Russia’s gradual demographic catastrophe

demohistory1925-2005Russia’s population is decreasing despite the Kremlin’s efforts to stem the tide

Researchers and specialists dismiss as vain the Kremlin’s hopes for an adequate demographic policy that will stabilize the population at 145 million. Last autumn, the UN predicted a fall of the population of Russia to 107 million by 2050. Yesterday, Population Reference Bureau (PRB) suggested that reduction of the population would stop at 110.1 million by 2050.

The PRB estimate and report are based on current demographic trends. In 2008, there were 12 births and 15 deaths in Russia per every 1,000 individuals. “Unless something is done to change the existing birth and death rates, the population of Russia will be down to 129.3 million by 2025 and to 110.1 million by 2050,” the report concluded. The population will undergo a 22% drop by 2050.

By and large, these estimates concur with the conclusions drawn by UN specialists last year when they said that the population of Russia would be down to 107 million by 2050.

The Russian authorities meanwhile are considerably more optimistic. The Ministry of Health Care and Social Development hopes to stabilize the population at 145 million in 2025 and keep it there. These days, the population of the Russian Federation is under 142 million. The authorities pin their hopes on support of the birth rate and longer lifespans within the framework of the so called national projects.

Yevgeny Gontmakher, Assistant Director of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, perceived no stimuli for this expected stabilization. He said that the continued decline was more likely and that it would soon start making additional problems for the national economy. “The number of pensioners will keep going up and that of able-bodied citizens will keep going down. The economy will experience a dramatic shortage of the latter before long,” Gontmakher said.

The specialist suggested an improvement of labor productivity through modernization of economy as the only solution to this problem. “Nothing has been done in terms of this modernization over the last ten years or so,” Gontmakher shrugged. “Unfortunately, there are no guarantees even now that the authorities intend to initiate this modernization.”

One would think that the decreasing population will facilitate better living standards because the GDP has to be distributed among fewer recipients. Aleksei Shevyakov, Director of the Institute of Socioeconomic Problems of the Population, is nevertheless convinced that the powers-that-be will fail to do away with impoverishment in Russia by 2050. “Distribution mechanisms in Russia are such that only about 20% Russians boast of the income at the level of the middle class or higher. There can be no solutions to the demographic problems as long as so few Russians can afford proper tenements… and as long as the medical system in the country remains obsolete.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 14-15 August 2009


History shows that a super power needs resources in form of both population and economic strength. Considering Russia’s possibilities to remain at least a regional super power, the demographic development is most interesting. Albeit I have quite a thin knowledge of demographics, I would still like to make some remarks.

Long-term demographic forecasts include big margins of error. Who could have predicted the baby boom of the 1940s ten years earlier? On the other hand, demographic features are generally quite similar in societies being in the same phase of development. A higher living standard has a negative effect on birth rates, but only to a certain degree. For example, the birth rate is just now rising in many European countries, which has come as a surprise for most researchers.

Russia’s structural problems (an uneven distribution of wealth, the declining health care, smoking and drinking habits, insecurity inherited from the autocratic rule, etc.) will have a negative effect on Russia’s demographic development (provided that a growth of population is desirable).

Russia is a multicultural society. Very big differences in birth rates can be noticed between the Russian majority and the Moslem minority. Some 20-25 million of the population of Russia is Moslem today. If present figures will remain in force till 2050, the Moslem part of the Russian society will rise close to 50%. In that case, an authoritarian and centralized rule from the Kremlin cannot have other effects than breaking up Russia (the time scale being within my personal life expectancy, I hope).

Lastly, the latest Russian census was made in 2002, and the next one is scheduled to start in October 2010. The results will be most interesting. However, speculations of forgery may be predicted. Reliable calculations show, for example, that the number of Chechens in the last census was exaggerated by tens of per cent. A temptation to show better figures than reality approves is a fundamental part of an authoritarian ruler’s mind; a Potemkin village is anyway a nicer place of residence than an ordinary village.

In Sweden, during the period of great power in the 17th century, the number of inhabitants was a state secret. The Lion of the North would have lost its teeth if central Europeans would have known how small the population of Sweden-Finland was de facto.

Mikael Storsjö

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