Russia Vanishes

Tony Wood writes about the country’s demographic crisis

A huddle of elderly people trudge through ankle-deep snow, pushing a wooden freight car along a barely visible set of tracks. The women are wrapped in headscarves, the men wear fur hats and thick gloves. These are the last remaining inhabitants of Workers’ Settlement No. 3, and the subjects of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s remarkable 1998 documentary Bread Day; the freight car is bringing the weekly delivery that helps them survive. The village itself consists of little more than wooden sheds or barracks, interspersed with small garden plots. Many of the buildings have collapsed into themselves; others have been taken over by goats or stray dogs.

One might expect the village to be in some distant corner of Russia, perhaps several days’ journey into the Siberian taiga. But it is only eighty kilometres from St Petersburg, one of a cluster of settlements established in the early 1930s by a peat-extracting concern with links to the US. The Cold War put paid to the peat-export business, and the settlements entered a long decline, so that by the time Dvortsevoy visited there were only a few elderly residents left. Ten years later, in 2008, a Russian TV crew found all five settlements empty and the railway line overgrown with weeds. In the few wooden barracks still standing, photographs, papers and odd items of clothing lay scattered, as if the inhabitants had been rushed out of the place by a sudden turn of events.

But the vanishing of Workers’ Settlement No. 3 is part of a process of depopulation taking place across rural Russia. The 2002 national census gave a figure of just over 13,000 villages ‘with no population’; by the time of the next census, in 2010, the figure had risen to 19,416. Many more are on the brink: the 2010 census found that 36,225 villages had fewer than ten inhabitants. The geographical distribution of this wave of oblivion might seem counterintuitive, since it is not the far corners of Russia’s territory that are emptying most rapidly, but its historical core. In Pskov oblast’, on the border with Belarus and Latvia, and Tverskaia oblast’, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg, empty villages account for more than a fifth of all rural settlements. In Yaroslavl and Vologda oblasti, to the north-east of Moscow, 26 per cent of all villages have zero population, while in Kostroma oblast’, also to the capital’s north-east, a third of all villages are empty.

Russia’s demographic crisis became apparent the year after the dissolution of the USSR. In 1992, for the first time since the Second World War, deaths exceeded births, by a margin of 220,000, although an influx of tens of thousands of migrants – many of them ethnic Russians from other former Soviet republics – temporarily offset the impact of what demographers call ‘negative natural increase’. Since 1992, according to data from Rosstat, the state statistical agency, deaths have exceeded births by a cumulative total of 13 million, a figure far exceeding the numbers of immigrants. Russia’s population declined by an estimated 6.4 million between 1991 and 2009, an annual average drop of 337,000.

Russia is still the ninth most populous country in the world, with 142.9 million inhabitants at the time of the 2010 census. But its demographic contraction is set to continue relentlessly: the UN Population Division envisages a drop to 136 million by 2030, and to 126 million by 2050; by the start of the next century it could be as low as 111 million. This decline – equivalent, by 2100, to more than a fifth of the current population – will push Russia down the global demographic hierarchy: the fourth most populous state in the world in 1950, by 2050 it will have dropped to 18th place, overtaken by Pakistan, Ethiopia and Egypt.

All this has long alarmed Russia’s policymakers. The government’s Concept for Demographic Development in 2001 mentioned ‘negative phenomena’ that demanded ‘stabilisation’; a document in 2006 spoke openly of ‘demographic crisis’ and discussed measures to try to encourage Russians to reproduce; in May 2006 Putin announced increased benefits, longer maternity leave and cash payments of 250,000 roubles (then around $9000) to mothers if they had a second child. Adverts on the Moscow Metro in 2007 showed a cluster of matryoshki beside the legend: ‘Love for the motherland begins with the family – F. Bacon.’ (Never mind that what Francis Bacon actually said was ‘Charity to the commonwealth begins with private families,’ and only as part of a list of rhetorical commonplaces.)

Cash inducements may have had some effect – though until the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 rising incomes were probably a more significant influence. In any event, the gap between births and deaths has narrowed, from a high of 958,532 in 2000 to 129,100 in 2011. In September of that year, Putin even told the United Russia party conference that the demographic crisis had been ‘forced to retreat’. But a few months later he was sounding the alarm again: ‘Without implementing a large-scale, long-term project of demographic development,’ he wrote in February this year, in one of a series of lengthy articles laying out his presidential plans, ‘we risk turning into an “empty space”, whose destiny will be decided by others.’ He had just such a project up his sleeve, of course, though it seemed to consist of nothing more than a few extra natalist gestures: promises to create more kindergarten places and somehow to reduce the cost of real estate, cash for families who have a third child, increased student scholarships. These measures would, he claimed, be enough not only to stabilise Russia’s population but even to allow it to grow to 154 million by 2050 – a full nine million more than the UN Population Division’s most optimistic scenario.

There are reasons to be sceptical. The idea that the trend might be reversed, and the crisis temporary, rests on the assumption that the population decline which has taken place since the 1990s is the product of turbulent conditions. The economic uncertainty, mass unemployment and generalised feelings of insecurity that accompanied the unravelling of the Soviet Union would have deterred many from having children, and public health indicators too were abruptly worsening. On this logic, once a measure of stability has returned, and the shocks of the 1990s ‘transition’ have subsided, population growth will resume. The partial closing of the gap between deaths and births in recent years is taken as confirmation of this line of reasoning. According to Rosstat, in the first half of 2012 the gap was down to 57,000; soon, the optimists claim, the indicator will shift into positive territory again and, all being well, could easily remain there. Sadly, this is wishful thinking. Though it’s possible birth rates may rise further in the short term, this can only mitigate the decline, as opposed to reversing it. Russia’s levels of fertility and mortality are – like every other country’s – historically conditioned by trends and forces that run far deeper than the last twenty years. Population decline may have become visible only in the 1990s, but closer examination of Russia’s long-term demographic trajectory shows that it was decades in the making.

In Europe and North America, the average number of children a woman gives birth to has been declining for almost two centuries, as part of what is often called the ‘demographic transition’: a long progression from a reproductive regime with high levels of fertility and mortality to one with low levels of both. France led the way in fertility decline, with the Total Fertility Rate, or TFR, dropping to three children per woman by 1900; the ‘replacement rate’ notionally required for the population to remain stable is 2.1. Between 1880 and 1930, the TFR dropped below three in most of Western Europe and Scandinavia. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia’s TFR stood at 7.1 children per woman: significantly higher than Western Europe, but comparable to its Eastern European neighbours; this was principally a reflection of the fact that east of a line drawn from St Petersburg to Trieste a different family type prevailed.

Russian fertility levels began to decline before the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks accelerated the trend, in large part thanks to their early commitment to women’s emancipation, which brought improved female literacy levels, no-fault divorce and the legalisation of abortion. Some of these measures were reversed in the mid-1930s, but women’s participation in the labour force continued to expand massively. There was a noticeable effect on fertility: by the early 1930s the TFR stood at 4.5, dropping to 2.9 in the late 1940s and below 2.1 in 1964. In the space of little more than a generation, then, Russia had gone from having a fertility rate that was more than twice the replacement level to one that implied, sooner or later, a contraction: an unusually rapid transition compared to those in Western Europe (though not compared to East Asia in the late 20th century).

The TFR is a moving average, however, and is vulnerable to fluctuations: if women decide to have children slightly later, for example, the TFR will drop for a few years, even though the women might in the end have the same number of children as previous generations. One gets a more accurate historical picture by looking at the Completed Cohort Fertility Rate (CCFR), which gives the average number of children born to women in a given age-cohort, measured after the end of that cohort’s childbearing years. In 2006 a team of Russian demographers produced an authoritative study on the Demographic Modernisation of Russia, 1900-2000. Anatoly Vishnevsky and his colleagues calculated CCFRs for every five-year cohort of Russian women born since the mid-19th century. The cohort born in 1861-65, for example – around the time serfdom was juridically abolished – had an average of 7.1 children each. For those born at the turn of the century, in 1901-05, the average was 4.6, a drop of 35 per cent in forty years. The decline was still more rapid for the succeeding cohorts: the average was 3.7 for those born in 1906-10, 2.8 for those born in 1911-15, and so on, until it finally fell below the replacement level with the cohort born in 1936-40 – a drop of 56 per cent compared with the 1901-05 generation, in just 35 years.

In parallel with this decline in fertility came significant reductions in child and infant mortality. In 1900, according to data compiled by Jean-Claude Chesnais in La Transition démographique (1986), as many as 260 per 1000 children in the Russian Empire died before reaching their first birthday; by 1925, the figure for the USSR was 178 per 1000; by 1950 it was 81 per 1000. But overall mortality remained high: the rate in 1928, 23.3 per 1000, was twice as high as that of France, Germany or Sweden, and noticeably higher than Eastern European countries such as Romania or Poland.

In such conditions it would be misleading to take a fertility rate of 2.1 as representing ‘replacement’. Vishnevsky and his team estimated the average number of children per woman required given the conditions in Russia at the time – a de facto replacement rate, rather than the notional 2.1. The results are striking: Russian women born in 1901-05 had an average of 4.6 children in conditions requiring 3.7 for replacement. Women born ten years later, in 1911-15, had an average of 2.8 children at a time – the early 1930s – when the required rate was 3.2. Similar deficits followed, so that although the CCFR only dropped below 2.1 with the generation who had children in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Russian population had effectively ceased replacing itself long before that. According to Vishnevsky’s team, the last generation of Russian women actually to have the necessary number of children was the cohort born in 1906-10, who had an average of 3.7 children each in conditions requiring 3.5. With regard to fertility, then, Russia’s demographic shrinkage may have begun not in 1992, or even in 1964, but as early as the 1930s. But of course, fertility is only part of the story.

In 1929 Warren Thompson, one of the founders of demographic transition theory, predicted that ‘the growth of Russia during the next three or four decades will be one of the outstanding events of the modern world,’ and that ‘Russia may very well rival China and India in numbers by the year 2000.’ The main reason this didn’t happen is that the country’s fertility decline, which had already begun when Thompson was writing, was compounded by colossal spikes in mortality. The principal events that marked the Russian 20th century involved enormous losses of human life. The First World War, the Revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing Civil War, the collectivisation of agriculture and famine at the turn of the 1930s, the repressions of the Stalinist era, reaching a lethal peak in 1937-39, and then the hecatomb of the Second World War: each took its toll on the Russian population, and each had demographic consequences that reach into the present.

The historians R.W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft have put ‘excess deaths’ from the First World War, Revolution and Civil War – including those caused by disease and mass hunger – at 14.5 million. The effects on the Soviet population of political repression and the famine of 1932-33 are harder to measure, not least because statistical measurement was itself subjected to Stalinist Terror. The 1937 census found the population to number eight million fewer than it should have, a discrepancy now known as the Kurman gap after the Soviet demographer who tried to account for it to his superiors. (Mikhail Kurman was arrested a week after presenting his report in March 1937, and was released from prison ten years later; the census results themselves were not published until 1990.) Davies and Wheatcroft have concluded that ‘excess deaths’ for the period 1927-38 ‘may have amounted to some 10 million persons, 8.5 million in 1927-36, and about 1.5 million in 1937-38’. But it was the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia, that resulted in the largest number of casualties: between 1941 and 1945 a staggering 25-30 million people died.

This sequence of catastrophes, then, killed somewhere between 50 and 65 million Soviet citizens. The demographic consequences reached backwards as well as forwards in time: mass fatalities effectively cancelled out many of the childbearing efforts of previous generations, while the extermination of so many people obviously had an immediate impact on fertility levels. The Second World War killed 40 per cent of men between the ages of 20 and 49, and 15 per cent of women in the same bracket, removing at a stroke a large part of the child-producing population.

Russia population pyramid

The demographic distortions caused by these historic traumas have had a clear effect on the population’s composition today. The chart on this page shows a population pyramid derived from 2010 census data, with bars representing the numbers of people born in each year. Men are on the left, women on the right, the elderly at the top and newborns at the bottom. The shape of the pyramid in some ways corresponds to those of many industrialised countries, with a thick ‘middle’ representing the postwar generation and a narrowing base. But the Russian pyramid has some striking characteristics. At its summit there is a marked imbalance between men and women born in the 1920s and 30s: these are the generations scythed down by the Second World War. The war is also responsible for the drastic narrowing of the shape in the early 1940s, indicating a steep drop in the birth rate after the German invasion of 1941; according to Vishnevsky’s team, in 1989 there were more 78-year-old women in Russia than 44-year-old ones. After the war, the birth rate recovered, as the bulging contours of the pyramid indicate; in 2010 the country had almost twice as many citizens who were born in 1947 as in 1945.

There is another narrowing further down the pyramid, among those in their early forties today. This is what Vishnevsky calls a ‘demographic echo’ of the Second World War; what we’re seeing is in effect a doubled absence, as the missing children of the war years obviously failed to make a reproductive contribution as adults in the late 1960s. A generation later, in the 1990s, the echo appears again, this time reinforced by further declines in fertility amid the hardships of the post-Soviet period. In 1990 Russian fertility levels were not out of the European ordinary – the TFR stood at 1.9, the same as the Czech Republic, compared to 1.78 for France and 1.83 for the UK. But fertility levels took a sharp downward turn over the course of the decade and by 1999 Russia’s TFR was 1.16, one of the lowest in the world. The consequences of the fall of communism and the turbulent transition to capitalism were probably the main cause of this slump: the unemployment and huge losses of income experienced by many Russians hit women especially hard. Fertility seems to have recovered somewhat since the turn of the century, but even in 2009 the TFR stood at 1.5, a long way below replacement.

The distortions to the pyramid caused by declining fertility and mass mortality are compounded by another demographic disaster: Russia’s stubbornly low levels of life expectancy. For the first half of the 20th century, the country lagged behind the West by some distance: male life expectancy was barely more than thirty when the First World War broke out; it was almost fifty in France and the US. After the Second World War, Russia nearly closed the gap: in 1964 male life expectancy, at 64.9 years, was slightly lower than in Finland and higher than in Portugal; Russian women could expect to live for 73.6 years, fractionally more than the Spanish or Italians. But these advances weren’t sustained: from the mid-1960s Russian life expectancy entered a period of decline that lasted until the early 1980s – by a grim historical irony, a time when the country was being ruled by an increasingly gerontocratic Politburo.

The arrival of Gorbachev coincided with a brief improvement: in 1986-87 Russian life expectancy equalled its Khrushchev-era peak. But then another phase of decline began, which turned into a headlong plunge after the collapse of the USSR: between 1991 and 1994, male life expectancy fell by six years, from 63.4 to 57.4; female life expectancy from 74.2 to 71. There has been some recovery since: in 2009, the figure for men was 62.7 and that for women 74.7. But overall life expectancy, at 68.7, was still below the level achieved in 1961. And there remained staggering regional disparities: a female child born in Moscow in 2009 might expect to live to the age of 78, whereas a male in rural Chukotka, in the far east of Siberia, would probably not survive beyond his 46th birthday – a difference of more than a generation.

The effective stagnation of Russian life expectancy over the past half-century is all the more striking when set against the gains made elsewhere. According to UN Population Division data, in the early 1960s the gap between Russia and Western Europe was minimal – 69.2 years compared to 70.1 – whereas children born in Western Europe now can expect to live till they are 80, 12 years longer than newborn Russians. In the 1960s Russians could expect to live 23 years longer than those in the world’s ‘less developed regions’, but by 2010 their advantage was down to 1.9 years. Russian men can now expect to live 2.7 years less, on average, than men in the developing world – with shorter lifespans than men in India, Bangladesh or Ghana. In a report on ‘Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis’ written in 2010 for the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, Nicholas Eberstadt concludes that ‘judged only by its people’s life expectancy, the Russian Federation would be deemed a third-world country – and not an especially healthy one, at that.’

What explains this terrible state of affairs? Among the factors are the astonishing prevalence of cardiovascular disease in Russia, the country’s notorious drinking culture, problems with child and adult nutrition, lack of healthcare expenditure, and the impact of the shocks of the post-Soviet capitalist transformation. Death rates from cardiovascular disease are four and a half times higher than in Western Europe, at 900 deaths per 100,000 according to figures from 2002. But this isn’t enough to account for the disparities in life expectancy. Eberstadt examines the effects of high alcohol consumption and poisoning – a frequent occurrence in Russia, given the predilection for samogon’, or homebrewed vodka – as well as looking at nutrition levels and violence and injury rates. The rate of death from ‘external causes’ – accident, suicide, murder, war – surged after the fall of the USSR, reaching 245 per 100,000 in 2002, which put Russia ahead of Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia and Angola.

Others have sought to trace the effects on Russian mortality patterns of the rapid mass privatisations of the 1990s. A 2009 study by a team of epidemiologists led by David Stuckler at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and published in the Lancet found that variations in mortality in post-communist Europe were clearly related to the speed of market reform. Unemployment and widespread insecurity go some way towards accounting for Russia’s worsening public health indicators in the 1990s – notably the rise in male suicides, which increased by 57 per cent between 1990 and 1995, reaching rates two or three times higher than those of most European countries. But focusing on the 1990s leaves unexplained the decline of life expectancy that began in the 1960s, long predating the post-Soviet slump.

For many experts, having weighed all the factors, the continuing high mortality rates remain an enigma: in Eberstadt’s view, ‘the country is pioneering eerie new modern pathways to poor health.’ It’s possible, though, that the country’s traumatic demographic history is itself a factor in its present misfortunes. In 1985, the German demographer Reiner Dinkel noted that the Second World War, as well as causing enormous and immediate loss of life, may also have had long-term effects on a population’s overall health. With a large proportion of a given country’s conscription-age inhabitants killed or wounded, the population left behind would have a lower average life expectancy. Is it far-fetched to imagine that a Soviet populace shattered by years of war, repression and famine might also suffer disproportionately from health problems, which would then be bequeathed to succeeding generations? It may be significant that the regions of European Russia with the lowest life expectancy were also the scene of particularly ferocious fighting in 1941-45: a male baby born in 2009 in a village in Smolensk oblast’, for example, cannot expect to live beyond the age of 55, compared to a national rural average of 61. The tragedies of the last century, then, may still be affecting Russia’s mortality patterns. One could say that, in demographic terms, the country’s past is still unfolding, long after the dead of Stalin’s era and the Great Patriotic War have been buried.

The demographic shrinkage that became evident with the onset of ‘negative natural increase’ in 1992 can’t easily be reversed. The only thing that can mitigate the contraction is substantial inflows of migrants. According to Vishnevsky and his co-authors, in order simply to maintain Russia’s population at its present level, an annual net migration of around 900,000 people will be required until 2024, rising to an average of more than 1.2 million migrants a year until 2050. Given Russia’s low birth rates, this would also mean that an increasing proportion of the population would be recent immigrants: according to Vishnevsky’s team, as much as 15 per cent by 2025, and 35 per cent by 2050.

Accurate figures are hard to come by, but at present migrants probably number around 12 million, something like 8 or 9 per cent of the total Russian population. Most of them come from former Soviet republics – the lion’s share from the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – and tend to supply manual labour on construction sites or work at the lower levels of trade and services: street cleaners, agricultural labourers, market traders, taxi drivers. Xenophobia against these gastarbeitery – Russians have adopted the German word, in a revealing transplant from the 1970s – is widespread, from the ranting of the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) to the casual racism of TV shows like Nasha Rasha (a version of Little Britain), which sends up the idiocies of Tajik labourers called Ravshan and Jamshud. In a recent article for Gazeta.ru, Yulia Latynina, a liberal commentator, complained that the number of migrant workers in Moscow now ‘exceeded all bounds’; their employment in public works was part of a government plan to ‘replace citizens with slaves’, and all non-citizens without a work permit should be deported. The reality is that Russia needs these migrants – not only to secure its demographic future, but to fill the ranks of its workforce today. The working-age population began to contract in 2007, which not coincidentally was also the year when the Putin government simplified registration requirements for migrants – effectively legalising forms of migration on which the country had already begun to depend.

If anything like the required influx materialises, it will rapidly alter the make-up of the country’s population, demanding profound transformations of its politics, society and culture. Of course, Russia’s current ethnic composition is already hugely varied: the country is home to more than 150 different officially recognised groups, from the five million-strong Tatars, descendants of the Mongol armies, to the Nganasans of the Arctic, who number barely nine hundred, and from the myriad mountain peoples of the North Caucasus, predominantly Muslims, to the shamanic Udege of the Amur River basin, among scores of others. But taken together, these groups comprise only a small part of the total: Russians have always been the dominant group within their multiethnic empire, and today account for 81 per cent of the population. Demographic patterns among the minorities seem to be echoing those of the majority group: at present, births exceed deaths in only a handful of the country’s territorial sub-units. Although nearly all of these are concentrated in non-ethnic Russian areas of the North Caucasus and Siberia – Ingushetia, Chechnya, Tuva, Buryatia, the Sakha Republic – even these regions are expected to see population decline before long: fertility rates are below replacement everywhere except Chechnya, Tuva and Altai.

In the absence of extensive immigration, then, it will be many decades before ethnic Russians lose their majority status. Given the ethno-nationalist outlook of so many of the country’s political forces – including the government’s liberal opponents, such as Latynina and the anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny – it is difficult to imagine new arrivals being welcomed on the scale required to avoid population decline. But even a smaller, steady stream of migrants will bring significant adjustments to the country’s ethnic composition. As the languages and cultures of the peoples once absorbed by the tsarist empire become more prominent, the idea of Russianness itself will have to inhabit an ever wider range of forms and meanings.