Russia’s Population Collapse

by Kenneth Anderson

Rather than comment on the refreshingly tough realism or seriously imprudent bear-baiting of Vice-President Biden’s recent remarks on Russia (“Russia will bend to the US“), or whether there is an important and dangerous gap between short-term and long-term in the collapse of an imperial nuclear power even if the long-run claim is true, etc., let me instead offer a background source on Russian demography.

(You should consult Chris’s new Chicago Journal of International Law article for discussion of Russian foreign policy and the so-called ‘near abroad’ – Biden’s remarks raised this by implication, of course – and I’d certainly welcome Chris’s discussion of how this all plays out in US-Russian relations.  My own view of the great power debate is also in that issue of CJIL, at SSRN.)

Perhaps the most interesting claim Biden made concerned the population implosion, and with respect to it the Vice-President is quite right – although being right about demographic collapse over a generation or so is quite different from concluding that a large nuclear armed state must thereby ‘bend’ to anyone’s will. Among the demographic experts is AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt, who has gone far beyond counting the decline in various societies to the crucial questions of social security, health care, labor productivity, etc., that all arise by implication.  He has a new article out on Russian demographics and Russian health care, social services, and investments in children in World Affairs journal (spring 2009), “Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb.”

Since 1992, Russia’s human numbers have been progressively dwindling. This slow motion process now taking place in the country carries with it grim and potentially disastrous implications that threaten to recast the contours of life and society in Russia, to diminish the prospects for Russian economic development, and to affect Russia’s potential influence on the world stage in the years ahead ….

A comparison dramatizes what is happening in Russia. Between 1976 and 1991, the last sixteen years of Soviet power, the country recorded 36 million births. In the sixteen post-Communist years of 1992–2007, there were just 22.3 million, a drop in childbearing of nearly 40 percent from one era to the next. On the other side of the life cycle, a total of 24.6 million deaths were recorded between 1976 and 1991, while in the first sixteen years of the post-Communist period the Russian Federation tallied 34.7 million deaths, a rise of just over 40 percent. The symmetry is striking: in the last sixteen years of the Communist era, births exceeded deaths in Russia by 11.4 million; in the first sixteen years of the post-Soviet era, deaths exceeded births by 12.4 million.

The Russian Federation is by no means the only country to have registered population decline during the past two decades. In fact, 11 of the 19 countries making up Western Europe reported some annual population declines during the Cold War era. On the whole, however, these population dips tended to be brief and slight in magnitude. (Italy’s “depopulation,” for example, was limited to just one year—1986—and entailed a decline of fewer than 4,000 persons.) Moreover, the population declines in these cases were primarily a consequence of migration trends: either emigration abroad in search of opportunity (Ireland, Portugal), or release of foreign “guest workers” during recessions or cyclical downturns in the domestic economy (most of the rest). Only in a few Western European countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom) did negative natural increase ever feature as a contributing factor in a year-on-year population decline. In all but Germany, such bouts of negative natural increase proved to be temporary and relatively muffled.

The question, in foreign policy and national security terms, is what this concretely means for Russian society – and was the point of Biden’s invocation of it. Eberstadt notes that there is a debate among experts as to whether the current demographic trends represent a temporary change to be followed by a reversion to the mean, or whether this represents a “quiet revolution” and a permanent shift in the mean. But certain things are reasonably clear:

First, when Western European nations reached the level of 30 percent illegitimate births that Russia has now attained, their levels of per capita output were all dramatically higher—three times higher in France, Austria, and Britain, and higher than that in countries such as Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands. This means that Russia’s mothers and their children will be afforded far fewer of the social protections that their counterparts could count on in Western Europe’s more generous welfare states.

A second and related point pertains to “investment” in children. According to prevailing tenets of Western economic thought, a decline in fertility—to the extent that it occurs under conditions of orderly progress, and as a consequence of parental volition—should mean a better material environment for newborns and children because a shift to smaller desired family size, all else being equal, signifies an increase in parents’ expected commitments to each child’s education, nutrition, health care, and the like.

Yet in post-Communist Russia, there are unambiguous indications of a worsening of social well-being for a significant proportion of the country’s children—in effect, a disinvestment in children in the face of a pronounced downward shift in national fertility patterns.

School enrollment is sharply lower for primary-school-age children—99 percent in 1991 versus 91 percent in 2004. And the number of abandoned children is sharply higher. According to official statistics, as of 2004 over 400,000 Russian children below 18 years of age were in “residential care.” This means that roughly 1 child in 70 was in a children’s home, orphanage, or state boarding school. Russia is also home to a large and possibly growing contingent of street children whose numbers could well exceed those under institutional care. According to Human Rights Watch, over 100,000 children in Russia have been abandoned by their parents each year since 1996. If accurate, this number, compared to the annual tally of births for the Russian Federation, which averaged about 1.4 million a year for the 1996–2007 period, would suggest that in excess of 7 percent of Russia’s children are being discarded by their parents in this new era of steep sub-replacement fertility.

A third implication of the past decade and a half of sharply lower birth levels in Russia will be a drop-off in the country’s working-age population, and an acceleration of the tempo of population aging in the period immediately ahead. Barring only a steady and massive in-migration, Russia’s potential labor pool will shrink markedly over the coming decade and a half and continue to diminish thereafter.

A genuinely startling feature of the demographic picture of Russia – and something utterly unlike Europe – is that its depopulation is mostly a function of its death rate, rather than its birth rate.  Eberstadt walks through the various aspects of this, but points out that the healthcare system has never recovered from the crisis of the last years of Soviet Communism.  Life expectancies as of 2006 are, astonishingly, three years lower than they were in 1964 – among males are especially in decline.

The situation for Russian males has been particularly woeful. In the immediate postwar era, life expectancy for men was somewhat lower than in other developed countries—but this differential might partly be attributed to the special hardships of World War II and the evils of Stalinism. By the early 1960s, the male life expectancy gap between Russia and the more developed regions narrowed somewhat—but then life expectancy for Russian men entered into a prolonged and agonizing decline, while continued improvements characterized most of the rest of the world. By 2005, male life expectancy at birth was fully fifteen years lower in the Russian Federation than in Western Europe. It was also five years below the global average for male life expectancy, and three years below the average for the less developed regions (whose levels it had exceeded, in the early 1950s, by fully two decades). Put another way, male life expectancy in 2006 was about two and a half years lower under Putin than it had been in 1959, under Khrushchev.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau International Data Base for 2007, Russia ranked 164 out of 226 globally in overall life expectancy. Russia is below Bolivia, South America’s poorest (and least healthy) country and lower than Iraq and India, but somewhat higher than Pakistan. For females, the Russian Federation life expectancy will not be as high as in Nicaragua, Morocco, or Egypt. For males, it will be in the same league as that of Cambodia, Ghana, and Eritrea.

His conclusion is bleak, particularly regarding the disincentives that a population has to acquire (or, in the case of a well-educated, universally literate and technologically sophisticated society like Russia, even maintain) technical skills given the shortness of life expectancies and the anticipated payoffs:

In the modern era, population decline itself need not be a cause for acute economic alarm. Italy, Germany, and Japan are among the societies where signs of incipient population decline are being registered nowadays: all of these are affluent countries, and all can anticipate continuing improvements in their respective levels of prosperity (albeit at a slower tempo than some might prefer). Depopulation with Russian characteristics—population decline powered by an explosive upsurge of illness and mortality—is altogether more forbidding in its economic implications, not only forcing down popular well-being today, but also placing unforgiving constraints on economic productivity and growth for tomorrow.

As we have already seen, it is Russia’s death crisis that accounts for the entirety of the country’s population decline over the past decade and a half. The upsurge of illness and mortality, furthermore, has been disproportionately concentrated among men and women of working age—meaning that Russia’s labor force has been shrinking more rapidly than the population overall.

Health is a critical and central element in the complex quantity that economists have termed “human capital.” In the contemporary international economy, one additional year of life expectancy at birth is associated with an increase in per capita output of about 8 percent. A decade of lost life expectancy improvement would correspond to the loss of a doubling of per capita income. By this standard, Russia’s economic as well as its demographic future is in jeopardy.

It is not obvious that Russia will be able to recover rapidly from its health katastroika. There is an enormous amount of “negative health momentum” in the Russian situation today: with younger brothers facing worse survival prospects than older brothers, older brothers facing worse survival prospects than their fathers, and so on. Severely foreshortened adult life spans can shift the cost-benefit calculus for investments in training and higher education dramatically. On today’s mortality patterns, a Swiss man at 20 has about an 87 percent chance of making it to a notional retirement age of 65. His Russian counterpart at age 20 has less than even odds of reaching 65. Harsh excess mortality levels impose real and powerful disincentives for the mass acquisition of the technical skills that are a key to wealth generation in the modern world. Thus Russia’s health crisis may be even more generally subversive of human capital, and more powerfully corrosive of human resources, than might appear to be the case at first glance.

Putin’s Kremlin made a fateful bet that natural resources—oil, gas, and other extractive saleable commodities—would be the springboard for the restoration of Moscow’s influence as a great power on the world stage. In this gamble, Russian authorities have mainly ignored the nation’s human resource crisis. During the boom years—Russia’s per capita income roughly doubled between 1998 and 2007—the country’s death rate barely budged. Very much worse may lie ahead. How Russia’s still-unfolding demographic disaster will affect the country’s domestic political situation—and its international security posture—are questions that remain to be answered.


Nick is an old friend, and in conversation he remarked that a feature of contemporary demographics is how “retail” it is – how apparently minor shifts in, for example, the cost of educating and raising a child can have big impacts on family-raising patterns, especially within economically significant subgroups, such as the highly productive and tax-paying upper middle class in the United States.  The decisions that matter are largely being made by individual couples, and the culture of reproduction, family, sex, and child-rearing tends to shift with them, so that a considerable shift in the long term mean as measured strictly by numbers does not seem culturally startling because the mean of the culture has also shifted, along with the perceptions of ‘normal’.

(If you read Spanish, you can also read Nick’s exceptional two part series in the Madrid Revista de Libros, in which he discusses demographic trends in Western Europe, suggesting that maintaining anything like the European standard of living requires that people who are so much healthier and longer-lived … stay in the work force longer.  It is relatively rare that works in Spanish published in Spain make much of a splash intellectually in the rest of Europe – that sounds mean, but it’s not a comment on relative quality (after all, notes KA, I am the political sciences editor of the Revista) – it’s just the way intellectual fashions operate – but this two part series was noticed elsewhere on the Continent, according to journalist friends in France and Italy.)

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