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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete's Populace Graying, Shrinking

ST. PETERSBURG -- This city survived the tsars and the commisars, two revolutions and a 900-day Nazi blockade that felled more than 1 million people from hunger and cold.

And now it is dwindling away. The population decreases annually by 1 percent; the birth rate is the lowest of any region in Russia; and if it was a city of 5 million in 1990, some statistical models suggest it will be a city of 4 million in another 15 years or so.

The woeful tale of Russia's falling population is not new. But it seems that the prospects for St. Petersburg are worse than in the rest of the country. Where the national average population growth rate is running at minus 4.8 per 1,000 people, the figure for St. Petersburg is minus 7.1.

Compared to Europe, the trend is even more striking. Britain's growth rate is stable at plus 1.6, while Norway is at plus 3.8. The United States is growing at plus six, with Mexico at a rapid plus 23.5.

Many countries in Eastern Europe have falling populations, but none rival those of Russia.

Vladimir Dmitriyev, chairman of the St. Petersburg Health Workers' Trade Union, laid out some of the starker statistics: Last year, 72,000 people died in St. Petersburg - 7,300 more than in 1998. At the same time, only 29,400 babies were born in St. Petersburg that year - 1,800 fewer than in 1998.

Dmitriyev said St. Petersburg's birthrate puts the city in last place out of the country's 89 regions. He and other medical workers - armed with grim demographics and complaints of poor funding for public health - picketed City Hall last month to draw attention to the poor state of local health care.

The St. Petersburg city budget allocated 12 percent of its expenditures to health care this year.

"During the Soviet era, municipal health care used to receive 20 percent of the city budget," Dmitriyev said.

"By 1999 this had already fallen to 14.2 percent."

Viktor Titov, deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Statistics Agency, had more figures to illustrate the situation. He compared the average birth rate in 1985 of 1.7 children per 1,000 people to the 0.95 per 1,000 in 1999.

Titov's statistics for the death rate over a similar period track an increase in deaths, from 12.2 out of every 1,000 people in 1985 to 15.4 per 1,000 last year.

What this means in overall figures, according to Titov, is that the St. Petersburg population fell from an all-time high of 5.03 million residents in 1990, to 4.7 million today.

"If the situation doesn't change, we can prognosticate that in 2016 the St. Petersburg population will amount to 4.1 million people," Titov said.

There are several reasons for the drop, according to local experts.

The first is that young St. Petersburgers feel they simply cannot afford to have children, even if they wanted to.

Lev Erman, the city's chief pediatrician, said that the main reason for the low birth rate here was that "many families are postponing their babies until financial times are better."

Natasha, a 26-year-old actress, said she will in all likelihood never be a mother. The total income for her family is barely $100, she said.

"And our state family allowance [at $2 per month] is ridiculous in the context of today's prices."

Svetlana, 21, is unemployed, although her boyfriend earns $100 a month.

Svetlana said that when she became pregnant, she at first had wanted to keep the baby, but decided to have an abortion when she realized there was no way she and her boyfriend could feed another mouth.

Sergei, a 24-year-old driver, said that when one of his friends got married and said he wanted children, everyone around him thought he was a fool.

"He will just add to [the number of those] living in poverty," Sergei said.

A second reason, which is also connected to money, is the lack of basic medicines, the closing of hospitals and clinics and poor payment of health workers. Some local hospitals have even taken to discharging patients after a set period, regardless of their condition.

"Now, the official maximum term for keeping a client in the hospital is no more than 21 days," said one city doctor who asked not to be identified. "Once, those people, like the elderly, who had no one to take care of them could stay in until they were fully recovered."

Dmitriyev said the low salaries of medical workers was a major concern for the Health Workers' Trade Union. "Public health staff are the lowest paid of all city-paid workers," he said, adding that local hospital doctors receive $30 a month on average.

"How can they live and support their families when the official minimum cost of living is [around] $50?" Dmitriyev asked.

"No wonder people complain about the indifference of medical personnel and [having to pay] bribes."

And when economic crisis hits, affecting the health of the population and the ability of medical workers to deal with it, the effects are particularly pronounced.

In 1993-94, according to Titov, the death rate per 1,000 citizens in St. Petersburg jumped up to 17 people, compared to 13 in 1992, a leap Titov attributes to the rocketing prices of the time.

With the socially devastating phenomena of heart disease, alcohol poisoning, tuberculosis, AIDS and other diseases on the up, St. Petersburg is a steadily aging city. "In 2001," Titov said, "the elderly will make up 24 percent of this city. Fifteen years after that, the figure will be 30 percent."

Erman agreed, saying "the endless stressful factors of today's reality" were the main factor in the high death rate among working adults.

"Stress causes early heart attacks and strokes," he said.v