The Russian Cross Becomes A Hexagon

One of the standard memes about Russia’s demographic trajectory was the “Russian Cross.” While at the literal level it described the shape of the country’s birth rate and death rate trajectories, a major reason why it entered the discourse was surely because it also evoked the foreboding of the grave.

russian-cross

But this period now appears to have come to a definitive end. Russia’s population ceased falling around at about 2009; in the past year, it has increased by over 400,000 thanks to net immigration.

Meanwhile, against all general expectations, the birth rates and death rates have essentially equalized. Whereas in 2011 natural decrease was still at a substantial 131,000, preliminary figures indicate that it has subsided to a mere 2,573 for this year. It could just as easily turn positive once the figures are revised. For all intents and purposes, the “Russian Cross” has become the “Russian Hexagon.”

russian-hexagon

This is a momentous landmark in many ways.

(1) More than anything else, Russia’s demographic crisis during the past two decades has been advanced as a quintessential element of its decline. Phrases such as the aforementioned “Russian cross”, the “demographic death spiral”, and “”the dying bear” proliferated in respectable journals and books. Until a few years ago, some entirely serious demographic projections had Russia’s population falling to as low as 130 million by 2015. This “deathbed demography” imagery was in turn exploited by many journalists to implicit condemn the rottenness of the Russian state in general and Putin in particular. Will they now rush to trumpet Russia’s demographic recovery, which was only possible through directed state intervention to improve the population’s health, cut down on the alcohol epidemic, and provide generous benefits for families with second children? For some reason I suspect the amount of ink that will be spilt on this will be but a tiny, minuscule fraction of that used to herald Russia’s demographic apocalypse. They will predictably move on to other failures and inadequacies – both real or perceived.

(2) For many years there has existed the notion among some demographers that once a society’s total fertility falls to a “lowest-low” level, there can be no return. It was theorized that the social values of childlessness and small families would spread, and that the resultant rapid aging would make it impossible for young families to have many children anyway. Russia’s total fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.16 children per woman in 1999, but rose above 1.30 in 2006, reached 1.61 in 2011, and rose further to an estimated 1.70 in 2012. It is thus so far the biggest and most important exception to this “lowest-low fertility trap hypothesis.” In reality, what was actually happening was that many Russian women were postponing the formation of families – a process common to most nations that reach a certain level of development. This in turn laid the foundations for the mini-baby boom that were are now seeing.

(3) There was likewise widespread pessimism that Russia’s life expectancy would ever significantly improve for the better. In the best case, it was assumed it would creep upwards, reaching 70 years or so in another few decades. However, the experience of other regions with Russia’s mortality profile, such as North Karelia in the 1980’s or the Baltic states in the 2000’s – very high death rates among middle aged men who drank too much – suggested that rapid improvements are possible with the right mix of policy interventions. This has happened. Russia’s life expectancy in 2012 was about 71 years, still nothing to write home about; however, it was higher than it ever was in the USSR, where it reached a peak of 70.0 years at the height of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in 1987, and equal to Estonia’s in 2002, Hungary’s in 1998, and Finland’s in 1973. If it were now to follow in Estonia’s mortality trajectory – and this is not an unreasonable supposition, considering Russia is now passing the tough anti-alcohol and anti-smoking taxes and regulations typical of developed countries – it would be on track to reach a life expectancy of 75 years by 2020 (Putin’s goal of 2018 is however probably too optimistic).

russia-deaths-from-external-causes

In particular, it should be noted that the worst types of deaths – those from external causes – have been cut down the most radically. Though they only account for a small proportion of total deaths, they tend to happen at earlier ages and thus have a significant impact on the workforce and overall life expectancy out of proportion to their actual prevalence. A calculation from 2005 showed that the effect of a 40% decline in deaths from external causes would be as good as a 20% decline in deaths from all circulatory diseases at extending male life expectancy. This has been achieved; as of 2012 it was at 125/100,000, down from an average of about 250/100,000 during the “demographic crisis” period but still far, far short of the 40/100,000 rates more typical of developed countries with no alcoholism epidemics. But as I’ve said before and will say again, while Russia’s “hypermortality” crisis isn’t anywhere near as severe as it once was, it is nothing to write home about; a great deal remains to be done. But the trend-lines are pointing firmly down, and the economic crisis of 2009 had zero effect on the underlying processes. This is extremely encouraging, as it implies that Russia has now become a “normal country” in which improvements in health and mortality steadily advance regardless of economic fluctuations.

I have anticipated many of these developments, and indeed, ventured forth with projections of my own. Here are some predictions made on the basis of my research and analysis from 2008:

  1. Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest. CHECK.
  2. Natural population increase will occur starting from 2013 at the latest. CHECK.
  3. Russia’s total life expectancy will exceed 68 years by 2010 and reach 75 years by 2020. Looks increasingly LIKELY.

There is no need for false modesty. I put my neck on the line and came out best against most of the established expert opinion.

But this is no time to rest on laurels and reminsce on past glories. The 2010 Census is out. Demographic data up till 2012 is available. It’s been a long four years since I wrote that model. It is high time to update it. I’ve been planning to do that for my book anyway, but now that I think about it, why not publish a paper at the same time? I have long been a fan of open access anyway, especially as regards academia.

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