East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Russia's Demographic Decline

Murray Feshbach

Russia is facing a growing public health crisis and a series of critical demographic challenges.(1) Over the past nine years Russia's population has shrunk by over three million.(2) Population forecasts are even grimmer. Russia's population today can be estimated at about 144 million, while population projections for the Russian Federation in 2015 range from an optimistic assessment of 147.2 million to around 130 million.(3) By 2050, the Russian Federation could have a population as low as 80 million.

In the early 1990s immigration from other post-Soviet states helped moderate the decline caused by dropping birth and increasing death rates. The rates of immigrants arriving from neighboring states rose steadily until 1994, and then remained at a lower but steady and positive rate until recently.(4) In the last year or two, however, immigration into Russia has dropped off.(5)

The fact of population decline is not nearly as disturbing as its components. Russia's fertility rates (on average, 1.2 children per woman per lifetime), while among the lowest in the world, are not dissimilar from fertility rates in Spain or Italy. Moreover, Russia's staggering abortion rate--at 70 percent of pregnancies, one of the highest in the world--has been declining recently because of the greater availability of birth control.(6)

The declining birth rate must be considered in conjunction with an increasing death rate and the fact that the death rate has climbed disproportionately for working-age men. If in the 1960s Soviet medicine helped attain life expectancies comparable to Western levels, the situation today suggests a frightening reversal of progress. From a statistical perspective, Russian men born in 2000 can expect to live to be 58.9 years old. Women born that same year can expect to live to be 72.(7)

One aspect of these demographic trends is that Russia will see an increasing "graying" of its population in coming years, with steadily declining numbers of young people of working age generally and of men of military age in particular.(8) The Russian Federation's Security Council projects that the number of people eligible for each year's military service call-up will drop nearly by half from 850,000 in 2000 to 450,000 in 2015.(9) Rather, if trends continue, more and more of the population will be made up of female elderly.(10)

Disease and illness are two more key components of what has been referred to as Russia's demographic crisis. Increasing poverty is also a contributing factor. Many people cannot afford medical care, which was available at little or no cost throughout Soviet times.(11) Russia's medical system is not capable of handling high rates of disease effectively, yet it is repeatedly faced with the threat of an epidemic. For instance, in October 2001, First Deputy Health Minister Genadii Onishchenko reported that Russia had serious outbreaks of viral hepatitis.(12) Rising rates of tuberculosis are another indicator of the decline of Russia's health-care capacity. Tuberculosis is of particular concern in Russia's prison system. One million of Russia's 145 million population is incarcerated. Nearly one in ten prisoners is infected with tuberculosis, 20 percent of them suffering from a multidrug-resistant strain.(13)

Also of concern is the rising rate of HIV infection, particularly because Russian hospitals tend to lack modern IDS drugs and equipment for treating AIDS patients. Although Russia reported fewer than 1,000 AIDS deaths in 1999, a high underreporting rate can be assumed. Intravenous drug use is believed to be a decisive factor in the spread of HIV in Russia.(14) Indeed, drug abuse and addiction are yet another growing health challenge for Russia. In September 2001, President Putin described Russia's drug problem as sufficiently serious to threaten the country's national security. Some 20 percent of Russian conscripts admit to having used drugs, while government estimates suggest that some 80 percent of teenagers have experimented with illegal substances.(15)

Ethnicity and Racism
The scapegoating of minority groups that often accompanies economic and political turmoil has been a consistent, if difficult to measure, aspect of life in Russia since independence. Ethnically biased statements by political and opinion leaders are common, and those who voice them are rarely taken to task.(16) Human rights activists speak of a "wave of racism...gathering force" in Russia and cite beatings of Blacks, Hindus, and those from the Caucasus in Moscow.(17) A study by the Council of Europe's Commission Against Racism and Intolerance reported official discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in Russia at all levels. Antisemitic violence, the use of "extreme nationalist, racist, and xenophobic propaganda" by political parties and the media, and violence against minority people were discussed in this report.(18) Certainly anecdotal reports abound of street violence targeted at Jews, Africans, those from the Caucasus, and other minorities, especially in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, although many officials deny the problem is widespread.(19) Antisemitic attacks have included a booby-trapped sign on the side of the road that injured a woman in June 2002 and a variety of regional attacks on individuals.(20)

Research by Mikhail Alexseev suggests that fears of Chinese demographic encroachment in the Far East are far more a matter of perception than reality, although as perceptions go, this one has its potential dangers. His research in Primorsky Krai, where Chinese migrants are no more than 1.5 percent of the local population, suggests that local Russians tend to overestimate the Chinese proportion of the population by a very large factor, with 46 percent of survey respondents estimating it at 10-20 percent. They also expect this situation to get "worse" with rapid growth of the Chinese population relative to that of the Russian population. Moreover, most respondents described Chinese migrants as a threat to their region.(21)

Thus, while the ethnic situation in Russia as a whole creates grounds for concern, that in the Far East suggests the potential for conflict that could involve another nuclear-armed state--perhaps if harassment or ill-treatment of Chinese immigrants or migrants spurs Beijing to take action. That said, the professed desire of Russian officials to build a civic society based on nationalism, not ethnicity, provides grounds for some optimism.

Edited excerpt reprinted with author's permission from Assessing Russia's Decline: Trends and Implications for the United States and the U.S. Air Force, ed. by Olga Oliker and Tanya Charlick-Paley. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2002. Available on the Internet at www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR122.

Murray Feshbach, former branch chief of the U.S. Bureau of the Census and research professor at Georgetown University, is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Washington, DC. He is the author of Ecological Disaster: Cleaning Up the Hidden Legacy of the Soviet Regime (1995).


1. This section draws heavily on the excellent report on Russian demographics by Julie DaVanzo and Clifford Grammich: Dire Demographics: Population Trends in the Russian Federation (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001). The authors provide a wealth of information and readers are advised to consult their report.
2. "Russian Population Continues to Decline," RFE/RL Newsline, 5 (No.158, Part I), 21 August 2001; Nail' Gaftulin, "Yet Another Crisis--a Demographic One" (in Russian), Krasnaya zvezda, 5 June 2000, Internet edition, www.redstar.ru; Alla Astakhova, "Scenarios of Extinction" (in Russian), Segodnya, 12 September 2000, Internet edition, www.segodnya.ru/w3s.nsf/Contents/2000_203_news_text_astabova1.html.
3. "Russia Publishes Population Figures;" Astakhova, "Scenarios."
4. Theodore Gerber, "Russia's Population Crisis: The Migration Dimension," PONARS, 2000.
5. DaVanzo and Grammich, Dire Demographics; Paul Goble,"Russian Presence in Former Republics Declines," RFE/RL Newsline Endnote 5 (No.149, Part 1), 8 August 2001; Mikhail Tul'skiy, "The True Face of the Demographic Catastrophe," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 19 July 2001.
6. DaVanzo and Grammich, Dire Demographics, 25.
7. "Ibid.", 50-51.
8. "Ibid.", 71-74.
9. "Russia's Dwindling Population Ensures Rigid Foreign Policy," 13 April 2000, Stratfor.com E-mail publication.
10. DaVanzo and Grammich, Dire Demographics, 71-74.
11. "Ibid.", 62.
12. "Mortality Rates for Working-Age Males 'Weak Link' in Russia's Demographic Picture," RFE/RL Newsline 5 (No. 207, Part I), 31 October 2001.
13. DaVanzo and Grammich, Dire Demographics, pp. 51-55.
14."Ibid.", 55-56.
15. Paul Goble, "Three Million Young Russians Addicted to Drugs," RFE/RL Newsline 4 (No.146, Part I), 1 August 2000; "Putin Says Drug Problem Threatens Russian National Security," RFE/RL Newsline 5 (No.185, Part I), 1 October 2001.
16. Deputies to Russia's parliament, the Duma, have openly made antisemitic remarks, as did Krasnodar Province Governor Nikolai Kondratenko. Human Rights Watch has accused Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of "silently endorsing" police violence against ethnic minorities. See Human Rights Watch, World Report 1999 and World Report 2000.
17. "Human Rights Activists Condemn 'Wave of Racism in Russia,' " RFE/RL Newsline 5 (No. 217, Part I), 15 November 2001.
18. "Council of Europe Says Racism Widespread in Russia," RFE/RL Newsline 5 (No. 216, Part I), 14 November 2001.
19. John Daniszewski, "Racism Rears Up in Russia," Los Angeles Times, 14 June 2001.
20. Sabrina Tavernise, "Bomb Attack Shows that Russia Hasn't Rooted Out Anti-Semitism," New York Times, 1 June 2002.
21. Mikhail Alexseev, "The Chinese Are Coming: Public Opinion and Threat Perception in the Russian Far East," PONARS, 2001.

Murray Feshbach, "Russia's Demographic Decline," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 16.

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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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