An exclusive analysis of the demographic situation in the Russian Federation and its impact on the geopolitical problems

Posted in Russia | 25-Jun-04 | Author: Dmitry Udalov

Dmitry Udalov is Editor Russia of Worldsecuritynetwork, Assistant at the Department of Economics of the Institute of the US and Canadian Studies and President of the Students Scientific Society in Moscow.

The demographic situation in the Russian Federation leaves much to be desired. The birthrate is steadily declining, while the death rate is rising. If this trend persists, Russia will be unable to handle its geopolitical problems within the next decade.


For centuries, Russia had the largest population in Europe. This was one of the country’s main advantages. It allowed Russia to maintain a large army and to afford huge projects requiring enormous human resources (such as the resettlement of populations in Siberia and the Far East). In the beginning of the 20th century, it was predicted that this growth would continue. But the First World War got in the way of these predictions, as did the October Revolution of 1917. Russia lost 13% of its population, or about 12 million people. During Stalin’s repression, roughly 5 million people were lost due to starvation on the Volga and in Stalin’s camps (GULAG).

The greatest demographic damage was caused by the Second World War, in which 26 million people perished. These three events brought more than 43 million direct losses. But there were indirect demographic consequences as well. During the war, the birthrate decreased dramatically while the natural mortality rate increased. This meant that Russia’s war-losses in the 20th century were somewhere between 70 and 90 million people.

Present Situation.

In 1992, Russia's population was 148.3 million. Then a process of depopulation began, i.e., the birthrate started to lag behind the death rate.

There are three main reasons for this: poverty, homelessness, and public health.

According to the State Statistics Committee, by the beginning of 2001 Russia's population had decreased by over 750,000 people compared to the beginning of 2000. Last year, the death rate was almost double the birthrate. According to forecasts of the State Statistics Committee, there will be only 134.4 million people in Russia in 2016. The number of those who die before retirement age is growing too: in 2000, it was over 600,000 (29% of the total number of deaths). In developed nations, the death rate among people of working age is two to four times lower. The death rate of those aged 20 to 29 rose by 60% between 1991 and 1999. This means that only 58% of those who are now aged 16 will live to 60. In many regions of Russia, deaths outnumber births three to one.

The mass depopulation of the country coincided with the start of Gorbachev's Perestroika and continued during Yeltsin's reforms. At present, Russia has a population of 145.2 million people (this figure is quoted in the 2002 census). Some people excoriate Yeltsin’s policies for this decrease of 3 million people. During his presidency, the death rate went up primarily because of poor healthcare and a high crime rate. Thus, socio-economic changes have directly influenced the death rate.

Also, about 5 million people have emigrated from Russia since 1990. The problem of the so called ‘Brain Drain’ is a real one in Russia. The situation is similar to that of 1917, when Russia lost the most educated and intellectual part of its society.

Further, an unprecedented drop in reproduction rates was observed in the 1990s. According to rough calculations, the reproduction rate decreased from 1.73 in 1991 to 1.2 in 2000. This rate should be at about 2.14 to 2.15 for normal population replacement.

This means that currently, the situation in Russia is similar to that of Western countries where there is a slow decrease of population due to a low birthrate. But there are a number of typically Russian factors. In Russia, the low birthrate is combined with a high death rate. Currently, the death rate is almost double the birthrate.

The birthrate has halved during the reform period. In 1986, the birthrate was 17.2 per thousand, and in 1990 this figure was 9.5 per thousand.

Most of deaths in the past decade have been caused by cardiovascular diseases (50%). The second place is held not by cancer, as elsewhere in the world, but accidents, injuries, and poisoning. This category also includes such causes of death as murders, suicides, alcohol poisoning, etc. Such factors were involved in half of the deaths among working-age men. Around 80% of working-age people who died were men. Figure 2 illustrates the main causes of death for Russia and the EU. As can be seen, Russia has a large task ahead of it in trying to decrease its mortality rate to that of the EU.

Figure 2. Main Causes of Deaths in Russia and the EU.

The age structure of Russia's population is also deteriorating. The low birthrate will result, by 2005, in a situation in which the number of children and adolescents under sixteen will considerably decrease. This will have a number of different negative effects.

The reduction of the birthrate is connected not with an increase in the number of childless women, but a decrease in the frequency of births. Most women refuse to give birth to a second or third child, for socio-economic reasons. According to statistics, 24% of all women of reproductive age (i.e. aged 18 to 44) do not intend to have children at all; 41% intend to have only one child; 31% are prepared to have two children; and only 3% of women intend to have three or more children. Thus, there are 1.1 children for each woman of reproductive age. Consequently, in 20-25 years time, for every hundred Russian women today there will be 55 "daughters" (boys are born more often than girls). If the situation remains unchanged, within another 25 years there will be only 30 "granddaughters." Thus, Russia's population by 2025 will be 116 million, and the birthrate will be three times less than the current catastrophic rate. Meanwhile, the population of Russia's southern neighbors (China, Turkey, and so on) will grow.

The average life expectancy decreased from 67 in 1999 to 64 in 2002. "The figures are sad," noticed President Putin on several occasions. The President believes that such statistics can partly be explained by the high rate of sickness, numerous accidents, poisonings, and traumas. "The situation is aggravated by the spreading of the so-called new epidemics, including drug addiction and AIDS," he added. At the same time, the President said he was glad that the birthrate in the country had boomed by 18 per cent in the past three years, while the infant mortality had decreased by 21 per cent. "It has reached a record low in Russian history," Putin stressed.

Figure 3. The Age and Gender Structure of Russian Society in 1989 and 2002.

In figure 3, which represents the age and gender structure of Russian society, we can see the demographic waves of Russia’s population. As is clear, the most significant decline in the birthrate was between 1941 and 1947. The next decline occurred in the late 60’s and was quite natural, since the post-war baby-boom had ended and the birthrate had declined. But today, the most significant statistic is the birthrate decline of the 90’s, which followed the baby-boom of Perestroika. At first glance, the decline of the 90’s may seem quite natural. But the natural reasons for the decline were combined with further economic and political factors. Economic crisis and political instability made the decline in birthrate massive and constant and thus had a profound effect on the entire demographic situation. In terms of the current situation, we can see that the birthrate started to rise again after the year 2000. This shows that the massive birthrate decline of the 90’s has ceased, yet there is little hope that Putin’s “new baby-boom” will happen.

There was one other interesting demographic tendency during the 90’s. Whereas the overall birthrate in Russia was in constant decline, Muslim families in Russian and in the southern regions increased significantly. This fact will have an influence on the ethnic and religious structure of Russian society.

Indeed, there have been noticeable changes in the ethnic structure of the Russian population. The breakup of the USSR was followed by a transformation of its ethnic map. Many ethnic Russians moved to Russia from the former Soviet republics. Simultaneously, members of other ethnic groups have been leaving Russia: Kazakhs have been leaving Russia for Kazakhstan, many Uzbeks have immigrated to Uzbekistan, and so on. Almost 70% of the refugees and other migrants coming to Russia are ethnic Russians. In total, over two million Russians have immigrated to their ethnic homeland since the breakup of the USSR.

The influx of migrants is distributed between the North Caucasus, Volga, and Central economic zones. This has exacerbated the situation in the labor and housing markets.

Today, there is not much to be optimistic about from a demographic perspective. That is why the demographic problem has become a major focus of the present Russian government. It has begun to implement a number of Federal programs aimed mainly at the reduction of the high death rate. At the same time, programs are being considered on how to increase the birthrate. The central aim is to provide young families with their own apartments. Russia scrapped the Soviet system of granting free homes, but hasn’t yet built a Western mortgage system.

Ultimately, there is no alternative to having a national policy for demographic development based on the need for population growth. Therefore, one of the government's top priorities ought to be treating the demographic crisis in Russia.

Labor Power

The demographic situation in Russia also directly affects the economy. The majority of the population seems to feel that Russia does not possess enough of a population to develop its enormous resources. They think that it lacks labor power, especially in relation to such a populous neighbor as China. Some argue that Russia could use China as a source of cheap manpower, as much of the rest of the world is already doing, and open its own factories in China. Some Russian economists also suggest bringing Chinese laborers to work in Russian factories. But many economists are of the opposite opinion. They claim it will be unproductive and even dangerous to the Russian economy and State to open the Russian market to the Chinese.

A number of Russian and foreign media outlets have recently been raising the issue of the so-called "Chinese expansion" into the Russian Far East and the Trans-Baikal region. However, there is no evidence backing the widespread claim that Chinese emigration puts pressure on settlements and stable ethnic communities in the Far East.

The Northern, Eastern Siberian, and Far Eastern economic zones are rapidly losing their population. This trend will persist throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The population of these three zones will decrease by 700,000 by 2005, due to outward migration alone.

This is happening against a backdrop of uncontrolled, illegal mass migration of Chinese and Koreans to Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Thus, the geopolitical situation has changed in these regions, and the government should try to anticipate the fallout.

The expansionist policies of China and Japan, combined with the development of Islamic fundamentalism in the South and the demographic trends in Russia, may lead to Russia becoming the home of various non-Russian ethnic groups from neighboring countries.

Yet, some specialists disagree. The only truly organized communities are those of the Chinese, whose markets have their own internal hierarchy. There have been no purposeful or large-scale attempts on the part of immigrants in general to naturalize themselves in Russian territory.

The number of Chinese citizens who have attempted to gain status as legal residents on Russian soil is not great. Immigration fluctuates naturally, as "shuttle traders" travel both ways. They do not intend to stay for long, as they might in other countries.

Media reports claiming that a large number of Chinese immigrants have taken up residence along border areas are based on incorrect statistics. These statistics do not register Chinese citizens who leave Russia via border checkpoints of other federation constituents, or people who have been deported yet remain on the list of foreigners present in Russia. The real number of Chinese citizens present in Russia on a more or less permanent basis amounts to tens of thousands and does not exceed 150,000-200,000. (Meanwhile, there are about six million ethnic Chinese in the United States, and their number increased by one million in 2000 alone). The rate may be even lower, if China's own statistics are correct. It should also be stressed that Chinese immigrants are least likely to have a political agenda. They are acting out of purely economic interests. Such interests tend to fluctuate as the market does, which has already been happening over the past few years. Though it is true that the low educational level of a considerable number of immigrants results in a corresponding low regard for law and order, which is reflected by major violations of the regulations set for foreigners in Russia.

Obviously, Chinese traders help Russia meet the demand for cheap consumer goods in the economically depressed regions of East Siberia and the Far East. These regions depend on subsidies and are generally low income. Trade, among other Chinese enterprises, has become an important resource for local budgets in a number of regions. Under today's social and economic conditions, many people in border towns and villages make their living in commerce with China.

There can be only one conclusion: the panicky concerns about the Chinese 'demographic expansion' that are being thrust on the public are false and do not contribute to the further development of Russian relations with China. A number of Russian demographers and economists regard Chinese immigration as a very good thing for the Russian economy and think that greater regulation will solve any of its problems. As for the Chinese authorities, they have been consistent in their desire to work with Russia on immigration control.

The official view of the Russian government is expressed by Yuriy Obryadin, Deputy Plenipotentiary Representative of the Russian President in the Far Eastern Federal District. He says that, “Russia needs a long-term program for socio-demographic development in the Far East.” Addressing parliamentary hearings, he opined that the Far East "is no longer a regional problem, it has become a national and all-Russian problem." The problem is characterized, above all, by decreasing population in the region and growing foreign migration. Over the past 10 years the number of Russian citizens living in the Far East has fallen by 1.3 million. At the same time, the natural population decline has doubled and, as a result of migration to other Russian regions, the region has lost nearly one million people. At the same time, Obryadin pointed out, there has been growing migration pressure on the Russian Far East from neighboring states. Under these circumstances, he said, Russia needs to draw up a comprehensive approach to improving the demographic and migration situation in the region, including the adoption of a number of measures at the legislative level. "The Russian Far East can accept up to one million foreign workers, but their temporary presence on our territory should be strictly regulated by legislative acts."

Besides Chinese immigrants, there is another large source of labor power. It is from the former Soviet Republics and comes about due to the fact that there are higher living standards in Russia than in any of the CIS countries, especially in the Central Asian Republics. About 10 million people have immigrated to Russia since the collapse of the USSR. "It is a very telling number as it shows that despite all our difficulties, Russia remains an attractive country for millions of people to live and work in," Vladimir Putin said in his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2002 The first wave was Russians who returned to Russia from other Soviet Republics. But now, Russia is absorbing a second wave of immigrants—these are not Russians, but people who continue to want to come to Russian in search of better living conditions. They come mainly from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Moldova. They provide Russia with a low and medium skilled work force that is widely used in housing, transport, and other low-skill sectors. Thus, some economists suppose that Russia can attract about 10-15 million people from the former Soviet Republics. This will be enough to suit Russia’s current demand, eliminating the need for Chinese labor. A further benefit is that people from CIS countries are generally better at adapting to the Russian way of life, most speak Russian, and they tend to be eager to live and work in Russia.

But there is another very important, though oft ignored, factor. Specialists, in their concern about the quantity of the labor force, forget about its quality. In the 21st century, due to rapid technological advances, the quality of labor power is far more important than its quantity. To my mind, the main task Russia faces is to create highly-qualified and better equipped professional workers in every sphere. In this case, Russia will have no need for the 100 million Chinese workers and will feel comfortable with its population of 150 million.

As a side note, according to the figures published in the 2002 census, Russia has seen some positive trends in this area. The nation’s level of literacy has increased. Today, the number of University graduates is 1,5 times greater and the number of students is twice what it was in 1989. It is simply unfortunate that this is the only positive news to be gleaned from the 2002 report.

Russia's economic and demographic resources are half those of the USSR. Meanwhile, it has to maintain the security of state borders that are almost as extensive as those of the Soviet Union. It also has to resolve military-strategic issues that are practically analogous to those of the Soviet Union. The situation is exacerbated even further by the fact that interethnic conflicts are breaking out all along Russia's borders. And almost all of Russia's neighbors have some territorial dispute with Russia. This underlines how vitally important it is for Russia to solve its demographic problem.

In conclusion, although the demographic situation in Russia is a great challenge, Russia still has means at its disposal to find a solution. Today, most Russians are aware of the dangers of the demographic problem. The solution is in the hands of the Russia’s people alone.


  • All the figures are taken from Goskomsrat (Russian Official Statistics Agency)
  • “Major results of census 2002”, Moscow 2003
  • Encyclopedia Avanta+, volume 12 “The Russian Federation”, Moscow, 1998
  • Annual address of President of the RF to the Federal Assembly 2002
  • State Russian Duma hearings on the demographic situation in the Far East
  • Russian Media
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