Russia’s Demographic Resilience

In this post I look at the (surprisingly good) Russian demographic data for Jan-Mar 2009 and argue in more depth that the economic crisis is unlikely to have a very major negative impact on short-term fertility, or any but a very minor impact on long-term demographic trends. I make some falsifiable predictions, estimating a birth rate of 11.5 / 1000 and a death rate of 14.5 / 1000 this year, changed from 12.1 / 1000 and 14.8 / 1000 in 2008, respectively.

In my April article Rite of Spring: Russia’s Fertility Trends, I argued that in the next few years Russia is going to experience a minor demographic resurgence to fertility rates of around 1.7-2.1. This is based on a) relatively high fertility expectations, similar to those seen in the late Soviet Union and Western Europe (France, UK,…) which had / have near replacement-level total fertility rates, b) a little-known indicator called the “average birth sequence” implied the natural long-term fertility rate, absent birth postponement, is around 1.6-1.7 and c) a new spirit of confident conservatism. I also dismissed the idea that the current economic crisis is poised to derail these developments

Furthermore, the post-Soviet collapse was an unprecedented hyper-depression, surpassed only by the Civil War in its social costs. Though on paper recovery from the 1998 crisis was rapid, newly severe budget discipline undercut social spending that left many classes and regions destitute for years. It is telling that in the first six months of the 1998 recession, the proportion of people who could hardly afford even food rose from 29% to 40% of the population; in stark contrast, in the five months since the Russian economy began collapsing in October, this figure rose from 9%…to just 10%.

This is notwithstanding that the rate of decline from Q4 2008 to Q1 2009 was even sharper than during H2 1998. However this time round, both state and society have much bigger surpluses to fall back on during the lean times. As such, the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low.

This is not a new idea – in my 2009 predictions, I forecast:

In Russia, the birth rate will be between 11.5 and 12.5 / 1000, the death rate at 14.5 and 15.5 / 1000 and net migration will fall substantially to 0.5 / 1000. For comparison, the figures for the first ten months of 2008 were 12.1, 14.8 and 1.7 respectively.

And even earlier, from The Importance of Self-Sufficiency in December 2008:

All vital demographic statistics, with the exception of the total fertility rate, improve during this period – the expanding social safety net checks mortality increases, but the confidence crisis temporarily dents the former. The overall humanitarian impact is insignificant compared to the Soviet collapse and even 1998.

(On a side note, I predicted GDP growth of 0-3% for 2009 in the above article. Ouch! It hurts to remember).

Now how do these forecasts stack up against reality?

Though the data for Jan and Feb was encouraging, I refrained from making any big observations since it was too small a sample, but I think it’s appropriate now that Rosstat demographic data for Q1 2009 is available. Relative to the same quarter of 2008, the birth rate increased from 11.5 to 12.1 / 1000; death rates fell from 15.5 to 15.0 / 1000; the infant mortality rate and divorces fell, and marriages remained constant. There are a number of good and bad caveats.

As frequently pointed out in the Western media abortions are going to increase and births are going to be postponed in light of the economic crisis. What will this mean in practice? They can only become statistically significant from around April, because abortions in Russia are only legal within the first twelve weeks of conception and the economy started imploding in October 2008. From then on we can expect to see intensifying downward pressures on fertility, especially as we enter the autumn months.

That said, I do not expect a very big drop – certainly no more than 10%, and probably closer to 5%. In 2008 there were 1,718k births in Russia, giving a crude birth rate of 12.1 / 1000. So in other words, there will be 1,546k births and a CBR of 10.9 / 1000 in the “low” scenario and 1,632k births and a CBR of 11.5 / 1000 in the “medium” or expected scenario. The high(ly unlikely) scenario is 12.0 / 1000. (I also expect 2010 to be similar to 2009, with further solid increases in the TFR starting from 2011). How did I reach this conclusion?

First, as I pointed out above the economic crisis is not (yet) translating into a humanitarian crisis (“It is telling that in the first six months of the 1998 recession, the proportion of people who could hardly afford even food rose from 29% to 40% of the population; in stark contrast, in the five months since the Russian economy began collapsing in October, this figure rose from 9%…to just 10%”).

Second, as I noted in the Rite of Spring article, since 2006 there has been a major sociological shift with sustained increases in the number of people who believe in Russia’s future (I believe this partly explains the fundamental upwards shift in fertility seen recently). It is telling that at no point during the crisis did the number of Russians who thought the country was on the wrong path, exceed those who thought it was on the right path. Though the Western media try to spin up the specter of an imminent socio-political crisis in Russia, frequently citing last year’s mafia-instigated Vladivostok riots for lack of anything better, it is relatively easy to point out their logical inconsistencies just by looking at the Levada polling data. Just as I did in a letter to the Moscow Times. The point I’m making is that national morale was high in 2008, relative to the pre-2006 period, and has been only moderately dented by the crisis.

Third, even during the 1998 crisis – when morale and living standards fell much faster than today – the drop in birth rates was not that huge (though admittedly it was close to its nadir anyhow back then). The number of births fell by just 5%, and almost fully recovered by 2000. However, this was due to the (relatively) rapidly growth in the number of women of reproductive age, for the TFR only caught back up in 2001. Today this age group is growing very slowly (and will start decreasing with accelerating speed from the early 2010’s).

That said, in conclusion it is very unlikely that the birth rate will fall by any more than 10% in 2009. I was certainly surprised by the magnitude of the fall in Q1 GDP (as was Ed Hughes) – my starry-eyed predictions of 0-3% growth for 2009 will haunt me for a long time now that Q1 saw a -9.5% decline and analysts are predicting anything between -4% and -8% for the year (I’m currently leaning towards -5% to -6%). However, I still stick by my initial assessment that 2010 will see a (moderately) strong recovery with GDP growth exceeding 3%. This will stave off any major cuts in budgetary social support and hold Russia in place against plummeting back into the death spiral.

It is highly encouraging that death rates continued falling in the midst of a near-depressionary contraction in economic output, easing from 15.5 / 1000 in Q1 2008 to 15.0 / 1000 in Q1 2009. Even more encouraging was the structure of the mortality decline. Deaths from alcohol poisoning fell by 13%, and overall deaths from non-medical causes fell by 9% (even the suicide rate remained steady). This is tentative evidence that Russians have finally kicked their habit of drinking themselves stupid when things don’t go their way.

There’s also a continuing shift from hard spirits to milder alcoholic drinks, a trend I first wrote about in Out of the Death Spiral. (This is significant because almost all of Russia’s abnormally high mortality can be attributed to excessive binge drinking of vodka). In Q1 2009 the share of vodka in alcohol consumption was 54.2% in pure alcohol terms, compared to 58.4% in all of 2006 (note Q1 is winter, when harder drinks are generally preferred). This bodes well for future improvements in the health of the nation.

However, here is also evidence of a slight shift towards illegal moonshine consumption – though registered production fell by 12%, overall consumption only fell by 4% (albeit part of the discrepancy can be attributed to Ukrainian imports, or drinking down accumulated stocks).

These positive drinking trends are coupled with continued government investment into the National Priority Project on health, which funds the construction of a network of hi-tech medical centers, acquisition of new oncological equipment and healthy lifestyle promotion. As such, we can be pretty certain that unlike in prior downturns – the mortality explosion during the post-Soviet hyperdepression and the mortality spike after the 1998 Crash – there will be no increase in the number of deaths, and quite possibly even a substantial decrease. The prediction? Relative to 14.8 / 1000 in 2008, the mortality rate for 2009 will not exceed 15.0 / 1000 (low scenario) and may be better than 14.5 / 1000 (the medium scenario). The best case is 14.0 / 1000. Subsequent years will see a general trend towards improvement.

I was surprised by the migration stats. Though a reduction in immigration was predictable, I did not expect the decline in emigration. I mean, the construction sector pretty much imploded – surely the Central Asian Gasterbeiter would be compelled to go home? But as it is both indicators fell but the net inflow of migrants remained unchanged at 0.17 / 1000.

So in conclusion, the overall rate of population decline eased from 80,900 in Q1 2008 to just 46,900 in Q1 2009, equivalent to 0.03% of the population. In other words, Russia has for all practical purposes halted its population crunch – at least for now.

Incidentally, the situation in Ukraine is also looking bright, despite the fact that the economic collapse there is much more comprehensive – its GDP declined by an estimated 20-25% in Q1 2009 and a third of Ukrainians can barely afford food. Nonetheless, in Jan-Mar birth rates increased from 10.2 to 11.1 / 1000, death rates fell from 18.0 to 17.0 / 1000 and nuptiality measures improved. Since Ukraine shares Russia’s predilection for excessive alcohol consumption, especially in times of economic hardship, it goes without saying that this too is an interesting and encouraging development.


  1. JFreegman says:

    Good post. I just saw the newly released Q1 data last night and was pleased (and somewhat surprised) to see the continued improvements despite the economic crisis – especially the falling mortality rates in light of the two huge spikes coinciding with the switch to capitalism and the 1998 crisis.

    And it’s nice to see Ukraine’s situation finally improving some. I was starting to wonder if maybe they were in line with the doomsday predictions people make for Russia (the death spiral as you call it).

  2. Agreed 100%, JFreegman.

    You can also look at the Belarussian stats. Again comparing Q1 2009 to the same quarter the previous year, the recent data shows: birth rates increased from 10.5 to 11.3, but death rates too increased from 14.3 to 15.0. This is even more puzzling, since according to official figures Belarussian Q1 GDP was actually still 1.2% higher, implying that its recession was nowhere near as bad as Russia’s not to say Ukraine’s. It also has a much stronger social support net.

    Furthermore, the rise was almost entirely attributed to heart problems. Interestingly, deaths from alcohol poisoning actually fell from 34 to 29 / 100,000 in Belarus (Russia fell from 16 to 14). Another observation – it seems that Belarus drinking habits remain very much “post-Soviet”, as in Russia from early 1990’s to 2006; even though its post-Soviet economic crisis was milder than that of Russia.

    Another Q1 post-Soviet comparison – in Estonia, death rate decreased by 6% and birth rates decreased by 5%. Not surprising, as Estonia is about five years ahead of Russia in its transition.

  3. JFreegman says:

    Those Belorussian stats are indeed just as puzzling. If you>compare mortality rates in those three countries over the past fifty years, you can see that Belarus has always gone its own path other than having the same general upward trend. Its mortality rate has been significantly lower and it wasn’t effected by Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign or the 1998 crisis. Russia and Ukraine on the other hand have been almost identical year to year. It makes me wonder if maybe they (Russia and Ukraine) have simply gotten over the transition to capitalism and become more resilient to economic hardships (the weakest died off?), while at the same time their general improvement continues, whereas Belarus is perhaps just struggling with the same issues that it has been for a long while, not necessarily so strongly tied to the economy.

    I’m nowhere near an expert on demographics so all I can do is watch and make guesses, but it would definitely be interesting to know the actual causes behind these unpredictable trends.

    Post 2

    Whoops, I just realized I was looking at Georgia instead of Belarus for mortality rates. So much for that theory. Now I’m even more confused.

  4. Very few people would agree with this. All I ever hear about with regards to demographics and Russia is how bad Russia’s allegedly are. I don’t know if I know enough to form an opinion, but it is very refreshing to read a different point of view for once.

  5. @JFreegman,

    Georgia did have a significantly different demographic profile from Russia. Its fertility transition was much more gradual than Russia’s, and its death rates were much healthier. As of 2007 they were at 11.2 and 9.4, respectively, which means that it has actually has a positive rate of natural increase (however the overall population is falling due to high emigration). Not surprising. Georgians drink a lot, but they tend to do wines in moderate doses. No data for 2009, but I don’t imagine there’d be anything untoward.

    Re-Belarus. The only argument I can make for why its death rates rose during the crisis while Russia’s and Ukraine’s fell is uncomfortably Steynist, but there you go. Basically they have a “market socialist” system in which employment is practically guaranteed (in 2008 unemployment was at 0.8%), so as in the old USSR you’d have to be monumentally incompetent – or politically subversive – to lose your job. So Belarussians had a relatively bleak Q1, decided to drink more and had more heart attacks (though perhaps medical services had improved on the prior year so deaths from alcohol poisoning fell). On the other hand in Russia and Ukraine, capitalist countries that they are, workers who still have jobs are more afraid of getting fired so they don’t dare get drunk, and as in Western countries recessions actually start becoming good for their health.


    If you want to know Russian demography:
    1) Google “Nicholas Eberstadt” Russia demography and browse through a few of his articles on the subject – he is the foremost “pessimist”.
    2) Read my Rite of Spring: Russia Fertility Trends and Faces of the Future for the “optimistic” view.
    3) We’re both biased so round off your reading with this 188-page UN report released in May 2009 – Russia Facing Demographic Challenges. 😉

  6. Sorry for coming on late,but I understand the Georgian Orthodox Church has successfully encouraged a higher birthrate. This Church by the way is appalled at the United States and its insistence on the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Turks to Georgia.Prediction:real Georgians will turn once again back to Russia and the alien anti-Orthodox feckless bankrupt United States will be sent packing.

  7. The first part appears to be true, with births rising from 48,000 to 57,000.

    It will be interesting to see whether this is a one-off spurt caused by the Georgian Patriarch’s baptismal offer, or the start of a sustained climb back up to around replacement-level fertility.

  8. JFreegman says:

    Have you seen the new Rosstat report? They’ve got high-med-low population estimates up to 2031 with all the accompanying data (fertility rates, birth/death rates, migration etc…) Pretty interesting, though I still doubt the legitimacy in making linear estimates that far into the future.

  9. Yes, I have @ Предположительная численность населения Российской Федерации до 2030 года. Thanks.

    They’re not really linear in that they project a range of future fertility and mortality scenarios, and use them to model Russia’s population. I think they’re pretty legit, though there’s always black swans and unknown unknowns hanging round the corner.

    Basically, the Medium scenario sees stagnation (141mn in 2025), the High scenario sees slow growth (145mn), and the Low sees collapse (134mn). In this it corresponds to my own projections, in general if not in the specifics. My model is rather more optimistic largely because it expects a faster mortality decline, and a steeper fertility up-tick during the 2010’s.

    It should be noted that the Low scenario is not very likely because it posits a) constant, abnormally low life expectancy at current levels (67-68 years) for its entire run and b) a decline in total fertility rates back down to the 1990’s norm of 1.4 and lower.

    Another thing common across all models is that there is going to be intense aging pressure from 2010, substantial downward pressure on Russian birth rates from around 2015 and upward mortality pressure from 2020. One major problem is that around 10mn working-age people are certain to retire during the 2010’s.

  10. AK: I notice you keep very close track of Russian demographics but I’ve been unable to easily tell whether you want Russia’s population to GROW (as is the general desire of most Russophiles) or if you just hope to see the horrid death rate improve (my personal yearning)?

    As someone who’s in tune the whole peak oil/Malthusian crisis/resource depletion thread, I assume you are merely concerned that Russians reduce their death rates and improve overall social health rather than necessarily start filling up Siberia with young Russians?

    I personally always thought that a sparse population in the midst a of plentiful share of Earth’s crust was the greatest advantage of Russia and Canada, and possibly why (generally) their finances have had such strong fundamentals in the last decade?

  11. Although I am a peakist, I also recognize that by far the biggest issue is one of unsustainable consumption patterns rather than overpopulation. Specifically re-Russia, whether Russia’s population increases to 150mn or falls to 130mn by 2025 makes little difference; what will be significant are things like a) how much it manages to improve its poor energy efficiency standards, which is a major contributor to its ecological footprint (not to mention source of loss of revenue), b) how far it manages to go in converting its energy sources to a more sustainable basis – nuclear and renewables, and c) how well it manages to catch up to the advanced nations in hi-tech applications such as nanotechnology, bioengineering and robotics.

    My view is that it is preferable that death rates fall (for ethical reasons) and population growth turns positive – because having the death rate fall without increases in fertility is the worst-case scenario for Russia’s future dependency ratio, which will have increasingly severe knock-on effects on its finances and overall economy. That in turn could undermine or preclude a successful transition to sustainability (more energy efficiency, sustainable energy sources, high technologies).

  12. }}My view is that it is preferable that death rates fall (for ethical reasons) and population growth turns positive{{

    Aw, we can do better than that: an even better scenario would be if all the aging industrial societies could a) improve elderly health care b) better promote preventive care/healthy social habits, c) improve access to retraining and encourage a culture of career-hopping, and d) improve the employability of the elderly. These would improve the quality of life of an aging population and probably focus people on improving and extending the lives of people, rather than improving some nebulous “demographic” or “nation”.

    Russia (and Japan and much of E Europe, and eventually China maybe) have a unique opportunity due to having the fastest-aging populations in the world – they can be at the forefront of making an aging population immaterial to economic success or geopolitical might. Sounds much better than constantly considering birth rates what “keeps the nation alive”. Not dying is what keeps one alive 😉

    I guess I just don’t see the use of a strong nation or a successful economy if it only helps the next generation – I want it to help *ME*! 😛

    Russians who spent the past 10 generations being told they were making sacrifices for the next generation should be pretty easy to speak this sort of thing to…

  13. Those are excellent ideas and I fully support them, but short of us developing radical life extension technologies and experiencing actuarial escape velocity (and even folks who think this theoretically feasible would agree that this is still decades away), there is no escaping the fact that people’s physical and mental capabilities degenerate with age and that you need a sizeable inflow of new people to compensate for depreciation of the existing human stock (to frame it in pseudo-economic terms).

    One of the main planks of Thomas Kuhn’s theory on scientific revolutions is that paradigm shifts take a minimum of at least a generation to accomplish – because you need the grand old men (and occasionally women) to die off or retire before younger scientists with more modern and accurate ideas begin to predominate. In a sense to neglect population reproduction is to welcome stagnation (intellectual, economic, etc), which will in all likelihood actually prolong the amount of time it takes to develop life extension, new energy technologies, and all the other goodies we need but don’t have that much time left to develop.

    “I guess I just don’t see the use of a strong nation or a successful economy if it only helps the next generation – I want it to help *ME*!”

    I understand the sentiment…but what if you fall ill and need expensive treatment? Who’s going to pay your pension? It’s a myth that you save for these things (unless you save by accumulating land, dried food, guns, etc)…you just pay current retirees with your “savings”, and hope the next generation does the same for you. But what if the next generation is much smaller? Then they’ll find it much harder to provide the same level of care as now. The nation will run unsustainable budget deficits…or if they raise taxes, the best and brightest will think, why should I stay in this country? I’d be better off emigrating! And that’s exactly what they’d do, further burdening the working-age folks left behind. Eventually the retirement age will have to be raised to very high levels to cut the dependency ratio, or pension obligations will somehow be defaulted or inflated away.

    My opinion is that in the long-term a TFR of much below 1.5 at a minimum is going to be socially unsustainable, barring MAJOR improvements in old-age health AND productivity SOON. I think a good idea is to spend resources on developing an artificial womb so as to make childbearing much easier and more gender-equitable, which is of great importance in many aging, advanced industrial nations today.

  14. My predictions continue to be on track, with the fall in Russia’s population continuing to significantly decrease in H2 of 2009. For all practical purposes, the Russian population is now stagnant rather than falling.

    For a detailed discussion, go here – В первом полугодии 2009 года убыль населения России продолжала замедляться – на 1 июля в стране постоянно проживало 141,9 миллиона человек (h/t JFreegman 😉 )

  15. Ah sorry. I did not check the comments and you were so enthusiastically celebrating rites of spring all over your blog, that I assumed that you were not familiar with the report

    😀 😀

  16. BTW

    I disagree about your classifying the authors of this report as pessimists. The report is basically about practical recommendations re comprehensive demographic policies and those are difficult to develop on the basis of your “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” approach.

    • I have little interest in offering recommendations since no-one is going to pay attention them. What I can instead is to offer different models of future fertility and mortality (which can’t be predictions, only extrapolated on the basis of today’s assumptions about the society in question – and people can hold different assumptions) and see if they’re correct. So far, all my demographic predictions are on track though of course it’s far too early to make a final call.

  17. Hmmmm I would explain it a bit differently.

    I would say it matters where a person comes from. It’s one thing to develop models for the sake of scoring a few extra points in salon debates against real or presumed Russophobes and Islamic fundamentalists (you killed me with this one :D). Though I don’t deny that it’s always right to try to compensate for bad immigration experiences (I had those too).

    However, it’s a bit different thing when you develop your models for a country in which you are living with the assumption that your children may well have to do the same.

    This minor technicality can account for suprisingly massive differences in people’s perception and even mathematical models

    😀 😀