Historical parallels are a curse of our time because they prevent rational analysis of social and political processes. Once you hear that 2014 is 1914 all over again, or that a certain regime is heading towards a new Nazism, this is a clear signal to stop listening, as clear as when you are advised to read Dostoevsky to gain insight into the ‘Russian soul’.
It is time to stop taking Karl Marx’s joke at face value: history does not repeat itself, either as tragedy, or as farce. Since there is an infinite supply of historical facts, it is likely that striking similarities between past and present events are based either on the magic of numbers – 1914/2014 – or on highlighting some facts while ignoring others.
The main sin of parallelism is that it negates progress. It is stuck in the Middle Ages, when the wheel of fortune decreed that nothing changed.
The same type of thinking that denies the passage of time, however, makes a fetish of space and turns geography into destiny.
People who balk at a comparison between the Russian and Venezuelan political systems are happy to compare modern Russia with the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, Nicholas II or Stalin, periods that have nothing to do with our time economically, culturally or socially.
So what are we to make of this year’s centenary of the revolutions that ended the Russian Empire, and the fashionable search for clues to the future of today’s Russia? To unpick the parallels, it is worth exploring the basic composition of Russian society then and now through demographic trends − while understanding that demography influences, but does not determine, political processes.
Looking at the demographic data of Russia for 2016 and for the Russian regions of the Empire by 1917, we see two major trends that shaped the 20th century: ageing and urbanization.
The median age of a Russian citizen of today is 39 years. In 1917, the average age of a resident of Petrograd was 19. In 1885, there were 11.6 million city dwellers in Russia, a figure that doubled within 30 years to 23.2 million in 1914. In 1940 the urban population of the USSR was 60.6 million people and in 1956, 87 million. Within 40 years, 54 million people had moved from village to town. By the late 1950s, the urban population equalled the peasantry.
Urbanization was a feature of the era that transformed agrarian societies into modern industrial ones. The grimmer appendages of this process were global wars of the type unknown to previous ages, combining the genocidal intent of Genghis Khan with new weapons capable of wiping out millions of lives. The young people wanting to climb up the social ladder by moving from the countryside to the cities could play two roles: as the drivers of progress or the cogs in great totalitarian machines of repression, as happened in Russia and China.
There are gaps in the Russian demographic pyramid that we see repeated roughly every 20 to 25 years. These are the traces of the horror that was the Russian 20th century – mostly the human loss of the Second World War, but also of the civil war, collectivization, numerous waves of genocide and organized hunger. If you compare the modern demographic pyramids of the former Soviet republics, you will see a picture resembling the Russian pyramid, but with the edges somewhat smoothed.
Today 74.4 per cent of the citizens of Russia live in cities, according to Rosstat, the Russian statistics service. Agrarian Russia, the Russia of the peasantry, is now the stuff of folklore. Given the state of the transport and road infrastructure, it is reasonable to assert that Russia today consists of 15 cities and their agglomerations, with more or less empty space in between.
There are two exceptions: the agricultural regions of Southern Russia and the national republics of the North Caucasus. Remarkably, these are also the regions with distinct political cultures and electoral behaviour differing from that of central, northern or Siberian Russia.
Ethnically, if we compare the results of the censuses of 1991 in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, as the territory of the Russian Federation was defined in Soviet times, and the last census of 2010, we see a gradual consolidation of the ethnically Russian population. Non-Russian Judeo-Christian ethnic groups are declining or disappearing: Jews, Germans, even Ukrainians and Belarusians are markedly less numerous in 2010 than in 1991. The sole exception is the Armenians.
At the same time, there is quite significant growth of those ethnic groups that can be described as Muslim: the Azeris, the Tartars, and the Caucasian nations. Very roughly put, in the Russia of today we see two groups of unequal size, but also with unequal demographic dynamics: the generalized Russian and the generalized Muslim nations.
Having said this, it is important to remember that these are not actual ‘communities’ or even ‘ethnic groups’: there is not so much in common between the Kazan Tatars and the Chechens, while the ‘Russian’ Russians are extremely diverse.
These statistics, of course, can be readily used for all kinds of political catastrophism. They can be turned to support nationalistic propaganda of the ‘let’s declare a mono-national state before it’s too late’ type, or the ‘Russians are all dying out and being replaced by people from the Caucasus’.
In fact, Russia is not dying out in any perceivable way, the birth rates being moderately low, but on a par with the general level of countries of comparable economic status and social composition.
Looking at the demographic pyramid of 2016, we see not just an old, but an ageing population, with the predominance of women growing with each rise up the age scale. This is due to the difference in average life expectancy between the genders: men die sooner, and the more pronounced gender inequality starts after 55 years. Life expectancy has been slowly growing for the past 15 years yet according to data for 2016 it is still a shockingly low 66.5 years for males and an almost decent 77 years for females.
The real Russian demographic problem is not low birth rate, but early mortality, especially male mortality, which is almost totally due to preventable social causes: alcoholism, driving accidents, violent crime, high prison population and treatable diseases, most importantly cardiovascular.
There is a total absence of what demographers call a ‘youth bulge’ − a disproportionately high number of 15 to 25-year-olds in the population pyramid. Such a youth bulge was very visible in the population pyramid of Germany in 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and − in a milder form − in Russia in 1927.
Today we have instead what might be termed a youth gap − a visible failure below 25 to 29 years caused by the relatively small generation born during the first half of the 90s. The following 15 to 19 stratum is even smaller − a continuation of the low fertility of the second half of the 90s and early 2000s.
Since 2002, the birth rate has been gradually increasing, and at the base of our pyramid we see two decent-sized ‘bricks’ −Russians aged 10 years or less. Their participation in the political process is yet to come.
What does this demographic picture mean for a country’s political development? Always keeping in mind that demography affects but does not determine political processes, it is possible to discern some tendencies.
With women aged 45 and older becoming the predominant social group in Russia, this creates the impetus to shift the policy agenda towards social issues − healthcare, education, a comfortable living environment. This is in marked contrast to official budget priorities, focused on security, the military and costly foreign adventures.
The decision-makers of the ruling bureaucracy are largely males aged 60-plus, with military, secret service and law-enforcement backgrounds. Their values and interests may be not as aligned with those of the Russian majority as they would like to think.
Demography is an important factor that affects a country’s likelihood of edging towards authoritarianism. Poor demography isn’t a death sentence; however, the existence of a ‘youth bulge’ correlates with a society’s proneness to violence.
When the majority of the population in a country is over 40, protests are more likely to be peaceful and legal. At the same time, an older population has no effect on the probability of a military coup, the other bane of semi-autocracies that don’t have a politically valid mechanism for the transfer of power.
While young people go to demonstrations, older people go to elections. By casting their ballots, the old deliver the results required by the authorities and also agree to accept them as legitimate.
The latter is an important factor in a political system that relies heavily on falsifications and the use of the ‘administrative resource’ to boost turnout and achieve desirable voting outcomes. If younger Russians neither vote nor take an interest in election campaigns and their results, it erodes the election’s legitimacy, making protest activity a more attractive option.
The next generation gap, stemming from the relatively small generation born in the 1990s and early 2000s which is now entering its fertility age, will ensure a continuing need to replace the shortfall with migrant workers. This, inevitably, will form the basis of continuing political tensions for the next 15 to 20 years.
In a longer perspective, we have the continuing ultra-urbanization process that will draw Russia closer and closer to the picture of ‘15 great cities with empty spaces in between’. These are: Moscow, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Samara, Rostov-on-Don, Ufa, Krasnoyarsk, Perm, Voronezh and Volgograd. Close behind are Krasnodar, Saratov and Tyumen.
The cities of industrial Siberia − Tyumen, Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk − and Southern Russia and the North Caucasus − Makhachkala, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don − demonstrate the most stable population growth in recent years, both due to natural birth increase and migration.
These 15 to 18 cities and the surrounding territories serving them will inevitably strive to become both sources and centres of political power. This is in direct opposition to the current political system that has all-but abolished direct mayoral elections, crushed the freedoms and financial independence of municipalities and strives to uphold at least the appearance of a ‘vertical of power’ by heavy dependence on regional authorities − which, in their turn, are kept under control by a centralized budgeting system and the threat of criminal prosecution.
Both varying demographic dynamics and migration rates will widen the differences in ethnic composition between different regions and between the smaller towns and the megapolises. The core Russian territories are growing more and more uniformly Russian (and its towns are experiencing population decline), while the bigger cities present a globally familiar picture of ethnic and religious diversity.
Today even Moscow is, by international standards, almost a mono-ethnic and certainly a mono-racial city as compared with New York or London, but this will change in the coming decades. Already today the mayor of Moscow is from the Far North and the deputy mayor is from Tatarstan, a cause of some political discontent. In future we are likely to see people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia who want administrative and political careers in the capital.
Today’s social tensions are often created by the average Russian’s suspicious attitude towards both working migrants in the cities and non-Russians in the administration, the courts and the police.
In the foreseeable future the ethnic shifts described above will dangerously increase those tensions, if they are not absorbed and co-opted by working political institutions, competitive public politics and pluralistic media − not exacerbated or exploited by the state-run media’s short-sighted propaganda and a monopolistic ruling elite which makes little room for the generations below them who are keen for their turn at power.