MOSCOW — Russia’s demographic turbulence, which stretched the length of the last century, is continuing into the third decade of this one.
The government’s statistics agency, Rosstat, released figures in December showing a natural population decline of 259,600 in the first 10 months of 2019. The predicted decline for the whole year: more than 300,000, a loss three times greater than the year before.
It marks the third straight year of decline — Russia lost about 19,000 people in 2017 and nearly 100,000 in 2018. In-migration was enough to overcome the 2017 natural population loss, but the 2019 figures mark the second straight year of overall population decline.
The sobering figures marked the end of nearly a decade of increases following the catastrophic demographic losses of the 1990s, a downward spiral that was only reversed in 2009. But experts have not been surprised by the numbers, which they say are echoes of demographic trends of previous generations.
“First, this is about the relatively large generation that was born during the [post-World War II] period of rising birthrates reaching old age,” says Alla Ivanova, head of the Department of Health at the Institute of Sociopolitical Research, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Of course, this affects the increase in the death rate.”
“And birthrates are declining, primarily, because the relatively small generation of women born in the 1990s has reached reproductive age,” Ivanova adds. “It is well-known that that period saw a very significant decrease in births.”
In other words: Fewer babies then, fewer babies now.
Ivanova tells RFE/RL the current trend seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. “For the next 10 years we will most likely live in a period of depopulation — that is, a contraction of the population driven by natural decrease,” she explains. “But the overall population might actually increase if migration can compensate for the natural decrease.”
President Vladimir Putin, who made ensuring natural population growth a top propriety when he started his current term in 2018, lamented the phenomenon in his annual press conference on December 19, saying that Russia was “haunted” by the 1990s birthrate collapse.
“Every 20 years, a thin generation of those born in these years enters adulthood, the childbearing age, but by definition, there are few of them, both men and women,” Putin said.
The president then outlined “a system of measures” the government had implemented to support families with children, including a 450,000-ruble ($7,350) mortgage credit to families with three children. “I know this is not enough,” he added. “We need to broadly increase living standards as a whole, to achieve growth in wages and people’s real incomes. The general sentiment, family planning, and broader planning horizons will depend on the economy.”
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, now an outspoken critic of Putin who lives in the United States, is skeptical of such pronouncements, accusing the Russian government of short-sightedness and of prioritizing political goals over demographic issues. “The main thing that has disenchanted me this year  is the authorities’ complaisance in everything,” Kasyanov tells RFE/RL. “The authorities do not want to change anything…. They all admit that we have big problems but no one can do anything about them because Putin cannot bring himself to change either domestic or foreign policy.”
Kasyanov says he believes the inevitable demographic trough that Russia is experiencing is exacerbated by a general public mood of despondency about the future. “[People] aren’t thinking about or planning their lives five or 10 years in advance like they did in the early 2000s, when birthrates started rising again,” he says. “Today we have returned to 1998, when there was a crisis situation and people could only think about their lives day-to-day — what should they do tomorrow? Their planning horizon is no more than one year.”
The government has also launched a plan to attract up to 10 million Russian-speaking migrants by 2025 as part of its National Projects program. But the results of that initiative so far have been inconclusive.
Sociologist Ivanova says migration will have to be a crucial component of the government’s response as the labor pool contracts, but she adds that the obstacles are formidable. “It is clear that considering our living standards and the development of the economy, highly qualified migrants are not rushing here in large numbers,” she says. “But there are other methods that are being used, but not sufficiently.”
For example, she says, the government could do more to attract young people to study in Russia and create incentives for them to remain in the country after they graduate. “Such students gradually become integrated into the national, language, and cultural milieu where they study,” she says, and that this makes it easier for them to acculturate for the long term.
“The policy of student migration is actively encouraged by specialists, but there hasn’t been much response so far,” she says.
Alcohol, Abortions To Blame?
Economist Aleksei Ulyanov, a member of the government’s advisory panel on demographics and family policy, tells RFE/RL that Russia “is on the brink of extinction.” He says the three main problems contributing to the demographic crisis, beyond the echoes of past demographic events, are abortion and the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. He is calling for direct or indirect restrictions on all three.
As most of the country “is turning into a desert, the government is allocating money — despite the budgetary crisis — for abortions,” he says.
Ivanova, however, warns against searching for magic cures. Reducing alcohol consumption, for instance, is a laudable goal but it entails changing the culture, not merely raising taxes or imposing bans. “We have already stepped on the rake a few times and there is no sense in doing it again,” she says.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol consumption, while still a problem in Russia, fell 43 percent between 2003 and 2016, a result it attributed primarily to government policies adopted after 2000.
Likewise, restricting access to abortions leads to numerous negative consequences, including “rising maternal mortality rate, underground abortions, increased criminality, and problems with women’s health — including reproductive health and sterility,” Ivanova says.
“Consulting, providing social, psychological, and economic help – that is the path toward gradually reducing the number of abortions,” she concludes. “The number of abortions in this country is going down — substantially. And we will continue along that path.”
“But I repeat — we simply don’t need sharp policy changes and radical methods,” Ivanova says. “Radical methods have never brought anything positive.”
At the end of December, Rosstat issued three possible demographic prognoses for the period to 2036. According to the optimistic prediction, which foresees successes improving birthrates and life expectancy as well as increasing migration, has the population rising to 150.13 million people by 2036. The conservative estimate puts the population at 143 million by 2036.
The pessimistic version, which projects continued declining natural population declines and a failure of the migration policy, puts the population at 134.28 million by 2036.
United Nations forecasts for Russia are even a bit more dire. The “optimistic” variant puts Russia’s population at 147.3 million in 2050. The conservative estimate is 135.8 million, while the pessimistic prediction foresees a population of 124.6 million by the middle of this century. The UN projected that pessimistic prediction even further, saying it is possible Russia’s population could be just 83.7 million by 2100.