Если вкратце, то наше правительство, к сожалению, упускает важнейший момент в борьбе за сохранение численности россиян — что надо решительно бороться с пьянством. На примере антиалкогольной компании Горбачёва мы можем наблюдать, какое положительное влияние оказывает борьба с пьянством на рождаемость. Мы стоим, таким образом, на пороге резкого обрушения демографической ситуации...
May 3, 2013, 7:32 p.m. ET
The Russians Are Shrinking!
Putin is wasting his chance to battle Russia's love of drink and to reverse a devastating drop in population!
Vladimir Putin is more than a year into his third term as president of Russia, and he is likely to dominate the country's next decade as he dominated the last—just as Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev dominated their own times in the Kremlin. Like Putin or loathe him, he embodies an era.
But centuries from now, the history books will barely remember the human rights abuses or oil pipelines in today's coverage of Russia. Mr. Putin will be remembered for one thing only: missing the chance to save his nation from a lingering decline.
Hockey fans celebrate their team's return to Moscow after a league victory last month.
The United Nations predicts that, by 2050, there will be 116 million people in Russia, a drop of 30 million in the half-century from 2000, when Mr. Putin was elected president. That drop in numbers is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Canada.
Mr. Putin cannot be blamed for this problem, which began when he was just a schoolboy in Leningrad. Russian life expectancy started to decline in the mid-1960s, and the number of children being born fell below the replacement level around the same time. That age of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, years when the Kremlin was at its most confident and assertive, was also the time when the nation's foundations began to be undermined by an epidemic of alcoholism.
Between 1940 and 1980, the production of spirits trebled in Russia. At any given time during the late Soviet period, according to some estimates, as much as a third of the workforce was absent because of drunkenness. But only in 1985 did the government begin to do something about the mess.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that year, he closed 90% of Moscow's alcohol shops, dug up vineyards and closed distilleries. Within three years, life expectancy had regained all the ground it had lost, and 1986 saw the most births since 1962. There were still more births a year later. A recent study estimated that, in addition, some 400,000 deaths per year were prevented by Mr. Gorbachev's campaign.
But few of his decisions did more to anger ordinary Russians, who exploited the new license to speak freely as they queued for vodka. Mr. Gorbachev remains reviled to this day. By 1991, the policy was gone, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the birthrate plunged. During the final 16 years of communism, 36 million Russians were born, and 24.6 million died. In the first 16 years of capitalism, the figures were reversed: 22.3 million were born, and 34.7 million died.
The consequences of this demographic catastrophe have been far-reaching. Soldiers are suddenly in short supply. As for state finances, though Russians are dying young, the median age of the population is still rising, which means an ever-larger burden of pensions for the working population.
None of this was a secret to Mr. Putin when he arrived in the Kremlin, and the situation has improved a little since then. Partly thanks to payments he has made to parents and a temporary increase in the number of Russians at reproductive age, the total number of children born each year rose by 50% in his first decade. Last year, almost as many Russians were born as died.
But Mr. Putin had a unique opportunity to save the Russians because of the baby boom caused by Mr. Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign. Those babies became young adults on Mr. Putin's watch and are now having babies of their own. There are so many of them that, if only a second baby boom could be encouraged, they could begin to repopulate the country. The window is now closing. Russians born in 1985 are turning 28 this year, and Russian women rarely give birth after 30. The baby boom ended by 1989, and when that generation moves on, the next one will be tiny. There is no way that the shrunken generation of the 1990s can reproduce enough to stabilize the population.
Every demographer knew that this one-off wave of young Russians was coming. Mr. Putin needed to be ready to ride it, to provide his young citizens with the most generous possible incentives—free child care, schooling, health care, anything he could think of—to make sure they reproduced.
Instead, desperate for votes after last year's protests, the president pledged wage increases for federal workers and boosts to defense spending, while ruling out any rise in the pension age. All of these promises cost money that could have been spent on babies. And the money is gone; the Russian budget is on the brink of a deficit. Last year, there were almost 24 million Russians in their 20s, according to Russia's State Statistics Committee. In a decade's time, there will be 14 million, a drop of about 40%.
In a televised phone-in last month, Mr. Putin boasted of the improved population numbers brought by his policies. "In general, the demographic situation is advancing in a positive direction," he said. But he has let the Russian people down. At this point, no policy can plug the hole that will result from the sudden absence of parents that Russia is facing, and the "record birthrates" he referred to in his TV appearance are still not high enough to ensure that parents will replace themselves.
To add worry upon worry, life expectancy fell in 2012 to 69.7 years. This was the first fall in a decade and dashed hopes that the life span of the average Russian would beat the Gorbachev-era peak and exceed 70 years for the first time ever. The average American dies at 78; the average Briton at 80; the average Japanese at 83.
The Russians have fought off many enemies, from Napoleon to Hitler, and the men who led them in those fights earned chapters in the history books. But Mr. Putin will be remembered as the man who failed to defend the Russians against the most terrible enemy of all: their own love of vodka.
—Mr. Bullough is the author of "The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation."
A version of this article appeared May 4, 2013, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Russians Are Shrinking!.