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Russian Demographics: The Perfect Storm

One measure of an economically secure homeland is women’s willingness to raise children with the expectation of opportunities for good health, education and livelihoods. On that front, Russia confronts a perfect storm – as fertility rates plummeted to 1.2 births per women in the late 1990s and now stand at 1.7 births per women. “Russia’s population will most likely decline in the coming decades, perhaps reaching an eventual size in 2100 that’s similar to its 1950 level of around 100 million,” write demographers Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin. The country has high mortality rates due to elevated rates of smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. Investment on healthcare is low. Over the next decade, Russia's labor force is expected to shrink by about 15 percent. Other countries with low fertility rates turn to immigration to pick up the slack. While immigrants make up about 8 percent of Russia’s population, the nation has a reputation for nationalism and xenophobia, and fertility rates are even lower in neighboring Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania, all possible sources of immigration. – YaleGlobal

Russian Demographics: The Perfect Storm

High mortality, low fertility and emigration of the well-educated are shrinking Russia
Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin
YaleGlobal, 11 December 2014

Wanted: babies, not immigrants: Russia’s then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a Russian baby (top); illegal immigrants serve a useful purpose, but are not welcome

NEW YORK: So much attention is focused on the Russian Federation’s plummeting ruble, evaporating investments and looming recession, following its land grab in Crimea and intervention in Ukraine that most are overlooking the perfect storm brewing within Russia’s borders: its demography.

The perfect demographic storm of comparatively high mortality, low fertility and emigration of well-educated professionals is increasingly burdening Russian society and its deteriorating economy. In addition to a shrinking labor force, mounting costs for its aging population and troubling premature deaths, especially among men, Russia is facing difficulties in filling critical jobs with largely unskilled non-Russian migrants, many working illegally in the country.

Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, Russia’s population increased. Whereas the Russian population was slightly more than 100 million in 1950, it peaked at nearly 149 million by the early 1990s. Since then, the population has declined, and official reports put it at around 144 million.

The shrinking population is the result of deaths outnumbering births for nearly two decades without sufficient immigration to compensate for the deficit. The increasing number of deaths reflects the persistence of comparatively high mortality. The decreasing number of births is due to the prevailing low fertility, which plummeted to 1.2 births per woman in the late 1990s and now hovers at 1.7 births per woman. That rate is still about 20 percent below 2.1 births per woman, the level necessary to ensure population replacement.

High rates of smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, obesity, heart disease, violence, suicide and environmental pollution contribute to Russians’ poor health. Russia’s current male life expectancy at birth of 64 years is 15 years lower than male life expectancies in Germany, Italy and Sweden.

Russia’s male life expectancy at birth is 64 years – 15 years lower than that in Germany or Italy.

Russia also stands out for the gap between male and female life expectancies at birth; at almost 13 years, it is one of the widest sex differentials. Moreover, the life expectancy at birth of 74 years for Russian females compares unfavorably with other developed countries, such as 80 years for Polish females.

Policies to address the health crisis are woefully inadequate. Russia’s periodic crackdown on alcohol consumption has had limited effect. About 700,000 Russians were estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS in 2013, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. With official policy forbidding opioid substitution and therapy services for drug users, HIV prevalence among Russians who inject drugs is between 18 and 31 percent.

In most European countries, where coverage of needle programs and opioid substitution therapy is high, HIV/AIDS prevalence among drug users is lower, under 17 percent. To curb smoking, estimated at 40 percent of the adult population, Russia now bans smoking in public places. In terms of health expenditure per capita, Russia ranks near the bottom among OECD countries – spending $1,474 in 2012, compared with the OECD average of $3,484.  

Notwithstanding a recent fertility uptick, low fertility persists due to inadequate reproductive health services, lack of modern and low-cost contraceptives, widespread and unsafe abortions, infertility, fewer women of childbearing age, changing attitudes toward marriage and voluntary childlessness. In addition, Russia’s abortion rate, estimated at two abortions for every birth, has traditionally been the highest in the world.

The government pays families for birth or adoption of a second child – and considers a tax on childlessness.

Another factor mitigating against higher fertility is Russia’s high divorce rate. In 2012, for every two marriages, there was one divorce. To counter these trends, the government has sought to promote childbearing through various measures. For example, Russian families are entitled to a certificate for 429,408 rubles, $12,500, after the birth or adoption of a second child.

In 2013 the government was deliberating on whether to boost the divorce tax as a means of discouraging divorce and promoting family values. The protection of children and traditional family values was also the stated purpose for the enactment of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender propaganda law to prevent distribution of "non-traditional sexual relationships" ideas among minors. The government is also considering reinstatement of a tax on childlessness, estimated at 10 percent of women in their late 40s.

Despite being home to the world’s second largest immigrant population, 11 million migrants or 8 percent of the total population, this inflow has not compensated for Russia’s population losses. These migrants, mostly from the impoverished former Soviet republics are often poorly educated and thus tend to have low paying jobs, which ethnic Russians are loathe to accept. Many migrants are from the former Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus, especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and thus differ in religion, ethnicity and language from the ethnic Russian population.

Scenarios: Russia's future depends on fertility and, for now, a population increase seems unlikely (Source: UN Population Division)
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Furthermore, over a third of these migrants, or some 4 million, reside unlawfully in the country and live under constant threat of harassment and deportation. The issue of illegal immigration has become so politicized that it has inflamed xenophobia and Russian ultra-nationalism, spawning numerous anti-immigration groups.

More recently, some 800,000 people, many ethnically Russian, were uprooted by the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine and have poured across the border into Russia, with various forms of status. In some cases, they receive government subsidies, as well as being relocated to other regions across Russia. Additional arrivals from Ukraine are likely, given continuing instability in the area. 

Russia’s immigration policy has focused on attracting highly skilled workers from abroad, but has fallen short of its goals. Migrant labor is considered essential to counter the steep decline in Russia’s working-age population, expected to decline by 25 percent by mid-century.

Russia’s aging population has placed strains on the economy that will impact numerous sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, the armed forces and retirement schemes. In the next decade, Russia's labor force is expected to shrink by more than 12 million, or around 15 percent.

The contraction of Russia’s labor force is exacerbated by low retirement ages: 60 for men and 55 for women. In certain situations, for example, hazardous occupations or unemployment, retirement ages are lower. Nevertheless, Russia’s older population does not fare well. According to a 2014 global survey of the social and economic well-being of older people, Russia ranked 65 among 96 countries. 

The future size of Russia may follow a number of scenarios, largely determined by fertility (Figure 1). For example, if fertility remained essentially constant, not an unreasonable assumption, the Russian population would fall to around 111 million by mid-century and 67 million by 2100. Such an outcome would mean that the Russian population would be less than half of its current size by the close of the 21st century.


Joseph Chamie is former director of the United Nations Population Division and Barry Mirkin is former chief of the Population Policy Section of the United Nations Population Division.

Rights:Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

24 December 2014
It is shameful to see the people who headed UN's population policy/division completely ignoring the obvious fact that the planet is being liquidated to meet the needs of 7 billion people, the human civilization is in significant overshoot since several decades by gouging non-renewable resources and causing growing and unmanageable pollution.
Until the civilization as a whole proves that it can live sustainably i.e using no more than the planet's regenerative capacity and polluting no more than planet's ability to assimilate the waste while leaving sufficient room for other species, it is imperative for nations to encourage population reduction. A smaller population will have an associated smaller economy, and smaller economy (smaller scale) does not automatically mean misery and suffering, the economy and people will adjust. Japan has an ageing population and economists are panicking but we don't see old people dying of starvation on the streets in massive numbers and because of technology there are fewer people required to take care of them, many are able to take care of themselves for a long time and also are being taken care of by somewhat younger elders, it will be a relief in overcrowded Japan to have a lower population even while maintaining the low fertility rate for the rest of the centure. And what is wrong with a Russia of 65 million people? Why should Russions be forced to fill up every square inch of their vast area? If they are happy at 65 million why not? What is the intrinsic reason why the authors think 65 million is a very low number that would cause widespread misery and suffering? What are the assumptions?
Policy makers should pay serious attention to steady state economics instead of a grow or die economics of the stone age which is incompatible with scientific truths.
-piyush , It is shameful to see the