With data for the first three months of 2015 out, it is now tentatively possible to make out some hints of what Russia’s demographic developments are going to be like this year.
In short, it’s not looking very good. But not catastrophic, either.
The birth rate has remained essentially stable, declining by 0.8% relative to the same period last year; but considering that the percentage of Russian women in their childbearing years is now in complete freefall, as the postwar boomer “echo” of the 1980s ages and the shrunken cohort of the 1990s enter their reproductive years, this is all but inevitable. In fact, since this pool of people is now shrinking at well more than 2% per annum, even a 0.8% decline still implies a marginal increase in the total fertility rate (a measure of fertility that is independent of the population’s age structure).
But the death rate has climbed by a discomfiting 5.2%, which if continued threatens to undo the progress of the past few years and send life expectancy tumbling back to around 69.5 or 70 years from its 2014 record high of 71 years. The immediate and logical supposition is that this reversal occured because of the lowering of the minimum vodka price from 225 rubles to 180 rubles as of February 1st, 2015. Russian mortality has traditionally been highly correlated with vodka (over)consumption, which in turn has largely been a function of its relative affordability. Was I premature to posit that this link had weakened in the past decade?
A closer look at the structure of the mortality increases suggests that maybe I was not wrong after all. Deaths from alcohol poisonings have in fact continued falling, and are down 4.1% relative to the same period last year. Accidental drownings, a category of death almost entirely synced with alcohol inebriation, fell by almost a quarter; and other “deaths from external causes,” such as homicides, suicides, and deaths from vehicle accidents – all categories that more often than not involve alcohol to some extent in Russia – continued falling at a respectable clip. The categories of death that saw substantial increases were heart related ones (by 4.6%), and lung related ones/pneumonia (by 21.8%).
This implies that the situation might be somewhat akin to early 2013, when a particularly cold winter and an unusually virulent flu season also created an uptick. Although this time the magnitude of the increase is quite a lot greater – in the first three months of 2013, mortality only increased by 0.8%, relative to 5.2% this year – and included a significant increase in deaths from heart disease – that is, by the aforementioned 4.6%, whereas in the first three months of 2013, deaths from heart disease actually fell slightly. So optimistic conclusions are completely unwarranted.
Neither, however, are overly pessimistic ones. The overall shape of this year’s demographic trajectory will only become clear in a few more months. And even if these first three months represent the beginning of what will become a demographic slump this year, the numbers would still be far better than they were at any time between the end of the Soviet Union and 2010.