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An unspoken epidemic

Matt Stone
By Matt Stone
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, November 28, 2005
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Irkutsk, Russia

The numbers tell the story - the whole story. Russia's population, 1992: 149 million. Russia's population, 2002: 144 million. Russia's population, 2025 (U.N. estimate): 120 million.

And that's the "medium-case scenario. " The Russian government itself predicts the population to drop to 100 million by 2050 - a whopping and wholly unprecedented 30 percent drop in population in 60 years.

Demographics like this are far more than a crisis: It's wholesale systemic collapse. For the prospects of economic development and reasserting itself on the international stage, Russia has quite a burden to overcome.

The cause? At its root, probably the psychological trauma caused with the implosion of the Soviet system and the chaotic years spent re-establishing some semblance of the Russian state. But more tangible today, the Russian demographic catastrophe is born out of rampant alcoholism and the drug use that accompanies the disease. Numbers, numbers, numbers. The World Health Organization estimates that a nation absolutely dies away in the long run when domestic alcohol production reaches 8 liters per person per year.

According to Pravda, a Russian newspaper, Russia produced a mind-boggling 18.5 liters of alcohol per person in 2000, and that statistic has only climbed in the five years since. In the U.S., around 400 people die annually from alcohol poisoning; in Russia, that figure tops 50,000. Day by day, it is not uncommon to see commuters in the Moscow metro or on an Irkutsk public bus with a beer in hand, on the way home, on the way to lunch, sometimes at 6 a.m. Alcohol has become ingrained in the Russian subconscious. And not simply vodka: The Economist recently labeled Russia "one of the most dynamic beer markets in the world."

The Russian alcohol predicament has spilled over into all other segments of life. The average life expectancy of a man in Russia today is only 59 years of age. The life expectancy of a woman is 74. The disproportionate number of widows in the country is placing an undue burden on the Russian pension system.

And broken families have led to other ills. According to Rashid Nurgaliyev, the Russian interior minister, some 700,000 children are orphaned or homeless and another 4 million use drugs. Of course, collecting hard data on both these situations is difficult: Nurgaliyev added that these numbers represent just "the tip of the iceberg."

Alcoholism early in life has led many children to experiment with drugs, including the hardest drugs. The number of injecting drug users has rapidly inflated one of the world's fastest growing HIV infection rates.

Couple this with 2 million illiterate teenagers because of a broken education system, Nurgaliyev said, and the health of Russia's children and teenagers is at its worst since World War II.

Wow. That hurts. But what of it? A nation with shrinking demographics or a disproportionately young population is generally an unstable one. Just ask Nigeria or Angola. But like Nigeria, Russia is a petro-state: Its fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil. Times may be good right now - Russia can afford to ignore its demographic train wreck - but when the price of oil drops again, what next?

For the U.S., Russia is a critical partner in curbing the threat of nuclear terrorism. For continental Europe, Russia is the single major supplier of natural gas and oil. For a booming China, Russia is a militarily and demographically inferior nation full of natural resources. An unstable Russia presents a huge security threat to the world, changing the face of Eurasian geopolitics entirely.

Numerous reports have been commissioned by the Pentagon to examine the prospects of a failed state in Russia, extending across 11 time zones: an invading China, an energy-starved Europe, a remilitarized Japan, nuclear technology sold to the highest bidder, dissolving borders, refugees throughout Eurasia - ramifications for the Middle East, Asia, Europe, America, Africa, everywhere. It's the thought of a failed Russian state that makes Washington security analysts lose more sleep than any other apocalyptic scenario.

That's why it's time for the Bush team to give President Vladimir Putin a friendly elbow in the ribs, moving the criticism away from democratic deficiencies to something a bit more comprehensive: "How about voting booths in AA centers, Vladimir?"

Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics. He is studying this semester in Irkutsk, Russia, in Central Siberia. He can be reached at

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