Major Misconceptions About The Dima Yakovlev Law

1. For Russian orphans life is much more dangerous in Russia than in America. Let’s agree to disregard the hidden subtext which implies that any country ought to give over its orphans to foreign nationals should it be ranked safer for children. Let’s first examine if the claim that Russia is 39 times more dangerous for adoptees than the US is even true.

This number most prominently featured in a March 2012 article at the liberal website Ttolk, perhaps (probably?) it originated there. It then spread to the rest of the Internet via Yulia “Pinochet” Latynina at the Moscow Times

According to official government statistics, a child adopted by Russian parents is 39 times more likely to die than one adopted by parents in the West.

… and Victor Davidoff at the St. Petersburg Times.

It is also well-known that the chances a child will die after being adopted by a family in Russia are almost 40 times higher than if adopted by a family in the West.

While it’s no great secret that Western countries are safer than Russia, the differential struck me as absurdly high. Especially when I checked mortality rates, according to which on average Russian children have approximately twice the risk of death as do their American counterparts (or the same as the US in 1980). This is pretty much as to be expected, as Russian healthcare despite intensive modernization in the past decade still lags developed country standards.

So we have a paradox: While Russian children are on average are “only” 2x as likely to die as American ones, adoptees in particular are supposedly 39x more at risk. The differential between the two groups is simply too high to be credible.

Thankfully one gelievna had already done most of the work. Here is what the article in Ttolk wrote:

Already for several years semi-official documents cite the following number: Since 1991 to 2006, i.e. over 15 years, there died 1,220 children who had been adopted by Russian citizens. Of them 12 were killed by their own adopters.

During this same period, from 1991 to 2006, there died 18 Russian children in adopting families in the West. Knowing the number of adoptees there and in Russia (92,000 and 158,000, respectively) we can calculate the relative danger of adoption in these two worlds. It turns out that there is one dead child per 5,103 foreign families, whereas in Russian families this ratio is at one dead child to every 130 families. This means that adoptees in Russian families are in 39 times more danger than in foreign ones.

Well isn’t that shocking? Surely a humanitarian intervention is called for to rescue Russia’s children and place them in American homes. The only problem is that the 1,220 figure doesn’t refer to deaths at all. Here is what the original source, a 2005 report, actually said:

In 2005, the Ministry of Education and Science gathered preliminary statistics for the past 5 years on cases of death and incidences of ill treatment of orphans, adopted by Russians or taken into guardianship or a foster family, according to which:

Out of 1220 children, 12 died by the fault of the adopters and guardians;

Out of 116 children, whose health was for various causes subjected to heavy harm, 23 suffered by the fault of the adopters and guardians

So the article at Ttolk is basically comparing apples and oranges, i.e. the numbers of Russian adoptees who died in foreign countries vs. the numbers of Russian adoptees that were ill treated in Russia. Of course the latter figure is always going to be much, much higher.

What concrete findings we have (assuming the rest of the article is accurate) is that 18 Russian adoptees died in foreign countries (of those we know! there is no systemic tracking) during 1991-2006 vs. 12 Russian adoptees died by the fault of their foster parents specifically during 1999-2004 or so.

So while an exact comparison remains elusive we can know be fairly certain that in fact the risk of murder is broadly similar for a Russian adoptee in both Russia and the US. Basically it is (thankfully) extremely rare in both countries. I would also point out that this is far from a “Russophile” or “Russian chauvinist” conclusion, knowing that a lot of Russians harp on about the supposedly everyday shooting rampages in schools all over America. In reality this is just the usual anti-guns hysteria mixed in with Americanophobia, American schools are actually extremely safe with only 1-1.5% of all violent deaths of children occurring on school premises in any single year. (Even a very “catastrophic” event like the Newtown shooting would only raise this by about one percentage point).

This whole episode strongly reminds me of similar cases in the past when some wild figure was misquoted, spread in Russian liberal circles, and then transferred to the West. E.g. an imaginary spike of abortions in the wake of the economic crisis. Or the wild exaggeration of Russian emigration figures.

[Read more…]

The Guardian On China And Russia

Keeping up with the Guardian’s stream of textual diarrhea in its Russia coverage is a quixotic task, and one that I do not really have the stamina for (although Alex Mercouris does this remarkably effectively). Still, when it comes to certain issues I’m particularly interested in, such as demography, or China-Russians relations as in this case, I feel pressed to comment.

The main thrust of this article is about comparing the neighboring cities of Manzhouli and Zabaykalsk to make some wider point about the two countries. And the comparison is not flattering to Russia:

Twenty years ago, Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli, which face each other across the border marked by a few strips of barbed wire, were settlements of about 15,000 people. But while Zabaikalsk remains a dusty border town, Manzhouli now has high-rise buildings, an indoor skiing facility, 3D cinemas and a population approaching half a million people. Russians flock to it for the shopping opportunities.

The only problem with this comparison? Zabaykalsk has 12,000 people as of the 2010 Census, whereas Manzhouli has 300,000. Furthermore, Manzhouli had 137,000 people in 1990 to Zabaykalsk’s 9,000 in 1989. Were the Guardian’s fact-checkers hung over from their Christmas celebrations?

But the wider and more important point is that this comparison is beyond absurd. It’s about as valid as comparing the 600,000-strong city of Khabarovsk (which is incidentally a success story; it might not have skyscrapers, but it is picturesque, prosperous, and consistently ranked as one of Russia’s most comfortable and business-friendly cities) with the bordering, 20,000-strong “dusty” village of Fuyuan to “prove” Russia’s superiority over China. I do not, of course, because I am not a propagandist like the Guardian, nor do I have an agenda, nor do I hold my readers in such contempt that they would fail to see the absurdity of apples-to-apples comparisons of cities that differ by an order of magnitude.

Now in all fairness the Guardian’s contempt for its readers is largely justified based on most of the comments. But not all of them. Lost in the scrum of Bear vs. Dragon fantasists (of whom there are far fewer in both Russia and China than in the West) was one comment by “Nobul” that’s well worth reprinting in full:

Let’s get real, stop screaming “yellow peril” and “Russian Far East on a knife’s edge”. There are not many (300,000 according to reputable Russian stats, not 3 million in the scaremongering gutter press) and won’t be many more coming Russia’s way because:
1. China does not have a “massive” population pressure. Its population is growing at a meager 0.5% a year and aging fast. If you followed the news in the last couple of years, there are now a labour shortage across the country. There are no surplus population to “export”.
2. People go where the money is. It is in the rapidly growing cities in China. The Chinese peasants do not want be pioneers in a foreign land as illegal squatters and get one crop a year with no means of guaranteeing profit or property rights.
3. Scaremongers repeat ad nauseum there are 100 million Chinese across the river from 6 million Russians, but fail to mention the population density of Heilongjiang is 80/km2, similar to that of the Ukraine (the UK at 250ish) and just as fertile with its own black earth. Do you expect Ukrainian hordes to invade Russia? The peasants there would rather seek better paid opportunities in numerous Chinese cities where they speak the same language than dilapidated ghost towns of the Far East.

In addition to 1), come to think of it, the Russian Far East is now if anything in better demographic health than North-East China, or Dongbei. According to the latest Census, China’s TFR is at 1.4, and the three major North-East provinces have China’s lowest birth rates outside the major metropolises. Russia’s average TFR is 1.6 as of 2011 and is higher than average in the Far East specifically.

Triumphs Of Kremlinology

In 2008, Commissar of Transitionology Michael McFaul and his lab assistant Kathryn Stoner-Weiss wrote: “The myth of Putinism is that Russians are safer, more secure, and generally living better than in the 1990s—and that Putin himself deserves the credit… In terms of public safety, health, corruption, and the security of property rights, Russians are actually worse off today than they were a decade ago.”

Fedia Kriukov already called them out on it more than four years ago. The “authoritarian model” thesis was factually wrong from the moment it left the printing press (perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if Stoner-Weiss was more interested in getting things right as opposed to obsessing over how “women authors are evidently less important than male authors” and “Putin’s control of the media has spread to bloggers from just TV”).

Today their errors are clear and stark as snowblind, yet the core assumptions of the “authoritarian model” remain largely unchallenged in Western journalism and Kremlinology. Indeed, one of the authors is today the US ambassador to Russia.

Russia’s Demography Continues To Exceed Even *My* Most Optimistic Predictions

According to the latest data, in Jan-Aug 2012 there were 1,253,000 births (2011 – 1,171,000); 1,274,200 deaths (2011 – 1,299,800). Therefore, the rate of natural decrease plummeted from 128,800 in 2011 to just 21,200 this year. Bearing in mind that natural growth was about zero for the September-December period last year, this means that even a slight improvement over the next 5 months – that is, about 5,000 less monthly decrease – should finally nullify Russia’s two decades of natural population decrease.

Back in mid 2008 when I predicted that “natural population increase will occur starting from 2013 at the latest” most mainstream demographers would have considered me bonkers. But if anything the prediction now looks likely to be fulfilled one year early.

This would be the first (and only) year that Russia has seen natural population growth as not part of the USSR. The remarkable 7% increase in birth rates this year so far would imply a TFR of approximately 1.75 (2011 – 1.61), or the level of 1991; and the 2% drop in mortality would translate into an increase in the life expectancy from 70.3 years in 2011 to about 71 years in 2012. In terms of European demography, Russia has basically become a normal country.

[Read more…]

Mid-Year Demography Update

Currently writing an article on Pussy Riot, but in the meantime, data on the demographic situation as of mid-2011.


/ 1000 people for entirery of 2011


/ 1000 people






2012 relative to 2011 (%)

















Of which children <1 years of age








Natural decrease







In short, strong improvements all round. There is however one problem, and those are migration trends.

In particular, emigration has been rising fast from very low levels since December 2011, and has since plateaued at a monthly 10,000 by March 2012 (when Putin was reelected). The narrative of massive Russian emigration was a myth but perhaps that is no longer the case? Doubt it. Most of the increase in emigrants accrued to the Near Abroad, from 9,000 in 2011 to 44,000 in 2012. I doubt Uzbeks are going back to Karimov in protest against Putin. 🙂 The number of emigrants to the Far Abroad increased much more modestly from 6,000 to 11,000 during the first six months of 2011 and 2012, respectively. The number of emigrants to the US and Canada increased only modestly, while the outflow to Germany and Israel actually fell. In fact in that category most of the increase accrued to China and Georgia who have long provided Russia with net migrants. So hard to make a case that it is ethnic Russian professionals are are now fleeing Putin in massively greater numbers. For the most part, I think the figures now just better reflect cross-border population flows.

Will Russia Record Natural Population Growth This Year?

Is the question asked by Mark Adomanis in his recent post. If you linearly extrapolate dynamics for the first half of this year to the second (BR +7.5%; DR -1.9%), then yes, it will – as per the graph I’ve stolen from him below.

Adomanis says that making such a prediction back in 2005 would have resulted in him getting dragged off to a lunatic asylum. I avoided that fate, though considering I made said predictions in 2008, it is still fairly impressive.

“Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest.”
“Natural population increase will occur starting from 2013 at the latest.”

And, just for peter:

“The share of Russia’s working age population will peak around 2010 at about 72%.”

Was Russia In A Demographic Apocalypse In The First Place?

And just as the Guardianistas and K.F. & Co. bury their heads ever deeper in the sand, real world statistics show confirm my thesis from the beginning of this year that Russia’s demographic crisis has for all intents and purposes come to an end. As of May there was a y-y increase of 17% (!) in births, a 2% increase in deaths, and virtually zero natural decrease; accounting for the entire Jan-May period, there was a 7.6% increase in births, a 2.2% decline in deaths (including an 18% decline in deaths from alcohol poisoning), and an overall population decrease of -57,000. However since natural decrease is typically biggest in Jan-May (see graphs here) the rest of the year may well see continuous natural population growth; it is also not beyond the realm of possibility that overall natural population growth, i.e. before accounting for immigration, will be positive in 2012.

Still instead of the usual dry demographic update post I want to do something different here and delve into comparative and historical issues. For instance, now that we can pretty confidently say it has ended, how ultimately “bad” were Russia’s two lost decades?

The Russian population peaked at 148.5mn in 1992. After that it declined at an increasing rate, especially after 1998 when the supply of ethnic Russian emigrants coming back from the Near Abroad dried up; then, in the mid-2000’s, it began to slow as core demographic indicators improved, and Russia started getting substantial numbers of Gastarbeiter. In retrospect stabilization was achieved in 2008, and since then Russia’s population rose for 142.9mn in 2010 to 143.0 in 2011 and 143.1/143.2mn this year. Peak to nadir this was a decline of less than 4% (or in chronological terms, 1985), with recovery already in motion. How does this compare with other transition countries?

[Read more…]

Russia’s Demography Continues To Improve Rapidly In First 3 Months Of 2012

In my previous demography post, I argued that for all intents and purposes, Russia’s “demographic crisis” can be reasonably argued to have ended. Population growth is now consistently positive since 2009, and as of last year, the country’s natural decrease was a mere 131,000. This is a massive improvement over the 500,000-1,000,000 annual natural decrease seen in 1993-2006.

The latest figures continue to beat all expectations (even my relatively optimistic ones) in the first three months of this year. The crude birth rate has risen by 6.5% over the same period last year, implying a c.8% rise in the total fertility rate (slightly higher since the ratio of women of childbearing age is now falling). Projecting it for the rest of the year – a risky assumption, granted, but this is back of the envelope stuff anyway – would give a TFR of about 1.73 for 2012 (from c.1.60 in 2011). This would make it broadly comparable to the Netherlands (1.79), Iran (1.70), Canada (1.67), and Estonia (1.62); below the US, France, the UK, and Scandinavia (1.8-2.0); and above Germany, the Med, Japan, South Korea, Poland, China, and the Christian ex-USSR (1.2-1.5). It is time to stop thinking of Russia as a low-fertility country; it is firmly in the middle of the pack among industrialized countries. It is particularly noteworthy that whereas Russia is frequently described as the sick man of the BRIC’s (in demographic terms), it is now probably closer to Brazil (1.86) than it is to China (c.1.4-1.5).

The numbers of deaths fell by 3.3%, and this is a trend that is likely to persist as excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco are raised at  a more rapid pace now that the elections are done with. As a result, the natural population loss in the first quarter this year is now only 35,000 relative to 79,000 last year. There is now a distinct chance that natural population growth will actually be positive this year – linearly extrapolating from this quarter (which is of course an unreliable method, but whatever) would give 1,793,828*1.065 births and 1,925,036*0.967 deaths = 1,920,426 – 1,861,509 = c.60k increase – although I’d still give it less than even odds. As graphs are worth many words…

[Read more…]

A Meeting With A Demographer

Today I had the pleasure of meeting up with Nick Eberstadt, an analyst at the AEI who specializes in Korea and Russian demography. He was dropping by SF and we had drinks at the excellent Samovar Tea Lounge.

As readers will know, we do obviously have many disagreements on Russia demography, with Eberstadt representing the “pessimistic” side and myself, the more optimistic one; and his assumptions and methods have at times been objects of criticism at this blog. If I may be so bold, recent data – population growth since 2008, and perhaps even a natural increase this year – has, at least thus far, favored the “optimistic” variants more than the “pessimistic” ones (though one can validly argue that the “echo effect” of the 1990’s baby bust has yet to make its play).

Nonetheless, I should emphasize that he is a deeply knowledgeable and conscientious scholar, who is receptive to new data and convincing counter-arguments, and a very interesting and entertaining conversationalist in person. It would be good for Russia watchers in general to meet up more often, as online interaction just isn’t the same thing. If you’re ever passing by the Bay Area, feel free to drop me a line.

Russia’s Mortality From Vices On The Decline

Sometimes a single picture is worth a thousand words. This is one.

Though Russia remains a highly dangerous country by developed country standards, it has improved immeasurably in the past decade. Fewer Russians today die from alcohol poisonings, homicides, suicides, and even – despite a near doubling of car ownership rates – transport accidents that they did in the 1990’s to early 2000’s. Indeed, most of these “non-natural deaths” indicators are back to the levels of the late 1980’s, coinciding with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

The importance of this decline shouldn’t be understated. 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. Furthermore, the fact that the pace of improvements actually speeded up during the crisis indicates that Russia is becoming a “normal country” in the sense that health improvement trends have decoupled from economic fluctuations.