By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A heat wave that fanned wildfires and blanketed Moscow with acrid smoke pushed up the number of deaths in Russia by nearly a fifth in July and August this year, according to a government report issued Monday.
Nearly 56,000 more people died nationwide this summer than in the same period last year, said a monthly Economic Development Ministry report on Russia's economy.
"In connection with the unusual heat, forest fires and smoke, in July of this year 14,500 and in August 41,300 more people died than during the same period last year," a section of the report on demographics said.
Deaths from digestive and circulatory system diseases as well as from cancer had increased, according to the report.
Moscow and much of western Russia saw temperatures at nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Forest fires spread fast in late July and peat fires covered the capital with smoke.
About 374,000 Russians died in July and August this year, up 17.5 percent from 2009, the report said. In August 2010 alone, about 192,000 died, up more than 27 percent from August 2009.
In August, Moscow's health department chief said deaths had nearly doubled in the city to about 700 a day.
There were fewer than 60 official deaths nationwide from the wildfires themselves.
Kremlin critics said legislation approved by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his 2000-2008 presidency gutted Russia's forest management system and slowed the response to the fires.
But Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, have suffered little political fallout from the wildfires. Opinion polls have shown no significant dip in their approval ratings.
This summer's deaths contributed to a decline in population in the first eight months of 2010 which, despite the arrival of nearly 111,000 migrants, fell by 87,400 people to 141.8 million as of September 1, the report said.
Putin and Medvedev have sought to reverse a persistent post-Soviet population decline, praising parenthood and providing subsidies for families with more than one child.