When trying to explain Russia’s declining population, Yuri Krupnov gives the example of the birth of his two children.
The first time his wife gave birth, in 1988, there was almost no room in the crowded maternity ward, and his wife was kept instead on a cot in the hallway. The second time, four years later, “she had the ward almost to herself. There was no one there,” says the chairman of the Moscow-based Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development.
The end of communism in Russia and the economic chaos that engulfed the country in the 1990s, led to a sharp slide in birth rates and a surge in death rates; a “real catastrophe” in the words of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former president and now its prime minister. Indeed, Putin devoted the bulk of his 2006 yearly address to both houses of parliament to the theme of the decline of Russia’s population.
Since then, the government has announced a raft of policies designed to address this—with mixed success. The decline appeared to stabilise after the government implemented the “mother capital” reform that paid mothers roughly $10,000 to have more than one child.
Then in 2009, Rosstat, the government statistics agency, measured a small uptick at last: the population rose by 23,000 compared with a year earlier, the first annual rise since 1992.
This statistic was, however, controversial among professionals. Igor Beloborodov, director of the Demographic Research Institute in Moscow, is one of a number of experts who believe the increase was arrived at by a statistical sleight of hand—the rules on the registration of immigrants were changed prior to the study.
“They relaxed a number of criteria, and voila!, there was growth,” he says.
“It was [politically] impossible that so many policies could be announced and they would have no effect,” he says, “so they had to make some effect happen.”
Rosstat denied the charge, insisting its methodology was credible. Since then the population has resumed its downward trend. Figures released last month revealed that the population of the Russian Federation declined by 80,000 in the first eight months of the year, to 142.8m, and births fell from 1.27m over the same period to under 1m.
While Russia’s population began to fall in absolute terms in 1992, the seeds of the decline were planted two decades earlier. In the mid-1960s, when Stalin-era policies to promote childbirth ended, birth rates began to decline and death rates edged up.
Indeed, the birth rate today of 12.5 per 1,000 people is less than half the Stalin-era high of 26.9 in 1950. The death rate, at 14.2 per 1,000 people, is also almost double that of 1960, when the figure was 7.4.
Krupnov believes the total number of premature deaths that can be attributed to the collapse of the economic system is in the order of 10m-20m people. This compares with the figure of roughly 22m deaths in the second world war.
The problem is not just confined to Russia. Serious population decline is also affecting other eastern European countries, including Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Most strikingly, the death rate for Russian men in the age group of 22-45 has risen sharply—to a rate that is three to five times that of western Europe. Alcohol-related accidents and disease account for a large proportion, though Krupnov says the reasons for this lie deeper.
“If you suddenly plunge a knife into your heart, the cause of your death is the knife. But that is not the reason. The reason for all these deaths among males is not alcohol—that is just a symptom.”
He blames the structure of the economy for a surge in male depression which has caused death rates to soar.
“There are simply fewer career paths, fewer ways for men to realise themselves, fewer chances to be a professional and gain respect and recognition,” he says.
“Today, the biggest problem we are facing is male mortality.”
Another culprit is the high abortion rate—an average of 53 abortions per 1,000 women, the highest in the world. There were 2m abortions in Russia last year.
“If we cut this in half, suddenly we’d have a baby boom,” Beloborodov says.
He does not advocate banning abortions, but “lowering this figure does depend on addressing the reasons why people have abortions”, he says.
“We’ve had 70 years of communism, where the two enemies of the party were the family and the church. This has led to moral degradation. Now we have a consumer society where everything is judged by price and people judge their happiness as paramount.
The level of egoism is catastrophic. People don’t want to have children because it is a sacrifice and people do not want to sacrifice,” he says.
Moscow has set a target of lifting the country’s population to 145m by 2025 (from the current level of 142.8m). Most experts, however, believe this to be unrealistic. Indeed, many believe that if the population is to grow, this can be achieved only through immigration.
Russia has already begun to take in migrants on an unprecedented scale, with both recorded and unrecorded migrants swelling the population of Moscow alone by 8m in the past decade, according to estimates.
However, immigration presents problems for stability, as demonstrated by ethnic riots in Moscow between Russians and migrant youths in December, which were barely contained by the police.
Further migration—which is being driven by a booming Russian economy attracting labour from the comparatively poor central Asia and Caucasus regions—could lead to radical shifts in the country’s ethnic make up. This is helping to fuel tensions which just 20 years ago caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Beloborodov believes that taking into account illegal—that is, unregistered—migrants, Russia’s population could already be 25 per cent Muslim, well above the official figure of 14 per cent.
This could increase further in future, due to immigration from Muslim-dominated former Soviet republics. Birth rates in Russia’s mainly Muslim south are the highest in the country, with war-torn Chechnya topping the list.
More immigration could also come from overpopulated China. The entire eastern third of Russia, the vast region of Siberia, is home to fewer than 10m people, and the solution is obvious to many—more Chinese immigrants.
This is something that Russian politicians dread. Beloborodov estimates that by 2080, as many as 70 per cent of Russia’s population could be immigrants or the children of immigrants.
“It will be a very different country, that’s for sure,” he says.
For Beloborodov, the danger level is if the population falls below 80m—that is the point at which Russia as a country stops being viable.
“At this level Russia becomes unstable politically. Such a vast expanse of territory needs a certain population density,” he points out. Below that level and “we could see the break up of Russia into five or six regional state,” he warns.