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Russia's shrinking population mars Putin's superpower ambitions

Despite Putin's efforts, Russian men die young and women have too few babies. Here's why that matters.

Editors note: GlobalPost investigated Forbes' blogger's assertions of factual innacuracies in detail, and found them to be entirely without merit. Below is Fred Weir's response to the blogger.

MOSCOW — A blogger named Mark Adomanis has taken exception to my GlobalPost article on Russia's demographic crisis. He implies that my work gives a false view of population dynamics in this country over the past several years.

In his blog, posted on the prestigious site, Mr. Adomanis makes harsh allegations about the quality of my work.

Mr. Adomanis blog is sub-titled, "Where are the fact-checkers when you need them?" He goes on to say that my story is "littered with basic factual errors" and concludes: "It’s really not that hard to get this stuff right. . . so it really frustrates me when professional journalists can’t seem to do it."

When you insert those kind of statements about a colleague into the public record they can do real harm, and so you'd better know what you're talking about.

Does Mr. Adomanis present any kind of case that might justify those assertions?

No. His critique consists of a few quibbles that might make for an interesting coffee break dispute among demographers, but in no way affect the basic facts that I reported.

I interviewed several scientists in the course of researching that story. Bad journalism, which is what Mr. Adomanis seems to be accusing me of, would consist of misrepresenting, misunderstanding, cherry-picking or otherwise distorting what the sources told me. And they told me the following key facts about Russia's demographic crisis:

1) Russia's birthrates are too low to sustain the population, and vigorous social measures implemented under Vladimir Putin have not been sufficient to fix that problem.

2) Russia's mortality rates, particularly among working-age males, are disastrously high. Much of this is down to catastrophic post-Soviet rates of alcoholism. As Yury Krupnov, a leading Russian demographer, told me: "Here in Russia we have a European birth rate, but an African death rate."

3) Internal exodus is hollowing out Siberia and Russia's far eastern regions, leaving vast swathes of strategically vital territory virtually uninhabited.

From these facts, I drew the journalistic conclusion that Putin's efforts to restore Russia's superpower status, and particularly the dream of an eastern-oriented "Eurasian Union," face severe long-term physical challenges that may make them unrealizable.

In a story like this it is important to check the wider literature, to make sure your sources aren't oddballs of some kind. I consulted the most comprehensive study ever done on Russia's demographic crisis, the massive 2009 UNDP-sponsored report entitled "Russia Facing Demographic Challenges" that was prepared by an all-Russian team of scientists, and covers virtually every aspect of the problem.

I also had a look at an almost equally weighty, but more recent (2011) study prepared by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, entitled "The Waning World Power" — here's an English-language version.

Over the years I have written on Russia's demographic crisis several times, and in the past I've been deeply indebted to the work of Murray Feshbach — whom I've had the pleasure of knowing personally — one of the leading demographers in the US, who has spent decades studying Russia's population decline. Some of his more recent articles can be found here and here.

To put it bluntly, the entire scientific literature on this subject agrees that the three points I outline above are factually accurate. Of course demography is a tricky science, and future projections may vary between more optimistic and more pessimistic ones. But they invariably predict radical, long-term depopulation for Russia. Indeed, the only person I've ever encountered who appears to argue otherwise is Mr. Adomanis.

On his specific points of criticism:

First, he accuses me of misstating the fertility rate of Russian women, which I said stood at 1.4 babies-per-woman in 2010. I got that figure from the US Census Bureau's international data base, which can be accessed here. Mr. Adomanis' second complaint is that I employed data from the US Census Bureau, rather than Russia's official statistical service Rosstat.

Well, I did that because one of the experts I interviewed said she was dubious about Rosstat's figures, which are somewhat more rosy than those employed by the global community, and pointed to the long-standing tendency of Russian state statisticians to tweak their data to please politicians. If Rosstat's figures were wildly different from those that are generally accepted, I would have had a duty to my readers to at least mention that. But, the thing is, they're not.

Rosstat puts Russia's fertility rate at just over 1.5 babies-per-woman, which may be a difference that demographers can get excited about, but it is not one that changes the basic outlook in any way: the level at which populations become sustainable, according to all sources, is 2.1 babies-per-woman.

Next, Mr. Adomanis takes me to task for saying that Russia's death rate "has stabilized" in recent years rather than saying it's shown improvement. Actually, the passage in my story reads: "And there have been some successes in the past few years. Death rates have stabilized, birth rates rose markedly over the past decade, and male life expectancy has jumped from a low of 58 years in 2003 to 63 today." Then follows a quote from demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky, who is one of the authors of the massive UNDP population report, who states flatly that the improvements are not enough to overcome the negative trends, and that the recent growth in birth rates are already flagging. On this point, it’s not clear what Mr. Adomanis' argument is, except that he seems displeased with the conclusion that the population crisis remains with us.

[Editor’s note: according to Rosstat data, the death rate trend has settled at 14.7 percent, which is the average for post-Soviet Russia. In other words, the rate has in fact “stabilized.” See this posting for more information.]

The other main point on which Mr. Adomanis takes issue is my citation of a 2009 report from the medical journal, The Lancet, which found alcohol abuse leads to 600,000 (mostly male) premature deaths in Russia each year. That study can be found here.

Mr. Adomanis slams the report in The Lancet (a highly respected medical journal) as outdated and based on bad methodology. The Lancet is hardly the only piece of evidence pointing to catastrophic rates of alcoholism in Russia, which continue to impact heavily on the country's population dynamics. But, again, virtually all experts say the same thing.

A couple of years ago I covered the campaign launched by President Dmitry Medvedev aimed at countering Russia's tidal wave of alcohol abuse. I quoted President Medvedev as saying the problem is a "national disaster. . . The alcohol consumption we have is colossal. ... I have been astonished to find that we drink more now than we did in the 1990's, even though those were very tough times." And this is from a guy who definitely gets his data from Rosstat.

My personal, anecdotal observations jibe very closely with what the experts say. A couple of years ago I traveled out to several Volga towns (Myishkin, Ryabinsk, Yaroslavl) with a group of Russian doctors who were touring local orphanages. Everywhere we found the orphanages stuffed with children, the vast majority of whom were not technically orphans at all, but children who'd been abandoned by or taken away from incompetent parents. In Ryabinsk, a former closed military-industrial city, I was told the city had one orphanage in 1991; it has six now. Every doctor, child care worker and official that I talked with specifically identified rampant alcoholism as the prime cause, the scourge that is blighting their communities.

So, if Russia's mass alcoholism catastrophe is a thing of the past, as Mr. Adomanis appears to be alone in claiming, I'm going to take a good deal more convincing.

Given the consensus of expert opinion on these matters, I found myself wondering why Mr. Adomanis had singled me out for special attention. But now I see that he didn't.

A very similar blog post by him, also on the Forbes website here, attacks a recent Foreign Affairs article by Nicholas Eberstadt, entitled "The Dying Bear," in rather similar terms. Mr. Eberstadt's piece, which is an exhaustive, scholarly review of the evidence, comes to extremely dire conclusions about Russia's demographic future. Mr. Adomanis' subsequent attack blog accuses Mr. Eberstadt of being "consistently hysterical" and littering his piece with "legerdemain."

Which leads to the question, who is Mark Adomanis, and why is he saying these things? His thumbnail bio suggests he is a student, who has "been lucky enough to be educated first at Harvard and then at Oxford." In which subjects, he doesn't say. Other blog postings of his suggest a strong interest in Russian politics, and the fact that he is an occasional contributor on the Kremlin-funded English-language satellite news station Russia Today, or RT as it prefers to be known. Beyond that, he doesn't provide enough information to answer the question.

In any case, we do have something in common after all. I have had a lifelong fascination with Russia — I've lived and worked as a journalist in Moscow for the past 25 years — and I happen to have been a fairly frequent guest commentator on RT.

I'm not going to question Mr. Adomanis' motives. However, I do have my doubts about his expertise. And on one matter I am certain: when he accuses me of bad journalism, he is wrong.

 Editor's note: Read also GlobalPost's response to Mr. Adomanis.