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What in the World?

Brain power, population shortages signal trouble for Russia

Mar 14, 2022

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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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Opposition on the battlefront and worldwide economic sanctions are not the only challenges facing Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. It’s also dealing with a major demographic issue at home.

The defeat in World War I gutted a whole generation of young men, which then was insufficient to repopulate in that generation. The following generation was gutted in World War II.

Khrushchev forced everybody into condos, which reduced the birth rate. Brezhnev presided over a decade of stagnation, which reduced the birth rate. And then, ultimately with the Soviet collapse in 1989, we entered a decade period where the birth rate halved and the death rate doubled. That has generated a massive demographic bomb within the Russian system.

Of course, numbers are just part of the story. Russia’s education system is quite different from the U.S and not doing the country any favors.

In Russia, you go to high school, and after that you get an apprenticeship rather than university training as a rule, and you are an apprentice for five, six years before you then become a skilled craftsman or accountant or whatever it happens to be.

Now, back in the mid 1980s, when the bottom really was falling out of the Russian system, the Russians ceased investing in technical education for everyone. If you were connected to the party you might still be able to get an education, but for most people it just stopped.

It was replaced with ideological indoctrination, which is part of the reason why so many Russians today who are older look at what’s going on in Ukraine and just see it as par for the course. They don’t have an objection to it because they never received kind of the broad spectrum education that you would get in math and economics and engineering and so on.

They were literally raised on the propaganda of the Soviet period. But it also means that the apprenticeship system collapsed, and, overall from roughly 1985 to 1995, the Russian industrial base just stopped. And it’s never really come back.

So what are the implications? The Russian workforce is one of the least skilled in the world. Those who were able to educate themselves or develop skills are fleeing the country. And in the government and military, there’s not an emergent cadre of young leaders ready to step up to the plate.

Hey everyone. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado. We are now in the third week of the Ukraine War, and I wanted to discuss a little bit about the limitations that the Russians are facing back at home economically and on the battlefield.

And it all really comes back to the Russian demographic.

The Russian system has faced a number of serious trials and tribulations over the course of the last century. The defeat in World War I gutted a whole generation of young men, which then was insufficient to repopulate in that generation. The following generation was gutted in World War II.

Khrushchev forced everybody into condos, which reduced the birth rate. Brezhnev presided over a decade of stagnation, which reduced the birth rate. And then, ultimately with the Soviet collapse in 1989, we entered a decade period where the birth rate halved and the death rate doubled. That has generated a massive demographic bomb within the Russian system.

And there simply are no longer enough Russians remaining to repopulate the country over the course of the next 30 years. So one way or another Russia is going to vanish as an ethnicity this century.

And one of the major reasons why the Putin government decided that now was the time to launch the invasion of Ukraine is if they didn’t do it now, they were gonna lose the capacity to do it at all.

But there’s more going on here than raw numbers.

A couple things. First of all, the Russian system educationally is a little bit different from how it is here in the United States. So here you go to high school, you go to college, you enter the workforce. In Russia, you go to high school, and after that you get an apprenticeship rather than university training as a rule, and you are an apprentice for five, six years before you then become a skilled craftsman or accountant or whatever it happens to be.

Now, back in the mid 1980s, when the bottom really was falling out of the Russian system, the Russians ceased investing in technical education for everyone. If you were connected to the party you might still be able to get an education, but for most people it just stopped.

It was replaced with ideological indoctrination, which is part of the reason why so many Russians today that who are older, look at what’s going on in Ukraine, and just see it as par for the course, they don’t have an objection to it because they never received kind of the broad spectrum education that you would get in math and economics and engineering and so on.

They were literally raised on the propaganda of the Soviet period. But it also means that the apprenticeship system collapsed, and, overall from roughly 1985 to 1995, the Russian industrial base just stopped. And it’s never really come back.

And so you have a hard cutoff about 1985 for the last time Russians were educated in large numbers. You play that forward at 95, 2005, 2015, and ultimately 2022. And you’re talking about, there’s been a 35-year gap where no one really was educated.

Now this has a number of implications. First, and most importantly, it means that the Russian workforce is one of the least skilled in the world. During the 1990s, when the bottom fell out of the system, over two million Russians immigrated to the west, in order to find greener pastures.

We’re seeing an echo of that now. The people who are able to educate themselves or be hired by foreign companies, and so get some sort of skills, are now in the process of fleeing the country. It’s way too soon to know how many that’s gonna be. But, if by the end of the year, it’s under a half a million people, I would be very surprised.

And these people are utterly irreplaceable because they are the technicians who do all the work that keeps Russia running.

The second problem’s in the military, because the same sort of educational collapse occurred there. So today’s military commanders are nothing like American commanders that go back to school repeatedly through their careers to learn more about history or military technology. And we’re seeing that played out on the battlefield across Ukraine right now.

It’s almost abysmal how badly the Russian military seems to be doing. And it kind of reminds me of the Iraqi military in, the Desert Storm conflict, how it just got wiped out by the American forces. Now, the Russians are playing against somebody who’s even worse than the them, but as you’ve been seen in the news, fatalities, casualties, have been extremely high. Best guess is that three weeks in, the Russians have already lost more troops than the United States did in the entirety of the 20 years that we were in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Finally, leadership.

In the late Soviet period, starting in roughly 1982, the KGB took over the government. Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Chernenko. These were all KGBers, and they were the only people in the country who really had the full understanding of what was going on. Putin was one of them, which means that there’s a limited cadre to draw from. All of the leadership, all of the political elite within Russia, since the Cold War collapsed, came from the KGB and were educated before 1985, which means that they probably only have about 150 people total that are capable of meaningful political leadership that is even remotely competent.

Compare that to the United States. We have an elite of two to three million people, and there are any number of ways you can get in. You can come in from business like Michael Bloomberg. You can come in from reality television like Donald Trump. You can come in from Hollywood like Ronald Reagan. You could be a governor like Bill Clinton. There’s a number of routes to national leadership, but in Russia, we are talking 150 people. So every time someone gets sick and dies from COVID or slips in the shower and falls on some bullets or ties themselves to a lawn chair and throws themselves in the pool, you are talking about an irreplaceable chunk of talent.

We really are in Russia’s witching hour. The question is what they are able to do with their last gasp, war. Ukraine, step one. Okay. That’s it for me until next time.

 

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