Monday, October 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Three Unsettling Trends in Russia Today

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 7 – Many specific events in Russia now are disturbing, but three trends reported over the last few days are especially unsettling: Fewer than one in every three Russians is healthy, one in every nine Russian children is choosing to study Islam in school, and Russians are arming themselves with lethal weapons in the name of self-defense.

The Russian ministry of health, on the basis of a survey of 17 million residents of the Russian Federation, says that 65 percent of Russians are either ill or at high risk of premature death because of unhealthy habits, poor food choices, and/or inherited characteristics ( and

What makes these figures so disturbing,  Deputy Health Minister Tatyana Yakovleva says, is that 78 percent of those surveyed are working-age adults. She added that the survey which so far has cost 23 billion rubles (700 million US dollars or about 1.4 percent of what Vladimir Putin is spending on the Sochi Olympiad) has found serious shortcomings in health.

One in every 15 Russians has high blood pressure, one in every 50 underlying heart disease, and one in every 200 has indications of cancer. Changing these patterns, Aleksandr Lindenbraten of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences says, will require the efforts of the entire government and the entire society.

Unfortunately, that is not what is taking place now.  Most officials think the health ministry and doctors are the only ones who need to be involved, Lindenbraten said. But “health is a constitutional right, and the president is the guarantor of the Constitution … But for some reason, there isn’t even a presidential council on health.”

The second trend will perhaps disturb even more Russians.  According to Veniamiin Kaganov, Russia’s deputy education and science minister, 11 percent of pupils in the first few grades of schools are now choosing to study Islam in the ethics component of the school curriculum (

That figure is lower than the 41 percent who choose to study secular ethics and  the 46 percent who select Orthodoxy, but it is an indication of a rapid demographic shift, one in which the share of Muslims is higher in younger age groups and one that has been partially concealed because  many Muslim parents prefer their children to study Islam at home.

Consequently, the real share of Muslim children in the first grades of Russian schools is almost certainly much higher than that, a trend that many Russian politicians and commentators fear and that appears to be exacerbating xenophobic attitudes among many Russians especially in Moscow and the major cities toward people from Central Asia and the North Caucasus.

           And third, while polls show that most Russians oppose private ownership of firearms, reports that because of a growing sense that they have to be able to defend themselves, Muscovites “are increasing their arsenals [of such weapons] by three to four percent a year” (

            According to Maria Butina, federal coordinator of Russia’s Right to Bear Arms movement, “Russians are arming themselves because today we do not have a sense of security. Today,Russia occupies first place in terms of the number of murders throughout Eurasia, and this situation cannot be considered normal.” As a result, people feel they need to be able to defend themselves “at any moment.”

            Rates of gun ownership in Russia are still much lower than in many other countries, but they are rising. And some law enforcement officials are sounding the alarm.  Sergey Goncharov, deputy chairman of the Moscow City Duma’s security commission, says laws have to be tightened.

            Otherwise, Goncharov who is also president of the International Association of Alpha Special Forces Veterans says, clashes between Russian residents over car accidents or other everyday matters can quickly become deadly.

            And while neither he nor anyone else quoted in the article mentions it, there is another danger: If people in Moscow arm themselves and if there are ethnic clashes of the kind that seem to be a regular feature of life in the Russian capital, that could have lethal consequences and lead to a dangerous arms race among the populace.


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