A developed country does not cancel its regularly scheduled census of population, especially when one is constitutionally required. So it is not a surprise that the decision of Rosstat, the Russian State Statistical Service to "postpone" the 2010 census on budgetary grounds was taken over the objection of Rosstat's highly regarded professional staff and at the behest of politicians in the Kremlin. The political leaders don't realize the seriousness of their mistake.
This may seem like a minor matter, except that it reflects high-level confusion about reality--the kind of reality a census captures. Indirectly, it damages economic prospects because it shows that public statistics cannot be accepted as reliable for planning and marketing purposes. If the Kremlin hopes that a several year delay will help it disguise negative demographic trends, it is deluded. Observers now will imagine far worse than an accurate census would show.
The decision is particularly unfortunate in light of the notorious statistical deceit that characterized the USSR. In that grim era statistics might as well have been another branch of state propaganda. Population and other numbers were so decrepit that the best analysis of the true condition of Russia demography probably came from Dr. Murray Feshbach, a brilliant analyst at the United States Census Bureau and, later, the State Department.
Feshbach, an amiable, chatty person in private, was amazingly adept at collecting and deconstructing official Soviet numbers, cross referencing with odd information--such as train schedules and shipping notices--to gain an insight into the truth that the Kremlin in those days hid. He was so good that Soviet statisticians repeatedly sought him out at international conferences to obtain copies of his reports to help them fill in the holes in their own. Feshbach was able to give them the kinds of data that they were not allowed to collect, or--in some cases where they did collect it--data they were not allowed share with their own domestic colleagues.
Are we going back to those days? Dr. Feshbach, now 80, retired in 2000, but maybe he can be pressed back into service--not service to the US government, but to beleaguered statisticians and businessmen in 21st century Russia.
Bruce Chapman, president of Discovery Institute, is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna (1985 - 1988) and a former Director of the United States Census Bureau (1981 - 1983).