Population growth trends are destiny only over the long term, scholars have long insisted. But five years ago, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) demographer Nicholas Eberstadt warned in the research study “Russia in Decline” that the country’s demographic decline is imposing increasingly “unforgiving constraints” on the choices the Kremlin faces (see Jamestown.org, September 13, 2016). If anything, those constraints have become even narrower since that time. The Russian population contracted by more than a million in 2021, the most since 2000, for a variety of reasons and not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Kremlin likes to insist and many in the West uncritically accept (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, January 30, 2021; Nakanune.ru, November 23, 2021; Vedomosti, December 26, 2021). Indeed, it is these other causes that are likely to prove far more significant in the future, even when the pandemic is finally overcome.
The Russian Federal State Statistics Service’s (Rosstat) demographic figures released at the end of January 2022 are devastating. They show that deaths in Russia in 2021 exceeded births by 1,040,000, nearly double that measure in 2020. Thus, deaths grew year on year by 15.1 percent, to 2,440,000, and births fell 2.3 percent, to 1,400,000. This gap is larger than in any year since 2000. It was partially compensated for by the influx of immigrants, but the combined figure still showed a net decline in the Russian population last year of 688,700. Additionally, the Russian government’s statistical arm projected that decreases among the indigenous population (not counting immigrants) would continue throughout the 2020s, albeit slowing over time. The first year Rosstat projects any growth—55,700—will come only in 2030. Given this agency’s history of boosterism and falsification, there is little likelihood that the predicted declines in the coming decade will be as small as the official statistics suggests or that growth will return at the levels forecast (Rosstat.gov.ru, RBC, January 28, 2022).
The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia and many other countries so hard has enabled the Kremlin to insist, often with success, that the mortality numbers reflect coronavirus-related deaths alone. In other words, the Russian leadership exploits the pandemic in the same way it uses World War II—as a universal moral solvent to distract attention from other problems and absolve itself and its predecessors of any responsibility for the disaster. But Russian demographers, like Vladimir Kozlov, and investigative journalists, like Yevgeny Chernyshov argue, that COVID-19 is only one factor among many as far as Russia’s demographic decline is concerned. They point to the overall aging population, which naturally produces both more deaths and fewer women in the prime child-bearing age cohorts; and they highlight the radical cutbacks in Russian medical care as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s healthcare optimization program. Further (and related) culprits include declining standards of living, especially among those who choose to have children, as well as pessimism among Russians about their futures, a key factor in decision-making about whether to grow their families (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, January 30, 2021; Nakanune.ru, November 23, 2021).
Vedomosti journalist Aleksandr Sokolov puts the latest statistical figures in a broader context by examining Russian demographic trends in the 30 years since the Soviet Union disintegrated (Vedomosti, December 26, 2021). The baseline for his judgments is a 1989 estimate, prepared by Rosstat’s Soviet predecessor, Goskomstat. That agency projected that by 2015, the population of Russia would rise to 165,700,000. In fact, it did not come close. Moreover, Sokolov argues, if one uses Goskomstat’s demographic growth assumptions and extends the projection to the end of 2021, there should have been 169,400,000 people in Russia—and if one adds Crimea, 171,900,000 (Istmat.org, 1991). In fact, there were only 145,600,000 Russians last year, or some 26,300,000 fewer than predicted, a shortfall greater than the 19,800,000 Rosstat says the Russian Federation lost during World War II, in both cases from greater death rates and lower birthrates (Rosstat.gov.ru, 2020).
Obviously, the million Russians who have died from the coronavirus form a part of post-Soviet Russia’s demographic decline and shortfall; but they make up a remarkably small part—not only overall, that is, if one includes the extremely negative figures from the 1990s, but in recent years as well. Some experts, like Alla Ivanova of the Academy of Sciences, have posited that the 1989 projections were overly optimistic because they reflected the improvements in health brought about by Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, whereas those improvements were reversed when that campaign was scrapped. Earlier estimates expected Soviet birth rates to gradually decline over decades due to the so-called second demographic revolution, marked by increasing urbanization. But, as Ivanova noted, those predictions failed to foresee how quickly and sharply post-communist Russian society would undergo collapse as well as further delay child birth in the period of turbulence after 1991 (Vedomosti, December 26, 2021).
Since the end of Soviet times, Russia has experienced what experts call “the Russian cross,” with declining fertility rates and rising mortality rates: the former reflects modernization and the latter the aging of the population, problems in health care, and declining standards of living. Moreover, after 1991, Russia went through another “echo of the Great Patriotic War,” as the grandchildren of the small wartime generation entered prime child-bearing age groups and, thus, there were fewer women having fewer children. This had the effect of multiplying the two factors by each other.
Given the improved economy of the first decade of this century, economist Igor Nikolayev writes, Russia was able to boost life expectancies by radically cutting infant mortality, from 15.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2020. Yet now that decline has stalled or even been reversed, with the figure rising to 4.5 in 2021. Consequently, while older Russians will continue to die, life expectancies will fall because they will not benefit from declines in infant mortality, which exercise a disproportionate influence on this demographic indicator (Moscow Echo, December 21, 2021).
The Kremlin is increasingly worried about these trends not only because of their impact on the economy—there may soon not be enough working-age Russians to boost economic growth—but also because of their implications for national security, with large parts of Russia becoming depopulated. As Putin recently put it, “146,000,000 people for such an enormous territory [as the Russian Federation] is completely insufficient” (TASS, December 23, 2021). Nevertheless, the Kremlin leader has not come up with any policy that would radically change the grave pattern Russian government statisticians and demographers say is becoming ever more dominant.