Birth rate at half mast, deaths rising, emigration falling … Despite one of the most provocative policies of childbearing in the world, Russia is gradually emptied of its population. “A major problem for Vladimir Putin, for whom population is synonymous with power,” according to demographer Laurent Challard.
The observation has remained the same for thirty years: the Russian population is shrinking by leaps and bounds. In 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, the population of Russia was 148.2 million. In 2021, the number dropped to 146.1 million, according to the Russian Statistics Agency (Rosstat). Most surprisingly, according to the predictions of demographers, the population should continue to decline, reaching between 130 and 140 million people by 2050.
“Russia is paying for the 1990s,” explains Alan Bloom, a demographer at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED). “Upon the fall of the Soviet Union, the country plunged into a serious demographic crisis. For the first time, the death rate significantly exceeded the birth rate, which led to a decline in the population.” In the early 2000s, the population of Russia was barely 143 million.
The researcher continues, “Today, the population of childbearing age is the one who was born during this period. So it is too small to stimulate demographic growth.” Especially since this comes in the context of the increase in deaths as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Birth and immigration policy
However, since coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has intensified his efforts to stop this trend. In addition to modernizing hospitals and improving the provision of care, he began above all an important obstetric policy. “Russia has become one of the most exciting countries in the world about this,” notes Laurent Challard, a demographer who specializes in population movements.
“In recent years, the government has instituted financial assistance programs for fathers, family benefit systems, and bonuses for large families…,” he recounts. “Not to mention the very active propaganda on this issue. Putin himself, in his public speeches, regularly advocates family values and invites the population to have children.”
At the same time, he conducted an extensive immigration policy, opening the Russian borders to migrant workers often from Central Asia, facilitating naturalization for Russian speakers or even distributing Russian passports to residents of neighboring countries. Migrations stopped by covid 19 dead.
“This demographic question is obsessing Putin”
“This demographic question is obsessing over Putin,” notes Laurent Challard. “In his opinion, he relates the strength of a state to the size of its population. The greater its size, the greater the strength of the state.”
Evidence for this state of mind: In January 2020, the Kremlin chief presented the demographic crisis as a “historic challenge,” ensuring that “the fate and historical prospects of Russia depend on our number.”
“Faced with this, this population decline is clearly one of the challenges of the war in Ukraine,” Laurent Challard and Alan Bloom say together. “The country has a population of 44 million, mostly Slavs, from this former Soviet bloc. For Putin, it is not only a matter of restoring lands that may rightly belong to him, but also of ‘the recovery of this population in order to integrate them into Russia.’”
At the last census, Moscow annexed 2.4 million residents of Donbass, a region that has been annexed since 2014. For several weeks, the Kremlin also decided to focus its war effort in the east of the country with one goal: to organize referendums there on the possibility of integration with Russia.
What are the consequences of war?
But with the war in Ukraine going so long, can this ambition to increase its population turn on the head of the Kremlin and, on the contrary, aggravate the demographic crisis?
Laurent Challard believes: “If you refer to Ukrainian sources, Russia sent 165 thousand soldiers to Ukraine. This is nothing, compared to the entire population. Thus the war dead will have a very limited impact on Russian demography.” “Unless the situation turns into an all-out global conflict and forces Russia to significantly increase its numbers.”
“On the other hand, this demographic concern can partly explain why Moscow is reluctant to send more soldiers to the front. It is well aware that it is important to reduce losses, especially among the young population,” notes the demographic nuances.
But the war in Ukraine could bring up another phenomenon: the brain drain. According to the Financial Times, citing the trade union of the sector, about 150 thousand people in the new technology sector have left Russia. Many of them have joined Israel or Turkey, which is looking for this workforce, and is working to increase reception procedures. “Here again, the impact on demography will be limited for Moscow because the phenomenon remains marginal. On the other hand, from an economic point of view, in an already difficult context due to sanctions, this can have an impact”, continues a researcher.
“Confidence in the future plays a major role in the birth rate”
Alexei Raksha, a Russian demographer living in Moscow, predicted a sharp drop in the birth rate in the coming months in response to the war in Ukraine, but above all to the economic crisis linked to the sanctions. “During economic crises, people are less inclined to have children, which makes sense,” he explains. “Confidence in the future plays a major role in the birth rate.”
He predicts that “the war will affect the births from December.” He concludes: “We will see the effects from 2023. It will be a bad year for baby boomers in Russia, and the next year will not be better.” Forecasts supported by the latest statistics from Rosstat, which indicate a 5% decrease in births in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the previous year.
“I think it will all depend on who wins the war,” said Laurent Challard, a nuance. In the event of victory, joy can accompany a birth spurt. He said losing and stumbling in an economic crisis would have the opposite effect. “What is certain is that it puts Putin against the wall. From a demographic point of view, he has no other way out than to win.”