The nightmare of the Russian people is going to get even worse
A A DEMOGRAPHIC TRAGEDY appears in Russia. Over the past three years the country has lost about 2m more people than it would normally have, due to war, disease and exodus. Life expectancy for Russian males aged 15 dropped by almost five years, to the same level as Haiti. The number of Russians born in April 2022 was not higher than in the months that Hitler lived. And because so many men of fighting age are dead or refugees, there are at least 10m more than women.
War is not the only cause – or even the main cause – of these problems but it exacerbates them. According to Western estimates, 175,000-200,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded over the past year (Russia’s own figures are lower). Somewhere between 500,000 and 1m mostly young, educated people have avoided the meat grinder by fleeing abroad. Even if Russia had no other demographic problems, it would be painful to lose so many in such a short time. As it is, the loss of the war puts more burden on a declining, sick population. Russia may be entering a doom loop of demographic decline.
The roots of the Russian crisis go back 30 years. The country reached its highest population in 1994, with 149m people. The total has zigzagged ever since. It was 145m in 2021 (that figure, from the air UN, excluding the 2.4m people in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and included in its national accounts). according to UN projections, the total could be just 120m in 50 years if current patterns continue. That would make Russia the 15th largest country in the world, down from sixth in 1995. According to Alexei Raksha, an independent demographer who used to work for the state statistics service, if you look only on peace years, the number of births recorded in April 2022 was the lowest since the 18th century. April was a very difficult month but it was a clear indication of an ongoing problem.
Population decline is not unique to Russia: most post-communist states have experienced decline, though not to this extent. Their decline has been slow, manageable declines. Russia’s population in recent decades has seen a sharp decline, then a partial recovery (thanks to a period of high immigration and more generous child allowances after 2007), and then a new decline.
According to the state statistics agency, in 2020 and 2021 together the country’s population decreased by 1.3m and deaths exceeded births by 1.7m. (The UN also shows a drop but is lighter). The biggest decline was among ethnic Russians whose numbers fell, the 2021 census said, by 5.4m in 2010-21. Their share of the population fell from 78% to 72%. So much for Mr. Putin’s boast of extending the Russian mir (Russian world).
This all started before the war and it reflects the Russian covid pandemic. The official death toll from the disease was 388,091, which would be relatively low; but The Economist estimates total deaths in 2020-23 between 1.2m and 1.6m. That would be comparable to the number in China and the United States, which have much larger numbers. Russia may have had the highest covid death toll in the world after India and the highest mortality rate of all, with 850-1,100 deaths per 100,000 people.
If you add pandemic mortality to war casualties and the flight from displacement, Russia lost between 1.9m and 2.8m people in 2020-23 in addition to its normal demographic decline. That would be even worse than in the disastrous early 2000s when the population was falling by around half a million a year.
What could that mean for Russia’s future? It is worth remembering that the population is not always destined and that Russia began to reverse its decline in the mid-2010s. The effects of population change are often complex, as Russia’s military maneuvers show. The decline in the number of ethnic Russians of draft age (which is being raised from 18-27 to 21-30) will make it more difficult for the army to conduct the usual 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 block plans to increase the size of the armed forces by 350,000 over the next three years. On the other hand, there is little sign that Russia is running out of young men to sacrifice in the fields of blood. In October the government said it had reached its target of drafting 300,000 more soldiers to strengthen the role.
Despite such problems, the overall effect of Russia’s demographic decline is to change dramatically and for the worse. Most countries that have experienced population collapse have been able to avoid major social upheaval. Russia may be different. The population is falling unusually fast and may fall to 130m people by the middle of the century. The decline is associated with more misery: the life expectancy at birth of Russian males decreased from 68.8 in 2019 to 64.2 in 2021, partly because of covid, partly because of alcohol-related disease. 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 enables other countries to be rich and old: high and rising education levels. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, argues that the country presents a unique combination of third-world mortality and first-world education. Some of the highest levels of educational attainment in the world are among people over 25. But the proliferation of well-educated young families is eroding this advantage. According to the ministry of communication, 10% of IT workers left the country in 2022. Many of them were young men. Their flight takes a further look at Russia’s disproportionate gender ratio which in 2021 meant that there were 121 women over the age of 18 for every 100 men.
The demographic doom curve has not dampened Mr Putin’s appetite for conquest. But it makes Russia a smaller country, with worse education and poorer, from which young people flee and where men die in their 60s. The attack has been a human disaster and not only for Ukrainians.■