Newscorp.com.au recently posted a story about the declining population of Russia. Whilst fundamentally true, I thought I would take a deeper look.
Immediately prior to the fall of the USSR in 1991, Russia’s population was 148.3m people with a fertility rate of 1.77. Considering everything the Russian people had been through in the preceding years, this was a remarkable achievement and if nothing else, proves that sex resulting in children was never off the agenda for many Russians.
However, once the USSR fell, the emigration rate of ‘breeding stock’ (young women) and young men rose dramatically. In addition, those remaining in Russia were unsure of their circumstances and consequently the fertility rate collapsed to a disastrous 1.20 by 1999. With an official unemployment rate around 13%, it’s not hard to see why.
Of course, emigration from the former Soviet Union was not the sole cause of population decline. Unusually high mortality rates from preventable causes (e.g. alcoholism) plus extremely high induced abortion rates and the generally poor quality health system all played a substantial contributory role.
Yet surprisingly, the situation has improved in the past few years as the fertility birth rate slowly edges past 1.49 and all-person life expectancy has increased to 73 years but these figures, whilst better, have merely slowed the population decline.
The Russian Government have long been aware of the problem and in 2007 began a 10 year program of cash incentives for families to have children (or more children). That program was subsequently extended to the end of 2021 and whilst it had some impact (particularly in 2012-2015), its overall success was relatively modest. In order to boost the figures, the Government also offered cash to mothers who were no longer resident in Russia, but Russian born, to register their overseas born children as Russian citizens.
Immigration is often used as a tool to counter falling natural population growth and according to Statista, net immigration during the period from 1990 to 2020 has always been positive notwithstanding some wild swings. Having said that, immigration from CIS nations is the dominant source with an average of approximately 250,000 net inbound per annum over the 30 year period. Non-CIS immigrants are a tiny percentage of the total although South African farmers have been a recent notable (and successful) target of the Russian immigration program.
At 17 million square kilometres, but sparsely occupied, Russia’s failure to replenish the population is a long-term problem. At the current rate of de-population, it’s estimated that by the turn of the century Russia will boast only 126m people and given its almost incalculable wealth in minerals and gas, not to mention vast areas of arable land, that may present a tempting target for an expansionist nation.
Even if not, population decline is usually accompanied by a decline in living standards which feeds discontent and Government struggles to placate a restive population. It is not hard to imagine that continuing population decline may eventually present an existential threat to the nation as we know it if the trend is not arrested and reversed.
So, what to do?
In President Putin’s address to the Duma in 2020 he said that “Russia’s fate and its historical outlook depends on how many of us there are” and announced a number of initiatives including plans to increase the number of children being born in Russia from an average fertility rate of under 1.5 per to 1.7 within four years.
Larger welfare benefits will be paid for children aged three to seven in low-income families and free school meals will be provided for the first four years of school. Although not yet announced, it is possible that Russia will follow Hungary by offering free fertility treatment to couples. It remains to be seen whether Russia will also follow Hungary in offering Russian women a lifelong exemption from paying income tax after they have four children. (Hungary also offers interest-free loans of $AU40,000 to young couples and that loan is cancelled once they have three children).
Despite everything, the Russian people have proved themselves to be remarkably resilient and although the population is declining, financial incentives are being are being offered to avoid implosion. Perhaps the men will emulate their forebears and rise to the occasion with women seeking to re-establish the fertility rate of 2.9 set by their grandmothers in 1950.
Footnote: Whilst the Russian fertility rate of 1.49 is below the EU average (1.59) it was noted whilst preparing this post that several EU member states are below the Russian figure including Luxembourg (1.41), Spain (1.37), Italy (1.31), Cyprus (1.30) and Greece (1.27). Ukraine’s fertility rate is also below Russia at 1.44 in 2020.