By Paul Goble
Preliminary results from the 2010 Russian census highlight some of that country’s most serious underlying problems and thus appear likely to be the subject of intense discussion and debate not only among commentators but also in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
The results released show a continuing decline in the total Russian population, a hollowing out of much of the country, an increase in the gender imbalance Russia has suffered since World War II, and, what is especially disturbing to many Russians, a shift in the ethnic balance of the population as a result of differential birthrates and immigration.
And those trends — which some observers are already suggesting may be even worse than the official figures show — help explain why some Russian leaders wanted to put off the census or at least reports of its findings until after the 2012 presidential elections lest the census data call attention to the failures of Moscow’s policies over the last decade.
“Rossiiskaya gazeta” published preliminary results for the 2010 Russian census (www.nr2.ru/rus/325729.html). Even this small sample has sparked widespread discussion as well as reignited suspicions in many quarters that this census like the one in 2002 was distorted by massive falsifications of various kinds.
The three most striking features of these data were first, the overall decline in the population, some 2.2 million or 1.6 percent, since 2002; the worsening of the gender imbalance in the country because of super-high mortality rates among working age men, and the relative decline in the ethnic Russian share of the population, even though ethnic data were not released.
On the one hand, as many commentators noted, non-Russian regions grew while predominantly ethnic Russian ones declined in size, further hollowing out the ethnic Russian core of the country and raising questions in the minds of some about the future of the Russian nation and hence of the Russian state.
And on the other, as other writers noted, the decline in the size of the total population would have been far greater had it not been compensated for by a massive influx of immigrants, few of whom have been ethnic Russians (in contrast to the situation in the 1990s) and many of whom are increasingly culturally and linguistically different from Russians.
Liberal opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was among those who pointed to all these things. He suggested in a comment to Novy region that “citizens of Russia are disappearing at a speed of about 500,000 a year. That is, the total loss [for the intercensal period was at least] five million” (www.nr2.ru/moskow/325874.html).
These population trends, Nemtsov said, “mean one thing:” neither the country nor the state “has a future.” What must be done, he said, is “to reorient resources awy from the special services and the enrichment [of the few] toward health care and a healthy way of life” and to stand the economic policy in the country in order to create a middle class.”
Making those changes requires a change in the country’s leadership, he said. “under the current regime, the withering away [of the nation and hence of Russia’s future] will continue.”
Coming from a different perspective, Moscow commentator Mikhail Delyagin agreed, although he put it somewhat differently. According to him, the withering away of Russia has been stopped at least in official statistics but only at the cost of a change in the ethnic composition of the country (forum-msk.org/material/economic/5842854.html).
According to Delyagin, increasingly social and economic conflicts may soon take the form in Russia “if not of national then of ethno-cultural” ones, and if that proves to be the case, he argued, “this will mark a colossal step toward the degradation and archaization of all of Russian society.”