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Lost Childhood: Russians Pessimistic About Conditions Facing Youth

by Sergei Gradirovski and Neli Esipova

Just 25% say children are treated with respect and dignity


PRINCETON, NJ -- During the Soviet era, the idea that childhood should be an untroubled and happy time was common in Russia. The state's strong paternalistic stance amplified that notion -- as illustrated in the widely distributed poster, which reads, "Thank you, dear Stalin, for our happy childhood!"


Today, most Russians would likely take a cynical view of such a message. A mere 25% believe that children in their country are treated with respect and dignity, and only 39% believe that most Russian children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day. These Gallup World Poll results seem even more alarming when compared with corresponding figures from other G8 countries.

State of Education

Russians are similarly frustrated with the condition of their schools. To the question "In your community, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the educational system or the schools?" less than half of Russians, 45%, responded affirmatively. Again, this figure is significantly lower than those in other G8 countries.

Here, Russians' dissatisfaction may well be influenced by high expectations generated during the Soviet era, when Russians were constantly assured that education in the USSR was the best, the most progressive, and the most accessible in the world. Chronic underfunding in post-Soviet Russia led to a gradual reduction in educational standards.* In addition, decentralization of the education system led to severe funding disparities among different regions and even different schools within a region.**

In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin, recognizing that Russia's education system was becoming increasingly outdated, designated it a "national project", significantly raising its level of public funding. However, Russians were unlikely to have seen any results by the time the Gallup survey was conducted in early 2006. For the time being at least, Russians' previously reverent attitude toward the country's schools makes it even more difficult to face the modern reality of an increasingly less competitive education system.

Tough Choices for Prospective Parents

These results raise an important question for Russia's future: What are the options facing a young couple who feel the country offers a poor environment for children? Many may feel the choice is simple: 1) have no children, or 2) leave the country.

Option 1: Have no children. When asked for their opinion on the ideal number of children in a family, the majority of Russian respondents (56%) said two. The average (mean) response was 2.4. However, the actual number of children born to a Russian woman has dropped from 1.9 in 1990 to just 1.3 today.

These figures strike a serious blow to the idea that government policies aimed at stimulating the birth rate can alone reverse Russia's current depopulation trend. Even the most successful stopgap measures may lead, at best, to bringing the actual birth rate a few points closer to most Russians' view of the ideal number of children --but not to the reversal of the depopulation trend. The latter goal depends to no small degree on Russians' perception of the opportunities that their society can offer its young generation.

Option 2: Leave the country. Thisoption bodes even more poorly for Russia's outlook. Every fifth respondent (20%) believes that "there are always better opportunities outside Russia that will attract them to leave the country if they could do so." However, the figure rises to slightly more than one-third (35%) among Russians aged 15 to 24, who are likely to still be considering whether their future will include raising children in Russia.

Neither option offers hope for stabilizing Russia's population decline. In the long run, that goal may well depend on changing the perception among Russians that children in the country face limited prospects for the future.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in February 2006 with a randomly selected national sample of 2,011 Russian adults, aged 15 and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2.4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

* Economist Intelligence Unit Profile on Russia

**Bray, M. & Borevskaya, N. (2001). "Financing Education in Transitional Societies: Lessons from Russia and China." Comparative Education 37(3): 345-365.


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