Last week, in a meeting with top advisors, Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented the population decline in the country’s Far East, saying it falls in an “alarming, red zone.” While this sparsely populated region, which shares a border with far more densely populated Chinese provinces, may raise particularly acute demographic concerns for the Kremlin, the country’s population decline more broadly—in both absolute and relative terms—is once again vexing the Russian leadership. Earlier this year the U.N. Commission on Population and Development concluded that the world’s population will grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of some 26 percent; Russia, meanwhile, was projected to lose a little over 10 million people, shrinking by about 7 percent from 145.9 million in 2019 to 135.8 million in 2050, according to the U.N.’s World Population Prospects. Indeed, Russia’s population has dropped for the first time in a decade: According to World Bank data, this happened between 2017 and 2018 and the year-on-year drop was about 19,000; according to official Russian population statistics—which have been recalculated for 2015 and beyond to include the population of Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine—the drop happened between the start of 2018 and 2019 and was close to 100,000. While estimates of the country’s population vary from source to source (official national statistics place it at 146.8 million), the current downward trend is now undisputed. Its causes include a declining birth rate, a relatively high mortality rate and a drop in inbound migration.
After more than 15 years of growth, Russia’s birth rate hit a plateau in the middle of this decade and began to decline in the past couple of years, according to the World Bank, steadily rising from 8.3 births per 1,000 people in 1999 to a high of 13.3 in 2014-2015, and down to 12.9 in 2016-2017 (the last year for which World Bank data are available). Although average birth rates have been declining worldwide for decades, domestic circumstances have compounded the trend in Russia. In the decade after the fall of the USSR in 1991, amid the socioeconomic collapse that followed, Russia’s birth rates declined steadily, while mortality rates spiked. As a result, the generation born in this period was much smaller than previous ones and these Russians have now hit prime childbearing age, leading to a secondary demographic dip. According to Tatyana Golikova, Russia’s deputy prime minister for social policy, the government’s ability to incentivize more active procreation, as it has tried to do in recent years, is now limited—both by the drop in the number of women of childbearing age (no more than 35 million by Golikova’s count) and by their having a first child later than before (ages 25-34), thus lowering the possibility of a second or third child.
While Russia’s overall mortality rate has remained relatively constant over the past few years, totaling 12.9-13 deaths per 1,000 people in 2015-2017 according to the World Bank, it remains high relative to most other former Soviet republics, BRICS countries and the West (follow the link above for comparative data), primarily due to a high incidence of vascular disease and cancer. Moreover, Russia’s death rates have been something of a rollercoaster in the post-Soviet period, spiking from 12.2 in 1992 to 15.7 in 1994, dipping as low as 13.5 in 1998 and then rising to 16-16.4 in 2003-2005, after which they declined steadily for a dozen years. The three-year period of 2013-2015 even saw positive natural population growth in Russia, when births exceeded deaths, per World Bank data. In her presentation to lawmakers earlier this year, Golikova also noted that death rates are far from uniform across the country, with 32 regions registering a rise in mortality rates in 2018. Some regions also have much higher rates than others. Officials from Russia’s federal statistics agency put Pskov and Tver regions at the top of the list with 17 deaths per 1,000 people, and Novgorod in second place at 16.5, while regions in the far north and the North Caucasus had the lowest rates, according to Gazeta.ru, from 4.2 in Chechnya and 4.8 in Dagestan to 8 each in Kabardino-Balkaria, Tyumen and Yakutia. The news outlet also quoted Golikova as saying that the death rate for rural Russians is 14 percent higher than among their urban counterparts, who live on average nearly two years longer.
One major reason Russia’s population continued to grow between 2008 and 2018 even in years when deaths exceeded births was the massive population of international migrants, which by 2017 was the fourth largest in the world, after the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Germany, according to U.N. data. However, in 2018 in-migration was no longer high enough to offset the country’s negative natural population growth: That year only 124,900 more people moved to Russia than left it, the lowest number since 2005, if not since the Soviet collapse, according to data analyzed by researchers at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, or RANEPA. The specific reasons behind the drop in 2018 are uncertain: Some experts posit that Russia’s stagnating economy has disincentivized labor migration to the country, others note the particularly steep drop in migrants from Ukraine, still other commentators point to changes in Russian immigration legislation. A reported uptick in emigration in recent years does not help the situation either. In October 2018, Putin decreed a new national migration policy for 2019-2025 and anonymous sources involved in its implementation told Kommersant this year that Russia aims to attract 5-10 million new citizens, preferably from nearby countries with large Russian-speaking populations, including Ukraine. The effects of these measures are as yet unclear. (An unexpected spike in in-migration in the first four months of 2019 was attributed by statistics officials to a change in methodology.)
Overall, Russia’s demographic situation poses a significant challenge for the government. In the most optimistic of three scenarios developed in March 2018, Russia’s statistics agency, Rosstat, said that natural population decline could be reversed by 2023-2024 and the population could grow from 146.9 million in 2018 to 153.2 million by the end of 2035; that, however, would require a 160 percent increase in net in-migration. The most pessimistic of the three scenarios had the country’s population shrinking by more than 8 million people by the end of 2035. So far, the actual population change recorded between the start of 2018 and the start of 2019—from 146.9 million to 146.8 million—looks most like Rosstat’s middle scenario, which predicts a 2 percent population drop to 144 million. In short, the most recent population decrease is likely not a mere blip on the radar.