Running Out of People

What Russians have shared with the Europeans for the past 150 years is the fear that their culture might die. In the recent decades, both Russia and Europe have connected this fear to the anxiety over running out of people. Russians were led to the idea of human scarcity that imperils the very existence of their culture because of their stably shrinking population. Europeans arrived at this idea as a result of the “graying population” trends. 

To what extent the worry over a shortage of people who will carry the shared culture forward is justified is absolutely irrelevant. Whatever people fear is real enough for them. And they will act in response to this fear, trying to conjure up more people.

For Russians, “more people” can be squeezed out of the [quite correct] idea that culture stems from language. They declare that whoever is a native speaker of Russian is Russian irrespective of where they live or whether they call themselves Russian. The next step in this line of reasoning is that national borders mean nothing, and the Russian jurisdiction should reach wherever real Russians live. 

For Europeans, the idea of “us” doesn’t come from shared language or shared blood. It comes from the concept of soil. This is why there is all the drama around who gets to plant a foot on European soil. That’s why African migrants hang from the barbed fences in Ceuta and Melilla, hoping to touch European ground at least with the tip of their toes and become European the moment that happens. Civil Guards treat them like dogs, like animals, until migrants touch the “European” soil of African Melilla and become Europeans who suddenly deserve due process, rights, and public assistance. 

It’s a very magical concept of soil that is hard for me to comprehend because it’s very alien to me. I have no idea how culture is supposed to be transmitted through the soil. For me, culture is, first and foremost, language. But that’s probably because I’m a Russian-speaker.


11 thoughts on “Running Out of People”

  1. That’s very interesting. These is a similar fear among the Hindus of India and there the identity is connected to religion. Hindu == Indian and now matter where you live, if you’re Hindu, you’re Indian. As a corollary, if you’re not Hindu (which is also defined in the narrow sense of being upper caste and mainstream) you’re not really Indian.


  2. Population scares are interesting, in that it seems that there is never not a population crisis of some kind or other. Either there are going to be too many people (e.g., The Population Bomb) or too many of the wrong sort of people or too few people or too few of the right sort of people.

    I recall reading that, in the 18th century – despite the fact that the population was not only larger than ever but also growing faster than ever – European intellectuals were convinced that the population was declining and that this was a great crisis of the age.

    I suspect it might be an area of study that just attracts hysterics.


  3. Your analysis of Russophone culture certainly seems accurate but I’ve never heard everyday Europeans express the fear of their culture dying (nor do I perceive much evidence in art)

    I’d say that in western Europe it’s simple neoliberalism fretting about the sterility that neoliberalism tends to induce. I’ve also almost never heard Europeans think that living in Belgium (for example) makes you Belgian*, all the Belgians I’ve known (mostly Dutch speakers) think that language but allegiance/identification with the culture makes you Belgian. Interestingly all the Dutch speaking Belgians I’ve known completely reject the idea of cultural affinity with the Netherlands.

    The thing with soil is viewing the land of the nation state as property of the nation state, once the annoying person sets foot on your property, they’re your problem and you half to deal with them (as long as they’re off of your property they’re not your problem).

    Think of it (metaphorically) like a large sick moutain lion walkiing around your neighborhood, if it dies on someone else’s lawn (or in the street) it’s not your problem if it stumbles across your property line just before it croaks – you now have to deal with it.

    *some politicans and very liberal media figures try to talk that way but the indigenous population strongly rejects it


    1. The idea of the “decline of the West” became an obsession in the 2nd half of the 19th century (Spengler, Nietzsche,etc). Nazism arose largely as an attempt to reverse the decline relying on the idea of blood and soil. Today the very same Germans have ditched the concept of blood and doing just the soil. Id rather both they and Russians relaxed already but they aren’t too eager to let it go.


      1. There’s a free floating anxiety but in most countries it has little to do with the absolute number of people. In Poland it’s concentrated on the fear (never completely gone) about being conquered and/or divvied up between German and Russian speaking Europe. Which side poses the greater threat changes over time and circumstances (and to some degree individual) but it’s never entirely gone (nor will it probably ever be).

        In Scandinavians the biggest fear is culture loss symbolized by language loss, of being subsumed into the English speaking world (they themselves are the drivers of that process and they’re mostly very hopeless at effectively teaching their languages to new arrivals vbut that’s who bears the brunt of the fears).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. If Scandinavians weren’t preoccupied with the number of people, they wouldn’t encourage a mass migration of folks who bring nothing but their numbers. Unlike Canadians, for instance, Swedes aren’t asking migrants to arrive knowing the languages, possessing a marketable profession, and carrying $10K per person. So what can they possibly be looking for? What else is left? Numbers.

          Look at the UK, at Germany, at France. Of all possible immigrants they choose the ones who are likely to have many children. The ones who are likely to have 1 or 2 can’t get into these countries in any way or manner.

          The intent is in the result, no matter how little people are willing to verbalize it.


          1. The view of the white supremacist right in the U. S. (Steve Bannon, Pat Buchanan, et al.) seems to be that culture is carried by race. This is even more distressing to me than language or soil.

            (I am reminded that a U. S. Embassy in another country is described as “on American Soil”, and also that a U. S. aircraft carrier is described as “four acres of American Soil which can be positioned as needed” for military purposes.)

            Liked by 1 person

            1. “I am reminded that a U. S. Embassy in another country is described as “on American Soil””

              That is not unique to the US, Embassies are generally regarded as part of the countries they represent).


          2. Canada, by the way, actually does have a small population for such a large territory. Yet there’s no anxiety over that. The points system of immigration is in place and if it takes a while and slows down the process, Canada is in no hurry.


  4. But isn’t land, the characteristics of land, part of nationalist ideology?

    In the US we’re taught that being “American” is agreeing to / identifying with the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (with the amendments).

    One learns as well to identify with the landscape(s). That is part of the pedagogical project of the national parks, for instance.

    So: land, “we the people,” checks and balances, separation of powers, bill of rights, these things are very deeply ingrained.


    1. Of course, the famous olmo or birch tree, yes. But if Trump does build his wall, I don’t think the illegal migrants will be hanging off the wall because touching the US soil won’t help them in any way.


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