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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Blaming Democracy for Communism's Blunders

Russians typically fail to realize that all nations making a transition from slavery or other oppression to democracy and freedom must endure years of hardship. They think that if they can't get nirvana within a few short years, democracy is a fraud and they're entitled to revert to Neo-Soviet behavior. In other words, Russians are very lazy.

Case in point: A perfectly insane opinion column appeared in the Moscow Times on Thursday, penned by one Alexander Zhelenin who styles himself "a freelance journalist working in Moscow." Translation: Nobody will hire him.

In the column, Zhelenin reviews Russia's population loss statistics as follows:

The State Statistics Service recently published its latest data on the country's population, which it said was 143.3 million as of April 1 -- a drop of 224,000 from the beginning of the year. If we carry on dying off at this rate, there will be just over 142 million of us left at the beginning of next year.

In 2004, according to the service, Russia's natural population loss was almost 800,000 people. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin once again declared in his state-of-the-nation address in May that boosting the country's population was a priority task for the state. But the downward trend in the population is not being reversed.

As a base for our calculations, let us take the relatively good year of 1991, when Russia's population reached its all-time high of 148 million. When radical reforms started in 1992, the population began to fall -- by some 220,000 in 1992 alone. Since 1993, the rate of loss has not dropped under 700,000 per year, and in some years -- such as 2000 -- it was close to 1 million.

In total, in the 13 years since the launch of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's liberalization campaign in 1992, Russia's population has fallen by 10.4 million.

Thus, starting with a simple calculation -- 148 million minus 10.4 million -- Russia's population today should be not 143 million, but 137.6 million. The 6 million people who have weakened the demographic decline came from an obvious source -- other former Soviet republics. Incidentally, the figure of 6 million is more or less compatible with the very rough data from the Interior Ministry, which says 5 million to 10 million citizens of the former Soviet Union have come to Russia in that period. Taking the higher of those two figures for repatriates -- 10 million -- makes the picture regarding the demographic catastrophe even more shocking.

But this is not the end of the arithmetic. For more than 40 years after 1945, Russia (in its incarnation as a Soviet republic) registered continuous population growth. The figures varied, naturally, but in the 13 years up to the start of the liberal reforms -- from 1979 to 1991 -- Russia's population grew by some 9 million people.

Thus, had it not been for the tremendous upheavals that Russia suffered from 1992 to 2004, the country's indigenous population -- or those permanent residents from before 1991 and their offspring -- would be not 143 million, as it is today, but 157 million (taking into account the 148 million in 1991 plus growth of 9 million from 1992 to 2004). Adding the 5 million to 10 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Russia since 1991 would give us a number between 162 million and 167 million. This is what Russia's population should be today.

That's right, Zhelenin claims that the attempt to reform the USSR caused the genocide of 20 million people (142 million by the beginning of next year should have been 162 million if the USSR had been left alone), roughly the same number of Russians murdered by Stalin, or by Nazi Germany. So, according to Zhelenin, Russia has three great enemies in its history: Stalin, Hitler and Gaidar.

Well, four actually, if you count Putin. Zhelenin asks: "So what is the reason for this ongoing catastrophe, despite seven straight years of economic growth? Why is this growth not having an influence on Russia's demographic situation? The answer is relatively straightforward -- because the results of this growth are enjoyed by a very narrow group of people in big business that share some of that money only in the form of payoffs to government officials at various levels. What falls to the population from the very wealthy are mere crumbs." Who's responsible for this crumbiness? Putin of course. Pity Zhelenin didn't think to say so.

So Hitler, Stalin, Gaidar and Putin -- these are the great enemies of Russia. And which one is the most important? Zhelenin concludes:

Tellingly, some 60 percent of all deaths in modern Russian are the result of cardiovascular disease. The reasons behind this -- in addition to the alcoholism that has swept a country that even previously had always liked its drink -- are largely negative social factors such as hard work (lots of people are now working 12- to 14-hour days, with one day off a week, or holding down two or three jobs simultaneously), anxiety over possible job loss, unemployment and insecurity about the future. The meager salaries and pensions received by a significant number of Russians, coupled with inflation, are also factors. The radical reforms of the early 1990s represented a double blow for the country's population, in the form of economic hardship and uncertainty about the future. These conditions bear the greatest responsibility for the demographic crisis the country is still experiencing today.

It's Gaidar! Now that's a revelation!

But there's just one tiny little flaw in this analysis, a minor thing that the author overlooks. Well, minor in the sense that Russia is a minor geographical presence on the globe. So, humongous would probably be a better word.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that smoking may have something to do with cardiovascular disease, a fact Zhelenin doesn't mention (smoking kills 300,000 Russians every year and accounted for more than one-third of Russia's net population loss of 800,000 in 2004).

And I'm not talking about Russia's rampant AIDS crisis (by 2020, 10% of the population will be HIV+), another fact Zhelenin ignores.

Nor am I talking about the fact that "President" Putin has nary a word to say about smoking or AIDS, yet another bit of news Zhelenin has yet to hear.

I'm not talking about Russia's high-fat diet, or its dearth of green vegetables and fruits.

I'm talking about Communism.

About the fact that maybe, just maybe, intentionally murdering 20 million Russians in the gulags might possibly have undermined Russia's ability to produce good leaders and solve problems. And about the fact that blundering into World War II after stabbing Russia's allies in the back, costing another 20 million Russian lives, could have had the same effect.

About the vast pockets of hazardous waste that festoon Russia's countryside, including ghastly amounts of radioactive material. You know, the stuff that the non-responsive, uncaring Politburo swept under the table any time it made a mistake, because it didn't have the money to do it right. About contaminated water and foodstuffs. That sort of thing.

And about the truly horrifying share of Russia's GDP that Communism devoted to military spending (the share of GDP that the USSR spent on its military was four or five times the share America spent). The spending that ultimately hollowed out the budget of the USSR until the whole huge monstrosity simply imploded of its own fetid weight.

You know, the basic facts concerning the Soviet Union that Zhelenin chooses to ignore. Or maybe ignore is the wrong word. Maybe "lie about" is better.

He writes: "For more than 40 years after 1945, Russia (in its incarnation as a Soviet republic) registered continuous population growth. The figures varied, naturally, but in the 13 years up to the start of the liberal reforms -- from 1979 to 1991 -- Russia's population grew by some 9 million people." And where, exactly, does Zhelenin get these figures? From the Soviet government? Is he really suggesting that if the USSR were undergoing demographic crisis, it would have told the world, in the height of the cold war? What unbelievable nonsense! The results of the Soviet census taken in 1979 were not published until five years later -- does Zhelenin think this was just proofreading time? Soviet birthrates are known to have been in decline since the late 1960s. One authoritative source writes of this period:

Unless unfavorable trends can be reversed, the Soviet Union eventually will have to deal with the threat of depopulation in much of the European portion of the Russian Republic and in the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian republics, the very political, military, and economic base of the country. Persistently low birth rates and a sharp downward trend in family size among most Soviet Europeans has been the root cause. The pattern became more obvious, and the alarms became louder, in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The declining Russian representation in the multinational Soviet population has caused great concern. Such a trend has serious international and national political, economic, social, and military implications. For example, with fewer native speakers of Russian, it becomes progressively more difficult to maintain Russian as the national language. As the Russian language declines in importance, the challenge of both raising the national level of education and training a skilled labor force becomes more complicated and costly. The armed forces, as well, face the prospect of adding to their ranks a smaller percentage of Soviet Europeans and a greater share of Soviet Asians, who may not serve with the dedication of the Slavs and whose service imposes additional demands on the military in terms of special training to improve communications skills.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the government introduced some key initiatives that were intended to ameliorate demographic difficulties: occupations restricted to males for health and safety reasons were expanded; maternity leave was extended to one year after the birth (eight weeks fully paid), and the leave was counted as service time; lump-sum cash payments for each birth were provided, with higher premiums for the third and fourth child; child support payments to low-income families were increased; and families were to be given preferential treatment in the assignment of housing and other services.

Oh, and one more little thing. Zhelenin slightly misstates the views of Igor Gaidar, by omitting a key fact. You see, Gaidar believed that there was a really good possibility that, given the chance, Russians would go right back to Soviet dicatorship. He thought they'd vote for it. Everybody told him he was crazy, it would never happen, the changes in Russia were "irreversible." But Gaidar still worried. So he decided that it was necessary to transfer Soviet power into other hands just as fast as humanly possible, and he knew it would be messy, very messy. That's why he sold off assets as fast as possible, and why he had Boris Yeltsin tell local leaders to "take all the power you can grab." Granted, many problems would result. But the alternative was USSR II, and a second round of cold war with the USA and a second massive failure, something Gaidar wasn't sure his country could survive.

And uh, Mr. Zhelenin, in case you're interested, Gaidar was right. That's exactly what the people of Russia did when given the chance. They didn't give democracy even one decade to work, not even two different presidents. They didn't build a variety of political parties and send forth able leaders. They kept voting for the Communist Party. They didn't vote in unusually high numbers. They didn't assert themselves. They stood by passively and watched their government being created by others, and they elected members of the Politburo to serve in their new legislature. They said they hated Boris Yeltsin, but when Yeltsin told them to elect a KGB spy president, they did so. Like lemmings. Twice.

And now, we watch as a Neo-Soviet Union rises from the ashes of the USSR. We see a dishonest, Neo-Soviet propagandist spewing forth insane nonsense on the pages of the Moscow Times (shame on you, editors!). And we see that Gaidar's problem wasn't that he was too radical, his problem was that he wasn't nearly radical enough.

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