Much has been made in Moscow and the West in recent months about falling fertility rates—the number of children per woman over a lifetime—among the Muslim nationalities of the North Caucasus, with some Russian and Western experts suggesting that the Russian Federation no longer faces a demographic threat from that direction. But a set of new figures from Chechnya show why that is not the case. These updated statistics demonstrate that the rapid growth of these nations’ populations sets the stage for continuing explosive demographic increase even if fertility rates decline.
Last week, health ministry officials in Chechnya released data showing that the number of births in that republic exceeded the number of deaths by 4.9 times, that infant mortality had been cut by 25 percent over the last year, and that there had been a natural increase in the population—that is, growth not caused by immigration—“in all the cities and municipal regions of the republic.” As a result, the population of that North Caucasus republic had increased by 1.6 percent between 2013 and 2014 (itar-tass.com/obschestvo/1102962).
Those figures are striking if one compares them with data from the Russian Federation overall. According to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics-gathering agency, births barely exceeded deaths for the country as a whole and fell short of compensating for deaths in many predominantly Russian regions. Indeed, the only reason that Moscow had for celebrating what some commentators called Russia’s “demographic turnaround” was the situation in the Muslim republics, a fact that few if any of them chose to mention.
Moreover, again according to Rosstat, infant mortality has not been seriously reduced in the Russian Federation over the last year. Indeed, problems with medical care and the elimination of nearly a third of the country’s hospital beds during Vladimir Putin’s presidency for “budgetary” reasons have meant that it has actually drifted upwards in some parts of the Russian Federation, the predominantly ethnic-Russian ones in particular. The overall figure is as good as it is only because of dramatic declines in places like Chechnya where it had been much higher than the all-Russian average earlier.
And as Russian officials of all kinds have pointed out, many rural areas in Russia are becoming depopulated, just as many cities, including some very large ones like Murmansk, are actually losing people. Additionally, officials have turned to misrepresenting how many people are in fact living in their areas of responsibility in order not to lose more subventions from the federal center. During the 2010 census, for instance, there were more falsifications of census data in Russian regions than in the North Caucasus, with the former claiming the presence of perhaps as many as four million “dead souls” (https://svpressa.ru/society/article/32562/).
But as dramatic as the contrast between Muslim republics like Chechnya and the Russian regions of the Russian Federation is now, it is almost certainly going to become even larger in the future even if, as is entirely likely, fertility rates among Chechens and other Muslim nationalities decline—in line with current worldwide patterns.
There are three reasons for this conclusion. First, the population of Chechnya and other Muslim republics is, because of higher fertility rates earlier and even now, far younger than the ethnic-Russian population and thus will, for the foreseeable future, have more women in the prime child-bearing age groups. Consequently, even if there is an inter-generational decline in fertility, the number of women among Muslim nationalities having children will be relatively larger than the number of Russian women doing so.
Second, there are still significant opportunities to reduce infant mortality among Muslim nationalities like the Chechens. As every country on earth has found, it is far easier to reduce infant death from six or eight out of ten to two or three, than it is to cut the rate further from two or three to one or fewer. As a result, there will be more Chechens reaching adulthood and the prime child-bearing ages will continue to increase, while the number of ethnic Russians doing so will fall, especially given that infant mortality among Russians is already far lower.
And third, the Chechens and other Muslim nationalities do not suffer—to anything like the same degree—from the unprecedentedly high rates of alcohol-induced adult male mortality that are now the norm among ethnic Russians. Russian males who reach adulthood are simply less likely to survive to retirement than are their Muslim neighbors, and Moscow’s current and much ballyhooed anti-alcohol campaign may in fact be making the situation worse: Russians are in fact now drinking less regulated and taxed vodka, but both men and now women are increasingly drinking surrogates, which often have even more serious health consequences.
The result over the next generation is simple arithmetic. If each Chechen woman now has four children and those have two, there will be potentially eight more Chechens, while if each ethnic-Russian woman now has 1.2 children and those have 1.0, there will be far fewer ethnic Russians there.