20 years under Putin: a timeline

Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, talks with Anatoly Vishnevsky, Russia's leading demographer, director of the HSE Institute of Demography and editor-in-chief of the online publication “Demoscope Weekly”, about global demographic processes and their consequences such as the confrontation between traditional and modern society, the disintegration of the traditional family, the growing migrant crisis, issues of political modernization, and the Russian government’s pursuit of the utopia of the past.


Depicted above is director of the HSE Institute of Demography Anatoly Vishnevsky. Photo: Artyom Geodakyan / TASS 


“We are witnessing a worldwide crisis of tradition” 

Denis Volkov: What key trends have you been recently observing in Russia and across the world as a demographer?

Anatoly Vishnevsky: The global demographic reality is such that today we are witnessing a worldwide crisis of tradition: demographic changes are killing traditional society. The crisis of traditional societies (traditional cultures) begins slowly and inconspicuously but eventually becomes more acute, degenerating sooner or later into an agony of traditional values.

Although traditional society may appear to regenerate at some point and comes back to life, in reality the flushed cheeks are nothing but a sign of approaching death. Agony is a rather dangerous state that is likely to be fraught with an array of aggressive outbursts.

DV: What demographic changes are you talking about?

AV: These changes arise from a decline in mortality, sparking enormous shifts in literally all aspects of people’s lives—family, women’s status, the entire sphere of human relations not directly connected with the economy. The economy is usually believed to be of paramount importance in analyzing social and political processes, but the underlying demographic transformations go deeper and erode the principles of traditional societies much more than economic changes. 

DV: Are you talking about agrarian societies? What principles are being eroded in such societies?

AV: In natural economies everything is based on tradition, which establishes the basic rules of life: how to work the land, when to start planting, plowing, harvesting, when to work and when to rest. These rules do not only apply to the economy. People’s private lives are also strictly and multifacetedly regulated. One way or another, religious norms, customs and national statutes regulate the life of both children and adults, relationships between husbands and wives, men and women.  

But there comes a time when these traditional rules of everyday life begin falling apart at the seams, because they are simply incompatible with change, including demography. Death rates, including child mortality, are dropping, which means that women need to give birth to far fewer children in order to raise as many kids as before. The woman’s role changes as well: her activities are not limited to giving birth and looking after children anymore. The schedule of the woman’s entire life changes. The need for the woman to stay at home becomes obsolete; emerging opportunities for working outside the home makes it possible for urban families to adopt the lifestyle they maintain today.

The urban environment itself has become different. Mass urbanization used to be impossible because it would have immediately resulted in an epidemic. Nowadays, the sanitary and epidemiological situation even in very large cities has been brought under control. Contemporary urban societies are to a large extent the product of demographic changes. 

DV: Economic changes are also taking place, are they not?

AV: Of course, nobody denies that economic, political and social changes are also taking place. However, while talking about these changes, people tend to omit demography. In reality, however, demographic changes are pervasive because they affect everyone and permeate our whole life. That is why they largely contribute to the conflict between the old and the new that plays out within every culture when it enters the period of modernization.  At the same time, by dismissing tradition in favor of modernity we do not mean to say that a particular tradition is bad—no, it is good when appropriate; but its resurrection under circumstances that are no longer suitable results in a serious contradiction.


“The course of history cannot be turned back”

DV: Can the modernization movement be turned back at all? 

AV: This is impossible. Even the most traditionally oriented societies accept certain changes without reservation. Today, no one rejects modern medicine and technology. Contemporary political ideas—for example, parliamentarism—can be abandoned for the sake of the concept of a single ruler. However, no one rejects literacy and education because everyone understands that therein lies the strength of any nation. No modern society will reject advanced weapons and up-to-date medical supplies, because that would result in a crack between tradition and modernity.  Other innovations would begin to gradually slip through this crack. 

The course of history cannot be turned back. However, it is quite possible to hinder its development and thus cause many problems to one’s own country, and this is exactly what advocates of the old ways have been devoting themselves to all over the world. 

DV: Yes, attempts at bringing together technological modernity and traditional practices are being made all the time.

AV: But these attempts will lead nowhere. As soon as modern elements penetrate a society, the unity of the traditional system breaks down and public opinion splits. Carriers of new cultural attitudes emerge, and they do not speak the same language as the defenders of old principles, who are often sincere and fanatical in their beliefs. Seeing change as the destruction of the existing world order, the defenders of tradition try to oppose this process. 

Defending the old ways and eulogizing the past is not hard and can be cathartic. It is burdensome, however, as Leo Tolstoy found, to bemoan crumbling traditions while realizing that nothing can be done about it. Anna Karenina shines a light on the problems faced by a Russian family belonging to a particular part of society. Tolstoy realized that they were not made-up problems—they were generated by life itself, and the old ways could not be brought back. The new can seem unpleasant; one can condemn it, but life changes. By the way, Tolstoy’s notes contain an interesting statement that, having become obsolete, the old family was about to evolve. It was hard to say exactly how, but it would certainly not remain the same.

Different parts of the world go through this transition at different times. The Christian world has already moved beyond this transition. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is still fighting a rearguard action in Russia, but neither Europe nor the United States nor Russia itself can go back.

DV: What factors do you base your opinion on?

AV: On family relationships for instance, on relationships between men and women, parents and children, on women’s emancipation, on attitudes toward contraception. In these spheres, which witnessed the first changes back in the 19th century, all the primary goals have been achieved by now. 

DV: If everything has already been achieved in the West, what parts of the world are currently undergoing the most acute crisis of traditional society? 

AV: These changes caught up with the Islamic world later chronologically, and consequently this is where we are currently witnessing crisis processes. Today, Islam is often associated with traits that are not characteristic of the religion itself, but of the present stage of the crisis of the Islamic tradition under pressure from modernization accompanied by the inevitable confrontation of disparate attitudes within Islamic countries.  Sometimes we witness unexpected turns.  For example, while emphasizing its commitment to the Islamic tradition in family life as well as in many other spheres, the Iranian government is forced to yield to society time after time. Iran’s nativity rates have decreased to the European level in a short period of time, which, incidentally, came as a result of the policy carried out by the Ayatollahs themselves. 

All developing economies go through the crisis of traditional society in varying degrees, and this process affects billions of people. Such things are never painless. The inevitable shift away from traditional relations and practices in the demographic sphere and family relationships significantly aggravates the crisis, which, depending on the circumstances, can acquire ideological colorings. Politicians never miss a chance to exploit discord in society, whether it is about wearing the niqab, family-planning, girls’ right to education or even women’s right to drive cars.

DV: We are seeing crisis phenomena in the West as well, though.

AV: Crisis phenomena happen all the time and not necessarily due to the factors we are now discussing. The main conflict of our age is the one between modernity and tradition, and for most mature economies this conflict is already a thing of the past. However, politicians do not miss any opportunity to add fuel to the flames of public discontent. Americans are now divided over abortion. How topical is this issue for the United States? Although not like Boko Haram, of course, American conservatives score points by leading a continuous and vehement fight against abortion.

Conservatives have always demonstrated their commitment to tradition in word only, since mature nations offer few opportunities to do so otherwise. For example, they often emphasize the value of the peasant mind and rural life, and contrast the countryside as the keeper of traditional values with the city that corrupts them. But such ideologists themselves live in cities, enjoy urban comfort and are in no haste to pare down their lifestyle by partaking of the joys of country living. Their families are usually average in size, but that does not prevent them from expatiating upon the many benefits of having multiple children. There is a lot of hypocrisy in all this. It is, however, a way to give meaning to the conflict within the culture. This conflict can drag on for a very long time, all the while hampering modernization. Society evolves no matter what by switching to new medical treatments and adopting new technologies, including the latest information technologies and scientific ideas. 

However, when guided by obsolete traditional values—if only in word, not deed—entire generations can get stuck halfway when trying to unite their pseudo-traditional identity with the demands of modern life and thus find themselves on the margins of the rapidly changing world. 

DV: How dangerous is this state? 

AV: Marginal figures are people whose identities are subject to an inner conflict. They are at a crossroads, their vision of the world is split in two; they have trouble finding their way through the maze of modern life and coming up with a clear idea of it on their own. They can shift in any direction, they can passively move from one state to another, and at the same time they are capable of reacting actively, which is not typical of traditional peasants. Such people are easy to manipulate by guiding their activity in the desired direction. The presence of large marginalized masses in the context of the agonizing tradition I touched upon earlier is highly dangerous. This agony generates zealotry in people who may sincerely believe that they are defending their faith, traditions and thousand-year-old way of life. Such people are prepared to risk their lives for the sake of these ideals.


“All bonds have fallen apart”

DV: Are you talking about marginalized masses in countries only just beginning the modernization process, or do you include Russia as well? 

AV: Germany is believed by some to be the first country of catch-up modernization. In the late 19th century, in comparison to Great Britain and France, Germany was a less developed nation but seemed to be quickly catching up with them and turning into an industrial and urban country under Bismarck.  Hitler was supported by the urban population that still remembered its rural roots and consequently fell prey to propaganda based, among other things, on the glorification of peasant traditions, peasant integrity and the blood purity of German peasants.

The same thing happened in our country. In the 1980s, the majority of the Soviet population had rural roots. Born in the countryside, they later moved to cities. Their initial socialization took place in villages where people’s literacy levels were much lower and their range of interests and access to culture were much more limited. Meanwhile, Russian cities were very weak and scantily populated before the industrialization era. Even today, many city residents represent the first population of urban dwellers. The next generation or even the one after that will be the one to witness modernity’s definitive victory.

We have already gone through many stages of this process. Family will never be as it once was; relationships between men and women, parents and their children, between different generations have irrevocably changed. Three types of behavior—marital, procreative and sexual—used to be blended together. They could lawfully coexist only in marriage. Today, procreation, i.e. behavior related to the production of offspring, has become autonomous, which means that reproduction no longer comes as a result of sexual activity. Consequently, all bonds that used to keep the traditional family together have fallen apart. But the family itself did not cease to exist, it just evolved.

DV: How high is the likelihood that Russia would ban abortions?

AV: I can only say that such a ban is not required. Women themselves refuse abortions, and the number of abortions in Russia has been rapidly decreasing because effective birth control methods have finally reached our country, not because women listen to priests.   Polls show that the majority of the Russian population is opposed to an abortion ban and the delisting of abortion from the compulsory medical insurance system, despite what the ROC has to say.  But the point is that there are other family planning methods available, and everyone understands that abortion is an undesirable method of contraception, and consequently women will recur to it less and less often without any ban.

DV: In your book Sickle and Ruble you write about Russia’s search for its “own third way” in Soviet times.  

AV: Nothing came out of the “third way.” However, the country’s official ideology and, to a certain degree, its current political agenda show new attempts at resuming this search. In my book I wrote about the Eurasians, who sympathized with the Bolsheviks for attempting to restore order in the country. Just like the Bolsheviks, the Eurasians supported a one-party system, but instead of the Marxist doctrine they wanted to establish an Orthodox Christian ideology.  If Russia chooses not to follow the mainstream modernization path, there is the third way that I have just described, which will come down to the same isolationism but under a different banner. The result will be the same.

DV: It appears that, on the one hand, political modernization is the inevitable final stage of economic, cultural, demographic and other types of modernization. Yet on the other, there is no guarantee that political modernization will begin under favorable conditions.

AV: I think that the country and its society will evolve no matter what, and conservative adepts can only try to hinder the progress.   This progress has its own inner logic that includes demographic as well as economic and political aspects. Unfortunately, however, one cannot disregard the possibility that efforts to impede modernization will increase.


“Utopia of the past is just as far from reality as utopia of the future.” 

DV: What is the main threat of the final stage of political modernization?

AV: I see today’s primary dangers not within the country but beyond its borders in the multi-billion developing world that is hanging over advanced economies, inevitably putting pressure on them and threatening to turn them toward archaization. 

DV: Are you talking about the migrant crisis?

AV: That too. Migration is one of the forms of growing pressure that the Global South is putting on the Global North. The perception already exists of there being too many migrants, but this is only the beginning of the inrush. When they come, they bring with them their archaic culture, including the political aspects that we have just eradicated— and even then not completely—and migrants seem to strengthen it. This is yet another dangerous element of counter-modernization. And the problem is not only in their physical presence.  Rising migration provokes anti-immigrant sentiments, which shifts the political climate in the affected countries to the right. Trump’s victory, for instance, should not be examined outside of this context.

The existing global demographic imbalance between the “North” and the “South” is unprecedented. This is a challenge that humanity has never faced before and a solution has not yet been found. Migration pressure is but one of the symptoms of this challenge.

DV: But migration has its advantages, doesn’t it?  Does Russia need migration?

AV: Migration is a contradictory process that has both advantages and risks. It could be beneficial for Russia, because our population is meager for such a huge territory and there are no chances of increasing it using the country’s own resources.  However, a country should consider accepting migrants only if the expected benefits clearly outweigh the risks. That is why efforts should be made to shift the balance toward increasing benefits, while at the same time minimizing the risks. If we see only risks in migration and put up an impenetrable fence to keep migrants out, we will miss out on the benefits as well. There should some kind of strategy that would serve the country’s interests, and I do not believe that we stand to gain from rejecting the migrant resource.

DV: You have mentioned the scantiness of Russia’s demographic resources. Are there any positive demographic changes? 

AV: The past 10 to 15 years show fairly positive quantitative trends. But the fact is that this only signifies a return to the level we had before falling into a ditch in the 1990s and have been climbing out of ever since. There have been certain tactical achievements, but we still have a long way to go before we can talk about bucking the demographic trend. Russia’s death rates are far higher than those of developed economies. When talking about an increase in birth rates, one should take into account the scale. Thus, the number of children has increased by 0.2-0.3 kids per woman. Although this is an achievement, it does not change much.

DV: Does this mean that these problems are fundamentally unsolvable?

AV: All-in-all, populations are formed as a result of three processes: death, birth, and migration. What does solving the birth rate problem fundamentally mean? Returning to the multiple-children family standard? In fact, the multiple-children household was never a standard in our country, because both birth and mortality rates used to be high. Today, Russia’s birth rates do not stand out among other European countries, and there is no reason to expect any breakthrough in this regard.

Death rates offer more opportunities for change, but Russia consistently lags behind its Western counterparts on this metric, that it gives one reason to believe that Russia’s entire healthcare system is deeply flawed. If we have so far been failing to close the gap between our death rates and those of Western countries (if anything, the gap has only grown wider), how can we expect any drastic changes to take place any time soon? 

I have already mentioned migration. Theoretically, the use of the migration resource is possible—the fact that the United States accepts a large number of migrants proves this point. However, a country should have a very careful policy with regard to migration, a state strategy, not just police work.

DV: Is migration on a global scale dangerous in any case? 

AV: It is hard to imagine what the future of the world as a whole will be like, but today’s mass migration wave that has only begun rolling in from less developed countries could engulf everything. 

Developing countries are also going through modernization, but we already know that modernization has its pitfalls. These pitfalls are the product of the growing conflict within the culture of these countries themselves; they are caused by a split in the traditional environment that has divided populations into supporters of modernization and adherents to the old way; they are linked to the existence of intermediate stages and the emergence of large marginal masses. These are not rural communities of old. Terrorists, extremists and Islamic fundamentalists have nothing in common with hard-to-budge peasants. They are urban residents, many of them are well-educated. Although they might be sincerely trying to preserve the old way of life, they want to achieve the impossible.

Not that long ago, many people in our country—and in other countries as well— wholeheartedly believed in a future utopia. This belief left many people disappointed, and a utopia of the past is now trying to fill the void. Fundamentalists of all stripes believe in it, with their ideal being a return to the sinless past as they imagine it. However, this is nothing but a new temptation. The utopia of the past is just as far—if not farther—from reality as the utopia of the future, because it aligns even less with the development vector. Nevertheless, this utopia will inevitably grow in popularity in the rapidly changing “Third World.” 

So too will it inevitably penetrate developed economies, brought in by the inflow of migrants, many of whom want to adapt the Western manner of living in keeping with their belief in a bygone kingdom of justice flowing with milk and honey. As is well-known, utopian beliefs are contagious. We’d better not catch this new disease ourselves.