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Washington Times
December 14, 2001
Russia's addiction problems
By Arnold Beichman

These chilling words were spoken last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin: "Year by year, we, the citizens of Russia, are getting fewer and fewer. We face the threat of becoming a senile nation."

The population of Russia has dropped from 148 million in 1992 to 145 million in 2000. Were it not for the return of ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics, Russian population losses would be even greater. So says a Rand Corp. study titled "Dire Demographic Trends Cast a Shadow on Russia's Future." These trends project a Russian population of less than 100 million by 2050.

But there is an even more alarming development that threatens Russia's demographic future: Drugs, specifically cocaine, are being used by more and more Russians each year. Close to 3 million Russians use drugs regularly. In Kaliningrad, a city of 2 million, close to 30 percent of the population are drug addicts, according to Russian statistics. In fact, Russia has become the world's new drug trafficking center for the Colombia drug cartel.

Russia is developing into a major market for Colombian cocaine, according to a leading Colombian newspaper, El Pais. The daily quotes an Interpol source as saying, "In Russia, Colombian drug traffickers have been able to secure total control of the market." What seems incredible is that a kilo of cocaine in Moscow costs three times more than it does in New York City. Narco-trafficking profits, divided between the Colombia drug lords and Russian Mafiosi, have been estimated at $600 million annually.

Citing the Russian Embassy in Bogota as its source, El Pais reports that no less than 40 tons of Colombian cocaine are shipped annually to ports of the former Soviet Union. The article quotes a former Russian ambassador, Ednan Agaev, as saying that "barely 5 percent of the cocaine entering our country is discovered by the authorities."

As for Russia's grim population trends, the story gets worse with each passing year. Deaths of working-age males, now double what they were in the 1960s, have contributed most to declining life expectancy. Male life expectancy is now below that in Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Morocco and the Philippines. The death rate for Russian working-age males is about four times that for U.S. males of the same age group. For example, a 20-year-old Russian male has a 1-in-2 chance of reaching age 60, while an American male has a 9-in-10 chance. Even more astounding is that Russian male life expectancy is now 13 years less than that of Russian females which, says the Rand study, is "one of the largest differences by sex in the world." Even so, Russian female life expectancy is eight years lower than that of American women. Julie DaVanzo and Clifford Grammich are joint authors of the Rand publication.

The chief reasons for rising Russian mortality is alcohol consumption and binge-drinking. Russian male deaths fell sharply, and male life expectancy reached its highest levels ever between 1984 and 1987 during an anti-alcohol campaign that:

- Reduced in-state alcohol production and raised state prices for liquor.

- Campaigned against the bootlegging of samogon, homemade vodka.

- Enforced compulsory treatment of alcoholism.

The anti-alcohol campaign, successful as it was, had one drawback: It was exceedingly unpopular. So it was abandoned after which two phenomena occurred: Alcohol consumption and mortality soared hand in hand among Russian males.

A good deal of this disastrous state of affairs can be blamed on a failed and failing Russian health care system, if it can even be called a system. Funding has been declining since the 1960s. In the mid-1990s, the new Russia was spending per capita 4 cents for every dollar that the United States was spending on health care. And as a topper, says the Rand study, many physicians earn less than bus drivers or baby-sitters.

Such findings spell disaster for a country with an aging population and a decline in working-age males. These are matters of domestic concern. What about Russia's position as a world power? Its huge landmass includes 12,000 miles of borders. Demographic trends will mean a serious drop in military personnel and economic trends a drop in defense spending. In 1998, Russia was spending, in real terms, 15 percent less per soldier than the USSR spent in 1985, the Rand study finds. The study suggests an ominous prospect, and that is, "Such pressures may force Russia to rely on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, for its security."

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a Washington Times columnist.

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