March 05, 2005
Nicholas Eberstadt On Russia's Unfolding Demographic Disaster

Nicholas Eberstadt paints a bleak picture of Russia's demographic future.

On New Year's Day 1992—one week after the dissolution of the Soviet Union—Russia's population was estimated to be 148.7 million. As of mid 2004, according to the Russian State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat), the Russian Federation's population was 143.8 million. During its first eleven and a half years of post-Communist independence, Russia's population had apparently declined by almost five million people, or over 3 percent.

In proportional terms, this was by no means the largest population loss recorded during that period. According to estimates and projections by the U.N. Bureau of the Census, over a dozen states with a million people or more experienced a population decline between mid 1992 and mid 2004, 11 of these amounting to drops of 3.1 percent or more. Unlike some of these drops, however—Bosnia, for example, whose population total fell almost 10 percent—Russia's decline could not be explained by war or violent upheaval. In other places, population decline was due entirely to emigration (Armenia, Kazakhstan), or nearly so (Georgia). Russia, by contrast, had absorbed a substantial net influx of migrants during those years—a total net addition of over 5.5 million newcomers was tabulated between the territory's Soviet-era January 1989 census and its October 2002 population count.

Despite the mitigating impact of immigration, Russia's post-Communist population decline was larger in absolute terms than any other country's over the past decade. Furthermore, continuing population decline—at a decidedly faster tempo—is envisioned for Russia for as far as demographers care to project into the future. The only question is how steep the downward path will be. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, offers the relatively optimistic projection of a "mere" 14 million person drop in Russia's population between 2000 and 2025—an average net decline of about 560,000 persons a year. The U.N. Population Division's (UNPD) "medium variant" projection, by contrast, suggests a drop of more than 21 million over that same quarter century—about 840,000 persons a year for the period as a whole.

To maintain their current population Russian women need to bear more children than the 2.1 often cited in industrialized countries as replacement level reproduction.

Consider Russia's current fertility patterns. In a society with the Russian Federation's present survival patterns, women must bear an average of about 2.33 children per lifetime to assure population stability over successive generations. In the late Soviet era, Russian fertility levels were near replacement: The country's total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated near two births per woman from the mid 1960s through the mid 1980s. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian fertility rate likewise collapsed, plummeting from 2.19 births per woman in 1986-87 to 1.17 in 1999. Moreover, extreme subreplacement fertility is not peculiar to certain regions of Russia today; to the contrary, it prevails across almost the entire territorial expanse of the Federation.

Since 2001, there have been some indications of a resurgence of fertility in the Russian Federation. For the year 2002, according to Goskomstat, the country's total fertility rate has risen to 1.32.

The number of children that has to be born just to maintain population stability is surprisingly high. That reflects high rates of infant mortality and mortality at later stages of development as well as the surprisingly high rate of infertility.

A combination of scarred reproductive tracts from lots of abortions (really, I am not making this up) and a high rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs - in other venues referred to as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs) are causing low Russian fertility rates.

According to some recent reports, however, 13 percent of Russia's married couples of childbearing age are infertile—nearly twice the 7 percent for the United States in 1995 as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics. Other Russian sources point to an even greater prevalence of infertility today, with numbers ranging as high as 30 percent of all males and females of childbearing age.

If the Russian leadership wanted to increase child births in Russia then good place to start would be a tax on abortions (and a tax on vodka) that would be used to pay for subsidies to supply birth control pills. Also, the article provides an estimate that as many as 15% of college students may have current STIs. Wow. Rather than test everyone for infections it might make more economic sense to simultaneously give all late teen and early twenties Russians (or whatever age range would be indicated as optimal by testing of population samples) a course of antibiotic treatment to wipe out the STI infections. Russia could really benefit from development of vaccines for syphilis, gonorrhea, and the like.

Russia is also suffering from declining marriage rates and rising divorce rates. Plus, the death rate from injury (including accidents, murders, suicides) is very high.

For men under 65 years of age, Russia's death rate from injury and poisoning is currently over four times as high as Finland's, the nation with the worst rate in the EU. Russia's violent death rate for men under 65 is nearly six times as high as Belgium's, over nine times as high as Israel's, and over a dozen times that of the United Kingdom. As is well known, men are more likely than women to die violent deaths—but in a gruesome crossover, these death rates for Russian women are now higher than for most western European men.

Russian male life expectancy is below 60 years. Alcoholism is one of the reasons for this.

Low life expectancy exacts a large economic toll. A doctor or engineer or manager who gets degenerative diseases decades sooner than a Japanese or an American becomes less productive as the diseases progress and then of course stops producing altogether if death comes when that same person would still have years left to work in a more successful society. The bad habits of binge drinking and higher rates of infectious diseases exact tolls on productivity as well. Esiimates for HIV infection rates in the Russian population range as high as 2%.

Russia's biggest problem is public health. The Russian government ought to elevate public health measures ahead of a lot of other competing uses of government money. If spent wisely, money spent on public health measures (e.g. vigorous tracing and treatment of people exposed to STIs) could pay big economic dividends.

What is most amazing to me is that the Russians are letting this disaster unfold. Think about it. As the core of the USSR the Russians put men into space, developed ICBMs, and built massive dams and other scientific and engineering projects. By some measures theirs is not a primitive society. Yet look at what is going on there. The trends in Russia illustrate the substantial differences in cultures and characteristics that still separate the different peoples of the world.

Read the whole article.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 March 05 09:05 PM  Trends Demographic

Brock said at March 6, 2005 5:24 PM:

I suppose the only good news is that demographics can only predict what happens if nothing changes.

People are less likely to have children during times of high uncertainty. The Russian transformation from authoritarian communism to semi-democratic capitalism has been quite bumpy. Things _should_ smooth out and improve as Russians get a better feel for what it means, and membership in global institutions such as the WTO influence the culture.

Fly said at March 6, 2005 8:32 PM:

“By some measures theirs is not a primitive society.”

My major references for my thesis in approximation theory were written by Russians. Russia has produced many excellent mathematicians. I’ve worked with several Russian immigrant PhD’s who were doing network design at Bell Labs.

What's happening to their society is a sad waste of humanity. Hopefully their future will be better.

Kurt said at March 7, 2005 11:28 AM:

Brock is right. The former Soviet Union's birthrate is non-existant because they are in a rough transition period. Similar to the U.S. during the great depression. Once things get better (another 10-20 years) their birthrate will probably rise to European levels or higher and everything will be OK.

desmond said at March 8, 2005 5:57 PM:

Well the fertility rate in Europe (Western Europe anyways) is below replacement and usually well below replacement in all countries. I think it is around 1.7 in Germany, and I know down around 1.1 - 1.3 in Italy and Spain. In my opinion the prime candidates for countries with declining populations (other than war-ravaged areas) are formerly affluent countries that slide down the income scale or see very high costs of living. In most of Europe many young people despair of ever owning their house or apartment. The average 35 year old man in Italy livew with his parents. We see the same thing beginning to occur here in the U.S. too where fertility among native-born women is below replacement, especially if you tease out second generation native-born children of immigrants. Russia has fallen low compared to earlier times when at least a job was guaranteed as well as health care and housing (not world class certainly but at least cheap and largely available).

But in a world with 6 1/2 billion people moving towards a final level of anywhere from 9 - 12 billion carefully managed reduction in populations should be a general policy in ALL COUNTRIES. Of course what we are getting is stable or declining populations of native-born inhabitants of the developed countries and increasing immigration from the poor countries with still growing populations. Unfortunately the news from Russia is negative since demographic trends are responding to poor prospects and the various health problems mentioned in the article.

Locke said at March 9, 2005 11:17 AM:

No, everything will not be okay. Everything will never be okay in Russia ever again.
Back in the good old days we could exploit the East Europeans and Central Asians, and provide a decent living at least for the good communist party members. Now the ingrates have left us to make their own way. We warned them against it but they did it anyway.
You're on the internet right now, right? Just do a search for Russian brides and see what comes up. Our women are rushing to leave Russia, looking to marry anyone to get out. We use abortion for birth control. Public Health means the monthly bribe all restaurants and public facilities have to pay to keep from getting bumped off by enforcers.
No it will not be okay.

DigitalDjigit said at March 9, 2005 4:13 PM:

You shouldn't forget that Russia has some of the most polluted places in the world. This has a very noticeable effect on both death rates and birth rates.

Look at the low life span as a least we know Russia won't have this social security problem the US does. The burden on the state lessens, more productive individuals out there as a percentage. Kids are a burden too. Things could be worse, they could be having a population explosion like most third-world countries with all the civil unrest, unemployment etc. that results.

Vernon said at March 14, 2005 7:39 AM:

Is there an article anywhere on the demographics of the Jewish population in the State of Israel?

Some three years back, I heard that 1 in 4 babies born in Israel are Muslim, and that this is an increasing statistic.

I understand that spouses/partners of non-Jewish Israeli citizens are being encouraged to leave Israel. If this is true, is this a realisation on the part of the Israeli government that the Jewish democracy is sitting on a demographic time-bomb?

Roger L said at June 16, 2005 12:03 PM:

For the jewish and muslim birth statistics (per month even) i recommend the statistics Israel web site.
Muslims approx 1/4 yes.

As for the german TFR it has been between 1,3-1,5 for the last 30 years during which time every year more people have died in Germany than have been born.
Last yeat approx 710 000 born and approx 820 000 died.

South Europe especially Italy have had similarly (or lower)low birth rates but ONLY for approx 20 years !

Best regards

VJ said at March 22, 2011 2:05 AM:

Most data is taken from nowhere. Have never heard of any increasing divorce rates in Russia. Young couple start families at the age of 20 unlike Europe and the USA where ppl get married after 30 only if get married at all.
What does tax on vodka have to do with the question of birth rate in Russia? Vodka wasn't created in Russia as well as other alcoholic drinks.They were created in Europe and brought to Russia long after Europe's alcoholism started growing in a disastrous problem. Accroding to all statistics Russia isn't even in 10 top heavily drinking countries. If one really wants to learn something new, one shouldn't base their opinion on one book only, written by a person who hardly knows where Russia is. To be really aware of a topic one should study at least 3-4 sources to generate a relativly fair opinion. All my friends, classmates and the like already have at least 2 babies and that all at the age of 21-22. And what about grandma Europe? Europe's population is the oldest in the world. The old population prevails the young one.

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