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Not enough childbirths: war and migration of Russian youth set to cause demographic disaster in Russia

The mobilization and mass migration of young Russians abroad could have catastrophic consequences for Russia's demography. Demographers predict that these and other factors could lead to a 12-15% drop in birth rate in the next year and a half, despite the fact that before the war death rate had already exceeded birth rate in Russia. During the last hundred years the state has been actively trying to influence demographic processes using the “carrot and stick” approach, but without much success: during Stalin's times demographic data were simply falsified, the post-war baby boom in the USSR did not actually occur, and by the time of the invasion of Ukraine Russia was already in a demographic hole, which has recently been deepening.

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  • Demographic Studies in the Russian Empire and the USSR

  • What is the demographic transition...

  • ... and how Russia passed it

  • How the state interfered with demographics

  • No postwar baby boom

  • The 1990s: The truth and myths about the “genocide of the Russian people”

  • Demographics in the years of “Putin's stability”

Demographic Studies in the Russian Empire and the USSR

In the Russian Empire, a more or less regular mandatory registration of demographic events began under Peter the Great: by his decree, mandatory registration of births and deaths was introduced in 1702, and metric books in 1722. Up to 1918, records were kept by the church, and because of that the statistics did not include actual events (births and deaths), but rather church ceremonies (baptism and burial). As a result, those who died without baptism or were not buried according to the church rite were not counted, and there were also problems with counting “non-Christians.”

Under Peter the Great census lists of taxed population were compiled, the prototype of today's censuses. The first such census list was compiled in 1719, and there were ten in all. However, the censuses were far from perfect and did not give a complete picture. In addition, people avoided the censuses as much as they could in order to evade taxes at the same time.

People avoided censuses as much as they could in order to evade taxes at the same time

Whereas Europe and the United States added universal censuses to their accounting methods in the 19th century (for example, the first complete census in Great Britain took place in 1801, and they have been conducted every ten years since then), the Russian Empire was almost a century behind in this respect. The country's first and only universal census was conducted in 1897 (before that, censuses were conducted in certain cities and provinces, but not in all of them).

The next census took place in 1920 but given the conditions of the civil war it could not cover the whole country. The first full-fledged all-Union census was not taken in the USSR until 1926. The first fifteen years of Soviet power were quite successful for demography as a science. Two Demographic Institutes were opened: the Demographic Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR in Kyiv in 1919, and the Demographic Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Leningrad in 1930. Many studies were conducted, scientists made demographic forecasts, census data were widely published, discussed and analyzed.

However, from the beginning of the 1930s demographic information began to be classified and, at the same time, actively falsified. The data of the 1937 general census of the USSR was so disliked by the leadership of the country that it was declared a “sabotage.” The census supervisors were subjected to repression, and the data were classified. The results of the next census in 1939 turned out to be more pleasing for the authorities (this time the needed 170 million were “counted”) but had little correspondence to reality. Around the same time both Demographic Institutes were closed: the one in Leningrad in 1934, and the one in Kyiv in 1938. The management and staff were in part repressed. Publications on the subject of demography almost disappeared from the press.

Since the early 1930s, demographic data began to be classified and, at the same time, actively falsified

As a result, according to Professor Anatoly Vishnevsky, who headed the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics until 2021, at the time of Stalin's death “the field of demographic statistics and demographic research was a scorched desert.” It was impossible even to name the number of people living in the Soviet Union during that period, let alone more detailed information.

The revival of demographic research did not begin until the late 1950s. In 1959 the first postwar census was conducted. Since then, censuses were conducted three more times in the USSR: in 1970, 1979, and 1989. Post-Soviet Russia had three censuses: in 2002, 2010, and 2021.

What is the demographic transition...

The term “demographic transition” (some sources use the term “demographic revolution”) is used by demographers to refer to the shift in population reproduction models that began in the late 18th century and has not yet been completed on a global scale. Simply put, the demographic transition is a transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and low death rates.

In traditional society, death rate was extremely high. It had to be balanced by high birth rate - and all social mechanisms, all ideas about gender relations, family and marriage, religion and culture were aimed precisely at forcing people to “be fruitful and multiply.” The transition to industrial (and later, post-industrial) society, with its medical breakthroughs, improvements in amenities, better living conditions, the spread of new ideas about hygiene, led to a hitherto unprecedented decrease in mortality rates and an increase in life expectancy. Under these conditions, the system of rules and norms that had been created over thousands of years, aimed at maintaining high birth rate, became meaningless (if not harmful) - and humanity inevitably began to move away from it.

The system of rules and norms aimed at maintaining high birth rate has lost its meaning

Scientists distinguish four stages of demographic transition. During the first one, mortality rates are already decreasing, while birth rates are not – so the natural population growth rate is at its peak. During the second stage, mortality rates reach their minimum, and birth rates decrease. Population growth is slowing down, and the population itself is aging. During the third stage, mortality rates increase again due to population aging, and fertility rates reach the level of simple reproduction (the level is 2.1 children per woman). During the fourth stage mortality rates increase and become equal to or even exceed fertility rates. Most of the developed countries and many developing ones are at this stage today, and Russia is among them.

... and how Russia passed it

According to the first all-Russian census of 1897, the population of the Russian Empire (without Finland) was 125,680,682 people – about 8 percent of the world's population at the time. The population of the territories within the present-day borders of Russia was 67.5 million people. The average age of the population was just over 21 years old; 39.5% were married. Only 13% of the population lived in cities; only 21% were literate.

Form of the First General Population Census of the Russian Empire
Form of the First General Population Census of the Russian Empire
Research archive of the Russian Geographic Society

Russia began its demographic transition almost a century later than most Western countries. This is evidenced by the fact that Russia had the highest fertility rate in Europe (7.2 as of 1900) at the end of the 19th century. Such indicators are characteristic of traditional agrarian societies and are absolutely uncharacteristic of industrial societies. Marriage rates also differed greatly: Europeans in the early 20th century married much later in life and less often, while in Russia, according to the census, marriage was early and almost universal. At the turn of the century in Russia the percentages of men and women aged 45-49 who had never been married were 5% and 4%, respectively. By comparison, they were 19% and 13% in Sweden, 17% and 16% in Belgium, 17% and 16% in Switzerland, and 13% and 11% in England.

Russia began its demographic transition almost a century later than most Western countries

Mortality rates were also high compared to Europe. Life expectancy in Russia at the turn of the century was 31 years for men and 33 for women. By comparison, it was 43 and 47 years, respectively, in France, and 48 and 51 in the United States. Particularly striking was the difference in infant mortality: 261 deaths per 1000 births in Russia, 161 in France, 156 in England, 100 in Sweden, 124 in the USA. Beginning in the 1890s, mortality rates in Russia began to decline slowly but steadily – primarily due to an equally slow, yet noticeable, improvement of the health care infrastructure.

Thus, at the turn of the century Russia was only at the initial stage of the demographic transition (where mortality was already beginning to decline, and fertility was still high). Therefore, the population during this period was growing steadily - by about 1.7% per year. Most Western countries had left this stage far behind by then.

Later, however, under the influence of industrialization and urbanization (which in Russia were also forced artificially), Russia quickly caught up with its European neighbors. Urbanization was happening very rapidly indeed: if at the time of the first census only 13% of the population lived in cities, that percentage was 33.5% in 1939, 52.4% in 1959, 62.3% in 1970, 69.4% in 1979, and 73.6% in 1989.

The drop in Russia's birth rate, accompanying the demographic transition, was also rapid: in just three or four decades, the country traveled the path it took Western Europe centuries to travel. The figures speak for themselves: the birth rate was 7.1 in 1900, 3.66 in 1940, 2.2 in 1960, 2.01 in 1970, and 1.85 in 1980.

How the state interfered with demographics

The Soviet state tried to regulate the matrimonial behavior of its citizens. The authorities' approach to this issue can be roughly divided into three stages: the first, liberal, when the state almost did not interfere in matrimonial behavior (from 1917 to the mid-1930s); the second, when it tried to strictly regulate this sphere (from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s); and the third, a gradual return to liberalization (from the mid-1950s to the collapse of the USSR).

The period of strict regulation began with the prohibition of abortion in 1936. Citizens were actively pushed toward legal marriage rather than cohabitation: for example, children born outside a legal relationship could not receive the father's surname, even if he acknowledged paternity. Divorce proceedings were also made much more complicated: now both divorcing spouses had to visit the registry office, the reasons for divorce had to be presented, and court proceedings became as public as possible (even to the point of announcing them in local newspapers). And most importantly, a petition for a divorce could be denied (and nowhere was it spelled out which motives were to be considered persuasive, and which were not - this was left to the discretion of the court). In addition, the fee for dissolution of marriage was increased several times, especially if the divorce was not the first.

Soviet Propaganda Poster, 1936, V. Govorkov
Soviet Propaganda Poster, 1936, V. Govorkov

However, strict controls proved ineffective in the long run, because once the country had started down the path of industrialization, no regulation could stop the demographic transition, perhaps only slow it down a little bit. The number of marriages did not increase much, and the birth rate continued to fall. The number of divorces fell sharply, but as soon as the draconian measures were lifted, it rose again. So, there was a rollback soon after Stalin's death: in 1954 the criminal liability for women who had clandestine abortions was abolished, in 1955 abortions were fully legalized, and in 1960 the divorce procedure was greatly simplified.

No postwar baby boom

There was not even a postwar “baby boom” in the USSR. The term refers to the period (different experts date it differently, but it usually includes the 1950s and early 1960s) when in many Western countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and others) fertility rates increased markedly and even exceeded their prewar level before starting to decline again. Nothing of the sort happened in the USSR. Although otherwise it would seem that in the USSR this period was in its own way similar to that in the West: there was also economic growth, improved living standards, and an increase in mass housing construction.

However, there was no noticeable increase in birth rates. First, urbanization was still going on in the USSR during this period, although it had long since ended in the West. High birth rates in pre-war Russia had been maintained mainly by rural residents, who migrated en masse to the cities in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, the level of female employment in the USSR at that time was much higher than in the West, where many women returned to the status of housewives after the war ended. As a result, the USSR's birth rate dropped below replacement level for the first time in 1967 (2.1 births per woman). And it has not risen above this level since then, with one exception.

By the 1980s, the government again tried to increase fertility by external measures. This time, however, not with bans, but with social benefits. They introduced maternity leave for mothers with job retention and continuity of employment, increased the duration of maternity leave, expanded the status of “large families” to families with three children, which resulted in additional benefits and increased the chances of getting an apartment.

By the 1980s, the government once again tried to increase the birth rate. This time with social benefits

All these measures (as well as perhaps the widespread optimism at the beginning of perestroika) did have a short-term effect: in 1985-1988, the USSR saw a small but steady increase in birth rates. Some call this period the Soviet baby boom, but this is hardly correct, given that even in those years birth rates barely rose to replacement level.

However, as not only Russian, but also international experience shows, such benefits provide only short-term growth, which is inevitably followed by a decline. That's what happened, and it was also compounded by the USSR's economic problems. Thus, beginning with 1988 birth rates began to fall again, and the depopulation of Russia started in 1992, with mortality rates exceeding birth rates.

The 1990s: The truth and myths about the “genocide of the Russian people”

The demographics of the 1990s do look frightening, especially the mortality rates. In the five years from 1990 to 1994, the number of deaths increased by 22 percent over the previous five years. But demographers suggest refraining from jumping to conclusions like “the collapse of the Soviet Union and the wild nineties are to blame.” This was the rhetoric of the Communists, who accused then-President Boris Yeltsin of “genocide of the Russian people,” which almost led to his impeachment.

According to Anatoly Vishnevsky, the absolute number of deaths without taking into account all parameters, such as the age structure of the population, is not a very accurate indicator. Thus, the low mortality rate in the 1980s can be explained by the fact that the period was the end of life for people born in the early 1920s and conscripted in 1941-1945. Many of them died “ahead of their time” in the war and were not included in the death statistics of the 1980s, which significantly lowered death rates in those years. In the 1990s, a much larger generation of “pre-conscription” age, who had not fought and therefore lived to their old age, was dying out. The rise in mortality in the 1990s looks so disproportionately large only in contrast with the 1980s.

Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign also lowered mortality rates somewhat in the 1980s. It delayed the deaths of large number of people at risk from cardiovascular disease, poisoning, suicide, accidents, and other causes however related to alcohol consumption. After the external restrictions on alcohol consumption were lifted in the 1990s, the number of deaths from these causes not only returned to its previous value but also increased at the expense of those whose potential deaths had been delayed by the anti-alcohol campaign.

Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign also lowered death rates in the 1980s

As for birth rates, they did decline quite sharply in the 1990s, due in part to economic reasons. But as regards depopulation as a whole, we cannot blame the economy alone. During the previous decades, the age structure of Soviet society has been steadily “getting older” - this is inevitable in the final stages of a demographic transition, when fertility declines as life expectancy increases. Sooner or later, the number of deaths was bound to exceed the number of births - demographers predicted this quite a long time ago. Thus, the cataclysms that had been happening in the country may have influenced this process, but not as much as is commonly believed.

Demographics in the years of “Putin's stability”

The natural decline of Russia's population, which began in 1992, continued throughout the 2000s. Although from the mid-noughties it was somewhat compensated by a migratory influx into Russia. The population kept decreasing by several hundred thousand every year. It was until the turn of the 2010s that the decline was stopped.

The situation with fertility was also disappointing. In 1999, it hit a record low: the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.16 - and it didn't become much higher in the next few years.

Since the mid-2000s there has been an increase: the TFR was 1.4 in 2007; 1.6 in 2010; 1.7 in 2012; 1.8 in 2015. It is easy to see that this growth coincides with the introduction in 2007 of the maternity capital for the birth of the second and subsequent children. Experts disagree on the extent to which the maternity capital has influenced the birth rate. Some argue that the upward trend in birth rates emerged earlier and did not depend on the maternity capital in any way. However, most experts agree (and this is confirmed by surveys) that it was definitely a powerful tool to increase birth rates. This is evident if you look at the structure of the fertility data: after the introduction of the maternity capital the number of births of second and third children has noticeably increased.

Maternity capital has become a powerful tool to increase birth rates

Since 2017, however, fertility has been in decline again. For the last four years, fertility rates have remained the same, about 1.5, and in the first half of 2022, birth rates have fallen even compared to previous years. Moreover, the birth rate did not increase even after the maternity capital program was extended to families with first child in 2020. Moreover, many call the re-orientation of the maternity capital to first child rather counterproductive: now the size of the second-child maternity capital is so small that it is not able to stimulate anyone. Moreover, financial incentives have much less influence on the decision to have a first child than on the one to have a second child, so the re-orientation is harmful, experts say.

The decline in birth rates and the rise in mortality have led to a natural decline in Russia's population over the past four years. The worst was in 2021, when, according to Rosstat, the loss exceeded 1 million people, primarily because of the coronavirus pandemic and its direct and indirect consequences.

In the last four years, Russia has seen a natural decline in population once again

As of January 1, 2022, the population of Russia, according to Rosstat, was 145.5 million people. Demographers had been making unfavorable forecasts for the 2020s. We were destined to fall (and have indeed fallen) into a demographic hole associated with the “echo of the nineties”: women born in the 1990s have now entered reproductive age, and this generation is quite small, because fertility was at an all-time low back then. This factor alone would have already led to a decline in birth rates.

And the factors added in 2022 will not improve the situation. Demographer Alexei Raksha believes that the war, mobilization, the associated exodus of Russians, and lower incomes, combined with the demographic hole, could lead to a 12-15% drop in birth rates a year and a half down the line. Some demographers predict that as early as next year we will hit the “birthrate bottom,” comparable to the late 1990s.

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