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Demographic declines in Russia

For All Russia, Biological Clock Is Running Out


YAZAN, Russia If Ina Chaikovskaya does not have it all, she has more than most women in this ancient military town: brains and pluck, an apartment and a Zhiguli sedan bought with profits from her own business, a pointed wit.

What she does not have, and would like, are a husband and children. At 37, she is running out of time.

"There are no normal men," she complained, curled up in jeans and a sweater on a sofa, her companion a 7-month-old orange tabby cat staring out the balcony window. "They've all got an inferiority complex because they can't earn enough money to support a family. All of them live with their mothers. They all earn 1,000, 1,500 rubles a month," $35 to $55, roughly.

"Who would want to bear a child with a man like that?" she asked.

In Ryazan, a struggling industrial city southeast of Moscow, the answer is clear: hardly anybody. In the last decade, the marriage rate here has plummeted 30 percent. The divorce rate has leaped 60 percent.

Not surprisingly, the birthrate is down 40 percent, too.

This is the flip side to Russia's decade-long epidemic of rising mortality: a baby bust of alarming speed and size, winnowing the nation's population by millions and likely to continue for years. Europe's highest- fertility country just a decade ago, Russia today is right down there with Spain and Italy as the lowest.

New births last year in Russia occurred at the rate of 8.4 per 1,000 people, compared with 13.4 in 1990. Put another way, Russia's fertility rate the average number of babies a woman is expected to bear was just 1.17, down from 1.89 in 1990.

The outlook, then, is for a shrinking, aging population when there is a crucial need for young people to rejuvenate Russia's farms, re-energize industry and rebuild the economy.

The twin trends rising deaths and declining births are both rooted in the social and public-health upheavals that have swept the nation since the Soviet Union entered its death throes in 1991. Both trends have confounded experts, who expected them to be neither as serious nor as prolonged as they have been.

The country's health care has collapsed in the last decade, along with the people's health. Public hospitals and clinics are short of money and medicine; doctors earn near-poverty wages; infectious diseases like tuberculosis are epidemic.

No one doubts the decay has fed a rise in mortality unparalleled in recent peacetime history. And no one believes this is merely a medical issue. Rather, it is a signal that poverty and stress are eroding the government's ability to care for its own.

Experts, including some at United States intelligence agencies, fear deteriorating public health could lead to political upheavals at worst, or aid emergencies at best.

Low fertility is the norm in many Western nations, of course, thanks largely to women's emancipation and widespread birth control. Even in Russia, birthrates crept slowly downward for decades before the 1990's.

But the latest plunge is different: driven not by women's broader choices, but by the fact that many of their options marital, medical, social, financial have been all but obliterated by the earthquake that destroyed the Soviet Union.

Some turnaround surely will occur, but when, nobody knows. Experts once believed that Russia's mothers would start bearing children again after the upheavals of the early 1990's. Instead, Russia's birthrate fell another 10 percent.

By all estimates, the population will continue to shrink. Russia has already lost 3.3 million people since its population peaked in 1992. It will lose tens of millions more, experts predict, regardless of whether births pick up. The only question is how many.

According to projections prepared at the United Nations, Russia will contract in the next five decades from its current 145 million people to 121 million, the level of 1960.

One Russian demographer, Sergei Yermakov, of the Research Public Health Institute, says Russia could shrink to as few as 80 million people, 10 million fewer than at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

"Children are being put off right now," said Sergei V. Zakharov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, perhaps the leading expert on Russian fertility. "They are going to end up being born. The question is how many two or three. But the answer to that question isn't clear."

The Reasons Why

Ms. Chaikovskaya does not think the birth drought will end soon. After a decade of social upheaval and poverty, creating a child here seems less an act of love, lust or even calculation than it is an act of pure will, and perhaps faith.

"No one wants to have babies," she said. "Even the middle class starts thinking, Can we afford to have babies? Everybody knows that everything in Russia is bad right now."

The province of Ryazan, a Maryland-size patch of flat, black earth etched with S-curves by the Moscow River on its way toward the Volga, ranks 82nd in fertility among Russia's 89 provinces. The birthrate seven babies per 1,000 women each year is one-sixth below the Russian average. In the past two years, one of Ryazan's four maternity hospitals has closed.

Ask women why, as the Family Planning Center in Ryazan asked 500 women who sought abortions last year, and one answer dominates: they cannot support a family. They lack money (97 percent), or space in the matchbox flats they share with parents (15 percent), or confidence that they can regain their jobs after childbirth (8 percent).

Valentina Shevachkina, director of the family planning center, says 15,000 of the clinic's clients polled from 1997 to 1999 wanted an average of two children "if the government takes some responsibility for their education and upbringing if the state gave some form of assistance."

The state can't or won't. Even the $2-a-month stipend guaranteed everyone under 18 is almost $1 billion in arrears nationwide, and marked for a budget cut next year. In parts of this province, it has not been paid since 1998.

If $2 sounds like a pittance, think again. In a region of slender incomes and phone-booth apartments, it takes very little to derail motherhood.

Olga Marshalko, 23, a hospital intern in Kasimov, on the Oka River east of Ryazan, and her bricklayer husband have postponed pregnancy until they can escape their two-room flat in a dormitory.

"Another serious problem is money," she said, "but it wouldn't prevent us from having a family." Why not is a puzzle: the Marshalkos take home $46 a month.

In Ryazan, 28-year-old Natasha, who declined to give her last name, is 28 and pregnant with the first of what she hopes will be two children.

She also worries about money, and says her parents will do much of the child-rearing, for if she takes the maternity leave ostensibly guaranteed by the government, her employer could replace her quickly. In Economic Free Fall

For times here are hard.

The Ryazan countryside suffers the same devastating poverty that ravaged most rural areas after the Soviet system of collective farming fell apart. Meat production has fallen 85 percent in a decade, the grain harvest by two-thirds.

In that same period, one-sixth of Ryazan's 500,000 rural residents have died off or fled to the cities. Only a trickle of migrants from even poorer places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan has warded off faster shrinkage.

Ryazan, the regal if fraying provincial capital, once grew as the farms emptied out. But four years ago it began losing people, too, a victim of the post-Soviet collapse in military production that was the city's financial linchpin. Only lately have a few industries like power generation and oil refining begun to pick up some of the slack.

When Vladimir Gornov, an associate professor at Ryazan State Technical University, surveyed local economic conditions in July, one-fifth of respondents said bread was the staple of their diet.

"The baby-boom generation has grown up, and the post-baby-boom generation isn't having any babies," he said. "The working-age population in the countryside is simply drinking itself to death. I don't know whether it would be better for them to have babies or not."

A decade ago, there were an average of 55 births for every 1,000 Ryazan women under age 20. Last year the average was 29. The same sort of drop occurred among women between 20 and 24, the most productive ages for Russian motherhood.

When Ryazan entered the 1990's, 4 marriages in 10 were ending in divorce. By the decade's end, the figure was almost 6 in 10, mirroring the rise throughout Russia.

The reasons are the same as those for the dramatic drop in new marriages. Poverty, social upheaval, loosened sexual mores and deteriorating public health are not the glue of a good relationship. And while women everywhere say a good man is hard to find, this seems especially true in Ryazan, where alcohol-related deaths and the murder rate have rocketed upward.

Those are markers of social breakdown among men, though women are complicit in at least some of that breakdown: one in five Ryazan births last year was out of wedlock, double the rate in 1990 a factor that breeds poverty and instability.

The Issue of Infertility

It was infertility counseling day one recent afternoon and there must have been 30 women crowding the sofas outside the Family Planning Center in Ryazan.

"We have 2,000 infertile couples being treated here," said Ms. Shevachkina, the director, "and some couples don't go for help at all."

Nobody knows how many Russian couples are infertile: maybe one in 10, as the nation's obstetrician-general says, or one in five, as the Health Ministry reported in April, or one in six, as some doctors in Ryazan estimate. The comparable rate in the United States is about one in 12.

One legacy left by Soviet medical planners can be summed up in a word: abortion. It has had substantial effects on the ability of women to conceive. Contraception was never a priority under Communism; if anything, it was viewed as anti-growth. Birth control pills were rare; condoms were unreliable.

So by the 1980's, the average Russian woman was having nearly four abortions. Under President Boris N. Yeltsin, the government opened 260 family counseling centers and, by subsidizing interuterine devices and birth control pills, cut the overall abortion rate by a third. But the Communist-controlled Parliament wiped out the program's budget.

Seventy-five percent of Russian women still rely on abortion to control family size, and with subsidies eliminated for contraceptives, that rate may rise.

Ms. Chaikovskaya said Ryazan women are wary of the pill and IUD's, worried about side effects. At Maternity House No. 1, the 37-year- old chief doctor, Andrei Turchyannikov, agreed.

However much doctors may advise about these other methods of birth control, "many women think, `Well, if I get pregnant, I can just have an abortion,' " he said. "Our women continue to think abortion is not a frightening thing, like getting your tooth fixed."

Such a casual attitude has stark consequences, Ms. Shevachkina said. When the family planning center studied 500 women who were unable to have a second child, in 1994, they concluded that for half of them, infertility stemmed from past abortions.

"I think little has changed since then," she said.

But abortions have declined; if infertility is rising, as many seem to believe, the blame probably lies with the spread of Western sexual mores and the explosion of venereal diseases that followed. There, too, some doctors believe, men are most at fault.

Aleksandr B. Tereshenko, the specialist in male infertility at the family planning center, said half the center's infertility cases now involve men, compared with 20 percent earlier in the decade. He blames alcohol, a deteriorating diet and venereal disease, from herpes to chlamydia to hepatitis, for much of the shift.

Finding Fathers Abroad

This is a nation where bigger has always meant better. And Russian politicians, including President Vladimir V. Putin, have seized this year on their nation's dwindling birthrate as evidence that the Russian race is besieged, and must be reinvigorated.

Mr. Putin even suggested in November that the secret to Russia's population revival lay in luring back millions of Slavic Russians whose ancestors were dispatched by Stalin to populate the Soviet empire, and who now live in independent former Soviet republics.

In fact it is not that simple and perhaps not quite so dire. Russia has been beset by fertility declines again and again in the last century during the war that followed the 1917 Communist takeover, during the famine that followed Stalin's collectivization of farmland in the 1930's, during World War II and suffered no lasting aftereffects.

Births even swelled a bit in the 1980's, as the Kremlin offered women bigger apartments and other incentives to mothers. A small part of the decline in the 1990's reflects the fact that women sped up their pregnancy plans to reap those benefits, and had fewer babies later on.

Perhaps the best analogy to Russia's current dry spell a steep drop in births during the Depression in the United States also ended in a dramatic rebound.

"What we saw in the U.S. in the 30's was a very large decline in the total fertility rate," said Barbara Anderson, an expert on Russian population trends at the University of Michigan. "But I know from looking at cohorts of women at the time that it was virtually total postponement. When things got better, it recovered."

Many of Ms. Chaikovskaya's friends are not prepared to wait. They are leaving Ryazan.

She can tick them off, rapid-fire: Olya met an American on the Internet and is happy in the United States. Sveta found a Ukrainian and went to Kiev. Lena ran off with a Portuguese pipefitter; so did another Olya. Larisa is living with a man in Yugoslavia.

Ms. Chaikovskaya says she is still betting on success in Ryazan.

"I'd like a daughter," she said, and after making a stable life for herself. "Now I'm thinking I can do it. But I'm also thinking it's too late."

-- robert waldrop (, December 28, 2000

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