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Monday, May 22, 2006

Life with an Idiot

Russian Viktor Erofeyev, author of Life With an Idiot, had this to say in The International Herald Tribune (via the New York Times) about Russia's population problem:

SINCE my daughter Maya was born 10 months ago, I've noted that many of my Russian friends are more likely to express amazement than to share my joy. "Do you really like fussing around with kids?" asked one of them, a television journalist, with sincere incredulity.

It might be that this notion of children as a burden, as an unnecessary bother, is the psychological reason for the catastrophic decline in Russian birth rates (the average woman has 1.34 children, and for every 16 Russians who died in 2004, only 10.4 babies were born). It's hard enough to get by — let's leave children for the future.

Imagine a large city, population 700,000. Every year, Russia loses every person in that city. While 35,000 people are killed in automobile accidents each year, even more die from drugs, alcohol and the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle. Death triumphs over birth in a country that the state-owned news media grandly calls an energy superpower.

The state, at last, has taken note. In something of a bantering tone, which has become his style of late, President Vladimir Putin declared that the primary concern of the state is now love and motherhood.

He proposed to resolve the love question capitalistically; to use financial incentives to raise the birthrate. Thus a woman who decides to have a second child will get about $10,000. And the president underpinned his concern for motherhood with a military concept, arguing that a dwindling population would leave the country unprotected.

I just returned to Moscow from China — where there is an effective ban on a second child — with a strange thought: the Chinese could export extra children to Russia. Really. Until now, Russia has been exporting its children through foreign adoptions. Orphanages effectively trade in children.

If a woman in Russia decides to have a child, she faces serious trials. If she can't deliver in an elite Moscow clinic, she ends up in a provincial "birth house," where conditions are appalling and doctors and nurses are indifferent, even disdainful.

Save the Children ranks Russia a humble 27 among 125 countries rated on the basis of how safe it is to give birth. This is not Niger (which is in last place), but on a par with Cuba, Panama and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Putin's initiative has been met with the dirty jokes and outlandish rumors that accompany any government program that deals with an intimate issue. Some Russians question whether the president has recently been involved in the actual process that leads to babies (actually, he has two grown daughters). Others have spread canards to the effect that he has another family in some Volga city.

I don't believe any of this. In general, I regard Mr. Putin as historically unavoidable; as penance for the sins of Russian democracy, if you will. But the population issue is a serious one and Mr. Putin has put his finger on an important problem.

The unhealthy lifestyle of people in my country, however, cannot be altered even by the most energetic decrees. To increase the production of children, we would need to be assured that Russia is on the right track to prosperity. It's not enough to command high prices for Russian oil and gas. We need to get out of a deep moral depression. Do what you will, you can't order people to make babies.

If Russia stops drinking, and the Kremlin stops thrashing around in search of new friends and enemies, then one day we will wake up as a big European country with amazing potential. And the children will start coming. Beautiful Russian children.

Why do artists always think they have contributions to make in the world of politics? There's one small problem with the idea of importing children to Russia from China. Racist Russians would kill the babies, and nobody would lift finger to stop it. Erofeyev doesn't mention word one about Russia's worsening problem with race violence. In other words, like a classic Russian he lives in a fantasy world.

It's comforting to think of Putin as "historically unavoidable," deserved punishment for Russia's abuse of its democratic blessings, a lesson in disguise. But then one asks oneself: What did Russians learn from their other historic unavoidability, their punishment for playing with Communism, that mass-murder fellow named Stalin? In fact, when have Russians learned any lesson? And even if the were learning something, what if Putin is killing them faster than they are learning?

In fact, no Kremlin leader can ever afford to have Russians think that "Russia is on the right track to prosperity." To do that would meanin enabling the population, which could then become a threat. In fact, its very easy to argue that such problems as pandemic racism and population decline are good things for the Kremlin, because they make the population weaker and less difficult to control.

For how many centuries have we been hearing Russians say "one day we will wake up as a big European country with amazing potential"? These days, it's nothing more than a sick joke. If there were really any hope for Russia, the main theme of Erofeyev's piece would have been to lay out a plan to bring Putin down and replace him with someone who was his polar opposite. Instead, he's "historically unavoidable penance" and there is not the slightest suggestion of who should replace him. One day, it will be seen as "historically unavoidable" that Russia should vanish from the face of the Earth, until their is only one Russia left, rambling around in a big empty country still muttering about how Russia will be great one day.

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