Preliminary Russian Census Results Highlight Emerging Bottlenecks

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 84

Russian pensioners (Source: Evan Gershkovich/Moscow Times)

The preliminary results of the pandemic-delayed 2020 Russian census have now been released—the final and complete data will not be issued until later this year—and they are not sufficient either to cross check the various figures to ensure their reliability or to prevent disputes about their accuracy (Rossiyskaya Gazeta,, May 30; Novosti Volgograda, June 2). Despite those limitations, however, the numbers made public so far can confirm certain longer-term trends and point out some emerging demographic bottlenecks and other problems that the Kremlin will need to try to address over the coming years. As such, the early statistical readout is important to note even though some of the numbers will almost certainly have to be modified when the final results are issued. Most importantly, the 2020 census does not appear to show that Russia has turned the corner from the demographic problems that many experts have pointed to in recent years. The country continues to suffer from declining birthrates and rising death rates, insufficient immigration to compensate for these domestic developments, a continuing concentration of the population in cities and especially the largest ones, the emptying out of the countryside, the declining size of the labor force, and rapid population aging.

The Russian authorities are trying to trumpet an increase in the country’s population by 2.05 million (1.4 percent) since the last census in 2010; yet this apparent growth is deceptive. The new census includes the population of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and amounting to 2.29 million. Thus, the top-line demographic indicator Moscow is taking such pride in, in fact, shows a decline in the population of the internationally recognized Russian Federation (that is, minus Crimea). Immigration, on which the government has counted in the past to cushion population decline, has been insufficient to compensate for this continued drop. Moreover, the preliminary 2020 census data does not include all the migrant workers who have left Russia in the intervening months or the flight of, at a minimum, several hundred thousand Russians since the start of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war against Ukraine (Profil, June 3).

The early census figures show that the populations of two-thirds of the country’s federal subjects have declined. Only one-third saw any sort of increase, and this was almost exclusively in regions like Moscow, St. Petersburg and other megalopolises where surging urbanization pulled people out not only of the countryside but out of smaller cities. Over the past decade, therefore, Russia has become a slightly more urban country—up a little more than 1 percent. But as importantly, it is now significantly more concentrated in its largest cities rather than medium and small ones. Today, Russia has 16 cities with a million people or more; collectively, they are home to almost 36 million residents—one-quarter of the country’s total population. That alone puts new burdens on the government to provide the services urbanites expect. It also means that the Central Federal District around Moscow now has more than 40 million people, a demographic echo of Putin’s policies of radical centralization (, June 5).

Overall, the share of Russians 0–4 years old has continued to decline, confirming that the birthrate has not stopped falling. This reflects both the choice of city-dwellers to have fewer children and the decline in the number of women of prime child-bearing ages. That, in turn, reflects the broader shrinking of the workforce. In 2010, two-thirds of the population were of working age; now only 59.4 percent are, a trend that means there are fewer workers to power the economy and support the growing number of pensioners. And the new census figures show that worse is yet to come: there has been a greater reduction in the number of young and middle-aged workers than in older ones. With the aging of the population and an overall increase in the number of pensioners, deaths have also compounded, showing no sign of any improvement anytime soon. This trend will continue to push down Russia’s total population.

From Moscow’s perspective, the outflow of inhabitants from east of the Urals and especially from the High North is particularly worrisome. Indeed, Putin had long pushed for the development of both regions. Yet the preliminary census figures from the latter show that official claims regarding the sizes of northerly communities have been vastly exaggerated and must now be corrected downward (The Barents Observer, June 6). Elsewhere, differences in population growth are leading to new speculation about the possible combination of smaller regions with larger ones and even border changes, such as in the Orenburg corridor area, where the population has fallen precipitously. Such administrative tinkering could easily destabilize the entire system (, June 1, 2022;, accessed June 7, 2022; see EDM, November 19, 2013;, November 4, 2018).

The early census results do not include data on nationality or language, but overall figures for the populations of non-Russian republics do provide a glimpse into their possible characteristics. In the Middle Volga region, for example, all the non-Russian republics showed declines in population except for Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; Tatarstan, because of the urban center of Kazan, gained far more than Bashkortostan—5.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Those statistics point to ongoing changes in the ethnic composition of the region and are likely to spark both fears and anger among many groups, especially the Bashkirs, who had hoped to boost their numbers significantly (, Idel.Realii, June 2; Milliard Tatar, June 3).

The Russian statistical agency, Rosstat, says it will publish data from the census on nationality and language in September, while data on the numerically smallest peoples and migration patterns will come out in October. When those figures appear, fights over their accuracy and meaning can be expected to intensify, based on what occurred after such data appeared from the 2010 census (see EDM, December 6, 2012). Until then, Russian analysts and political leaders will be struggling with the overall picture the new census provides—one that clearly shows Russia is in ever deeper demographic decline. The Kremlin’s vigorous boosterism is unlikely to hide this fact.