Russia’s Demographic Resilience III

It’s official. Russia’s population grew by 23,300 souls in 2009, for the first time since 1995. The rate of natural increase remained slightly negative for Russia as a whole, though the Siberian and Urals Federal Regions actually saw positive natural population growth for the first time in 19 years. However, this was more than compensated for by immigration. This improvement was in large part thanks to an impressive increase in the life expectancy, which rose to 69 years in 2009 – almost as high as in 1963-68 (before the alcoholism epidemic) and 1986-91 (Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign). Birth rates also increased by 3%, hysterical Russophobe predictions of a crisis-induced “abortion apocalypse” to the contrary.

This of course should come as no great surprise to S/O readers, since back in mid-2008 my projections indicated that Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest. Furthermore, as both Sergey Slobodyan and myself argued, claims that the economic crisis would produce a sharp drop in fertility rates were entirely spurious (instead, the TFR increased to 1.53 children per woman in 2009 from 1.49 in 2008). If anything, the demographic facts on the ground are now actually substantially exceeding Rosstat’s, Slobodyan’s, and my own most optimistic forecasts (not to even mention “pessimists” like Eberstadt, Steyn, etc).

These demographic developments are examined and analyzed in greater detail in the essay by S/O guest blogger Sergey Slobodyan below.

Demographic Results of the Year

Finally, mortality and fertility numbers for December and the whole 2009 year are out, so I could finish my preliminary analysis of last year’s demographic developments in Russia.

In December, almost 154 thousand kids were born, which is again more than last year (147 thousand). For the whole of 2009, number of births was 2.9% higher than last year (1,764 thousand vs. 1,714 in 2008, or 12.4 per 1000 vs. 12.1 in 2008). Fertility increases over the last year started to flatten out towards the end of 2009, which is also very clearly shown by my forecasting model. Since September, actual number of births is systematically lower than that predicted, with cumulative deficit of about 15 thousand births since August (August was an extremely successful month but it was forecasted, thus Sep to Dec the deficit is about the same). If I were to trust my model’s forecasting ability, 15 thousand births (relative to the upward trend!) is the demographic cost of the crisis of 2009. Comparing with the predictions of late 2008 – early 2009 (100 to 200 thousand absolute decline in number of births), we see that population held up much better than many professionals expected. Given such a large forecasting error, some serious adjustment of professionals’ models is warranted, and their posteriors should differ from the priors a lot. Let see if this happens.

On the mortality front, December saw a continuation of the November tendency – number of deaths was higher than in 2008, 179 thousand in Dec 2009 vs. 176.7 thousand in Dec 2008. Looking into disaggregated data, one can see dramatically higher number of deaths from flu and pneumonia; overall, respiratory system deaths are 25% higher in Dec 2009. Cardiovascular deaths are marginally higher (by 0.5%) in December. Both these classes of deaths showed a 5% overall decline for the whole of 2009, and thus Dec (and Nov) numbers are a large anomaly. A significant portion of the anomaly is clearly caused by the extreme cold weather, and so I expect bad January numbers as well. Relative to forecasts of my model, there were about 7.5 thousand more deaths between Aug and Dec, with 20 thousand in Nov and Dec alone. For the whole of 2009, death rate is 14.2 per 1000 vs. 14.6 a year before.

Forecast Accuracy

Every forecasting model, especially at a time of quick changes, must pay attention to its predicting ability. That demographically speaking we are in period of fast changes is very easy to establish by comparing consecutive Rosstat demographic projections till 2030 which are available on-line for the last three years. For a reason that will become clear immediately, I concentrate on the ‘High’, or the most optimistic, forecast in every prognosis.

In 2007, High variant of the forecast gave the following numbers for natural population change in 2008-09: -632.2 thousand in 2008 and -581.1 thousand in 2009. Forecast created in 2008 gave 333.3 thousand as the best guess for natural decline in 2009. In one year only, Rosstat had to increase its forecast of natural population change by almost quarter million people! Still, it was way too slow: in reality, the population decreased (due to natural reasons) by 362.0 thousand in 2008 and by 249.4 thousand in 2009. Similar misses can be observed in predicted migration as well: 2007 forecast gave migration increases of 205.0 and 232.3 thousand in 2008 and 2009, respectively. 2008 prognosis was higher: 290.4 thousand increase in population due to migration in 2009. And what are the actual numbers? In 2008, 242.1 thousand is the positive balance. Official figures for 2009 are not available yet, but in the first 11 months net international migration gave 227.6 thousand extra Russian inhabitants; one would expect at least 250 thousand for the whole year. Clearly, here Rosstat was quick to learn the lesson and erred on the high side (but remember that I’m talking about High variant which is supposed to err on the upside).

How are these errors translated into population numbers? In 2007, the High variant of Rosstat forecast saw Russian population as of Jan 1, 2010 equal to 140878 thousand people; 2008 vintage moved the number to 141807 and 2009 one to 141876 thousand. Preliminary Rosstat’s guess for the actual population as of Jan 1, 2010 is 141927 thousand. This estimate was made in mid-January to provide materials for Golikova’s report on Jan 19, and at least births numbers there were too low. Still, we could compare 141927 to 140878 and see that in just 2.5 years (demographic forecasts are usually made in the middle of a year) the forecasting error was more than a million souls. And we are talking about High variant here: in 2007, the Middle forecast gave Jan 1, 2010 population at 140760 thousand, another 120 thousand error.

Clearly, the errors are dramatic. It is also clear what their source is: after some declines, deaths were essentially flat in 2007, and births really started growing only in 2007 after a sideways movement in the previous years. The errors are pretty understandable. Still, you have to keep them in mind when someone tries to hit you on the head with UN population forecast, even its 2008 revision: remember that the Russian data that went into that revision is much older than 2008.

What does my model forecast for 2010? If I fully take into account deterioration of the fertility and mortality situations towards the end of 2009, my forecast for 2010 is about 1800 thousand births (a 2% increase relative to 2009) and 2 million deaths (about 0.7% drop relative to 2009). The model estimated using the data through July 2009 gives 1853 thousand births and 1947 thousand deaths. I believe that a significant portion of the deaths’ uptick is weather-related and will go away; I would therefore expect something like 1960-1980 thousand deaths in 2010, or 13.8-14 per 1000, but 13.7 won’t surprise me either. A decrease in fertility is a clear manifestation of the economic crisis, which turned to the better (at least in popular consciousness) towards Fall 2009. Thus, I’d expect the crisis-related postponed fertility to recover toward the second half of 2010, and so my forecast is for 1820-1840 births next year, or 12.9 per thousand, with any number from 12.7 to 13.1 also quite possible.


To finish this story, I must mention that numbers, of course, do not support the ‘abortion epidemics’ story. There were 1385.6 thousand abortions in 2009 vs. 1479.0 thousand in 2008. Per 100 births, the number dropped to 81.1 from 92.1. The numbers are going down fast. …

Life expectancy

On Jan 22, vice-premier Aleksander Zhukov said that ‘between 2006 and 2009’, life expectancy at birth has increased by ‘almost 4 years’ to 63 years for men and 69 overall. (For the total population, year 2005 saw life expectancy at birth of 65.3, and thus he probably meant the difference between 2005 and 2009 life expectancies). Usually, this number is calculated towards the middle of the next year, as it requires knowing exact age-specific death rates. However, a quick check of this number is definitely possible. For the last several years, there was a solid linear relation between changes in the death rates and changes in life expectancy at birth: for males, a decrease of the death rate by 1.0 is translated into increase of life expectancy at birth by 1.34 years. (2008 was an exception, with an increase of life expectancy for males by 0.4 years while the death rate remained essentially the same. This happened because infant mortality and mortality in younger cohorts continued to improve strongly. Age-specific death rates actually increased among some older cohorts, such as the 55-59, 65-69, and 80-84 groups, but these contribute very little to the life expectancy at birth formula. Barring such shifts in mortality, the linear relation holds). By plugging in 2009 numbers, we get 0.57 years increase, or 62.4 years life expectancy at birth for males. With a little help from further favorable age structure changes (such as less deaths in the first year or twenties), this could easily go above 62.5 and be rounded up to 63.

Of course, life expectancy at birth increasing at a close to double digit number of month per year is nothing short of remarkable – as remarkable, in fact, as its breathtaking drop between 1990 (63.73 for males and 69.19 overall) and 1995 (58.12 for males and 64.52 overall). So, in a certain sense, the last several years are nothing but the early 1990’s playing out in reverse.

Update: More on Life Expectancy

More surprises on the upside in demographic data. Vice-premier Zhukov has announced yesterday that life expectancy increased by 1.2 years (as reported by Russia Today) or 14 months (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta) in 2009. This clearly shows that in 2009 favorable changes in age structure of mortality continued apace. I have no note that in Russian context even 1.2 years increase of life expectancy at birth in a single year is not unheard of – it increased by 1.3 years in 2006. Still, life expectancy for both men and women is still marginally lower than it was back in 1990 (69.13). Two decades lost.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta [AK: A Russian liberal paper] is trying very hard to put a negative spin on the news, but doesn’t quite succeed. The only angle they could find was to say that the government might try increasing pensionable age, as deputy head of Ministry of Economic Development Voronin mentioned life expectancy sustained increase over 70 years as a point where discussions could start. It is hard to find a pension system expert who wouldn’t argue for such an increase, but the issue has been a politically risky one. With life expectancy overall moving above 70, and for men above 65, the danger of populist rhetoric recedes.


  1. georgesdelatour says:

    I can’t understand the “Russian Death Spiral” argument of Mark Steyn and others. They claim that once the birth rate falls below a certain level it can never go up again. It’s like saying once your car slows down to 20 miles per hour it can never again accelerate to 40. Why’s that, Mark?

    Mr Steyn will probably say the increased births are all Muslim. I take it there’s no evidence of that kind of ethno-religious disparity?

    • Ah, the lowest-low fertility hypothesis. Its arguments seem so inane I am sometimes not sure whether I am even understanding it properly.

      You’re correct on Muslim Russians.

    • “They claim that once the birth rate falls below a certain level it can never go up again.”

      It’s not quite what they claim. They just point out that, mathematically, to restore the former population count birth rates will have to go up A LOT. Like, from 1-1.5 children per woman to 3+. A shift requires quite an abrupt change in culture. An even under this optimistic scenario you still have an attenuated middle cohort that has to take care of its more numerous parents and children.

      • 1) Are you sure? IIRC, the main thrust of this argument is that once you go to “lowest-low” fertility, i.e. below 1.3, you can’t return back to demographic health because of A) the cultural shift and B) rising tax rates needed to support the growing population of elderly, meaning fewer resources for supporting young families. There are, of course, many holes in this line of thinking.

        2) Let’s go by your interpretation. But if your only task is only to “restore” the former population count (assuming it has fallen after an extended period of low fertility rates), you don’t need a TFR of 3+ unless you want to do it quickly; assuming you are speaking about an industrialized nation with a slowly rising life expectancy and some immigration, anything at or above 1.8-2.0 or so will do for long-term population growth, even if it is slow growth. (Plus, fast population growth is rarely even desirable).

  2. Do you have any estimations for the ethnic makeup of the country in 2010?

    • No. The data for 2002 is available from the census of that year. 79.8% of the population were Russians, down from 81.5% in 1989.

  3. An RT report that I saw said that from the report and a couple of others the main problem seems to be housing and the population increase might be due to immigrants.

  4. You must watch the regions. Details are important – demography in north caucasus (mostly muslim) is different from “etnic russian” areas (central russia (but not moscow!), siberia, far east).

    Is there are rise of births in “pure russian” areas?

    • Yes, since Caucasian Muslims make up less than 10% of the population, the overall fertility trends for Russia are closely correlated to those for for ethnic Russians.

  5. Regarding rates of increase in births, yes there is, and in relative terms a stronger one than overall. For example, total number of births in Russia increased by 2.9% in 2009 relative to 2008. In the Central Federal District (Moscow plus Central Russia), increase was 4.3%, in Northwestern (St. Petersburg, almost no ethnic republics there but for Komi and Karelia) by 5.0%. In the two districts where most ethnic republics are located (Southern and Volga), the number went up by 1.3 and 2.6%, respectively.

    The increase in ‘purely Russian areas’ is from a lower base, of course. In 2009, births per 1000 were 12.4 overall, 10.8 in Central, 11.3 in Northwestern, 14.0 in Southern and 12.1 in Volga Districts. In Tatarstan – the largest ‘Muslim’ republic – it was 12.4, and 13.7 in Bashkiria. Fertility is higher in the South where population is younger, and Chechnya is an outlier, of course – 29.1 births per thousand (actually, this is a decrease from 2008).

    There seems to be some ‘reversal to the mean’ effect, with places where fertility is higher than average decreasing it, or increasing with lower rate, while the lower fertility places catching up.

  6. Karl Haushofer says:

    I wonder what kind of impact of the NATO and US flooding Russia with heroin will have on Russian demographics?

  7. Karl Haushofer says:

    I read that 30k people die in every year in Russia because of heroin. I would also imagine that many heroin addicts don’t have children because of their addiction. Russia is the leading heroin consumer in the world and this problem should not be overlooked.

  8. Karl Haushofer says:

    [quote]Despite minor disagreements, the U.S. and Russia are working “actively” to shape a common anti-drug policy in Afghanistan[/quote]This is just gibberish. There is not even an attempt from NATO side to create any kind of an “anti-drug” policy in Afghanistan.

    [quote]Richard Holbrooke said.[/quote]Does this name ring any bells?

    Holbrooke continues:
    [quote]”The Russians think that poppy crop eradication should be continued. We think it works against our larger purpose,[/quote]Now Holbrooke is finally speaking some truth. According to Holbrooke poppy crop eradication “works against our larger purpose”. What might that “purpose” be then? Would it be flooding your biggest enemies in Eurasia (China, Russia, Iran) with cheap heroin while making profit out of it?

    Afghanistan produces 90% of the heroin in the world and Russia consumes 21% of the heroin produced in Afghanistan. It means that Russia consumes around 15% of the heroin in the whole world in spite having only 2% of world’s population. Russia is by far the largest heroin consumer in the world and it is all because of the flood of heroin from Afghanistan.

    Russia’s NATO envoy Dimitri Rogozin described the use of heroin as “the main threat to Russia”. Yes, bigger than terrorism or separatism.

    I repeat: the usage of heroin is the main threat to Russia today. The main threat.

    Putin must take some of the blame because he actually helped to create this threat by supporting the NATO invasion in Afghanistan in 2001. NATO is killing Russia with drugs because of his stupidity. What is Putin going to do to make up for his lethal mistake?

    • 30k dead per year (even if accurate) is almost meaningless in the big scheme of things, when one considers that 2,000k Russians die per year in total.

  9. No Name says:

    You’re right, of course. During the US occupation of Afghanistan the drug production there increased more than 400%. That, I’d say, is quite an achievement, considering that the Taliban was able to almost completely eradicate drug production in Afghanistan before the occupation.

  10. It’s good that Russia’s moving more towards the demographic patterns of Germany, Italy, or Japan for now, but is this sustainable? Even with increased fertility rates from now on, the very low birth rates in the 1990-2005 period have created a deficit in the number of women of potential childbearing age that cannot be overcome. I also wonder about the sustainability of Russia’s improvement in mortality rates among men. Male life expectancy in Russia has been stuck at below 65 years for a half-century now: can this really be so effortlessly overcome?

    As others have suggested, I’d expect that the Russian population would stabilize for some time, increased birth rates joined by immigration, but that continued sub-replacement fertility and higher-than-average mortality will lead to continued decline, if more moderate decline than in the 1990s.

    • Sergey Slobodyan says:

      A significant portion of the low male life expectancy is related to alcohol consumption. It could go up or down relatively fast depending on hard liquor consumption, which could be to a significant degree manipulated through price and control of access.

      I feel that assumptions that went into Rosstat’s middle demographic forecast are reasonable. For example, male life expectancy at birth is projected to grow from 62.1 years in 2010 to 65.1 in 2020, while it’s already ‘close to 63’ in 2009, which is where is was expected to be in 2011-13. Total fertility rate is projected to increase slowly to 1.7 in 2030, being 1.64 in 2020.

      Net migration is to the tune of 300 to 400 thousand per year in the middle forecast, which might be a bit too optimistic given last several years (250+ thousand per year). Still, I feel that middle forecast, which implies a drop of population by 2 mil people by 2030, is very realistic. Anything above it would require a concerted policy continued for decades, which is the only kind that works anyway.

      • I like your points on male life expectancy, but I just wonder whether or not the improvement is sustainable. As you pointed out, the rapid recovery (after a delay) comes after a rapid fall, a demographic depression as it were, but once the recovery has been made can pre-depression standards be readily surpassed? I wonder.

        This recovery, good as it obviously is from the individual and the national perspectives, will still leave Russia at a disadvantage relative to some of its more fortunate European neighbours: leaving aside questions of skill sets, poor health will worsen productivity issues and shorten working lives.

        Anyhow. Nice post!

        • Sergey Slobodyan says:

          To improve male life expectancy, in the long run Russia has to a) implement anti-alcohol policy similar to those of Finland, Sweden, and more recently Poland, which would lead, over time, to sharp curtailment of access to hard liquor and much higher relative prices for it, b) improve cardiovascular and oncologist health care in major metropolitan areas and simply improve health care access in smaller cities and villages, and c) make sure people lead healthier lifestyles.

          90es saw a dramatic collapse in health care expenditures, a significant drop in relative price of vodka, and lower share of population doing any kind of sports activity. This was a perfect storm, a unique constellation of circumstances. I would say that recent improvements were a return to “normality”. Further sustained improvements require a policy, but this road has been traveled before by others. With goals clearly understood by the relevant bodies, this policy is surely implementable, barring major disruptions to the governance of the country. But in that case, we will have many more reasons to worry beyond male mortality.

          • In that case, there would be a steady convergence towards European mortality, yes. That’d be good for Russia as a whole; that’d also be good for individual Russians. Here’s to hoping!

  11. I agree with Sergei on the importance of public policy and in particular his favorable citation of Finland. I wrote about the relations between alcohol consumption, alcohol prices, and male mortality in Demography II – Out of the Death Spiral.

    In particular, I would draw attention to the World Bank report Dying Too Young: Addressing Premature Mortality and Ill Health Due to Non-Communicable Diseases and Injuries in the Russian Federation, which shows that given the correct public policies stunningly rapid improvements in a nation with a life expectancies artificially stunted by factors such as excessive alcohol consumption or smoking are possible.

    The North Karelia Project in Finland shows that major changes in mortality from NCDs can be achieved through dietary changes, increased physical activity, and reduced smoking, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure. Coronary heart disease(CHD) in adults aged 65 years and less fell by about 73 percent between 1970 and 1995. In a recent 10-year period, mortality from coronary heart disease declined by about 8 percent a year. Mortality from lung cancer declined more than 70 percent, mostly due to consistent declines in the proportion of men who smoked (from 52 percent in 1972 to 31 percent in 1997). Data on the risk factors from ischemic heart disease and mortality in Finland suggest that the changes in the main coronary risk factors (serum cholesterol concentration, blood pressure, and smoking) can explain most of the decline in mortality from that disease.

    As a result of targeting important high-risk factors for NCDs, all causes of mortality in North Karelia declined by about 45 percent during 1970–95. In the 1980s, these favorable changes began to develop all over Finland, improving life expectancy by 7 years for men and 6 for women. The largest decline in age-specific mortality was reaped by the 35- to 44-year-olds: men in this age group saw an 87 percent decline in mortality from CHD between 1971 and 1995. Men 35–64 saw age-adjusted mortality rates decline from about 700 per 100,000 populationin 1971 to about 110 per 100,000 in 2001. This rate for all of Finland among men in the same age group was about 470 per 100,000 and fell 75 percent…

    IMO, the most realistic longer-term scenario is 1) a relatively rapid improvement in life expectancy – I see the long post-1965 not so much as a burden but as an opportunity for rapid convergence, 2) a TFR of around 1.6-1.8 (see arguments here), and 3) an average of about 300k / annum net immigration (which I tried to justify in my replies to this Demography Matters post). This will result – despite the imminent reduction in women of child-bearing age – in a slow, steady growth back up to around 150mn by 2030 (according to my model).

  12. Is Russia going to be similar to W. Europe in the next 25-50 years? Whereas the problems that stem from a much larger and older cohort to support with relatively low birthrates? (i.e. not enough people to pay the taxes, pensions, etc…?) Is immigration really going to help? What about emmigration and Brain Drain?

    • Russia isn’t that much poorer than the EU (it has about 50% of its GDP per capita), it has fewer old people (people of 65+ years plus are 13% of the Russian population, compared to an EU average of 17%), and most importantly its old age pensions are relatively meager (IIRC, pensions are typically c.30% of salaries, whereas its closer to 60-70% in West European social democracies).

      Emigration and the brain drain were substantial in the 1990’s-early 2000’s, but have now largely dissipated. (Even speaking of myself personally, most of the ex-Soviet recent migrants I see in California are from countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova). So I doubt they are going to be big factors.

      • Anonymous says:

        From what I have read, 500-800 thousand scientst left Russia to work in USA and Britain. In SSR 8, you speak of “the collapse of Pax Americana, economic crisis, and political instability”. What effect will that have on those people? Reverse brain-drain back to Russia?

        • That’s right. My dad is one of them! 😉

          If I had to guess, I’d say perhaps 25% may go back. Pax Americana is not, of course, in any way essential to keeping those scientists; it all depends on the severity of the US/UK domestic economic crisis in the 2010’s, and to what extent they will be able to continue funding their scientific bases.

          I doubt that too many return. Most migrated in their 20’s-40’s; after two decades, they will be in their 40’s-60’s – conservative ages at which the enthusiasm for great life changes dims (after the Soviet collapse it was overwhelmingly the researches in the younger age groups who left). They already have their circle of Western friends and acquaintances in the US/UK, and moreover their children are now, in most cases, deeply integrated with their host nations and would find adjusting to Russian conditions difficult (this applies especially to males who would be liable for military service on returning).

          However, I do see some of them cashing in their US assets and pensions, and camping out into retirement in Russia.

  13. Milko Mesones Perez says:

    Por lo leido puedo entender que la natalidad de los rusos etnicos ha aumentado?

  14. Javier tantalean says:

    Ultimamente leo articulos que la natalidad de los musulmanes de rusia esta cayendo y que la natalidad de los rusos etnicos tiende aumentar hasta que punto es cierto es todo esto,pueden darme una explicacion a que se debe.