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.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Great article Anatole, though I presume you have ‘deaths’ and ‘births’ the wrong way round (you can delete this phrase if it’s wrong, or if you change it) in the first paragraph.

    For me the most interesting feature in this was that only 6-7% of women have not had children. I don’t know if there has been research but I’d imagine that this could be higher in Britain. I know many middle class couples without children, whilst poor families tend to have many children (furthermore, whilst ‘Eurabia’ is an idiotic and ludicrous theory, it is true that our Muslim population has a far higher birth rate than the natives. But as they constitute at most 5% of the population, I don’t think we are going to wake up under an Ayatollah tomorrow).

    Many poor families are third generation unemployed and have no value for education, whilst far from meeting this with renewed Fabianism, the middle class is getting increasingly conservative. I even heard one demented commentator on the BBC (you know, the ‘far left’ broadcaster) ranting that middle class families did not have so many children because it was not to their economic advantage comparative to the other classes. When members of a class have fewer children because means tested child benefits gives their neighbours get a better deal, it is not an encouraging indication of where British society is going.

    Ironically enough, it is their shared fondness for dumbed-down celebrity culture that has probably led to this class conflict. So despite the half-century of Atleeism, Wells may turn out to be right in his Eloi/ Morlock, prediction (disclaimer: this is not a falsifiable hypothesis). By contrast, I think even with the low birth rate, Russia’s evenly spread births may be to their advantage in the long run.

    Still, my one criticism is that you do not hypothetically mention immigration, except to mention Russophobe theories on the topic. It already seems to me that in some senses Russia is a ‘post-ideological’ society. In Britain, our economic discourse is dictated by market fanatics, who often have very poor understandings of how this is applied in real life. It seems by contrast Russians have come to view this in a non-ideological sense, realising that Yeltsin made a spectacular mess of privatisation whilst not ruling out the potential of privatisation if done sensibly.

    I hope that Russia also comes to accept that immigration can be a positive, though it has to be handled properly. Again, this will hopefully be unlike Britain which has practically unregulated immigration. Our politicians want to ally themselves with America (even to our disadvantage) but they do not mind having a large number of Islamic immigrants, creating a very bizarre society.

    Immigration could be a strong positive for Russia, if the right people are chosen. Under Communism, Russia had strong ties with India, and I think Russia could offer good opportunities for educated, secular Indians. But all this is hypothetical.

    Sorry, this is so rushed. Just a few rambling thoughts.

    • 1. Yes, thanks for pointing that out – fixed. Though somewhat ironically, I have to point out I’m Anatoly, BTW (not Anatole). 😉

      2. It is higher in Britain, and even marginally higher in the US (despite their higher overall fertility rates). The typical Russian has one child, sometimes two, very rarely three or more (something like 10% of cases). In the UK, it is more typical for a certain segment of society – perhaps one especially concerned with careers, or ecology, or just quality of life in the material sense – has no children. But they are balanced by many other people who have 2-4 children.

      3. Re-Eurabia. Agreed – I don’t really buy into that either.

      4. Re-immigration. The reason I didn’t really touch on it was because much of the essay was about summarizing the main myths – or what I perceive to be myths, or at least exaggerations – on the topic of Russia’s demographic prospects. Regarding immigrations, there’s no myths I can think of at the moment to write about – hence I didn’t.

      I agree that India would make an excellent source of migrants and even mooted the idea in one of my earlier posts (though I can’t find it atm). In general I support a Canadian-style emigration system based on tallying points based on your language skills, education, job qualifications and experience, etc.

      However, I don’t actually see it happening in the next two decades. With India’s continuing economic development, their middle-classes have ever fewer reasons to even migrate to the West – let alone Russia (their main current incentive is to obtain higher educations at a fraction of the price they’d have to pay in a comparable US or European institution).

      By and large, most people are at least vaguely patriotic and if their country is prospering and creating more opportunities, even if from a much lower base, they will stay. For instance, witness the drastic reduction in Russian emigration during the 2000’s.

  2. Interesting, as always. And I like the new look for your blog, btw.

    • Thanks, Nat.

      I hope to fill up the cool new drop-down menu today, and resume posting at a more frequent pace.

  3. Immigration….

    Why do you care about how well Russia does when, for all you care about the impact of immigration, they might as well be Chinese or Indian? In this case, why care about Russia?

    • 1. The Russian Empire as an idea was always somewhat divorced from ethnicity, and defined more by the Eurasian landmass.

      2. In any case we are talking about controlled migration of qualified professionals who will on balance bring a lot of good to it.

  4. ‘The Russian Empire as an idea was always somewhat divorced from ethnicity, and defined more by the Eurasian landmass.’

    Agree with that. Russia is itself essentially a hybrid nation of mainly Slavs and Asians, with many minorities. Many notable Russians have had foreign ancestry such as Belorussian (Dostoyevsky), German (Roerich, Hartmann, Herzen), Jewish (Eisenstein, Babel), Polish (Berdyaev, Tchaikovsky) Ukrainian (Bulgakov) and many, many more.

    As for Chinese, whilst I think that the Russophobe idea of vast numbers of unassimilated Chinese peasants taking over East Russia is false, China may form a good source of educated immigrants. Of course, as with India the Chinese economy is improving, but there must be a lot of Chinese blokes wanting to get out.

  5. From that part of the world, it can get noticeably multi-cultural on the ethnicity of many folks. This issue touches on Russia’s “internationalist” aspect before the Soviet period.

    I’ve come across instances where it’s said that Ivan Mazepa was of Polish background. On Tchaikovsky, I’ve seen a Ukrainian lineage to his background noted. Thaddeus Kosciusko had Polish and Belarusian ties, inclusive of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian faiths. Anton Denikin was born in the Polish part of the Russian Empire. His parents observed the Christian faith differently (his mother being Catholic and his father Orthodox).

  6. How many Russians does it take to keep a viable Russia? The number is irrelevant except in context as to the relative strength of potential adversaries. Put it this way:what is a stronger France?A France of sixty million that is 50% Muslim or a France of thirty million that has no significant Muslim minority.I am not one obsessed with “skin color” but Russia is not an Islamic country and it is not a Eurasianist hybrid dreamt up by underemployed intellectuals–it tossed off Bolshevism and what was still beneath the rubble? Orthodox Russia,heir to Byzantium if you like.No one who actually lives in the USA or UK can honestly argue immigration is currently anything but a complete disaster.Our ” diversifying” but growing populations would only serve as a model for the terminally silly. “Multicultural”America is dramatically weaker today than ten years ago…any debate?”Intolerant” Russia is dramatically stronger than ten years ago.

  7. 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.

    Не дождетесь.