Russia is hardly the only country with worries about population decline—birthrates are falling below the replacement fertility rate in nearly every industrialized country in the world. Russia, though, has faced a significantly more dramatic demographic bust than most places. Thanks to a combination of low fertility, high mortality rates, and emigration, the Russian population declined by about 4 percent in the 20 years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. And, this being Russia after all, discussions of the issue tend to take on a tone of bleak existential despair.
In 2006, Vladimir Putin described population decline as the country’s “most urgent problem.” In 2007, the government introduced a program to pay $11,000 to mothers who have more than one child. That same year, the AP reported on families being given days off from work (and potentially winning “money, cars, refrigerators, and other prizes”) in exchange for making babies. In 2011, Putin announced an additional $53 billion in government expenditures to boost the birthrate. And on a darker note, Putin has used the population crisis as a justification for the government’s hostility to homosexuality.
But here’s the thing: The Russian population isn’t shrinking anymore. In fact, in 2009 it started slowly growing, largely due to migration and decreasing mortality. In 2012, the number of births exceeded the number of deaths for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, causing Putin to smirk, “Our women know what to do, and when.” Though still low, Russia’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per women is higher than the EU average.
So does this mean, as Putin put it, that the “demographic programs enacted in the past decade are, thank God, working”?
I put that question to Sergei Zakharov, a demography specialist at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics.* In short, he’s not buying it.
First of all, the population gains are likely to be short-lived. “In the next 10-20 years we will have an enormous decrease in the number of potential mothers and fathers,” he says. “There’s a very small cohort approaching reproductive age.” Young women born in the immediate post-Communist period of the early 1990s are starting to have babies of their own, but there simply aren’t that many of them. He notes that “the low birthrates of the ’90s were also an echo of the previous wave initiated by the Second World War,” during which tens of millions of Russians, many of them young people, were killed.
Russia has also taken steps to improve its life expentancy, which for men is an alarming 60.1 years. (At least that’s up from 59 a few years ago.) Anecdotally, Moscow does feel like a healthier place than when I was here nine years ago. There are fewer people smoking, and less public drinking, thanks in part to some recently passed laws. Joggers used to be the object of mockery and derision. Now they’re a fairly common sight in parks.
But even if new policies can, as promised, boost life expectancy to 74, demographic reality is again not in Russia’s favor. “Those who were born in the 1950s and ’60s are approaching retirement age,” notes Zakharov. “We’ve actually been very successful at decreasing out mortality rates, but nevertheless, the number of deaths will decrease. We’ll have a bigger life expectancy but more people will die just because of numbers.” He adds: “Until the middle of this century, I think we have very little chance of maintaining the population.”
Zakharov says it’s “too early to say” whether the maternity payments, which some in the government are now pushing to cancel amid the country’s budget crisis, are actually having that much of an effect. Most of the big recent increases in fertility have been in rural areas where the birthrate was already relatively high. In the remote Central Asian region of Tuva, the birthrate is about five children per woman—comparable to that of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Zakharov notes—but most families in Russia’s large cities are still sticking with one or two kids. For one thing, $11,000 isn’t going to get you very far in cities as expensive as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Zakharov notes that it’s common for nationalist governments like Russia’s to make population growth a major public priority. But, he adds, “It’s very well-known that there is not any instrument that can change the ideal family size. It’s very difficult to do.” Patriotic duty or no, people are going to have the number of kids they want to have.
If Russia wants its population to grow, then encouraging procreation will probably not be sufficient. But Putin’s government has other tools in its arsenal. Assuming the recent annexation of Crimea sticks, the country just acquired an additional 2.4 million Russians.
I recently traveled to Russia thanks to a grant from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.
*Correction, Oct. 27, 2014: This post originally implied that the Higher School of Economics is a part of the National Research University. They are the same institution.