Fact Checking Russian Demographics

When I was a kid I remember looking at the Soviet Union on a big world wall map and wondering how we would ever survive if a country that big was our enemy. Evidently, a lot of people who grew up during the Cold War never got over the trauma. For them, Russia will always be the enemy. When she sent troops into South Ossetia in response to Georgia’s attack on that province’s capital city with area effect weapons, they took it as proof that she was only waiting for some flimsy pretext to send her hordes pouring forth over eastern Europe. For them, such childish provocations as planting batteries of useless missile defense systems just outside her borders “to defend against an attack from Iran” represented the apex of political sagacity. They will never change. One must resign oneself to waiting until they finally die, and are replaced by a new generation that will, perhaps, at least have the virtue of choosing a more reasonable enemy.

Meanwhile, they can count our ever-charming Vice President among their number. In an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal he said:

Russians…have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

Her obituary has been proclaimed in similar terms by a host of pundits. They might do well to take a look at what Anatoly Karlin at Russia Blog has to say about the matter before leaping to conclusions. It may turn out that, in the words of Mark Twain, the reports of Russia’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. For example, as Anatoly points out,

As of 2008 there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005. Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009 despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) has risen from a nadir of 1.16 children per women in 1999, to 1.49 children in 2008 (and thus also breaking the “lowest-low” fertility hypothesis that states that no society has ever recovered from a fertility collapse to below 1.30 children). The figures for 2009 will almost certainly show a TFR above 1.50.

(In response to the claim that the Russian far east is being overwhelmed by Chinese immigrants.) There are no more than 0.4-0.5mn Chinese in Russia (and probably a good deal less). The vast majority of them are temporary workers and seasonal traders who have no long-term plans of settling in Russia. Even though the Russia Far East depopulated much faster than the rest of Russia after the Soviet collapse, at more than 6mn today, Russian citizens remain ethnically dominant.

and so on. Karlin provides links for these and many other assertions about Russian demographics that counter the prevailing wisdom in the West. Read the whole thing.

If Russia’s population really does level off at something between 120 and 150 million, it seems to me history will have presented her with a golden opportunity. She has but to take advantage of it. If global warming becomes a reality, she may actually benefit from the change. That, and all the other potentially devastating environmental problems we face will be more or less severe depending on the size of human populations and their rate of increase. If Russia can somehow manage to avoid the suicidal tendency of the United States and the countries of western Europe to allow themselves to be inundated by waves of culturally alien immigrants, she can be one of the world’s big winners in the decades to come. Will it really be impossible for her to resist encroachment with such a relatively small population? I suspect that, with thousands of weapons in her nuclear arsenal, she will have a fighting chance.

I, for one, wish her well. She did, after all, absorb the blows of the Mongol hordes, and helped to break the back of the Turkish advance into Europe. She stopped Napoleon and Hitler, and then shed an ocean of blood to demonstrate to the western inventors of Communism that their brilliant idea didn’t work. Surely no one will begrudge her a little peace and quiet for a while, and perhaps, to stretch a point, even a measure of prosperity.

“Age of Delirium” and the Collapse of Communism

Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union,” is another example of the apparent oxymoron, a good book about history written by a journalist. Its author, David Satter, first arrived in the Soviet Union in 1976, and spent a total of nearly two decades reporting and writing about it and Russia and the other states that merged after its collapse. Like David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,” it chronicles the fates of people, each of whose lives shed some light on the reality of Communism and the reasons for its final demise. As glasnost gradually diminished the fear of Soviet citizens, it loosened their tongues as well, providing a golden opportunity for first rate reporters with a sense of history like Satter and Remnick to gather individual stories that, collectively, provide a wonderful insight into the nature of the sytem and the reasons for its astonishing disappearance from the stage of history. I suspect later generations will come to see the rise and fall of Communism as the most significant event of the 20th century. Russia was not the only state to pay a heavy price for this arrogant experiment of cocksure intellectuals who had mesmerized themselves into believing they had the perfect formula for creating a paradise on earth. If we are to avoid stumbling into more such experiments, it would be well if we thoroughly learned the lessons of this one. Such books should be required reading in every high school.

One wonders if the fall of the system was inevitable, and how long it might have survived if, against all odds, a man as fundamentally decent as Gorbachev had not come on the scene. He certainly had his faults, but I think his role in history was a great deal more positive than he’s often given credit for today. When I say he was a decent man, I am not forgetting he was the leader of the Soviet Union during the events of January 1990 in Baku, or January 1991 in Vilnius.  When confronted with the unraveling of everything he had dedicated his life to building, he tacked to the right.  Still, in the end, he refused to yield to the conspirators who staged the August coup, though he surely realised his life was at stake.  Later, he yielded to Yeltsin and accepted personal humiliation rather than cling to power when he knew the likely outcome would be civil war and another bloodbath in a country that had already experienced too many.  In the end, he was one more example of the decisive importance of individuals in history.

And what of the future?  In “The New Class,” Milovan Djilas analyzed the emergence of the state as a vehicle to absolute power for an elite.  George Orwell gave us a fictionalized picture of the same phenomenon in “1984.”  These two brilliant 20th century thinkers have not lost their relevance with the demise of Communism.  State power shows no signs of withering away.  On the contrary, the role of government continues to expand in our lives, regardless of the nature of our leaders’ claims to legitimacy.  The expansion of state power is inimical to the liberty of the individual in any case.   In the 18th century, no less a thinker than Boswell’s Dr. Johnson could maintain with perfect seriousness that the nature of the government one lived under was irrelevant to individual liberty.  That is no longer the case today.  Perhaps the world of “1984” is inevitable.  The only question is whether it will come, as Orwell suggested, via revolution, or “on little cats feet,” by the evolutionary expansion of “democratic” state power.

Communism and its Apologists

Instapundit links some excellent articles about the imbecilities of “progressive” sages concerning the supposed “stability” of Communist regimes in the years immediately prior to the time that most of them collapsed, and their continuing attempts to revise history so as to present Stalin at his most charming. We at least have the consolation of knowing that the remaining representatives of the “New Left” of the 60’s who are still busily decorating the corpse of Communism with pretty ribbons are rapidly aging. Although it is unlikely it will ever dawn on them that more than 700,000 admitted executions of the Soviet secret police, not to mention the deaths of milllions of others in the Gulag, were not actually necessary and just means of promoting social justice, at least they will eventually have the good sense to die. While they are at it, let us take care to make sure all the relevant source material is preserved.

David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,”; Vignettes of the Fall

In general, I avoid histories written by journalists. They are usually bowdlerized accounts in which the facts are pruned to fit a narrative portrayed in black and white. Great care is usually taken to describe individuals in a way that can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader about whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb” is no different in this regard. Here, for example, are typical descriptions of Communist party officials;

Kunayev unfolded himself from the backseat. He was enormous, silver-haired, and dressed in a chalk-striped suit. He wore dark glasses and carried the sort of walking stick that gave Mobuto his authority. He had a fantastic smile, all bravado and condescension, the smile of a king.

…the most flamboyand mafia figure in the country was Akhmadzhan Adylov, a “Hero of Socialist Labor” who ran for twenty years the Party organization in the rich Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. Adylov was known as the Godfather and lived on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men… He locked his foes in a secret underground prison and tortured them when necessary. His favorite technique was borrowed from the Nazis. In subzero temperatures, he would tie a man to a stake and spray him with cold water until he froze to death.

Perm-35 was a tiny place, five hundred yards square, a few barracks, guard towers and razor wire everywhere. Osin (who ran the camp) was there to greet us, and he was much a Shcharansky had described him, enormously fat with dull, pitiless eyes… Osin had a broad desk and a well-padded armchair, and he affected the pose of a contented chief executive officer… He was, to use the Stalinist accolade, an exemplary “cog in the wheel.” He did what he was told, “and all the prisoners were the same to me.” Equal under lawlessness.

You get the idea. Nevertheless, “Lenin’s Tomb” is an exception to the rule. It is well worth reading. Remnick was an eyewitness to events in the years leading up to and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also an excellent reporter who went out and “got the story,” seeking out and talking to people all over the country in all walks of life. Beyond that, he had a profound knowledge of Russian history in general and the history of the Soviet Union in particular that gave him an exceptional ability to portray events and individuals in their historical context. As a result, the collection of vignettes he has captured for us in “Lenin’s Tomb” provides rare insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse, and the sort of thoughts that were going through people’s minds in all walks of life. In the process it sheds a great deal of light on a stunning and unprecedented historical event, the magnitude and implications of which we are still far from grasping. I recommend it to anyone who suspects that the sudden demise of the Bolshevik’s great experiment was not entirely explainable as the inevitable effect of Reagan’s increase in defense spending.

The “Pravda” of Nicholas I

Today’s lead article on the website of “Pravda” is entitled, “The Modern West, A Culture of Death.” Were a modern day Russian Rip van Winkle to read it after a catnap of 20 years, he would probably conclude it was just another one of his crazy dreams and go back to sleep. Here’s the lead paragraph.

From the early 1800s, the West, in an affront to God, has moved ever more rapidly into a culture of death and destruction, away from the teachings of Christ. At its present state, the most significant thing that the West is bringing to humanity is a culture of totalitarianism and death, one on such a nuanced level as would only be celebrated by the most brutal of Pagans and Lucifirians and would even be an affront to the most blood thirsty of the Islamic radicals.

Great shades of the Black Hundreds! Czar Nicholas I has come back to reclaim his own! The article comes complete with a picture of two “babushkas” seated at a McDonald’s to set the proper ideological tone, and is written in a style commensurate with Pravda’s current “National Enquirer” look. I am anything but an expert on the prevailing political nuances in the Russian media, but, if Pravda is any guide, the country has completed its Marxist somersault, and has now landed with both feet firmly in the past. Consider this remarkable line from a paragraph about the conduct of war by Orthodox soldiers:

Do not confuse this with the actions of the Red Army, in WW2, which was under the control of the Western Marxist import and its subsequent ideology of death.

One finds it somehow surprising that such a stunning volte face took place in Russia, and not China. There, in spite of the cultural pride expressed in the paradigm of the “Middle Kingdom” surrounded by unenlightened barbarians enshrined in the countries very name, the “Western Marxist import” still prevails. Indeed, the ruling oligarchy depends on it to establish the legitimacy of its rule.

Russia, on the other hand, seems to have completely shaken off alien ideologies and taken a Great Leap Backwards, if Pravda is any guide. The tone of the article would certainly have been familiar to the Marquis de Custine, who traveled through Russia in 1839 in the days of Nicholas I. Indeed, there is much in his description of the country that seems to transcend the ideological changes of later years, and would have sounded as prescient under Stalin as it did under Nicholas. For example,

In Russia, the government rules everything and vitalizes nothing. The inhabitants of this vast Empire, though not calm, are dumb. Death hovers over every head and strikes at random — it is enough to make one doubt divine justice. Mankind there has two coffins: the cradle and the tomb. Mothers must weep for their children at birth as much as at death.


The people and its ruler are in harmony here. The Russians make themselves witnesses, accomplices and victims in these prodigies of willpower and would not repudiate them even to resurrect all the slaves whose lives are forfeited as a result. However, what surprises me is not that one man, nourished on the idolatry of his own person, a man described as all-powerful by sixty million humans (or near-humans) whould undertake such things and carry them through. What does surprise me is that among all the voices testifying to the glory of this single man, not one rises above the chorus to speak for humanity against the miracles of autocracy. You can say of the Russians, both great and small, that they are intoxicated with slavery.

Custine’s account of his travels is well worth the modern reader’s time. One hopes for the sake of Russia’s people that his words will not be as prophetic for her future as they have been for her past.

Hard Times in Russia

In her nightmarish account of life in Stalin’s Gulag, Eugenia Ginzburg, in a dark cell in solitary confinement herself at the time, describes a young prison warden’s reaction to the screams of a tortured Italian prisoner:

But it continued – a penetrating, scarcely human cry which seemed to come from the victim’s very entrails, to be viscous and tangible as it reverbedrated in the narrow space. Compared with it, the cries of a woman in labor were sweet music… So I only whispered: “What’s the matter with her? It’s terrible to hear.” He shrugged and said: “They haven’t got the guts, these foreigners, they just can’t take it. She’s only just come in, and yet she makes all that fuss. The Russians are different, they don’t kick up a row. Look at you for instance, you’ve got five days (in solitary) and you’re still not crying…”

It’s a good thing Russians can take it. Whether in politics, economics, or war, history has not been kind to them, unless, perhaps, one can construe the sacrifice of 25 million lives to, as Churchill put it, “tear the guts” out of Hitler’s armies and achieve victory in World War II “fortunate.” Now, as France, Germany, and Japan seem to be seeing light at the end of the tunnel, Russia appears to be mired in the recession as deeply as ever. However, one of her citizens has come up with a new twist on an old way of doing business that the rest of the world might do well to take notice of.