After its long pre-modern stint as Europe’s most populated nation, France started transitioning to lower birth rates from the Napoleonic era, about a century in advance of the rest of Europe. On the eve of the First World War, its stagnant population made a stark contrast to German youth and virility. Considering the disparity in absolute numbers, 40mn French to 67mn Germans, it is not surprising that its General Staff looked with trepidation across the border and conscripted more men for longer periods than the Deutsches Reichsheer. And although France prevailed in the Great War, as was said of the Persians after Thermopylae, “any more such victories and they will be ruined”. Its morale collapsed upon invasion in 1940, leaving it to be occupied by the Nazis – thus apparently evidencing popular contemporaneous views of them as an effete race doomed to fail against Teutonic might.
Yet Germany too underwent a fertility transition after World War One, falling to replacement-level rates at around the time of the 1923 Weimar hyperinflation. For all their pro-natality efforts and anti-feminist zeal, the Nazis cardinally failed to pull Germany out of its demographic rut. The post-war baby boom crashed after 1970, and since then deaths consistently outnumbered births in Germany. Today France’s growing population of 62mn souls already has more children than Germany, whom it will overtake by around 2050, according to UN projections based on current trends. But unlike France in 1914, Germany needn’t worry too much about this. It is economically, politically and culturally intertwined with its erstwhile enemy and at least for now, the prospect of another European civil war is in the realm of fantasy.
The moral of this story? First, demography is an inherently difficult thing to predict – especially its key component, fertility, which depends on a myriad of economic, social and cultural factors whose relations to each other are still little-understood. Second, though demography is a powerful trend it is frequently superseded by social, political and technological developments. Third, and consequently, the deterministic concept that “demography is destiny”, relying as it does by necessity on the fallacy of linear extrapolation, is of very limited utility in forecasting the fates of nations.
An objective and in-depth look at Russian fertility trends shows that forecasts of Russia’s impending demographic doom, in which the Crescent replaces the Cross on its national gerb and ethnic centrifugal forces tear apart its Federation, are completely unrealistic. Though rhetorical hyperbole dismisses it as a dying nation with “European birth rates and African death rates”, the reality is that it is already fast recovering from the extended transition shock of the post-Soviet collapse. Instead, it is likely that the next few decades will see stagnant or slow population growth as Russian fertility patterns converge to that of France or Canada, with any shortfalls between births and deaths filled in by immigration; and after 2030, the world system faces a series of discontinuities that rend apart any predictive enterprise.
A Crude Demographic History of Russia
The annual rate of population growth can be derived from the birth rate, the death rate and net migration, which are usually measured in cases per 1000 people. Subtracting the death rate from the birth rate gives the rate of natural increase, which is shown below for Russia from 1959-2008.
The rate of natural increase was closely correlated with overall population growth in Soviet times, since migration either way was small then. As social and economic problems multiplied in the late 1980′s, the birth rate contracted and the death rate soared, intersecting each other around 1992 and forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Though the population hit its peak of 149mn in 1992 and the rate of natural increase fell to -0.5% annually, the population fell at a relatively low rate until 1998 because of a large influx of ethnic Russians from the newly independent Near Abroad.
Afterwards the collapse accelerated after fertility tumbled further and immigration began to dry up in the wake of the financial crash, but the situation began to improve again from 2006 due to rising births, falling deaths and increased immigration. In 2008, the death rate stood at 14.7 / 1000, the birth rate at 12.1 / 1000 and net migration at 1.7 / 1000, giving a rate of natural increase of -2.6 / 1000 and overall population growth of -0.9 / 1000. Russia’s population almost stabilized in the last two years.
A Fertile Demographic History of Russia
Let us now look in more at the fertility side of Russian demographics in more detail. The graph below shows Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) from 1925-2006.
The TFR is calculated by creating an imaginary woman who passes through her reproductive life subject to all the age-specific fertility rates for ages 15-49 that were recorded for a given population in a given year within one year, and calculating the number of children she would be expected to have. As such, it is a much more meaningful measure than crude birth rates, which depend on the particular structure of a society’s population pyramid. The replacement fertility rate is the figure at which long-term population growth tends to zero, absent increasing life expectancy and migration. In most developed societies this is around 2.1 because slightly more boys than girls are born.
Although Russia was at the forefront of the demographic transition in the 1950’s and 1960’s, unlike most Western European countries its TFR remained stable and edged upwards in the wake of the new maternal benefits and social guarantees of the 1980’s, peaking at 2.23 in 1987. It collapsed in the face of the socio-economic tsunamis of the 1990’s, reaching a nadir of 1.17 in 1999, albeit there has been an incipient recovery since the new millennium. A booming economy, state sponsored pro-natality propaganda campaign and a 2007 law that ‘expanded maternity leave benefits and payments, and granted mothers educational and other vouchers worth $10,650 for a second child and any thereafter’, contributed to a rise in the TFR to 1.41 in 2007 and approximately 1.50 in 2008. This is higher than the average for the European Union and the post-Soviet baby boom is already getting noticed by media outlets in the West.
A Female Demographic History of Russia
An even more meaningful measure is the net female reproduction coefficient (NFRC). It takes into account two things that the TFR doesn’t, at least not explicitly – a) the male-female ratio at birth and b) the female death rate, pre- and during childbearing age. Although the replacement level TFR is usually quoted as being 2.1, as mentioned above it varies in practice. Although that is indeed the case in most modern industrial countries, in underdeveloped and/or traditional societies with high female mortality rates in early years and/or high male to female ratios, the TFR needs to be as high as 2.5, 3.0 or more for generation reproduction. This is because a lot of females die before they can give birth to more girls. Although China has a nominally respectable TFR of 1.7-1.8, it is effectively considerably lower due to societal preference for males and the resulting skewed demographic profile.
The net female reproduction coefficient explicitly takes the two factors above into account – any value greater than 1 ensures long-term population growth, while a value of less than 1 implies impending decline. In the graph below you can see a graph of Russia’s NFRC from 1960 to 2005.
Today all the world’s major industrial nations are not producing enough girls to maintain their current population levels in the long-term. The US as a whole just about makes an exception, although only thanks to the help of highly fertile Hispanics. In Russia, the NFRC increased since 2005 to 0.67, which puts it above most east-central European countries but still significantly below France, Scandinavia and the Anglosphere.
One more thing can be gleaned from the graph above. Russia’s combination of high middle-age mortality rates, one of the earliest demographic transitions and post-Soviet fertility postponement meant that absolute demographic decline set in as early as the 1990′s, whereas the likes of Germany and Japan have only began sliding into them fairly recently. In Germany’s case, since the country has been in a deep sub-replacement rut since 1970 (i.e. for more than a generation), this is a truly deep and perhaps intractable problem, whereas a big Russian population decline can still theoretically be avoided. As it stands, however, the natural rate of population decline for Russia’s population, with a NFRC of 0.67, is 1.5% when it reaches equilibrium. Any improvements must come from increasing the TFR, as its infant mortality rate of 8.9/1000 in 2007 is already statistically negligible and changing the sex ratio in favor of more girls is unrealistic.
Now that we have a basic understanding of longterm Russian demographic trends, it is time to examine some common arguments of Russia’s demographic doomers.
The Argument from Reduced Cohorts
In demographic discussions on Russia, whenever someone points to the revival of births rates during the late Putin Presidency, a pessimist will interject that it is just the result of many women born during the 1980′s mini-baby boom coming of childbearing age – the so-called “echo effect”. Yet although from 1999-2007 the crude number of births increased by 33% from 1,214,700 to 1,610,100, only 37% of that increase was due to an increase in the size of the childbearing age segment of the population. The other 63% is due to the rise in the TFR, which is independent of the population’s age structure by definition. In 2007, these two figures widened to 10% and 90%, respectively. So the common doomer argument that recent increases in the birth rate are exclusively down to the current youth bulge is at best only a third valid for Putin’s whole term, and almost totally false for the past two years.
They do however make a valid point when they warningly point to Russia’s pine tree-shaped population pyramid, the demographic legacy of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). As you can see in the 2006 diagram below, there are currently about 40% fewer females in the 0-15 years age range, than there are in the 15-30 year age range.
The transition shock, coupled with the echoes of war, means that the number of women in the 20-29 age range is going to peak by 2013, and then go into rapid decline. To avoid an intensified resumption of population decline after that period, Russia will have to lower its mortality rates, increase immigration and raise the average age at childbirth.
The Effect of a Rising Average Age of Childbirth
Speaking of which, that has already been happening since 1993 as couples begin marrying later and postponing children, albeit the average age of Russian women at birth is still significantly smaller than in Western Europe.
In the 1960’s, when people expected to have many children, the average age at birth was around 27-28; but as fertility fell and a bigger percentage of births became firstborns, this figure declined. It rose slightly in the 1980’s (mini baby-boom) and collapsed until 1993, when it began rising again. From 2000, fertility growth was concentrated amongst women over 25 and decreased amongst those between 20 and 25. The share of newborns accruing to women younger than 25 years fell from 61% in 1993 to 41% in 2007, while the structure of age-specific fertility coefficients changed in a cardinal way.
This means that as Russian women converge to European fertility schedules in the years ahead, the big 1980’s generation will have more children in their 30’s than any previous post-Stalin cohort. The sharp fall-off expected in birth rates will thus be to a certain extent modulated, depending on the speed of the above transition.
Fertility Expectations Today are Little Different from the Soviet Era
One problem with total fertility rates is that they overestimate the effects of timing of births. An even more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (средняя очередность рождения, henceforth ABS), which gives for any one year the mean order of all newborn children (for instance, if women in a previously entirely childless country all decided to give birth in a given year for some reason, the TFR would leap up to a very high level but the ABS would equal exactly one). Looking at these different fertility patterns, it emerges that in the 1980’s, Soviet fertility was not as high as implied by the TFR – nor was the 1990’s collapse as apocalyptic as some would have it. Or in other words, many women gave birth in the 1980’s because of the social benefits of perestroika and many postponed birth in the 1990’s because of the transition shock. The effect on deeper generational fertility patterns was much more modest – a drop of just 0.2 children.
From above we can also see that 2007 was a seminal year not only for its respectable rise in the TFR, but because for the first time since the post-Soviet stagnation the ABS begun to appreciably rise again, increasing from 1.59 in 2006 to 1.66 in 2007. This was due to the increase in second-, third- and higher order births – firstborns as a percentage of all new children declined from 60% (where they had been since 1993), to 55%. This is partly linked to the aforementioned rise in the average age of childbirth.
The Argument from Convergence to European Fertility Patterns
Many better-informed pessimists, though they know about the recent up-tick in the TFR, nonetheless insist that it is a one-off improvement exclusively due to the recent pro-natality campaign. They believe it just brought forward in time births that would have occurred anyway and that this effect will fade away in a few more years. The respected demographer Nicholas Eberstadt falls into this camp, writing:
The other side of the equation is the fertility level, and Russian fertility is very low these days, although it has crept up over the past five or six years. But it is still down 30-40 percent below the replacement level. Is it feasible to think that Russian fertility will rise to replacement level over the next decade or so? Well if Russian fertility does rise up to replacement level, if it does rise by 50 percent from its current levels, this would be because of change in desired fertility on the part of parents in the Russian Federation. So far I don’t think we’ve seen any big signs of a big demand for more children. Rather, what we seem to be observing is that Russia is becoming part of the rest of Europe with respect to ideas about ideal family size. In the rest of Europe, fertility levels are very far below the replacement level. There are a few exceptions like France’s, which are close to replacement levels, but for the most part, European norms on fertility are one or at most two children as the ideal family size. What drives births in modern, relatively affluent societies, more than any other factor, are parental desires about how many children to have. Unless there is a transformation of Russian attitudes about children, its going to be hard for any kind of program of birth incentives or birth schemes to convince Russian parents to have more children then they see as the ideal.
Unfortunately, Eberstadt is wrong, or at best over-simplifies the situation. First, according to most surveys the vast majority of Russians say that they desire to have two or three children. The mean is around 2.5 children. This is barely down from the 2.7 children desired in 1990, when the first such survey to my knowledge was conducted under the auspices of the World Values Survey. Less than 10% would be content with an only child, albeit many were forced to do with just that during the post-Soviet hyper-depression.
This is further backed by a 2005 Rosstat study, Family and Fertility. The average desired amount of children, within favorable economic and social conditions, was 2.24, 2.40 and 1.99 for women, men and 15-17 year old teenagers respectively in Tver oblast, 2.26, 2.63 and 2.15 in Nizhnij Novgorod and 2.33, 2.56 and 2.11 in Marij El. On the other hand, the amount of children people are prepared to have in the present circumstances is substantially lower. Amongst women, men and teenagers, it is: 1.75, 1.87 and 1.72 in Tver Oblast; 1.60, 1.78 and 1.97 in Nizhnij Novgorod; 1.83, 2.05 and 1.92 in Marij El. The birth rate in these regions in 2005 was 9.3, 8.9 and 10.5 / 1000 people respectively, which is similar to the Russian average of 10.2. As such, it’s possible to construct the following table. Figures in italics are estimates based on crude, but in my opinion justified, linear extrapolation from the other data in the table.
Russian Demographics – Fertility Patterns
Extended to Russia as a whole, it implies that the planned fertility is around 1.9-2.0 and the the desired fertility is 2.4-2.5 children. There is a gap of 0.65 children between real fertility and planned fertility, and a further 0.5 child gap between planned fertility and desired fertility. This is roughly in line with surveys in other countries.
Second, it ignores the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in European fertility patterns. It can be roughly subdivided into the following regions: the West (France and the British Isles), the Med (Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal), Germania (Germany and Austria), Visegrad (Poland and its east-central European neighbors) and Scandinavia. The West and Scandinavia tend to have reasonably healthy TFR’s, ranging from 1.7 to 2.1, and on average desire to have 2.4-2.6 children. The Med and Visegrad countries have 1.3-1.4 children and desire 2.0-2.2 children. Although Germania has a TFR of 1.4, its desired number of children is the lowest in the region at 1.7-1.8. So on average although Europeans want about 2.1-2.3 children, their particular circumstances – frequently speculated to be excessive social obligations, high unemployment and perhaps subconscious forebodings of overpopulation – limit their fertility to a EU average of 1.4. In general, the greater the disparity between real fertility and desired fertility, the greater the perception that they have too few children and presumably, the greater the desire to close the “potential gap”.
Belief in the Future Returns to Russia, Crisis Notwithstanding
Considering that Russia’s desired fertility is around 2.5, this means that in the presence of good conditions, its “natural” TFR can be expected be lie somewhere between 1.7 and 2.1 children. It is true that the phenomenally rapid jump in the TFR from 1.3 in 2006 to about 1.5 in 2008 was helped by the pro-natality campaign, but there are deeper factors at work. According to the Levada Center for sociological research, there were a number of positive discontinuities in Russia life from 2006 on.
After a long period of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 more people began to believe Russia was moving in a positive than in a negative direction, and from early 2008 more people felt confident in tomorrow than not. Though positing dependencies between such semi-intangible variables and concrete demographic trends is risky, I do not think it is a coincidence that solid improvements in the TFR only began from 2006. Anyone closely observing Russia in the past few years will have noticed a new confident conservatism in Russian society, albeit many pessimists interpret it as mere petro-fueled swagger, about to be brought back down to earth by the unfolding economic crisis.
Perhaps. Yet marriage rates, perhaps as good an indicator as any of social confidence, surged from a nadir of 6.2 / 1000 people in 2000, to 7.5 / 1000 in 2005 and 8.9 / 1000 in 2007, and continued increasing in Jan-Feb of this year. Mortality rates also continued their swift descent, after taking a rest in 2008 from the impressive improvements from 2005-2007, when life expectancy rose from 65.3 to 67.5 years.
Furthermore, the post-Soviet collapse was an unprecedented hyper-depression, surpassed only by the Civil War in its social costs. Though on paper recovery from the 1998 crisis was rapid, newly severe budget discipline undercut social spending that left many classes and regions destitute for years. It is telling that in the first six months of the 1998 recession, the proportion of people who could hardly afford even food rose from 29% to 40% of the population; in stark contrast, in the five months since the Russian economy began collapsing in October, this figure rose from 9%…to just 10%.
This is notwithstanding that the rate of decline from Q4 2008 to Q1 2009 was even sharper than during H2 1998. However this time round, both state and society have much bigger surpluses to fall back on during the lean times. As such, the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low. Russia retains strong foundations for growth – an educated populace, an extensive industrial infrastructure, growing centers of innovation and extensive hydrocarbon reserves in a post-peak oil era. Sooner or later rapid growth will resume, ushering in the material conditions for the rite of spring to blossom into demographic summer.
Not All Demographic Indicators are Created Equal
Many commentators believe that Russia’s excessively high mortality rates preclude a demographic recovery – an example of this line of reasoning appears in Rising Ambitions, Sinking Population by Nicholas Eberstadt. It is certainly true that Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally low by industrialized-world standards and that death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism. This development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalance of binge drinking of hard spirits. Yet their conclusions don’t follow the arguments.
This has little direct effect on fertility – the main burden of hyper-mortality falls amongst men, who as a rule don’t reproduce except in very rare circumstances. Female death rates, although much larger relative to their Western counterparts, are statistically insignificant prior to and during their childbearing years. The infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 for 2008 is already close to developed-world standards of 3-7 / 1000. There is no major discrepancy between the numbers of men and women until the age of 40, so no problem with finding mates.
Excessive mortality also disproportionately affects poorer, badly-educated people – life expectancy for college grads actually increased from Soviet times. Eberstad asserts that high mortality rates precludes human capital formation through education and hence dim prospects for high rates of future economic growth and consequently perpetuating low fertility. This doesn’t stand up to evidence or common sense.
Today, more than 70% of Russians get a higher education and they perform well in standardized international tests on math and science. deaths from heart disease and accidents only happen to other people. The reasons why should be obvious – most folks don’t refer to the society around them, calculate their life expectancy and make cost-benefit analyses on whether or not to improve their human capital. They just see their friends go to college and join in to avoid the draft and avoid jobs like cleaning garbage.
It is true that poor health lowers productivity, although by curbing aging it also partially relieves pressure on pensions. Yet it cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – America was known as the Alcoholic Republic in the great early days of its founding. The drinking problem was already very bad in the late Soviet Union, but that did not preclude it from maintaining near replacement level demographics until its dissolution. In my own simulations of Russia’s demographic future, even small changes in the TFR have bigger long-term impacts than major changes in mortality trajectories.
Finally, some analysts believe Russia is going to experience an AIDS mortality crisis sometime in the next few years. As I noted in The Myth of the Russian AIDS Apocalypse, the models used by Eberstadt and other prophets of doom are critically flawed, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, they assume that “the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa”, which is “not borne out by current surveillance data from Russia” – or indeed by the slightest acquaintance with comparative development and sociology.
Russia’s medieval working-age male mortality profile blights lives, but has only a minor effect on long-term demographic development, and as such should be treated as a pressing public health problem instead of the demographic land-mine it is more commonly portrayed as.
The Myth of Dhimmitude
Alarmist analysts like Daniel Pipes and Paul Goble, Islamic fundamentalists and certain plain demented Russophobe bloggers raise the specter of Russia’s transformation into a majority Muslim nation within the next 50 years. As is usually the case with such sensationalist claims, closer examination clears up the clutter. If you read Russian, take a look at Will Russia become Muslim?, otherwise…
First, the share of ethnic Russians declined from 81.5% of the population of the RSFSR, to 79.8% of the population of the Russian Federation – a time of low Russian birth rates and rapid Muslim expansion. Even a crude linear extrapolation of these rates forward, ignoring demographic transitions and aging, gives a figure of 68.7% ethnic Russians in 2050.
Second, even this is a pointless exercise, of course, as a quick look at current regional TFR proves. The two biggest ethnic Muslim groups, the Tatars (3.8% of the population) and the Bashkirs (1.2%) transitioned to sub-replacement fertility rates at about the same time as ethnic Russians. Today, Tatarstan has a TFR of 1.4 and Bashkortostan has a TFR of 1.6, which is not significantly different from that of majority Russian regions.
Even the current rapid population growth seen in the Caucasian Muslim republics conceals a major demographic transition during the 1990′s. Although a huge youth bulge contributes to current high birth rates, it should be noted that all the Caucasian republics now have sub-replacement fertility rates, with the sole exception of Chechnya where the TFR was 3.1 in 2007. Incidentally, I suspect it is no coincidence that it is Chechnya which also had by far the bloodiest recent history – when you have just one son to lose instead of several, it is that much harder to send him off in the service of violent separatism or radical Islam.
Third, the reason some people fear or relish the idea of an Islamic Russia is because they associate Russian Muslims with their less socially developed counterparts in the Middle East. Actually, vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Russia. Tatars, who make up more than a third of Russia’s Muslim population, are almost as secular to Islam as ethnic Russians are to Christian Orthodoxy. Even amongst the Chechens Wahabbism never truly took root, despite the best efforts of Arab mujahideen. As Fedia Kriukov put it, “the whole idea of Muslim takeover is predicated on one giant falsification — the substitution of the term “Muslim” for the term “representative of a traditionally Muslim ethnicity”…Absolutely nothing would change in the country if Tatars became the majority, however unlikely that situation is.”
Finally, one of the staples of alarmist, pessimistic and/or Russophobic (not to mention Sinophobic) commentary on Russian demography is a reworking of the yellow peril thesis. In their fevered imaginations, the Chinese supposedly swim across the Amur River in their millions, establishing village communes in the taiga and breeding prolifically so as to displace ethnic Russians and revert Khabarovsk and Vladivostok back to their rightful Qing Dynasty-era names, Boli and Haisanwei. I comprehensively refuted this fantasy in a previous post on Russia Blog, The Myth of the Yellow Peril.
Arguments from Linear Extrapolation Discount Future Discontinuities
Based on the following analysis, it is clear that Russia’s demographic crisis is nowhere near as great as commonly portrayed even in informed commentary on the subject, which too frequently uses flawed analogies and unwarranted linear extrapolations. As I argue in Faces of the Future, all predictions of a fall in Russia’s population to 100mn or less by 2050 are not borne out by current fertility and sociological developments. I give an alternate range of scenarios that see Russia’s population change to 139mn-150mn by 2025, and 119mn-167mn (medium – 150mn) souls by 2050. My results are more or less in line with Rosstat forecasts which see the population growing to 129mn-150mn (medium – 137mn) by 2025, albeit they diverge from more common models based on pessimistic assumptions on future fertility. I highly recommend checking it out – my Medium Scenario is reproduced below.
Ultimately, history will be the judge on whether this forecast fares any better than its peers. I suspect it will be epic fail all around – especially after 2025. This is because by then much more powerful trends in resource depletion, climate change and technological growth will be coming into play. The end of cheap hydrocarbon based energy threatens an end to global economic growth and collapse into the Olduvai Gorge. Numerous positive feedback mechanisms such as methane clathrate releases and saturation of traditional carbon sinks will intensify global warming. We will be reaching limits to growth on multiple fronts and industrial civilization will be in peril. As one of the few countries to benefit from global warming, Russia may become host to hundreds of millions of climate refugees.
On the other hand there will be great technological advances, including the rise of nano-manufacturing, ultra high-bandwidth full-immersion virtual reality networks and perhaps recursively self-improving strong AI. Major demographic discontinuities could include the development of an artificial womb (and baby factories?) and indefinite lifespan or actuarial escape velocity. However, bioengineered viruses or malevolent AI could also conceivably destroy the human race. Much as the rise of agriculture made hunter-gathering obsolete as a way of life, and just as industrial civilization remade the world in its own image, the dematerialization associated with a technological singularity will rend traditional human demography moot.
Perhaps neither of this will happen and things will continue much as they did before, but many serious futurists believe that major discontinuities will occur – there are simply too many exponential runways and pitfalls. Yet there is one thing I am certain on – the significance of demography will decline, just as it has since the days of mass conscription armies. Superpowers in the future will count their strength in oil barrels and supercomputers, not men.
This article is reprinted at Russia Blog. It also generated a long discussion over at Streetwise Professor.