…declared my recently-returned father, after enthusing over many aspects of Russia’s cultural heritage and before waxing lyrical about the beauty of its landscape. He opined that the country appears to be in a sort of collective malaise; birth rates have declined markedly, with terminated pregnancies outnumbering their full-term counterparts significantly. The population is shrinking and the remainder are scared out of their wits – Dad surmised the latter opinion from his observation that Russian churches appear to be the most highly maintained, furnished and adorned buildings in Russia.
Of course, the fact that Russia is facing a profound demography-related meltdown is unlikely to be news for the average Samizdata reader. One of the more renowned articles written about the deep population crisis facing the modern Russian state was penned by Mark Steyn. It makes for interesting, if not always absolutely convincing, reading. In a piece of analysis that I think is dead wrong, Steyn, citing the precedent of the sale of Russia’s North American territories to the United States, asserts that a depopulated Russia will soon enough have its resource-rich Siberian hinterland snatched from it by an envious (and greatly more populous) China – so it may as well benefit from the inevitable and sell Siberia to Beijing. I suspect that if the Russians possessed as plentiful a supply of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in 1867 as they do now, Alaska would still be known as ‘Russian America’ in the Anglophonic world. Tom Clancy-esque Chinese plots against Siberia aside, Steyn is right to be gloomy about Russia’s future prospects; whilst her formidable nuclear deterrent should guarantee her borders, it will not secure her birthrate. The Economist recently published an article detailing the depressing facts regarding modern Russia’s population. Russia’s birthrate is dangerously low, but still comparable to a number of European nations (which certainly does not auger well for them, either). However, the real catastrophe is found in Russia’s soaring death rate:
At less than 59, male life expectancy has collapsed in a way otherwise found only in sub-Saharan Africa. It is around five years lower than it was 40 years ago, and 13 years lower than that of Russian women—one of the biggest gaps in the world.
The article goes on to detail a host of lifestyle-induced afflictions and misfortunes that kill Russians off at uniquely high rates, resulting in unparalleled population contraction.
For those concerned with curtailing the influence of government, it is worth pondering how much of the blame for this utter catastrophe can be laid at the feet of Russia’s previous political arrangements, ending 1991. Not all, but I suspect an awful lot. Admittedly, most of the health issues responsible for the abysmally low male life expectancy are related to alcoholism, and vodka was around a long time before 1917. However, the Soviets showed they understood the power of hard liquor as political lubricant on a massive scale in Mongolia in the 1970s, when the dissemination of previously rare vodka ensured growing discontent was muted by an alcoholic fog that continues to blight the lives of countless Mongolians today. I find it difficult to believe that vodka was not widely distributed for similar purposes throughout the duration of the Soviet Union. Of course, the relationship between Russia’s unhappy present, Russia’s unhappy future and Russia’s unhappy communist past is deeply complex; the above example representing a tiny portion of the picture. It is also worth considering the fate of other nations who endured a dalliance with Marxism. Certainly, many of the former members of the Soviet bloc and/or Warsaw Pact are surging ahead – Estonia and Slovenia spring to mind. Others are not doing too badly on a mish-mash of free-market reforms and Soviet-era controls, like Poland. Then there are the revisionist basketcases like Moldova and Belarus, whose wretched citizens will be immersed in deep Third World poverty for the foreseeable future. I believe Brink Lindsey justifies such variation in this quote from his excellent book, Against The Dead Hand:
The creative power of market competition can cover a multitude of policy sins…in developing countries the availability of accelerated catch-up growth allows even badly distorted economies to post impressive numbers for sustained periods of time. And in the rich countries, the lavish abundance generated by private enterprise can support a heavy load of incentive-squelching redistribution.
It is a matter of the degree of economic liberation after being freed from the yoke of the Soviet Union. I think it is fair to state that no nation has benefited because it existed under the aegis of the Soviet Union, however some have benefited in spite of the fact they were under the aegis of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, that is an educated guess, and I can only comment conclusively on nations that I have visited and studied.
Firstly, China. A largely unacknowledged victim of Marxism is post-Mao China, whose economic woes – I believe – are pending (as per Mr Lindsey’s assertion above). My rationales for such a statement can be found here and here. The cultural losses of Chinese communism need to be considered, too. The will to exercise arbitrary control over others, that indivisible component of the collectivist power structure, drove Mao Zedong to vanquish his political rivals by sweeping them away via a profoundly corrupt and duplicitous “modernity” programme – commonly known as the Cultural Revolution – to be executed by his overly numerous and impressionable young acolytes. A few million people lost their lives as a consequence of this exercise, and an inconceivable amount of the history of humanity was destroyed. To get a feel for how much was lost, it is worth visiting India – or even Thailand – to compare the cultural landscapes of these venerable and long-lived cultures with that of similarly venerable and long-lived China.
Previously I mentioned Mongolia, and previously I wrote about what I think communism did to Mongolia. Earlier in this article, I also discussed the former epicentre of communism – a nation that has barely begun to come to terms with the loss of its ill-afforded superpowerdom – and the demographic horrors it is foisting upon itself. In the face of such history, I cannot help but marvel at the remarkably stultifying, soul-destroying influence of overweening statism and central planning, and how quickly it can despoil an ancient nation and a proud people.