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.


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.”


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).


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.


  1. Great! I have checked demographic indicators monthly… I expected this outcome. You had a great prediction back then. I remember reading Sublime Oblivion then, and thought: finally someone, who doesn’t hate Russia so badly… Mark Adomanis was my other hero. I believed in the recovery and I still believe in it.
    In one thing I would like to disagree: Russia is NOT a normal country, it is an unique case. No other country is capable doing this in my opinion.
    I hope it was not too late to introduce the Demographic program in 2006. I think Putin should have done this earlier, in 2001. 5 years matters a lot. We had clearly catastrophic indicators between ’91 and ’05 and they will influence the country’s future as it was influenced already by the Civil War, the ’33 famine, the Great Patriotic War. I fear the future, but also believe in it.
    Fertility started to drop slightly compared to 2011 in december, I hope this is only a temporary wave and not the effect of the ’90s demographic hole predicted by Rosstat.

    I can’t wait your book. I hope I can acquire it somehow in Hungary.

    • RusFed-o-phile says:

      I must say I did expect a small natural population growth in 2012 (1.905-1.915k births vs. 1895-1.900 deaths) but I’m not really disappointed. The mortality rate for december was the 2nd best (after 2011) in almost 2 decades – despite the cold wave. Unfortunately the births were a bit running out of steam but they are almost identical to those of the last 3 years.

      I also hope the births are returning to their high level for most of 2012. Some very early data for January is very promising – so for Kirov, Nizhnyi Novgorod and Ulyanovsk (all in the Volga Federal district btw). It seems the birth spike is even
      more impressive than those in feb/may/oct 2012.

  2. Dear Anatoly,

    There is no need for any sort of modesty here. You have been proved totally right. The only thing I can say is Congratulations!

  3. A more detailed look shows that the population growth you are writing about is archieved by grows in caucasian republics like Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and so on and by intensive immigration of poor laboreres from former soviet republics from “neighborstans”

    Soon there will be no russians in Russia.

    • RusFed-o-phile says:

      Yeah sure. The Caucasian and other ‘muslim’ republics (Tatarstan 14,5; Bashkortostan 14,5, KBR 15,9; KCR 13,5 and Adygea 12,8 births per 1.000) will soon outbred the ‘Russian’ oblasts like Perm (14,8); Orenburg (14,7), Tyumen (17,2), Zabaykalsk (16,1), Irkutsk (15,9) and many others. Also there are persistent rumours that the 3 most ‘fruitful’ caucasus republics are considerably overstating their numbers (several 100k in case of Dagestan and Chechnya). The North Caucasus Federal district consists only of a mere 6,6% of Russia’s population. If you substract Stavropol Krai and the orthodox North Ossetia they make up even less: only 4,2% (and 6% of all births). Hardly a threat, even less so since Chechnya’s and Ingushetia’s are the only 2 federal subjects whose birth rate declined considerably in 2012 (by 9-10%).

      Regarding the gastarbeiters from the stans: even if they figure out how to reproduce without female contribution they are’nt numerous enough. On a serious note: the gender imbalance among them is ridiculously high (especially in the 17-45 yo cohort which means it’s basically all):

      Try harder next time.

      • timivanov says:

        I live in Moscow and I see all the “stans” here every day. Male and female.

        The FMS deputy director Ekaterina Egorova says that every year about 10-12 million are coming. And 70-80 percent are from CIS (“ежегодно в Россию приезжают 10-12 миллионов иностранных граждан, 70-80 процентов – из СНГ”)

        And also they conduct a significant part of crimes in Moscow (even Moscow prosecutor sais so –

        • The FMS deputy director Ekaterina Egorova says that every year about 10-12 million are coming.

          That is nonsensical. At that rate, all of Central Asia would be completely depopulated within 5 years.

          What she surely meant to say is that there around 10-12 million illegal immigrants, which concurs with other estimates.

          • Just look here – http : // fskn . (delete bars) – they are the most wanted drug-dealers in Russia. And they are all from the middle asia.
            I am an internationalist but there is a certain tendency – the immigration is harsh and many of them come here not to work peacefully but to conduct crimes.

            • Tim I am not a fan of mass immigration either, but one must separate rhetoric from statistics – and the statistics show that statements like “soon there will be no russians in Russia” are inane.

              • In Tim’s defense his perceptions, while not supported by statistics, are shared by many Muscovites who feel that large sections of their city have been taken over by people from the Caucuses.

    • RusFed-o-phile makes valid points saving me the trouble of doing so. In 2012, the Muslim Caucasus republics accounted for 6.3% of all births.

      Tatastan and Bashkortostan (both with substantial Russian minorities) accounted for another 4.1%.

      In reality, if you were to remove all the majority Muslim states from the picture, the rate of natural decrease in 2012 wouldn’t be about zero but about -100,000. I.e., equivalent to the overall one year improvement between 2011 and 2012.

      • timivanov says:

        Oh, I thought I was speaking to the author of the post) He’s russophile too)
        So am I. The only difference is that I do not support current government.

        You count numbers. I count them from my window. Do you think that the muslims live only in muslim republics? They live here, in Moscow.

        It is hard to believe but immigrants from “stans” send back amount of money commensurable to 30-50% of their fatherland’s GNP!

      • AK, Muslims in France are more fertile than those in North Africa. Have you seen any statistics about number of people from the Caucuses living in Moscow and how fertile they are? Officially only 4% of Moscow’s population are Muslims, while a Spiegel article places the number at 11%. I suspect that the real figure is closer to the latter. I wonder if, as in the case of France and North Africa, the Muslims in Moscow are even more fertile than back home (I have no idea about this).

        Anecdotally, my nephew in Moscow left a school and my brother-in-law sold his flat in a neighborhood that had become Azeri.

        • And to add to my comment – the possible 11% Muslim figure of course does not include Christian Armenians from the Caucuses whom Russians complain about.

        • “Muslims in France are more fertile than those in North Africa”

          This is a bullshit pseudo-fact. No offense, but there it is.

          1) Nobody knows what the Muslim birthrate is in France, because France — a determinedly secular state — refuses to segregate that kind of demographic data by religion. So there’s no hard data. Just estimates.

          2) The current best estimate for the TFR for French Muslims is about 2.8. (TFR is the number of children per woman. A TFR of about 2.1 means zero population growth.) This number has been falling steadily for the last few decades; it’s expected to drop to 2.4 in the 2020s and to approach 2.1 sometime in the 2030s.

          Note that the overall TFR for France is a bit over 2. So, while Muslims are a bit more fertile, on average they’re just having about 3/4 of a kid more than their native French neighbors.

          3) Is a TFR of 2.8 higher than in North Africa? Well, it depends on what you mean by “North Africa”. Tunisa is around 2.4 right now. Mauretania is around 4.3. Algeria, the figures are disputed; the high figure is around 2.8, while the low is around 2.4. And Tunis is at 1.9 — below replacement!

          Note that most French Muslims come from Algeria. And both the French Muslim and Algerian TFRs are unclear — you’re comparing an estimate (“around 2.8, give or take”) to a disputed figure (“some say 2.8, some say 2.4”). So that throws this quote into bullshit territory right there. But what the hell. Let’s say that in some cases, yes, the birth rate for French Muslims of North African descent is higher than for their cousins who stayed home. But this isn’t because the birth rate for French Muslims is all that high — it isn’t. (2.8 and falling is about the birthrate for Israel, Belize, or that famously overpopulated hellhole, Paraguay.) It’s because the birthrates in the Maghreb (North Africa minus Libya and Mauretania) have fucking crashed in the last 15 years. Moroccans and Algerians are having a lot fewer kids, and Tunisians are having so few kids that their population is going to start declining if they don’t turn it around.

          This is a meme pumped out by Muslim-phobes who want to project an image of DANGEROUS BROWN PEOPLE PUMPING OUT BABIES. It’s bullshit. Push back.

          Doug M.

          • So as you admit estimates for Muslin fertility rate in France is 2.8 while in North Africa it is 2.4-2.8 in Algeria and 2.4 in Tunisia; it Morocco it is 2.3 (I was thinking about these countries on the Mediteranian rather than of Mali or Mauretania when I made my comment). So how is what I wrote “Muslims in France are more fertile than those in North Africa” “bullshit?”

            I am curious if the figures are similar for Caucasians in Moscow – if they have higher birthrates there than they do back home. Anecdotally, from Muscovite parents, I hear about more and more Caucasian kids (who are not necessarily Muslms – Moscow has many Georgians and especially Armenians too). As high as the fertility ratre is in Chechnya, is it even higher among Caucasians in Moscow?

            • 1) because it’s comparing an estimated figure to a disputed figure. Both of these figures are bad, so comparing them is worse.

              2) because “North Africa” is undefined. If you use it to mean “North African countries that have sent significant numbers of immigrants to France” then yes, Mauretania qualifies. So, some parts of North Africa yes, some no.

              3) because — again — the birthrate in North Africa has collapsed in the last decade. It’s like saying “Muslims in France are MORE fanatically religious than Muslims in Albania!” Well, yeah — Muslims in Albania are a bunch of beer-drinking, bikini-wearing secularists.

              Having a higher birthrate than Tunisia is meaningless. Most of the world has a higher birthrate than Tunisia.

              Doug M.

              • I don’t dispute what you are saying but simply pointed out that a correct statement (“Muslims in France are more fertile than those in North Africa”), with the caveat that I meant Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia – the countries were most of France’s Muslims come from – should not be referred to as “bullshit.” People compare estimates all the time, nothing wrong with that. I understand that the fertility rate is collapsing in Tunisia etc. – so what? It doesn’t make my statement untrue.

                And this was secondary to my still-answered and perrhaps unanswerable question about whether the fertility of the large numbers of Muslims in Moscow (whose Muslim population may be comparable to that of some of the small Caucasian republics) is higher than in the Caucuses.

        • Just saw this comment.

          A few days ago I had a whole discussion about the immigrant share of Moscow. He insisted it was 50%. The statistics say 90%.

          The statistics are wrong, of course, but 50% is way too low too. I estimate 70% or 80%. It should be noted that Gastarbeiters tend to work in very “visible” fields like market stalls, shops, construction sites, etc; whereas Russians will be sitting in offices more frequently.

          This means that one must take care to account for these biases before making definitive judgments based on what one sees. Though of course the immigrants are a real phenomenon and I fully expect Moscow to follow the Parisian model in which the current poorer working class areas become replaced with immigrants, while natives gather into their own clusters.

  4. timivanov says:

    And yes – you were right to turn premoderation of comments on 🙂

  5. Anatoly:
    Have you read the recent piece in the Moscow Times?
    For one, it is dreck–I don’t even know where to begin tearing apart the “analysis” here. (Perhaps with the “overall natural population decline of 2,573 people last year, or 51 times fewer than in 2011.”) Grrr. *Facepalm*
    Anyway, getting past the mess of reporting here, have you seen these year-ending reports? As you know (and the reporter even points out), even into December there were reports of natural population growth (either 790 or 4600 depending on where you look in the article) that’d indeed draw to a close the era of the “Russian Cross,” but somehow Russia ends the year at MINUS 2573?
    WTF? What happened to cause such a major discrepancy?

    • I don’t read the Moscow Times (low signal to noise ratio, etc). But thanks for pointing out that article.

      4,600 was the natural population growth for Jan-Nov 2012. 790 was the same but for Jan-Oct.

      In December 2011, natural increase had only been -1,548, so it was a reasonable assumption that the overall figure for the year would be positive.

      Unfortunately for whatever reason it was an unusually bad December, with about 2% fewer births and 2% more deaths bringing the natural increase to -7,173.

      Why was December bad? The unusually cold winter must have partly contributed to the bump in the death rates, as for births, they have a lot of month to month variability.

    • RusFed-o-phile says:

      In fact is a normal monthly fluctuation – only somewhat dissappointing compared ro most other months in 2012. The december birth were de facto the same as in 2009-2011. The death rate was surely the 2nd best since 1992 (marginally worse than in 2011 but much better than every other december since almost 2 decades).
      It would have been nice to come out with a positive growth but that 4.600+ in november was too small.
      But it seems that january will be much better than 2012 – there are 20%-33% higher numbers for cities like Barnaul, Ulyanovsk, Tobolsk to name a few. Also the temperature for much of Siberia and the Urals were unusually mild for a while – around 0° Celsius – should have a positive effect on the deaths. Along with the shorter new year’s binge this year lol.

      • Okay, thanks Anatoly and RusFed-o. I was in a bit of a crunch and wasn’t able to sit down with the data, so I thought it’d be easier to just ask those who probably did have it more easily at hand.

        Also, migrating from a discussion about the reliability of statistics over on Adomanis’ blog–if you think that if all Russian stats are tainted by a sycophantic bureaucracy or somehow dictated from Putin on high, it’d seem that this would discredit that sort of conspiracy. Being so close to such a major (symbolic) milestone, they certainly could have fudged the numbers just a bit and everyone gets to bask in the glory of officially ending the “cross.” The 11-month indicators were suggestive of this outcome, and it was only this December aberration that seems to have derailed it, or at least postponed it in terms of the yearly stats. But they didn’t: it looks as though they dutifully reported the results despite whatever political pressures (real or imagined) to make the numbers even just a little bit more rosy.

        Anyway, those folks remind me of those asinine US conspiracy theorists who were in full throat when the unemployment rate dipped below the 8% threshold shortly before the election.

        Thanks again, guys.

  6. Here’s a prediction for the next 5 years: we’ll see a “hexagon with a droopy tail”, as both birth and death rates are likely to fall. Net population change (independent of immigration) will be modest — I expect a small decrease, but a small increase wouldn’t shock me.

    Doug M.

    • I agree with the droopy tail, that exactly dovetails with my own models. But I would sooner bet on a small increase. The 300,000 annual net immigrants now give ample room for natural population growth to go in a less than absolutely optimal direction, but still eke out population growth.

  7. A word on delayed births. The formal term for this is “tempo effect”.

    A key fact: over the last century or so, the general trend in developed and middle Income countries has been for ever-rising maternal age. Older mothers, yeah? Like a lot of demographic trends, we see this at its extreme in Europe, where the average mother of a new baby is a woman in her 30s. But the trend is worldwide and long term. There have been a few exceptions — during the postwar baby boom in the West, maternal age dropped for a while — but so far, they’ve all been temporary blips; the general trend has been firmly unidirectional.

    What this means: in demographic terms, it helps to think of tempo as a sort of fund of capital that a country has. If your women are having kids at age 22, they have a lot of leeway. They can choose not to have kids today, wait three or five or seven years, and have the kids later when conditions are more favorable. It won’t be any big deal. You’ll see a temporary drop in the birthrate, but you’ll make it up. You can spend that tempo capital, as it were.

    But if the average age of a mother is already 35, then you can’t do much. Female fertility drops significantly after the mid 30s, and falls even faster after 40. A 22 year old can delay five or even ten years without difficulty; her 35 year old sister is up against the wall of biology. A country where the average mother is already 35 is a country that has spent its tempo capital. It can’t delay births any more. If women choose not to have kids today, they won’t be able to undo that choice five years down the line.

    My point: Russia still has a lot of tempo capital to burn. Well and good. But at some point — decades down the line — the tempo capital will run out, and Russia will end up in the same position that Germany is in today: lots of women in their 30s having kids, and no chance of a benefit from delayed births.

    Doug M.

  8. Latyshka says:

    The trends over the recent years have been positive indeed, especially the decrease in male mortality, it can’t be stressed enough how positive that is, because in a chain reaction it will positively affect other aspects of life, such as family formation and productivity. Improving the male health, as well as birthrates, was long due in Russia and other FSU countries. Natalist policies do work. Also, this increase of fertility (TFR) may luckily coincide with the rather big number of women born in 1980s. Russia and FSU saw a baby boom in the 1980s when the government stimulated births by giving generous benefits to mothers / families with kids. Thus, the TFR rose to about 2 (as high as 2.2 in 1987). Women born at that time are now in their most fertile age and are having kids (and will continue for another 10-15 years). This coincides with Putin’s natalist program. This will save Russia from the doom that was predicted. This will also make the coming demographic hole caused by the 1990s shock therapies less traumatic (hopefully). The most important thing was to take advantage of the bulk of the women born in 1980s (not to lose the potential future people from that baby boom).