Lower life expectancy and mass exodus: why Russia’s demographic nightmare is only going to get even worse
A demographic tragedy is developing in Russia. In the last three years, the country has lost about 2 million people more than he ordinarily would have lost, as a result of war, disease, and exodus. The life expectancy of 15-year-old Russian men fell by almost five years, same level as in Haiti. The number of Russians born in April 2022 was no higher than in the months of Hitler’s occupation. And because so many men of fighting age are dead or in exile, women outnumber men by at least 10 million.
War is not the only, or even the main, cause of these problems, but it has made them all worse. According to Western estimates, between 175,000 and 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the past year (Russia’s own figures are lower) and between 500,000 and 1 million people, mostly young and educated, have evaded the chopper. of meat fleeing abroad. Even if Russia had no other demographic problems, losing so many in such a short time would be painful. As it is, the losses of the war are putting more burdens on a smaller and sicker population. Russia may be entering a vicious cycle of demographic decline.
The roots of the Russian crisis go back 30 years. The country reached its population peak in 1994, with 149 million people. The total has zigzagged down ever since. They were 145 million in 2021 (this figure, from the UN, excludes the 2.4 million inhabitants of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014 and incorporated into its national accounts). According to projections, the total could be as low as 120 million in 50 years if current patterns persist. That would make Russia in the fifteenth largest country in the world, below sixth in 1995. According to Alexei Raksha, a freelance demographer who used to work for the state statistical service, if you look only at the years of peace, the number of registered births in April 2022 was the lowest since the 18th century. April was a particularly cruel month, but it was a revealing glimpse into a chronic problem.
The population decline is not unique to Russia: most post-communist states have experienced recessions, though not like this one. His declines have been slow, manageable declines. Russia’s population in recent decades has experienced a precipitous decline, then a partial recovery (thanks to a period of high immigration and more generous child allowances after 2007), followed by a renewed decline.
According to the state statistics agency, in 2020 and 2021, the country’s population fell by 1.3 million and deaths exceeded births by 1.7 million. (The UN also shows a drop but it is less deep.) The decline was greatest among ethnic russians whose number, according to the 2021 census, dropped by 5.4 million in 2010-21. Their share of the population fell from 78% to 72 percent. So much for Putin’s boast of expanding the russki mir (Russian world).
This all started before the war and reflects Russia’s terrible COVID pandemic. The official death toll from the disease was 388,091, which would be relatively low; but The Economist esteem a total excess deaths in 2020-23 between 1.2 and 1.6 million. That would be comparable to the number in China and the United States, which have much larger populations. Russia may have had the highest number of covid deaths in the world after India and the highest fatality rate of all, at 850-1,100 deaths per 100,000 people.
If you add pandemic mortality to war casualties and mobilization flight, Russia lost between 1.9 million and 2.8 million people in 2020-23 on top of its normal demographic decline. That would be even worse than during the disastrous early 2000s, when the population was shrinking by about half a million a year.
What could that mean for Russia’s future? It is worth remembering that demographics are not always fate and that Russia began to reverse its decline in the mid-2010s. The impact of demographic change is often complex, as Russia’s military mobilization shows. The decline in the number of ethnic Russians of draft age (from 18 to 27 to 21 to 30) will make it more difficult for the military to carry out the regular spring draft, which begins in April. It will place an even greater burden on young men in non-Russian regions such as dagestan, where protests have already broken out. It is also likely to stymie plans to increase the size of the armed forces by 350,000 over the next three years. On the other hand, there are few signs that Russia is running out of young men to sacrifice in the bloodlands.
Despite such complications, the overall effect of the demographic decline will change Russia profoundly and for the worse. Most of the countries that have suffered population declines have managed to avoid major social upheavals. Russia may be different. Its population is falling unusually fast and may drop to 130 million people by mid-century. The decline is associated with greater misery: life expectancy at birth for Russian men plummeted from 68.8 in 2019 to 64.2 in 2021, partly due to COVID, partly due to alcohol-related illnesses. Russian men now die six years earlier than men in Bangladesh and 18 years earlier than men in Japan.
And Russia may not achieve what makes other countries rich and old: high and rising levels of education. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, argues that the country presents a peculiar mix of third world mortality and first world education. It has some of the highest rates of educational attainment among those aged 25 and over in the world. But the exodus of well-educated young families is eroding this advantage. According to the Ministry of Communications, 10% of IT workers left the country in 2022. Many were young men. Their flight is further skewing Russia’s lopsided sex ratio, which in 2021 meant there were 121 women over the age of 18 for every 100 men.
The vicious demographic cycle has not dampened Putin’s lust for conquest. But he’s doing Russia a smaller, less educated and poorer country, from which young people flee and where men in their sixties die. The invasion has been a human catastrophe and not only for the Ukrainians.