Russian Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said Jan. 19 that the Russian population increased by between 15,000 and 25,000 people in 2009. Speaking at a meeting in the Kremlin with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Golikova cited a decline in mortality rates and an influx of immigrants as the reasons for the increase.
The news will be welcome in Russia, where some demographic forecasts have predicted that the Russian population will decrease from roughly 142 million today to around 125 million by 2025, possibly even dipping below 100 million by 2050. The population growth probably will be short-lived, however.
The Post-Soviet Demographic Disaster
Russia has still not recovered from the political, economic and social shock of the fall of the Soviet Union. Aside from the economic disaster of the 1990s, the biggest consequence of the dissolution of the USSR may have been psychological. Many Russians found themselves wondering whether their country would continue to exist in its post-Soviet form for long.
This uncertainty became translated into low birth rates. Russians simply stopped having children in the 1990s, with the birth rates plummeting by 46 percent between 1987 and 1993. Furthermore, society was generally tolerant of divorce and abortion, and Russia saw high rates of both. According to official figures for 2009, there were 1.2 million abortions versus 1.7 million births (and many abortions may have gone unreported).
As Russian birth rates dropped, mortality rates increased as the robust Soviet health system crumbled in the 1990s. General post-Soviet social malaise and angst contributed to increased rates of suicide, alcoholism (which was already high), drug use (particularly heroin), and communicable diseases (AIDS, tuberculosis and syphilis). All told, the mortality rate jumped 28 percent between 1987 and 1993.
The current increase in population is correlated with an appreciable improvement of Russia's economic and political circumstances. In real sense, Russia is not the depressing place it was throughout the 1990s. The rule of law (after a fashion) is in place, and Moscow has asserted itself on the global political front, giving its people a sense that the country is on the right path. Mortality statistics have subsequently improved: Since 2000, deaths due to alcohol poisoning are down by 47 percent, homicide down 40 percent and suicide down 30 percent. But even so, Russia's demographic future is not bright.
A Continuing Demographic Challenge
First, despite the renewed optimism in Russia and lower mortality statistics for a number of key problem areas, the overall death rate has slowed by only 4 percent since 2000. This is mainly because so much of Russia's population is now reaching its life expectancy (61.4 for males and 73.9 for females in 2007). No matter what improvements the Russian state makes, or how much less gloomy Russians become, they come too late for the 31.5 percent of the population that is more than 50 years of age.
Second, the population increase is a direct product of government initiatives to increase immigration to Russia by Russians living in various former Soviet republics and to raise the birth rate via cash incentives for having children, both of which will be hard to sustain.
Immigration by ethnic Russians living in Moscow's near abroad has increased since a 2006 immigration law designed to encourage such immigration. There were about 280,000 such immigrants in both 2007 and 2008 versus just 186,000 in 2006. While substantial, this is a far cry from the 1990s, when Russia averaged closer to 450,000 migrants annually. Simply put, Russia is running out of Russians willing to come back to the motherland from other former Soviet republics. Russia could get more immigrants, especially Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus, but not ethnic Russians. Moscow is unwilling to do this, as it is already worried about the increase in its Muslim population.
Also, the plan to encourage both immigration and increased births is tougher to fund given the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent Russian budget deficit, which is expected to reach 6.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2010.
Third, and most important, the current population increase is an expected blip created by a sizable fertile, childbearing cohort, something that will not be repeated. Currently, the largest population cohort in Russia is the 20-29 age group, comprising around 17 percent of the Russian population. This cohort was born during the optimistic 1980s, when political and economic reforms of glasnost and perestroika gave the nation — and the cohort's parents — renewed hope. Even though this age group has been the most afflicted by AIDS and drugs, it has still proven quite fertile, with its birth rate increasing from 8.7 to 12.1 per 1,000 people between 2000 and 2008, a 28 percent increase.
The generation after the "glasnost and perestroika" cohort, born after the end of the Cold War, is much smaller, and therefore cannot sustain the previous generation's high birth rates. Even if it could — and this is unlikely due to the fact that alcoholism, AIDS and tuberculosis are still at high levels despite improvements over the 1990s — it would take the children born from 2010 onward 20-25 years to start having children of their own, and then another 20-25 years for those children to enter the workforce. In intervening 40 to 50 years, Russia's labor force, already considerably unproductive compared to the rest of the industrialized nations, will be severely depleted. This will leave Moscow trying to hold onto an enormous territory with a greater and greater percentage of non-ethnic Russians.