Russian Demographics: The Perfect Storm

High mortality, low fertility, and emigration of the well-educated are shrinking Russia
December 16, 2014 Updated: December 15, 2014

So much attention is focused on the Russian Federation’s plummeting ruble, evaporating investments, and looming recession, following its land grab in Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, that most are overlooking the perfect storm brewing within Russia’s borders: its demography.

The perfect demographic storm of comparatively high mortality, low fertility and emigration of well-educated professionals is increasingly burdening Russian society and its deteriorating economy. In addition to a shrinking labor force, mounting costs for its aging population, and troubling premature deaths, especially among men, Russia is facing difficulties in filling critical jobs with largely unskilled non-Russian migrants, many working illegally in the country.

Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, Russia’s population increased. Whereas the Russian population was slightly more than 100 million in 1950, it peaked at nearly 149 million by the early 1990s. Since then, the population has declined, and official reports put it at around 144 million.

The shrinking population is the result of deaths outnumbering births for nearly two decades without sufficient immigration to compensate for the deficit. The increasing number of deaths reflects the persistence of comparatively high mortality. The decreasing number of births is due to the prevailing low fertility, which plummeted to 1.2 births per woman in the late 1990s and now hovers at 1.7 births per woman. That rate is still about 20 percent below 2.1 births per woman, the level necessary to ensure population replacement.

High rates of smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, obesity, heart disease, violence, suicide, and environmental pollution contribute to Russians’ poor health. Russia’s current male life expectancy at birth of 64 years is 15 years lower than male life expectancies in Germany, Italy, and Sweden.

Russia also stands out for the gap between male and female life expectancies at birth; at almost 13 years, it is one of the widest sex differentials. Moreover, the life expectancy at birth of 74 years for Russian females compares unfavorably with other developed countries, such as 80 years for Polish females.

Attempts to Compensate

Policies to address the health crisis are woefully inadequate. Russia’s periodic crackdown on alcohol consumption has had limited effect. About 700,000 Russians were estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS in 2013, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. With official policy forbidding opioid substitution and therapy services for drug users, HIV prevalence among Russians who inject drugs is between 18 and 31 percent.

In most European countries, where coverage of needle programs and opioid substitution therapy is high, HIV/AIDS prevalence among drug users is lower, under 17 percent. To curb smoking, estimated at 40 percent of the adult population, Russia now bans smoking in public places. In terms of health expenditure per capita, Russia ranks near the bottom among OECD countries—spending $1,474 in 2012, compared with the OECD average of $3,484.

Notwithstanding a recent fertility uptick, low fertility persists due to inadequate reproductive health services, lack of modern and low-cost contraceptives, widespread and unsafe abortions, infertility, fewer women of childbearing age, changing attitudes toward marriage, and voluntary childlessness. In addition, Russia’s abortion rate, estimated at two abortions for every birth, has traditionally been the highest in the world.

Another factor mitigating against higher fertility is Russia’s high divorce rate. In 2012, for every two marriages, there was one divorce. To counter these trends, the government has sought to promote childbearing through various measures. For example, Russian families are entitled to a certificate for 429,408 rubles, $12,500, after the birth or adoption of a second child.

In 2013 the government was deliberating on whether to boost the divorce tax as a means of discouraging divorce and promoting family values. The protection of children and traditional family values was also the stated purpose for the enactment of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender propaganda law to prevent distribution of “non-traditional sexual relationships” ideas among minors. The government is also considering reinstatement of a tax on childlessness, estimated at 10 percent of women in their late 40s.

Immigration Issues

Despite being home to the world’s second largest immigrant population, 11 million migrants or 8 percent of the total population, this inflow has not compensated for Russia’s population losses. These migrants, mostly from the impoverished former Soviet republics are often poorly educated and thus tend to have low paying jobs, which ethnic Russians are loathe to accept. Many migrants are from the former Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus, especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, and thus differ in religion, ethnicity, and language from the ethnic Russian population.

Furthermore, over a third of these migrants, or some 4 million, reside unlawfully in the country and live under constant threat of harassment and deportation. The issue of illegal immigration has become so politicized that it has inflamed xenophobia and Russian ultra-nationalism, spawning numerous anti-immigration groups.

More recently, some 800,000 people, many ethnically Russian, were uprooted by the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine and have poured across the border into Russia, with various forms of status. In some cases, they receive government subsidies, as well as being relocated to other regions across Russia. Additional arrivals from Ukraine are likely, given continuing instability in the area.

Russia’s immigration policy has focused on attracting highly skilled workers from abroad, but has fallen short of its goals. Migrant labor is considered essential to counter the steep decline in Russia’s working-age population, expected to decline by 25 percent by mid-century.

Russia’s aging population has placed strains on the economy that will impact numerous sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, the armed forces, and retirement schemes. In the next decade, Russia’s labor force is expected to shrink by more than 12 million, or around 15 percent.

The contraction of Russia’s labor force is exacerbated by low retirement ages: 60 for men and 55 for women. In certain situations, for example, hazardous occupations or unemployment, retirement ages are lower. Nevertheless, Russia’s older population does not fare well. According to a 2014 global survey of the social and economic well-being of older people, Russia ranked 65 among 96 countries.


The future size of Russia may follow a number of scenarios, largely determined by fertility (Figure 1). For example, if fertility were to remain essentially constant, not an unreasonable assumption, the Russian population would fall to around 111 million by mid-century and 67 million by 2100. Such an outcome would mean that the Russian population would be less than half of its current size by the close of the 21st century.

Russian fertility could possibly rise in the coming decades. However, even assuming an increase to 1.9 births per woman by century’s end—the medium variant—Russia’s population would continue to decline to 121 million by mid-century and 102 million by the close of the century.

If fertility were to rise instantly and remain at the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman throughout the century, an unlikely but instructive scenario, Russia’s population would increase to 141 million by 2050 and 151 million by 2100. Furthermore, if fertility were to increase above replacement level, reaching 2.4 births per woman by 2100, the high variant, even more unlikely, Russia’s population would climb to 175 million by century’s end.

While some may be optimistic about a demographic recovery, Russia’s population will most likely decline in the coming decades, perhaps reaching an eventual size in 2100 that’s similar to its 1950 level of around 100 million. To avoid population decline, Russian fertility would have to increase and remain at least at the replacement level throughout most of the century, a possible, but improbable scenario.

Joseph Chamie is former director of the United Nations Population Division and Barry Mirkin is former chief of the Population Policy Section of the United Nations Population Division. © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.