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Climb in Russia’s Death Rate Sets Off Population Implosion

MOSCOW, March 5– With a society so nervous about the future that it has all but stopped having children, and a death rate rising faster than that of any other country, Russia faces an unusual population crisis that even optimists say will take a generation to reverse.

Life expectancy of adult men has plummeted to 60 years, Russian and Western demographers say. That means that men in Indonesia, the Philippines and parts of Africa live longer than the average man in Russia today.

At the same time, the number of children born to each woman– an average of 2.17 only five years ago– has fallen to slightly more than 1.4.

Startling Implications

The results have been startling, and so are the implications for a country already struggling to rise to its feet after decades of Communist rule: deaths exceeded births by nearly 800,000 last year, making Russia the first industrial country to experience such a sharp decrease in its population for reasons other than war, famine or disease.

If the trend continues, and in most regions it appears to be intensifying, the country's population of 148.4 million will shrink sharply in the coming years.

"It is just an incredibly clear picture of a society in crisis," said David Coleman, a demographer at Oxford University, who has focused on population trends in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. "A decline in life expectancy this dramatic has never happened in the postwar world.

"It is really very staggering. It shows the malaise of society, the lack of public health awareness and the fatigue associated with people who have had to fight a pitched battle their whole lives just to survive."

The reasons are varied. An epidemic of alcohol abuse is at least partly to blame, as is severe environmental pollution. And part of the grim picture can be attributed to new birth and death statistics that for the first time in decades actually reflect the bleak reality of life here.

Infant mortality rates have risen for years, the high rate of abortions leaves many women unable to have children, common antibiotics are in increasingly short supply and the nation's hospital system often lacks even the most rudimentary supplies. And now there are data to show it.

Soviet statistics were notoriously incomplete, and intentionally inaccurate. But even current levels of candor cannot explain such a huge drop in life expectancy among men, bewildered specialists say.

Comparable to Third World

"This is bad even by the standards of the third world," said Yevgeny B. Mikhailov, vice president of the State Committee on Statistics. He said that to find higher death rates among men one would have to look largely to very poor, agrarian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. "We need to begin to recognize that people here have a right to a healthy life," he said. "Instead, it is as if we are moving back to another era."

Last year, the death rate soared to 14.6 for every 1,000 people, an increase of 20 percent over the 1992 figure. The birth rate last year was only 9.2 per 1,000, a drop of 15 percent from the previous year. By comparison, the figures for the United States last year were almost exactly the opposite: the birth rate was 16.0 and the death rate was 9.0. Life expectancy for American men is 72 years.

Few specialists are surprised to find that Russian women, living at a time of economic chaos and political uncertainty, are having far fewer children. The trend has been apparent in all of Eastern Europe over the last five years, though nowhere as markedly as here.

No Baby Boom

Unlike many Western countries, Russia had no baby boom in the 1960's, and therefore the percentage of women who can give birth is comparatively small. The decline also is in keeping with a trend that has seen the average birth rate here fall from 7.0 per woman in 1875 to about 3 per woman just before World War II.

But it is the changing death rate that has most astonished Government officials and Western analysts. Although the data are preliminary and largely anecdotal, Labor Ministry officials say the suicide rate has risen sharply over the last two years, now accounting for almost one-third of unnatural deaths.

Again, it is difficult to say why exactly, but many specialists blame the economy, which has turned the savings of many families into worthless paper.

"I know this is happening, because I have seen the data with my own eyes," said Murray Feshbach, a Georgetown University professor who analyzes Russian demographic trends.

"But even so," he said, "it is very hard to believe. Numbers like these really ought to come only from the poorer developing countries. And I must add that I don't see things getting better soon."

In some rural parts of the country, particularly northern villages within the Arctic Circle, it is not unusual for life expectancy to be lower than 50 for men– a level not seen since the days of the czars. For women, the average is at least 10 years higher in most communities: the overall life expectancy for women in Russia is 72 years and has remained fairly stable.

Concern for Health Is Low

Sociologists here say that there is still simply no feeling among a majority of people that it is worth worrying about one's future health.

Even in the late 1980's, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev cut access to vodka in an attempt to improve health, longevity and industrial production, many people turned to fermenting dangerous chemicals in homemade stills and drinking them, and some ate thick pieces of bread spread with tractor oil.

"It was a way to get drunk," said Anatoly I. Antonov, chairman of the department of family sociology at Moscow State University. "And that was far more important to millions of people than how long they might live. They would drink brake fluid or kerosene if that was all that was available."

Mr. Antonov said that the reason the death rates had increased so sharply over the last several years is that more people were drunk at work, and more industrial accidents ended in death because hospitals were so ill-equipped. Government officials agree that a sharp rise in industrial accidents has contributed to the early deaths.

Mr. Antonov offered another reason as well. "The Soviets demanded that men in Russia sacrifice their lives for Communism," he said.

Longtime Expectation of War

"Nobody put the cost of life before the cost of building that society," Mr. Antonov said. "When a boy scrapes his knee here, he is not allowed to cry. We were taught to suffer, and we are taught that we will probably die in the next war. In that event, why worry about how you are going to survive to an old age? Unfortunately, life here still doesn't have the same value as it does elsewhere."

He said that under Communism his department had begun to carry out a large survey on Russian attitudes toward death, but that party officials had quickly banned it. Although such a survey is now permissible, Mr. Antonov said that there simply was no money available.

Since World War II, Russia's population growth depended largely on the number of women of childbearing age. When the birth rate in cities began to slow, immigration from rural areas kept the urban population from dropping. But in 1992, for the first time, the urban population shrank by more than 175,000. And last year the trend accelerated: Russian cities had 611,000 fewer people than in 1992.

Ratio of Workers to Retirees

As the birth rate shrinks, the percentage of people too old to work increases– and so do the state's problems in caring for this "graying" population, a problem faced by much of the industrialized world. But few of those largely prosperous countries are less able to care for their elderly than Russia.

The decline in Russia's population began in 1991, when deaths exceeded births by 207,000. That year, according to Labor Ministry statistics, fewer than 40 of the country's 79 regional districts registered more deaths than births. But in 1992 the figure was put at 44 districts, and by last year 68 districts were losing population. Today there are only 6 districts in Russia that continue to grow, all with historically high birth rates.

"This is the saddest of facts in Russia today– the fact that so many people are dying in ways that are unnecessary," said Aleksandr I. Tkachenko, chief of the Russian Labor Ministry's human resources department. "It is very depressing. And we need a new generation to make it stop. But how can there be a new Russia without new Russians?"

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