Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman ("A Normal Country," March/April 2004) argue that much of the enduring pessimism over Russia is the result of sensationalism. Russia's demographic indicators, however, suggest that concern is warranted.

Since 1998 (when most analysts agree Russia's economic rebound began) the Russian population decline has approached one million people per year -- 935,000 in 2002, for example, as opposed to a loss of 697,000 in 1998 and a robust gain of 580,000 in 1989. These dramatic figures represent the largest peacetime rate of population loss in Europe since the plagues. And the trend has no discernible end in sight. Goskomstat (Russia's state statistical agency) projects the Russian population to shrink to between 77 and 126 million by 2050, and Murray Feshbach, the United States' foremost demographer of Russia, estimates that it will drop by more than a third, to a mere 100 million. Declining populations, in turn, are expected to cause enormous problems for conscripting a healthy military and sustaining a productive (and taxable) working population.

Male life expectancy has also continued to decline significantly since 1998. Whereas an average Russian man could expect to live 61.3 years in 1998, that number dropped to 58.5 by 2002. This is in comparison to a life expectancy of 74 years in the United States and nearly 78 in Japan. Even when compared to the countries in the same macroeconomic bracket, as suggested by Shleifer and Treisman, Russian men fare considerably worse: on average, they die almost 13 years sooner than South Korean men (71.4 years), 11 years sooner than their counterparts in Mexico (70.1 years), and almost 10 years sooner than men in poverty-ridden Uzbekistan (68.2 years). In fact, Russians have the lowest life expectancy of any postcommunist nation.

This demographic implosion continues at both ends: not only are Russians dying at an increasing rate, but fewer Russians are being born every year, and even fewer are being born healthy. Since the early 1990s, Russia has had one of the world's lowest birth rates, as fewer prospective parents are willing to bring children into an uncertain future. The percentage of children born healthy in Russia today is lower than before the discovery of penicillin.

Considering these demographic indicators, Russia looks like anything but a "normal country."


University of Wisconsin, Madison