Two decades have passed since the Cold War ended between the United States and the former Soviet Union, but relations between the U.S. and Russia have been complicated in the past 20 years. Issues complicating Russia’s safety and security can influence American safety and security. Dr. Peter Coclanis, associate provost and Albert R. Newsome professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, recently addressed the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society on the topic “The Great Reversal: Russia’s Demographic Crisis and Its Security Implications.” He also discussed that topic with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: This is an interesting topic for anyone who’s following Russia and what’s happening with Russia, and that is the way that demographics are placing some major constraints on Russia and the Russian people. How is demography, if not destiny, at least playing a major role in Russia?

Coclanis: Well, it’s a very interesting point, and as you point out, it might not be destiny, but it is certainly limiting the ability of Russia to respond flexibly — economically, socially, or politically. The key problem for Russia … is that it is in an unprecedented demographic position, historically. Russia had once been a kind of modern country demographically, with a very low birth rate and a very low death rate. What has happened over the past 15 or 20 years, however, is that its birth rate has continued to fall to extremely low levels. But, there has been a spike in its death rate, reversing, essentially, a modern demographic regime and putting Russia in a unique position of an ostensibly developed country with low birth and a very high death rate, which is leading to a population decline in Russia of unprecedented proportions — which decline is particularly severe among the working age, [the] most economically productive portion of the population, that is to say, the people between about 15 and 60, those that basically do the heavy lifting in any society.

Kokai: You mention that this situation is unique among the developed countries. What are the factors that are helping Russia be unique in this regard?

Coclanis: Yes, it’s a kind of demographic scissors, as you can say that there are a variety of factors leading to very low fertility in Russia at the same time that there are another set of variables that are really pushing mortality levels very high. On the fertility side, there is a high rate of infertility in Russia. There’s a high abortion rate. There are all kinds of STDs that are rendering Russian women infertile. There is a very low marriage rate in Russia. There has been a breakdown in many social institutions supportive of marriage and family in Russia. And all of these factors have led to a real decline in fertility, particularly in the ’90s. It has been rising a little bit over the first decade of the 21st century, but even today, at about 1.4 [expected births per woman in her child-bearing years], it’s not very high. Mortality, on the other hand, has really, really spiked. And there are a plethora of factors responsible for the spike in mortality. Some of them relate to the breakdown of the ex-Soviet public health and health care systems, which haven’t been replaced. There [have] been many factors relating to behaviors of certain segments of the population, with very high levels of alcoholism, heavy smoking, sedentary lifestyles, lots of public violence, not much in the way of publicly sponsored vaccination programs. So what we see is, for a variety of reasons, mortality has basically gone back to less-developed-country standards. And Russia today, which once looked like a modern nation in terms of mortality, is now 163rd out of 225 nations in the world, in mortality levels. It is particularly pronounced among the male segment of the population. Russian life expectancy among males now is 59 years, as opposed to 77 in the United States, 80 in Japan, places like this. And it had once been about seven years higher in Russia — just 15 years ago. And now it is down to 59, which puts it into the category of countries like Burma, Yemen, Equatorial Guinea, Bangladesh, Senegal — not a place where you want to be necessarily, demographically speaking. And this is what some demographers — particularly Nick Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute — has called the Great Reversal, and this is an unprecedented situation demographically, historically.

Kokai: In what way has the role of the Russian — and before it, the Soviet —government played in helping contribute to this issue? You touched on this in your talk — the fact that we have seen such change in the government structure.

Coclanis: Well, under the Soviet regime — to be sure, that regime had a lot of problems — but there was relatively universal access to health care. There was a public health system in place. It wasn’t a great system, but there was a system in place. Between 1989 and 1991, this system collapsed, and it has yet to be replaced. What we have, then, is a very spotty and patchy system of public health and health services and health care in Russia, so that there isn’t much in the way of public health.

Kokai: Beyond the public health system, you’ve also mentioned that concerns about the regime have stopped some people from wanting to have kids, or to move back to Russia if they are native Russians.

Coclanis: Yeah, Russia’s policies are not conducive, really, to people making informed decisions to bring more children into this world. Some people have claimed that the democracy deficit and the unstable and destabilized political and social environment raises too many opportunity costs, as economists say, to make a decision to “invest” in having a child, or certainly two children. There’s just too much possibility for something going wrong, for the investment not to pay off, for the property rights that you are trying to invest, in a sense, in your child, to really have a chance to recoup that investment over time.

And so there are lots of disincentives, I think, in place in Russia that make the decision not only to have children, but even to marry, quite suspect. Similarly, migrants, [who] could be a way out of this problem, [have] not proved a very viable solution in Russia, either. Russia has tried to encourage migration from areas to its south in the former Soviet Union, and among Russian people who have been part of a Russian diaspora around the world, but has had little success. Russia today has been celebrated in some ways or has had many at least highly publicized incidences — xenophobia, anti-immigration actions, and the property rights situation, the instability of property rights, institutional protections — have made Russian nationals who had immigrated loathe to return, in many cases, unlike the reverse drain rate in some other parts of the world. Poland, for example, has been getting a lot of Poles from the United States and other parts of western Europe back to Poland in recent years, in another effort to kind of bring back some of its heritage populations. That hasn’t been the case in Russia.