Russian Birth Deficit Called Catastrophic

Moscow is facing a potentially catastrophic demographic imbalance, with nearly twice as many deaths recorded as births for the first six months of 1996, according to a Moscow State Statistical Committee report released earlier this week.


"As is the case with Russia as a whole, twice as many Muscovites died as were born in the first six months of this year," said committee spokeswoman Irina Shcherbakova.


"This continues a trend that has been observed for several years, a trend we can more or less call the norm now."


According to Shcherbakova, 34,356 births were recorded in Moscow between January and July, as opposed to 66,586 deaths. She said these statistics reflected a tendency observed in Russia as a whole, which saw roughly 850,000 more deaths than births in each of the last two years.


Shcherbakova added that although the death rate has slowed slightl9 in the last year -- there were over 74,000 deaths in Moscow for the same six-month period last year -- the birth rate has remained at the same alarmingly low rate.


"Nothing will change that much until the birth rate gets higher," she said, adding that the drop in deaths was largely attributable to a decrease in the number of murders, suicides and accidents.


Although most of Western Europe has seen a declining birth rate in recent years -- the birth rate in every European country other than Ireland is now below replacement level, according to the World Health Organization -- Russia is still far behind Europe and the rest of the world.


WHO statistics report that 139 million people were born in 1995, while 52 million died.


Analysts said the Russian birth-death figures were the worst anywhere.


"There's nothing like it anywhere," said Alexander Gasparishvili of the Moscow State University Center for Sociological Research. "Other countries have low birth rates, and other countries have high death rates, but no one has both to the degree that we do."


Professor Murray Feshbach of Georgetown University, who has written several books on Russian demography, compared the Moscow birth-death rates to a natural catastrophe.


"Nowhere in the peacetime world, nowhere where there isn't an earthquake, a flood, or some other disaster, would you have a situation where the birth rate is half the death rate," he said.


Analysts differed on the reasons for the wide discrepancy between birth and death rates, but most agreed that cynicism and uncertainty over the future was a key reason people were having fewer babies.


"People are uncertain about tomorrow. The last thing they want to do is have children," said Gasparishvili. "It's a function of education combined with bad living conditions. People live badly in Somalia too, but they don't stop having babies. Education seems to contribute to despair and hopelessness."


Feshbach agreed, saying that while disease, medical problems (including reduced fertility due to venereal disease and other problems), and an aging and therefore less fertile population affected the demographic balance, uncertainty remained the key sociological factor behind the birth decline.


"People are so unsure about tomorrow in Russia that they've begun to live only for today," he said. "They're running about like mad, drinking, partying, doing everything except settling down and having children."


He added that the critical change in Moscow's demographics occurred between 1990 and 1992.


In 1990, the birth rate was 10.5 per 1,000, while the death rate was 12.8. Two years later, those numbers had widened to 7.7 versus 13.7, or nearly the level it is now.


"There was a fundamental change in those years in the way people viewed their future, or lack of it," he said.


Sergei Zakharov of the Center of Human Demography and Ecology said Moscow faced serious consequences if the huge discrepancy between births and deaths continued.


"You're talking about a major decline in the workforce, and a decline in the number of people to take care of and support the elderly population," he said. "The potential consequences are enormous."