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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 15:16 GMT
Russia struggles with population crisis
Alcohol is one of Russia's biggest killers
Dead drunk: Alcohol is one of Russia's biggest killers
By Caroline Wyatt in St Petersburg

Russia is facing a demographic crisis unprecedented in peacetime - and as his first year in office draws to a close, President Putin has declared finding a solution one of his top priorities.

The latest figures show that in the decade since communism collapsed, the Russian birth rate has halved.


It's worrying. It's a war, there's no peace time in this job

Valery Andreyev, mortuary director
At the same time, the death rate is soaring - with Russian men living to an average of just 59 years -14 years less than a typical Western European man.

In Russia's second city, Saint Petersburg, the mortuary is one place that is doing a thriving business - under orthodox crosses and icons the coffins are open as families go there to identify the dead and pay a final farewell.

Violence

Violent deaths account for half the bodies, the rest are mainly men who died from early heart attacks or met with accidents.

Vladimir Putin
Putin: Population is problem number one
The mortuary's director, Valery Andreyev, says his work load is higher than ever.

"There are more murders now than five or six years ago. In 1995 the number of murders began to outstrip the number of suicides.

"It's worrying. It's a war, there's no peace time in this job, just days when there are fewer dead bodies or injured people."

But it is not just violence or suicide that is killing Russia's men - it is their lifestyle, which is a recipe for an early heart attack.

Alcohol

A glass of vodka in a Saint Petersburg bar costs less than a kilo of apples.


Russia has been relatively generous with population... she didn't really need to bother if some people died

Mikka Vienonen, World Health Organisation
A packet of cigarettes is cheaper than a pack of chewing gum.

Alcohol plays a major role in two thirds of deaths among men under 55.

Yevgeny Yevdokimov of the Saint Petersburg police said vodka is to Russians what a cup of tea is to the British.

He has launched a one-man crusade against alcoholism.

"It's a form of escapism when life's tough, but it creates other problems - parents stop looking after their kids properly, for example, and they get taken into care.

"In the past 11 months here 8,000 people have been arrested for being drunk and disorderly - in this region of the city alone."

Disease

Most of them end up spending a night at a dank sobering-up station, stripped of their clothes and their dignity.

St Petersburg: Beautiful architecture, dirty hospitals
St Petersburg: Beautiful architecture, dirty hospitals
Police take away everything but the inmate's underpants in the belief that the cold will help men to sober up faster.

"I have been drinking for four months now. Mostly it's vodka, but when I've got no money I drink homemade stuff," says Ivan, who ended up in this situation.

Alcohol is not the only problem. Infectious diseases from HIV to Tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases - some of them almost eradicated in the West - are also having a major impact.

Unhealthy babies

Doctor Mikka Vienonen is head of the World Health Organisation in Russia.

He says this country is facing a demographic crisis, unprecedented in a developed country in peace time.

Galina Starovoitova: Assassinated in St Petersburg
Galina Starovoitova: Assassinated in St Petersburg
"Russia has been relatively generous with population, there has always been so much so that she didn't really need to bother if some people died, there were more to be born."

Russian medical figures show that only one baby in 10 is born healthy here, while pregnancy is around 10 times more dangerous for a Russian woman than for her British counterpart.

Top priority

Unless something changes dramatically Russia will watch its population decline by 30 million people over the next few decades.


We have no time to wait, no time

Alexander Pochinok, Minister for Labour
It is a prospect that deeply worries President Putin, according to Russia's Minister for Labour, Alexander Pochinok.

He says the government has now made tackling the crisis its top priority.

"We must do taxation reform, social reform, pension reform, budget reform and must do it together with all the people and try to explain to all people that we must do it as fast as possible. We have no time to wait, no time."

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See also:

13 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
A dying population
03 May 00 | Europe
Big rise in HIV in Russia
22 Apr 00 | Europe
Deadly toll of Chernobyl
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