Monday, April 24, 2006

Russia Shrinks

Russia Shrinks

The top topics in Western newspapers as regards Russia these days appear to be (in no particular order): Iran/Hamas deals, US-Russia headbutting, neo-fascist skinheads killing people who don't look like them, oil-gas thuggery with the EU, and ... dead Russians. In fact, that would be an excellent name for a punk rock band, The Dead Russians (perhaps I should trademark or register the domain name while I still have that chance). Writing on the topic of dead Russians this time is the Canadian Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith dramatic and at least somewhat numerically accurate report of the death rate in Russian, particularly among young men.

As Mr. Smith cites, if trends continue, Russia could lose as much as 1/3 of its population in the next half century. The important part of this is, of course ... IF trends continue. It should also be pointed out that even if this trend continues, Russia's population density will remain above such nations as say - Canada. So it isn't as if Russia will melt away. Also, Russia seems acutely aware of what is going on, but is unsure how to deal with the behavior. Much of the article focuses upon drug use and HIV/AIDS in Russia.
The problem is at least partly psychological, said Boris Tsvetkov, director of the AIDS treatment centre in Irkutsk. His patients know they're risking their lives when they inject drugs or have unprotected sex, he says, but sometimes they just don't care.

"To persuade a person to have the right behaviour, that person must be raised with a good understanding of how to live correctly," Mr. Tsvetkov said. "It's easier for the young people to break everything, including themselves. We broke our country for the last 10 years and now we're trying to put it back together."

From his spare office on the city's outskirts, in a compound that resembles a factory, Mr. Tsvetkov stands at the forefront of Russia's fight to stop the bleeding. The Irkutsk region has the highest drug-addiction rate in the country, and the highest AIDS infection rate.

Among the many problems driving down Russian life expectancy, the government appears to have chosen AIDS as one of its most urgent battles. The Kremlin plans to spend $126-million (Canadian) on AIDS programs this year -- a 30-fold increase from the previous year. The budget will grow again next year, to $324-million.

That makes Russia's program fairly small by international standards; Canada's federal AIDS strategy provides at least three times as much funding for each infected person. But observers say the new money shows that Russia takes the problem seriously, as the country's overall infection rate is believed to have climbed past the 1-per-cent threshold that separates low-level outbreaks from broad epidemics.

In Irkutsk alone, with a population of about 600,000, 18,000 people have tested positive for HIV, and the numbers are growing by roughly 1,000 a year.
This generation is free to make its own choices, but are they prepared to make good choices? After many decades of telling its citizens what to do and how to do it - very few young adults in Russia seem to have a good social model in the wake of communist collapse. And even with an improving economy, outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are really very few career opportunities for young Russians. I personally know of university graduates in the Yaroslavl region who have been looking for work for 2 years and likely will end up collecting some minimum salary to work as teachers (excrutiatingly low-paid work in Russia). The export of economic growth throughout the country has yet to happen, even in areas within 200 to 300 kilometers of Russia. There is little incentive for Russians to adopt positive social behaviors (ie not drinking, drugs, and casual sex - but working and raising families).

Russia, of course, has a rather good prior model to follow for affecting change in social behavior - good in the sense that it worked, rather ruthlessly. Communism and internal policing affected human behavior to an unprecedented degree; it was social engineering at a scale never before attempted. In what is perhaps a sign of what the Russian government might turn towards in the future, as we have watching some of this happening in Russia right now - consider the recent return to state control of various aspects of the Russian economy.

All of this points Russia towards an answer contained perhaps within its history. We shouldn't be surprised if Russia turns to its recent past for answers as to how to affect positive social behaviors among its people. The former CCCP battled hooliganism, drinking, and to a lesser degree, drugs and casual sex in the past.
Ms. Burdanova was trying to persuade one of her HIV-positive patients, a 35-year-old carpenter with work-scarred hands, that his heavy drinking was sabotaging his drug regimen. He admitted a penchant for Russkii Razmer, a vodka whose brand name translates as "Russian-sized," saying he needed the drink to ease the daily pressures of life in a wooden cottage where the water taps work only when the pipes thaw in summertime.

"I still drink a little vodka," the man said.

"Every day?" Ms. Burdanova said.

"Yeah."

"After work?"

"Yeah. I drink to relax. Sometimes 200 grams, sometimes half a litre."

Ms. Burdanova paused, as if holding her tongue. She put down her pen and looked at him seriously.

"You really shouldn't," she said.

"But I can't live without drink," he said. "What else is there?"

By the way, for those who do not know (and I certainly did not), Hanka is made from "poppy straw" (Papaver somniferum L.) which is cultivated and grown in many countries in Europe and Asia, prinicipally for poppy seeds used in baking and poppy-seed oil. However, the straw does contain some of the same elements as poppies grown for heroin production, so it can be used as a sort of poor-man's heroin. You can read a bit more about this drug problem in Moldova here (which would also serve as a similar model for more rural regions of Russia). There is also a National Institute of Health article regarding drug-related spread of HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, which touches upon the problems generated by hanka use.

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