Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography

This is a succinct summary of my views on Russian demography, written about 2 months ago.

Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography
By Anatoly Karlin

In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. Ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism, Russians are doomed to die out and be replaced by hordes of Islamist fanatics in the west and Chinese settlers in the east.

Or so one could conclude from reading many of the popular stories about Russian demography today. The total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman is expected to have, was 1.4 in 2007, well below the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability. Though current Russian birth rates per 1000 women are not exceptionally low, they will plummet once the 1980’s youth bulge leaves childbearing age after 2015.

Meanwhile, Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally bad by industrialized-world standards. Death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism – a phenomenon Nicholas Eberstadt termed “hypermortality”. This tragic development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalence of binge drinking of hard spirits.

No wonder then that the recent UN report on Russian demography forecasts its population will fall by 10mn-20mn people by 2025. Set against these gloomy trends, the projections made by the Russian government (145mn) and state statistical service Rosstat (137-150mn) for the same year seem laughably pollyannaish.

However, things aren’t as bad through the looking glass. First, fertility expectations today are little different from those of the late Soviet era, when the TFR was still relatively healthy. According to numerous surveys since the early 1990’s, Russians consistently say they want to have an average of 2.5 children. This is broadly similar to respondents from the British Isles, France and Scandinavia, who have relatively good TFR’s of around 1.7-2.1. This suggests Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to middle-European norms, where people only want 1.7-1.8 children.

Second, a major problem with the TFR is that it ignores the effects of birth timing. A more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (ABS), which gives the mean order of all newborn children. If in one fine year all women in a previously childless country decide to give birth for some reason, the TFR will soar to an absurdly high level but the ABS will equal exactly one.

In Russia the ABS remained steady at 1.6 children per woman from 1992-2006, little changed from Soviet times, even though the TFR plummeted well below this number. This indicates that many women were postponing children until they settled into careers and improved their material wellbeing – a hypothesis attested to by the rising age of mothers at childbirth since 1993.

Though this may be a false positive if many women remain childless, the  2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. This indicates that  childlessness is not in vogue and worries about widespread sterility are overblown.

Third, a new confident conservatism has recently taken hold in Russian society. After two decades of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 consistently more Russians began to believe the nation was moving in a positive than in a negative direction. It is likely no coincidence that it the TFR began to consistently rise just then – from 1.3 in 2006 to about 1.5 in 2008, though generous new child benefits helped.

Many pessimists see this as empty petro-fueled swagger, prone to derailment by the first economic crisis. Yet marriage rates continued soaring in early 2009, mortality fell by 5% in Jan-Feb 2009 in comparison to the same period last year, and national morale remains high – notwithstanding the severity of the recent economic contraction.

High mortality rates only have a direct impact on replacement-level TFR when significant numbers of women die before or during childbearing age, as in Third World countries. Russia’s infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 in 2008 is close to developed-country levels and not statistically significant. Though tragic and unnecessary, its “hypermortality” crisis mainly affects older men and as such has negligible direct effects on fertility.

However, mortality rates must be curbed if Russia is to avoid severe population decline in coming decades. Contrary to prevailing opinion, plans to raise life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 or 2025 are feasible if approached seriously. From 1970-1995 in Finnish Karelia, better healthcare and lifestyle reforms reduced incidences of heart disease, Russia’s main cause of death, by over 70%. Considering the sheer size of the gap between Russia and the advanced industrial world, even modest improvements will have a big impact.

And speaking of which, Russia is now installing new equipment in oncology centers, aims to increase access to hi-tech medical services from 25% to 80% by 2012 and is implementing anti-smoking and anti-alcohol measures. Deaths from alcohol poisoning and violence, as well as overall life expectancy, recently improved to the pre-transition levels of 1992.

The percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive plateaued in 2002, suggesting the epidemic remains contained among injecting drug users. Models projecting imminent mass deaths from AIDS unrealistically assume heterosexual, sub-Saharan Africa transmission patterns, which is unbacked by sociological analysis or surveillance data.

Fears of Islamization ignore the unremarkable birth rates among Tatars, the largest Muslim ethnic group, and the 1990’s fertility transitions in the Caucasus. The idea that no more than 250,000 seasonal Chinese traders and laborers in the Far East pose a demographic threat is risible.

After 2020, Russia will start experiencing severe demographic pressure due to a smaller youth cohort and population aging. It must use the next decade wisely to build the foundations for recovery through increased fertility, mortality reduction and continued immigration. Despite temporary setbacks, Russia retains solid prospects for growth – a well-educated people, an extensive industrial infrastructure, growing centers of innovation and big hydrocarbon reserves. If things go right, large-scale population decline is still avoidable.

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