Demographic decline is the clearest way to see longtime decline in Russian power,” Nicholas Eberstadt, the author of Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Causes, Implications, told me. He put Crimea in a whole new context: “Putin has to take more risky behavior to counterbalance this decline in power.”
I decided to revisit Russia’s numbers. They do not make a pretty picture.
Despite a recent slight uptick in births versus deaths, life expectancy now stands at 64 for males and 76 for women (137th and 100th in the world, respectively). According to the U.N.’s World Health Organization, the life expectancy for a 15-year-old boy in Haiti is three years higher than for a Russian boy the same age. A drop in fertility by 50 percent between 1987 and 1999 has resulted in a reduced number of women now at childbearing age, which is beginning to affect the country in a major way: Two thirds of all births in Russia take place among women between the ages of 20 and 29, and this population will decline from 13 million currently to 7 or 8 million in the coming years.
According to Murray Feshbach, a Georgetown professor emeritus and the dean of Russian demography in the United States, Russia’s working-age population is also declining by a million people a year, a faster rate than the decline of the overall population, which in 2013 stood at around 143 million, 3 million less than when Putin took office. Moreover, only 30 percent of Russian babies born are born healthy. Eberstadt told me that many unhealthy Russian babies are “discarded” —sent to government institutions where they often develop cognitive difficulties. Unhealthy children grow up to be unhealthy adults: half of the conscripted Russian army has to be put in limited service because of poor health.
Twenty-five percent of Russian men still die before the age of 55, many from alcoholism and the violent deaths, plus other diseases it fosters. A protégé of Feshbach’s, Mark Lawrence Schrad, has recently published a book called Vodka Politics, which analyzes how vodka has been used throughout Russian history, from tsars to dictators, as a means of social control. Cheap vodka and cigarettes were among the first free-market products available after Communism. When a partial government crackdown regulating sales of alcohol in 2009 occurred and vodka’s price went up, some hard-core alcoholics simply switched to perfume or antifreeze. The government also jacked up prices on beer, often imported or owned by foreigners, and further drove the population to harder stuff. Schrad, a political scientist at Villanova, has also written that 77 percent of kids between the ages of 15 and 17 drink vodka regularly; in rural areas, the percentage can be as high as 90.
Russia, meanwhile, has more heroin addicts than any other country. To become truly grossed out, one only has to go to the Web to see the damage of krokodil, a homemade opiate that heroin addicts in Russia shoot that rots their skin and organs from within. A thriving needle culture inevitably means H.I.V., and between 2000 and 2012 the number of new cases of H.I.V. increased six fold. Many of those infected also suffer from tuberculosis. Russia is second only to India (with 1.3 billion people) in the number of cases of M.D.R. (multidrug-resistant) tuberculosis
When it comes to the environment, I found that 50 percent of Russia’s water is not potable. Air pollution continues to be an extremely serious issue, suggesting that a solution proposed during the late-Soviet period continues to hold sway. Back then, a Russian health minister advised the country to “breathe less” in order to live longer.
This is the kind of desperation that Vladimir Putin is distracting the Russian people from. During the 2000 campaign he flew to the scene of the uprising in Chechnya and promised to “ice them while they’re shitting in the outhouse.” Doing the math today, you can see that Russia remains frozen in time—and its leaders free to hallucinate.