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Keeping up with the Guardian’s stream of textual diarrhea in its Russia coverage is a quixotic task, and one that I do not really have the stamina for (although Alex Mercouris does this remarkably effectively). Still, when it comes to certain issues I’m particularly interested in, such as demography, or China-Russians relations as in this case, I feel pressed to comment.

The main thrust of this article is about comparing the neighboring cities of Manzhouli and Zabaykalsk to make some wider point about the two countries. And the comparison is not flattering to Russia:

Twenty years ago, Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli, which face each other across the border marked by a few strips of barbed wire, were settlements of about 15,000 people. But while Zabaikalsk remains a dusty border town, Manzhouli now has high-rise buildings, an indoor skiing facility, 3D cinemas and a population approaching half a million people. Russians flock to it for the shopping opportunities.

The only problem with this comparison? Zabaykalsk has 12,000 people as of the 2010 Census, whereas Manzhouli has 300,000. Furthermore, Manzhouli had 137,000 people in 1990 to Zabaykalsk’s 9,000 in 1989. Were the Guardian’s fact-checkers hung over from their Christmas celebrations?

But the wider and more important point is that this comparison is beyond absurd. It’s about as valid as comparing the 600,000-strong city of Khabarovsk (which is incidentally a success story; it might not have skyscrapers, but it is picturesque, prosperous, and consistently ranked as one of Russia’s most comfortable and business-friendly cities) with the bordering, 20,000-strong “dusty” village of Fuyuan to “prove” Russia’s superiority over China. I do not, of course, because I am not a propagandist like the Guardian, nor do I have an agenda, nor do I hold my readers in such contempt that they would fail to see the absurdity of apples-to-apples comparisons of cities that differ by an order of magnitude.

Now in all fairness the Guardian’s contempt for its readers is largely justified based on most of the comments. But not all of them. Lost in the scrum of Bear vs. Dragon fantasists (of whom there are far fewer in both Russia and China than in the West) was one comment by “Nobul” that’s well worth reprinting in full:

Let’s get real, stop screaming “yellow peril” and “Russian Far East on a knife’s edge”. There are not many (300,000 according to reputable Russian stats, not 3 million in the scaremongering gutter press) and won’t be many more coming Russia’s way because:
1. China does not have a “massive” population pressure. Its population is growing at a meager 0.5% a year and aging fast. If you followed the news in the last couple of years, there are now a labour shortage across the country. There are no surplus population to “export”.
2. People go where the money is. It is in the rapidly growing cities in China. The Chinese peasants do not want be pioneers in a foreign land as illegal squatters and get one crop a year with no means of guaranteeing profit or property rights.
3. Scaremongers repeat ad nauseum there are 100 million Chinese across the river from 6 million Russians, but fail to mention the population density of Heilongjiang is 80/km2, similar to that of the Ukraine (the UK at 250ish) and just as fertile with its own black earth. Do you expect Ukrainian hordes to invade Russia? The peasants there would rather seek better paid opportunities in numerous Chinese cities where they speak the same language than dilapidated ghost towns of the Far East.

In addition to 1), come to think of it, the Russian Far East is now if anything in better demographic health than North-East China, or Dongbei. According to the latest Census, China’s TFR is at 1.4, and the three major North-East provinces have China’s lowest birth rates outside the major metropolises. Russia’s average TFR is 1.6 as of 2011 and is higher than average in the Far East specifically.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Every so often there appear claims, not only in the Western press but the Russian one, that (rising but overpopulated) China is destined to fight an (ailing and creaking) Russia for possession of its resources in the Far East*. For reasons that should be obvious, this is almost completely implausible for the next few decades. But let’s spell them out nonetheless.

1. China regards India, Japan, and above all the USA as its prime potential enemies. This is tied in to its three geopolitical goals: (1) keep the country together and under CCP hegemony – an enterprise most threatened by its adversaries stirring up ethnic nationalism (India – Tibetans, Turkey – Uyghurs) or buying the loyalties of the seaboard commercial elites (Japan, USA), (2) returning Taiwan into the fold and (3) acquiring hegemony over the South China Sea and ensuring the security of the sea routes supplying it with natural resources. The major obstacles to the latter two are the “dangerous democracies” of Japan and India, with the US hovering in the background. In contrast, the northern border is considered secure, and more generally, Russia and Central Asia are seen as sources of natural resource supplies that are more secure than the oceanic routes.

2. But let’s ignore all that. It’s true that in a purely conventional war, it is now very likely that Russia will not be able to defend its Far East possessions thanks to China’s (mostly complete) qualitative equalization, (very substantial) quantitative superiority, and (huge) positional advantage. Short of the US and Japan interfering – which is unlikely, if not impossible if Russia were to make big concessions (e.g. on Kuriles ownership, rights to the Siberian resource base) – defeat and occupation are assured. BUT…

This ignores the all-important nuclear dimension. In the wake of post-Soviet demilitarization, it has become clear that any war with either NATO or China would likely end up going nuclear. The official military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons against other nuclear powers in defense against conventional attack; post-Soviet military exercises explicitly model usage of tactical nukes to blunt enemy spearheads as Russian military formations beat a scorched-earth retreat. Though the quantity of Russia’s tactical nukes is now substantially smaller than their 16,000 peak, there are still probably thousands of them remaining (unlike strategic platforms these are not subject to inspection and verification procedures), and it’s difficult to see how a Chinese invasion could effectively counter them.

(But why would the Russians use nukes on their own territory, one might ask? The Russian Far East is very lightly populated, and in any case air bursts – which is presumably what they’ll be using against the enemy divisions – produce little radioactive fallout).

3. Aleksandr Khramchikhin goes on to argue that:

… Unfortunately, nuclear weapons don’t guarantee salvation either, since China also has them. Yes, at the time we have superiority in strategic forces, but it’s rapidly diminishing. Furthermore we don’t have medium range missiles, but China has them, which almost makes null their inferiority in ICBM’s… What concerns a strategic nuclear exchange, then the Chinese potential is more than enough to destroy the main cities of European Russia, which they don’t need anyway (it has a lot of people and few resources). There’s a strong argument to be made that, understanding this, the Kremlin will not use nuclear weapons. Therefore nuclear deterrenece with respect to China is a complete myth.

This is wrong on most points:

(A) As far as is known, China maintains a position of limited deterrence, its nuclear forces being constantly modernized but remaining small in comparison with those of the US and Russia (this may or may not change in the future). The big post-Soviet decline in Russia’s arsenal has largely run itself out and on recent trends is unlikely to resume. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Russia no doubt realizes that it is precisely its nuclear forces that do most to guarantee its current day security.

(B) Apart from the fact that China’s medium-range rocket forces still can’t reach deep into European Russia, even accounting for them it is still very much inferior to Russia: “In July 2010 the Russian strategic forces were estimated to have 605 strategic delivery platforms, which can carry up to 2667 nuclear warheads.” As of 2010, China is estimated to have (non-MIRVed) 90 intercontinental ballistic missiles (i.e. can reach European Russian cities) and a few hundreds of medium and short range ballistic missiles. The latter will comprehensively devastate the populated regions of the Russian Far East, and to a lesser extent east of the Urals, but these aren’t core Russian territories and have relatively small concentrations of population and industry. In any case, if anything these are likely to be used not against Siberian cities, but against Russian military and strategic objects.

(C) One must also include ballistic missile defense, civil defense and geography into the equation. Though China has more S-300 type missile systems and has recently demonstrated an ability to shoot down ballistic missiles in controlled tests, there is little doubt that Russia is still ahead in this sphere. The S-400 now replacing the S-300 has intrinsic anti-ICBM capabilities, and the A-135 system around Moscow – with its nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles – makes it better than even odds that the capital would survive intact.

Both China and Russia have substantial civil defense measures. The USSR in 1986 had shelter space for around 11.2% of its urban population, according to CIA estimates. As of 2001, it was estimated to be 50% in Moscow, and construction of bunkers continues. China too has a large-scale civil defense plan of building bunkers in its larger cities.

At first glance, it would appear that geography-wise, China has an advantage in its huge population, large size, and greater rural population as a percentage of the whole. In contrast, Russia’s population is largely urban, and seemingly more vulnerable. This however is misleading. Most of China’s population, fertile land and industry is concentrated on its eastern seaboard and along its great river valleys. Agricultural productivity will plummet in the years following a large-scale exchange, resulting in famine, and as so often in Chinese history, perhaps anarchy and the end of political dynasties – in this case the CCP. Even if the Russian Far East is “won” in time, it is unlikely that it could alleviate the suddenly critical population pressures, for building up the infrastructure for mass human accommodation in that cold, barren and mountainous will take decades. Since Russian agriculture happens over a greater area, is less intensive / reliant on machinery and fertilizer inputs, and generates a substantial export surplus in most year, it isn’t as likely as China to dip into all out famine.

(D) As things stand, the real result of a nuclear war between Russia and China would be (1) a crippled Russia with 20-30mn fewer people, with many tens of millions more at the edge of subsistence, shorn of its Far East territories, but with an intact state still endowed with a nuclear deterrent, and (2) a collapsed and c.90% deindustrialized China rapidly descending into mass famine and anarchy and knocked out of the Great Power game for the foreseeable future. Two tragic, but nonetheless distinguishable, postwar environments, as Herman Kahn would have said.

4. Obviously Chinese strategists comprehend these arguments, and as such cannot have any serious medium-term designs on Russian territory. This is not the case for Taiwan and the South China Sea, where Chinese interests are greater, and don’t fundamentally infringe on US security to the extent that it will contemplate using its far superior nuclear arsenal against China, as that would risk Los Angeles and San Francisco and a dozen other cities on the West Coast getting annihilated. This fulfills the main purpose of China’s long-range “minimal deterrence” strategy.

5. The strategic balance isn’t fixed in stone, and future developments may make the situation more precarious by 2030-50: (1) The development of truly effective ABM systems, (2) growing sustanance pressures in China due to climate change and the depletion of coal reserves, and (3) the opening of the Russian Far East and Siberian interiors to intensive settlement thanks to global warming. But this remains speculation, and the facts are that since both Chinese and Russians are more or less rational actors, the chances of large-scale war between them in the next few decades is very close to zero – no matter what the sensationalists claim.

* Their other major claim is that Russia is already facing a “demographic invasion” and that Siberia is rapidly becoming Chinese. This is completely wrong, as I’ve pointed out in my old post on The Myth of the Yellow Peril.

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.Ru (Почему Россия и Китай не будут воевать друг с другом).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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The Russian magazine Esquire came up with some pretty shocking figures: It would be cheaper to pave one 48km road for the Sochi Olympics with elite beluga caviar than asphalt. The total cost would come in at a cool 227 billion rubles, or $160 million per kilometer – five times higher than what it costs to build an equivalent stretch of Autobahn! (It’s also 2/3 of what Russia spent on all road construction in 2009). But even under the most charitable assumptions, that the Sochi road will be built to the highest traction and environmental standards, doesn’t this mean that at least 80% of the Sochi road funds are being stolen?

Not really. The only problem with looking at Russia through this failed state prism, without bothering to corroborate sources, is that in no sense can the Adler-Krasnaya Polyana route be described as just a “roadway”. Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!

[This is what these journalists called a "road"!]

So once we establish the elementary fact that this is more than just a road, things begin to make a lot more sense. True, the $8bn figure may well be significantly inflated by the corruption, kickbacks and monopoly price distortions typical of the Russian construction industry. However, this is not the blatant money-laundering operation implied by media outlets like The Other Russia when they imply that these huge numbers are only being used to build one single, 48km road.

I’ll end this short post by making three observations. First, corruption is bad enough in Russia without exaggerating it into Congo-like dimensions, where $1bn of gold exports bring in just $37k for the state treasury! (Closer to the Homeland, Massachusetts managed to spend $15bn, rising to $22bn with interest payments, on a few kilometers of shoddily-constructed tunnels). Now this isn’t to play a whataboutist game or imply that the US is more corrupt than Russia (it quite simply isn’t). But some degree of comparative perspective is certainly needed.

Second, the real issue at hand is the social justice of spending so many state funds on an elite ski resort that only the upper quartile of Russians and foreigners can enjoy. On the one hand, the national prestige of holding an Olympics is at stake. On the other hand, it diverts money – along with white elephants like the Far Eastern bridge to nowhere – from other priorities such as the general national infrastructure. This should be the real locus of the debate.

H/t @ the commentators on this post by Julia Ioffe for some links and ideas.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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This post tries to debunk some popular, but misguided, views on demographic trends in today’s Russia. These consist of the perception that Russia is in a demographic “death spiral” that dooms it to national decline (Biden, Eberstadt, NIC, CIA, Stratfor, etc). Some extreme pessimists even predict that ethnic Russians – ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism – will die out as an ethnicity, displaced by Islamist hordes and Chinese settlers (Steyn, Collard).

The Myth of Russia’s Demographic Apocalypse

Think again. While it is true that Russia’s current demographic situation is nothing to write home about, most of the demographic trends that matter are highly positive – and there is compelling evidence that Russia can still return to a healthy, longterm pattern of sustainable population replacement.


MYTH: Russia is losing 750,000 of its population per year and will become depopulated within decades.

REALITY: In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births in Russia, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. However, the rate of depopulation has slowed massively in recent years.

As of 2008, there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005. Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009, despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

[Source: Rosstat; analyzed & published by Sergey Slobodyan @ Da Russophile].

Though this is still far from demographic salubrity, the situation today more resembles the stagnation seen in Central Europe than the catastrophic collapse of athe transition era, and the trends remain positive. As such, pessimistic predictions of imminent demographic apocalypse are becoming increasingly untenable.


MYTH: Granted, Russia’s crude birth rates have risen in recent years. But this was all due to the big size of the 1980′s female cohort, which reached childbearing age in the 2000′s; since the 1990′s cohort is about 40% smaller, birth rates will tumble again.

[Source: Rosstat; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

REALITY: From 1999-2007, only 37% of the increase in the crude birth rate was due to an increase in the size of the childbearing age segment of the population (only 10% in 2007 itself). The rest came from an increase in the total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman can be expected to have over a lifetime, irrespective of the structure of the age pyramid.

Speaking of which, Russia’s TFR has risen from a nadir of 1.16 children per women in 1999, to 1.49 children in 2008 (and thus also breaking the “lowest-low” fertility hypothesis that states that no society has ever recovered from a fertility collapse to below 1.30 children). The figures for 2009 will almost certainly show a TFR above 1.50.

This is not to say that the coming reduction in the fertility contribution of the 1980′s “youth bulge” will not exert a growing downwards pressure on Russian birth rates in the next two decades. However, a growing TFR will be able to partially, or even fully, counteract these adverse trends.


MYTH: The recent rise in fertility is small and fragile, based on the temporary effects of new maternity benefits and pro-natality propaganda. It will shatter as soon as the first economic crisis interrupts Russia’s petro-fueled swagger.

REALITY: It is true that Russia’s current TFR, at 1.5 children per woman, is well below the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability. That said, there are compelling reasons to believe that we seeing an incipient fertility reversal in Russia.

First, fertility expectations today are little different from those of the late Soviet era when the TFR was near replacement level. According to numerous surveys since the early 1990’s, Russians consistently say they want to have an average of 2.5 children. This is broadly similar to respondents from the British Isles, France and Scandinavia, who have relatively healthy TFR’s of around 1.7-2.1. This suggests Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to middle-European norms, where people only want 1.7-1.8 children.

Second, a major problem with the TFR is that it ignores the effects of birth timing. A more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (ABS), which gives the mean order of all newborn children. If in one fine year all women in a previously childless country decide to give birth for some reason, the TFR will soar to an absurdly high level but the ABS will equal exactly one.

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

In Russia the ABS remained steady at 1.6 children per woman from 1992-2006, little changed from the 1.8 of Soviet times, even though the TFR plummeted well below this number. This indicates that many women were postponing children until they settled into careers and improved their material wellbeing – a hypothesis attested to by the rising age of mothers at childbirth since 1993. As such, it is not unreasonable to expect a compensatory fertility boom in the 2010′s.

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Though this may be a false positive if many women remain childless, the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. This indicates that childlessness is not in vogue and worries about widespread abortion-induced sterility are overblown.

Third, a new, confident conservatism has recently taken hold in Russian society. After two decades of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 consistently more Russians began to believe the nation was moving in a positive than in a negative direction. The state began to reconstruct an ideological basis for belief in Russia’s future, which included the aforementioned maternal benefits and pro-natality campaigns – and contrary to pessimist assertions, the examples of France and Sweden indicate that such efforts tend to be successful at incubating longterm improvements in TFR. Can it really be the case that the genesis of Russia’s rediscovery of belief in itself, and of consistent improvements in its demography, were a matter of mere coincidence?

Fourth, the cohort now entering the workforce will probably enjoy greater job opportunities and higher wages because of the imminent shrinking of Russia’s labor force. This may provide incentives to marry earlier and have more children, which would compensate for this cohort’s smaller size. Nor are they likely to be subjected to taxes high enough to discourage family formation; relative to continental Europe, Russia is still a younger nation and can be expected to enjoy high energy revenues in the post-peak oil age.

Finally, the economic crisis has come and gone – and in stark contrast to popular predictions of a renewed fertility collapse and higher deaths from alcoholism (which I challenged in the face of heavy opposition), Russia saw its first two months of natural population growth for the last 15 years in August and September 2009. So the notion that Russia’s demographic recovery is built on quicksand has been objectively refuted.


MYTH: Russia’s main demographic problem is not the fertility rate, but a dismally low life expectancy, especially for middle-aged men.

REALITY: It is true that Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally bad by industrialized-world standards. Death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism – a phenomenon Nicholas Eberstadt termed “hypermortality”. This tragic development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalence of binge drinking of hard spirits, which accounts for 32% of Russia’s aggregate mortality (compared to 1-4% in West European nations)

However, not all demographic indicators are created equal. High mortality rates only have a direct impact on the replacement-level TFR when significant numbers of women die before or during childbearing age, as in Third World countries. Russia’s infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 in 2008 is close to developed-country levels and not statistically significant. Though tragic and unnecessary, its “hypermortality” crisis mainly affects older men and as such has negligible direct effects on fertility.

That said, mortality rates must be curbed if Russia is to avoid significant population decline in the coming decades. Contrary to prevailing opinion, plans to raise life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 or 2025 are feasible if approached seriously. From 1970-1995 in Finnish Karelia, better healthcare and lifestyle reforms reduced incidences of heart disease, Russia’s main cause of death, by over 70%. Considering the sheer size of the gap between Russia and the advanced industrial world, even modest improvements will have a big impact.

These modest improvements are now coming about. Russia is now installing new equipment in oncology centers, aims to increase access to hi-tech medical services from 25% to 80% by 2012, and is becoming more serious about implementing anti-smoking, anti-alcohol and safety measures. In 2008, Russia’s life expectancy, as well as deaths from accidents (including alcohol poisoning, violence, and suicide), have improved past the (pre-transition) levels of 1992 – and the recovery continues into 2009.


MYTH: There is an unrivaled panoply of social ills in Russia, such as sky-high rates of abortion, alcoholism and accidents. These will induce Russians to disinvest in the future, which will result in low economic growth and a perpetuation of its death spiral into oblivion.

REALITY: Quite apart from this being a “mystical” explanation for national decline, and hence unscientific, this assertion is not backed up by the historical record. All these social ills first manifested themselves in the USSR from around 1965 (accompanied by sky-rocketing male mortality rates), yet nonetheless, that did not preclude Russia from maintaining a near replacement level TFR until the Soviet Union’s dissolution – and ultimately, that is all that matters for maintaining longterm population stability.

The Russian abortion rate was nearly twice as high during the Soviet period relative to today, but today’s prevalent fears of widespread infertility as a byproduct somehow never materialized – the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. Today, abortions continue on their longterm decline, even in the aftermath of the late-2008 economic crisis (and despite the hysterical predictions to the contrary).

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Similarly, excessive alcohol consumption – the major cause of “hypermortality” amongst middle-aged Russian men – set in long before the post-Soviet demographic collapse. (Observe how closely Russia’s historical mortality trends correlate to Nemtsov’s estimates of alcohol consumption in the graph below). Yet as mentioned above, high middle-aged male mortality rates have no direct impact on fertility rates. Furthermore, since there is no major discrepancy between the numbers of men and women until the age of 40, women have no physical problem in finding mates (though it is true that high mortality and alcoholism amongst males has a suppressing effect on new couple formation, the late Soviet experience suggests that it does not altogether preclude a healthy TFR).

[Source: Rosstat, V. Treml & A. Nemtsov; note that the official Goskomstat (Rosstat) figures ought to be discarded because they do not account for moonshine, which may constitute as much as half of Russia's alcohol consumption].

The demographer Eberstadt asserts that Russia’s high mortality rates preclude human capital formation through education because men facing elevated mortality risks (supposedly) discount its future value; consequently, this dims the prospects for longterm economic growth. This hypothesis doesn’t stand up to the evidence. The late Soviet Union had one of the world’s highest tertiary enrollment rates, and more than 70% of today’s Russians get a higher education. This should not be surprising due to human psychological factors – “deaths from heart disease and accidents only happen to other people”; and besides, even if a Russian man assumes he’ll die in his 50′s or 60′s, he’d still rather live comfortably, avoid the military draft, etc, than sweep the streets. So this argument is flawed on many, many levels.

It is true that poor health lowers economic productivity. However, one should note the caveats that 1) hypermortality disproportionately effects poorer, lower-educated people, 2) in the post-agrarian society, the main driver of productivity improvements is education – not health, and 3) there is a silver lining in that by curbing aging, a low life expectancy also relieves pressure on pensions. Finally, drunkenness by itself cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – after all, America was known as the Alcoholic Republic during the early 19th century.


MYTH: The ruling elite’s criminal neglect of Russia’s growing AIDS crisis will soon result in hundreds of thousands of annual deaths, further accelerating its demographic collapse.

REALITY: Institutions like the World Bank were predicting hundreds of thousands of deaths by 2010, yet the death toll for 2008 was only 12,800. Further, the percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive plateaued in 2002, suggesting the epidemic remains essentially contained among injecting drug users.

[Source: 2008 Russian AIDS Progress Report].

The problem with the “doomer” models used to predict apocalypse (Eberstadt, NIC, Ruhl et al, etc) is that their projections of imminent mass deaths from AIDS unrealistically assume heterosexual, sub-Saharan Africa transmission patterns, which is unbacked by sociological analysis or surveillance data. A more rigorous model by the Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia research program predicts a peak HIV prevalence rate of under 1% of the total Russian population by around 2020. Thus far, it correlates with reality.

Finally, following a period of real neglect of the problem until 2005, the Russian state has since ramped up spending on AIDS to an annual 0.5bn $. One can no longer speak of official negligence.


MYTH: Faster-breeding Muslims will constitute the majority of the Russian Federation’s citizens by 2050, placing the dwindling Orthodox Russians under a brutal dhimmitude.

REALITY: Ethnic Russians still make up nearly 80% of the population, whereas only 4-6% of the population consider themselves to be Muslim in opinion polls. The fertility rates of the biggest Muslim ethnicities, Tatars and Bashkirs, is little different from the national average.

Even the Caucasian Muslim republics experienced a drastic fertility transition in the last twenty years, as a result of which the only one to still have an above-replacement level TFR is Chechnya. However, Chechnya’s 1.2mn people constitute less than 1% of the Russian total.

So the fact of the matter is that Russian Muslims simply do not have the demographic base to become anywhere near the Federation’s majority ethnicity in the foreseeable future.

[Source: Rosstat; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Furthermore, the main reason some people fear – or relish – the prospect of an Islamic Russia is because they associate Russian Muslims with their less progressive co-religionists in the Middle East. In reality, vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Russia. The vast majority of Muslim Russians are loyal citizens, having made their peace with the imperial Russian state long ago; imminent dhimmitude is a myth, the product of fevered imaginations.


MYTH: The Chinese are taking over the depopulating Russian Far East by a stealth demographic invasion; tempted by Siberian Lebensraum and vast mineral riches, they will eventually seize it outright from a weakening Russia.

REALITY: There are no more than 0.4-0.5mn Chinese in Russia (and probably a good deal less). The vast majority of them are temporary workers and seasonal traders who have no long-term plans of settling in Russia. Even though the Russia Far East depopulated much faster than the rest of Russia after the Soviet collapse, at more than 6mn today, Russian citizens remain ethnically dominant.

Furthermore, the average Manchurian has no objective desire to migrate to Siberia and squat illegally in a pre-industrial farm in a God-forsaken corner of the taiga. Alarmism on this issue is a trifecta of ignorance, Russophobia, and Sinophobia (the “Yellow Peril”).

Though the possibility that Malthusian pressures will eventually force China into aggressive expansionism cannot be discounted, it would be suicidal to intrude on Russia because of its vast nuclear arsenal.


MYTH: But all the demographic models indicate that Russia is going to depopulate rapidly!

REALITY: Not all of them. I give an alternate range of scenarios that see Russia’s population change from today’s 142mn, to 139mn-154mn by 2025, and 119mn-168mn (medium – 157mn) souls by 2050.

In the “Medium” scenario, life expectancy reaches 74 years by 2025 (today’s Poland) and 81 years in 2050 (today’s Canada); the TFR rises from 1.4 children per woman in 2006 to 2.0 by 2015, before gently descending to 1.7 from 2025 to 2050; and there is an annual influx of 300,000 net migrants. (These assumptions are plausible, based on a realistic knowledge of the current situation (see above), and a modest amount of confidence in Russia’s spiritual regeneration and capability to sustain economic modernization). The resulting population dynamics are reproduced below.


[Source: Anatoly Karlin @ Da Russophile].

But even assuming Russia’s TFR gets stuck at 1.5 children per woman in 2010 – i.e. slightly lower than its level today, while retaining the aforementioned mortality and migration trajectories, the population size will remain basically stagnant, going from 142mn to 143mn by 2023 before slowly slipping down to 138mn by 2050.

On the basis of this model, I made several falsifiable predictions back in July 2008, whose fulfillment will confirm its validity (or not). The three most important predictions are the following:

  • Russia’s population will start growing again by 2010.
  • Natural population increase will resume by 2013.
  • Total life expectancy will exceed 70 years by 2012.

My results are somewhat similar to Rosstat forecasts which see the population growing to 134mn-145mn (medium – 140mn) by 2025. Furthermore, both of them are, at least thus far, more in line with reality than the older “doomer” models, which by and large failed to predict the recent demographic improvements.


MYTH: Okay then, the vast majority of models by respectable institutions – i.e., not those of Kremlin mouthpieces like Rosstat or yourself – project that Russia’s population is going to plummet to 100mn or so people by 2050.

REALITY: First, appeal to authority & association fallacy. Second, you can check the reliability of my model because my source code is open and accessible for all, which is more than you can say for many of these “respectable institutions” [edit 2012: No longer, because of this; but I am going to do a new version soon anyway]. Third, the problem with the aforementioned “doomer” models is that they are all essentially based on linearly extrapolating Russia’s post-Soviet fertility and mortality situation into the far future, assuming negligible improvements or even a deterioration (as in the models including the imminent, but fortunately non-existent, African-style AIDS epidemic).

It is my belief that Russia’s demographic “doomers” ignore the importance of the post-Soviet resilience of Russia’s fertility expectations, the evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet demographic collapse was just an aberration caused by its wrenching transition to a new socio-political system, and the newly-emerging sociological trends that are returning Russia’s to its past-and-future Empire – trends that are restoring Russians’ faith in the future, reinforcing social conservatism, and creating the conditions, with the Kremlin’s active support, for a major demographic reversal out of the post-Soviet abyss.

I would be the first to admit that this interpretation of Russian society may be incorrect, and consequently so are my “optimistic” demographic projections. Feel free to disagree with my interpretation, but do note that 1) I accurately called the economic crisis as a non-event in relation to Russia’s demography and 2) made falsifiable, near-term predictions about Russia’s future demography, which few other crystal-ball gazers care to do.

Speaking of crystal balls, I would like to end this by noting that pretty much all demographic projections beyond 20 years into the future – the approximate time needed for a new cohort to reach reproductive age – are near-useless in practical terms. Any simplistic extrapolation will eventually founder on the discontinuities inevitably produced by complex human systems: for a past example, compare 20th century French and German demographic history; regarding the future, note the profoundly disruptive potential of two strong concurrent trends – limits to growth, and technological singularity – either of which could so radically transform human life in the 21st century, as to render modern demographic analysis meaningless as a scientific tool.

Russia Demography Sources

Here are some key resources for understanding Russia’s demography:

Demography Articles @ Da Rissp[ho;e

Finally, a list of articles on Russian demography published at Da Russophile.

  • The Russian Cross Reversed? – initial thoughts on Russia’s fertility.
  • Out of the Death Spiral – an indepth look at its mortality crisis and prospects for improvement.
  • Faces of the Future – my model of Russia’s demographic prospects to 2050, which I argue are not anywhere near as dire as commonly portrayed by the alarmists. This is because the “pessimistic” models that forecast a decline to around 100mn by that date make questionable assumptions about continuing low fertility and high mortality patterns.
  • Myth of Russian AIDS Apocalypse – prognoses of an AIDS mortality crisis are unwarranted because they rely on unsubstantiated assumptions that the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Myth of the Yellow Peril – demolishes the myth that Chinese settlers are taking over the Russian Far East.
  • Rite of Spring: Russia Fertility Trends – most comprehensive versions of my demographic work to date, in which I argue Russia’s population will slowly increase or stagnate in the coming decades instead of plummeting as in most scenarios.Counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing” – Thomas P.M. Barnett.
  • Russia’s Demographic Resilience – I predict the economic crisis will not have a major effect on Russian demography, especially in the longer term.
  • Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography – in this summary of Rite of Spring, I note that Russian fertility expectations, average birth sequence figures and rising social confidence preclude a catastrophic fall in population over the next decades.
  • Russia’s Demographic Resilience II – this guest post by Sergei Slobodyan notes that contrary to the doomsayers, Russia’s demography continued improving in 2009 despite the economic crisis, with the population experiencing its first natural growth in August for the past 15 years.
  • Russia’s “Abortion Apocalypse”: А был ли мальчик? – a second guest post by Sergei Slobodyan unravels the media hysteria over a (non-existent) wave of crisis-induced abortions.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Chinese in Russia number in the hundreds of thousands, so the Far East is not in danger of demographic domination by the Chinese.
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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 Chinese supposedly swim across the Amur River in their millions, establish village communes in the taiga and breed prolifically so as to displace ethnic Russians and revert Khabarovsk and Vladivostok back to their rightful Qing-era names, Boli and Haisanwei. To a limited extent they have a point. Since 1989 the population of the Russian Far East declined by 14% to 6.7mn in 2002; shorn of subsidies from the center, it is now dependent on the rest of East Asia for food and consumer imports. It sits next to Chinese Manchuria (the provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin), an environmentally-strained rust belt of 108mn souls. Thus it is not surprising to see American geopolitical jockeys, Russian xenophobes and anti-Putin “liberals” alike (Golts, Latynina, etc) claiming that a stealth demographic invasion of Russia is under way which will in a few years result in a Chinese Far East.

As regular readers of this blog will know I prefer facts and statistics to rhetoric and hyperbole, and fortunately for us the excellent Russian demographic publication had this subject as its main theme in October 2008 – Life in Russia from Chinese Eyes. I will translate its main findings and conclusions to an English-speaking audience and then muse on the implications for future geopolitics.

The issue of Chinese migration to Russia and its political consequences starts with one main question – how many of them are there? All reputable estimates are in the range of 200,000 to 400,000, with 500.000 as the absolute maximum, most of them shuttle traders or seasonal laborers. The academic Gel’bras first came with these figures in 2001, based on adding up numbers from separate towns and regions. Foreign policy heavyweight and government official Sergei Prikhodko estimated a range of 150,000 to 200,000. According to the Federal Migration Service, in 2006 a total of 202,000 Chinese got registered as temporary workers in Russia, or 20% of all Gastarbeiters; although their numbers increased to 331,000 in 2007, they made up only 17% of all immigrant labor.

The alarmists believe that there is a massive, stealthy infiltration of Chinese into the deserted Far Eastern forests, where they establish communes and breed for the future glory of Greater China. Writing in the respectable “Russian Federation Today” in 2004, the academic Gil’bo spoke of 8mn Chinese living in Russia today and predicted its increase to 21mn in 2010 and a staggering 44mn by 2020. The article was called “perspectives on the Sinoization of Russia” – although that may have been his perspective, to date no-one has confirmed it. No secret Chinese communes have been discovered in the Far East. Although it is true that the figure of 35,000 ethnic Chinese given in the 2002 Census is too low by an order of magnitude, the millions plus numbers are as unrealistic. It is nigh impossible to be self-sufficient in food in the Far East and the idea that so many people will be both willing to endure medieval-like hardships and remain permanently hidden for years belongs to the the realm of fantasy.

Let us now look at the portrait of a typical Chinese migrant. Demoscope organized a poll of 700 traders and workers and 200 students, half of them in Moscow and one sixth each in the cities of Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk and Vladivostok. Of those, 60% were men; most were middle-aged; and a surprisingly high 21% had a higher education (even in recent times tertiary enrollment in China stood at 12% of the young population). Below is a table of where they came from.

Russia Moscow Far East
В том числе
Vladivostok Khabarovsk Blagoveschensk
Beijing 6 10 2 2 3 0
Heilongjiang 45 11 79 66 86 85
Liaoning 7 11 3 4 3 2
Jilin 8 8 9 14 5 9
Hebei 1 1 1 2 0 1
Shandong 2 1 3 6 0 2
Shanghai 2 3 1 1 1 0
Fujian 3 7 0 0 1 0
Zhejiang 5 9 0 1 0 0
Jiangsu 5 9 1 2 0 0
Guangdong 3 5 0 0 1 0
Other 13 25 2 3 0 3
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100

The vast majority in the Far East hail from the neighboring province of Heilongjiang while most of the rest come from nearby Jilin and Liaoning – this illustrates the cross-the-border-and-back nature of the migratory flows there. In Moscow, whose Chinese population is much smaller, there is a much more even distribution of Chinese by region of origin, with substantial numbers coming from the eastern and southern seaboards.

Most migrants come from cities or small towns, and only 20% from villages – although the latter figure is higher in Moscow. Only 5% were employed in agriculture back in China. 38% were “workers” and 11% were “worker-peasants”. Although only 6% admitted they had been unemployed, the real figure is much higher since 70% of workers and 68% of worker peasants said they migrated because they couldn’t find a job in China. This is not surprising. The Chinese northeast is a depressed rust belt whose state-owned factories fired many of their workers years ago, many of whom were classified as “awaiting job” – a nice way of saying unemployed, and nice for official Chinese statistics too. Another 11% of Chinese migrants were government workers, presumably wanting to make some more money on the side. A surprising 35% considered their material situation in China to be “good” or “very good”; 36% evaluated it as “medium”, and 29% believed it to be “bad” or “very bad”.

According to the above graph, most Chinese immigrants are relative newcomers to Russia. In the critical Far East region, only 23% have spent more than five years in the country.

Few Chinese have affluent lifestyles in Russia – the majority, 61%, view their material condition as “medium” or “satisfactory”, 15% as “bad” or “very bad” and 21% are “good” or “very good”. Their earnings are not particularly high, with 83% getting less than 20,000 rubles – roughly the same as in neighboring Heilongjiang, when they had jobs there. Many say they save up on accommodation, medicines and even food in Russia. Leisure activities are plain and inexpensive – TV/Internet (23%), Chinese friends (17%) and family (12%). 22% have no free time. Only a quarter does touristy things, spends time with Russian friends, or do shopping or sport.

Most migrants come with the help of those already based there, who give them a hands up. The Chinese communities in Russia are tightly-knight, insular and highly trust-based, albeit fragmented into regional and ethnic groupings. According to the poll, 4% say they are directors or owners of an enterprise, 15% work for a Chinese firm, 9% work for a Russian firm and 53% are “independent entrepreneurs” – however, in practice the majority of the latter are hired workers and traders in informal relations with a Chinese company. Relations with employers are generally harmonious, with 25% saying they enjoy good relations, 41% evaluating them as “satisfactory” and only 1% complaining that they’re bad. The other 31% don’t work for hire.

They typically learn enough Russian to get by, but no more. Only 9% have a good knowledge of the language and another 5% can read; 33% can explain themselves and 43% are bad at the language. Another 6% are currently studying the language at an institute. Only 4% don’t know any Russian. Life is adaptive rather than planned – only 15% acquaint themselves with Russian laws or regulations. This is presumably because doing so makes little difference, with 82% of Chinese experiencing police requisitions, 49% rackets and 45% bribery amongst tax and customs officials.

Given the above, it is somewhat surprising to see that a majority of Chinese think that conditions for small and medium businesses are good in Russia. I guess all things are relative.

The Chinese have mixed opinions of how they’re viewed in Russia. In the Far East, attitudes towards them are more favorable than in Moscow. Locals are relatively friendlier in the Far East and Muscovites are more hostile. In the Far East, 25% claimed they had things stolen from them, 9% were beaten, 22% were threatened and 53% were insulted; in Moscow 16% said they were beaten.

That said, most Chinese migrants retained a favorable view of Russia and many expressed the desire to continue living there. Impressions generally improved after visiting it and the outcome of most trips were classed as “successful” or “partly successful”.

Most prefer to remain in Russia and open a business or expand it (Far East), get accommodation (Moscow) and improve one’s life in Russia. It appears the Chinese place far more emphasis on Russia’s potential to make them money than minor things like whether they get ripped off or beaten. A majority would prefer to either live in Russia permanently or live in China and keep commuting to Russia for work, even amongst those with negative impressions of the country. There are big regional differences. 67% of Moscow Chinese would like to get some form of permanent residency in Russia, compared to 27% in the Far East – despite the fact that attitudes towards them are significantly better in the Far East. The majority would like to bring a family member to Russia, especially those in Moscow.

59% of Chinese migrants would like their children to retain connections to Russia – 76% in Moscow and 37% in the Far East. Some 85% in Moscow and half in the Far East are not against mixed marriage – 2% are currently in such a marriage. For comparison, 8% of Russians approve of mixed marriages, 40% are neutral and 40% disapprove.

In conclusion, more Chinese migrants in the Far East think that Russia has better conditions for enterprise and consider locals to have better attitudes towards them, than their compatriots in Moscow. However, Moscow’s much smaller and diverse pool of Chinese migrants is much more enthusiastic about integrating themselves and their children and relatives into Russia. Thus what we see is a developing China-town in Moscow and moderate, temporary and mostly seasonal flows of Chinese into and out of the Far East who view Russia in an almost purely commercial light – a way to escape unemployment, make profits and enjoy them in China. The writers end the report by making the obvious (and banal) recommendation that Russia should both regulate migration in accordance with the national interest and treat migrants with respect – both much easier said than done.

Some more articles about Chinese migration:

Chinese migration – facts, objectivity and subjectivity: a Kazakhstani perspective. As in Russia, they massively overstate the Chinese presence, mixed marriages, etc. Ironically twice as many Kazakhstanis visit China every year than vice versa.

What’s happening with Chinese expansion in Russia?: a comprehensive and sarcastic recounting of prior alarmist estimates of the numbers of Chinese in Russia.

The Russian vector in global Chinese migration: notes that the alarmism of the 1990′s and early 2000′s is dwindling away and being replaced by more scientific views of Chinese migration to Russia. Notes that Russian migration as a share of total Chinese global migration is tiny – as of 1990, the total number of Chinese overseas was about 37mn, including 30% of the population in Malaysia, 10% in Thailand, 17% in Brunei and 4% in Indonesia. Lots of other stuff.

I will now go beyond demography into geopolitics. China is not the monolith that it is usually painted as in the West; its strong central government conceals a greater deal of simmer, dynamism and regionalism. The idea that it could organize a successful stealth demographic invasion of the Far East is preposterous. The only way in which something like this could succeed would be if Russia were to collapse again and to a far greater extent than during the 1990′s, e.g. like during the Civil War when Vladivostok was occupied by the Japanese. This is possible, but unlikely.

What you have instead is a reversion to nineteenth-century traditions, in which Korean and Chinese laborers and traders made seasonal migrations to the Far East and built up sizable, but far from demographically dominant, communities in the region (who were later deported to Central Asia in 1937 over fears of Japanese espionage).

Speaking of which, that would be a real concern if China were to ever invade. That said, Chinese expansion has always been primarily aimed at South East Asia – today’s strategic posture emphasizes a limited, hi-tech war against the likes of Taiwan, Japan the US. Historically China aimed to achieve three geopolitical aims in the following order: 1) maintain central authority over the commercial seaboard and the peasant hinterland, 2) surround itself by a buffer of vassal states on land – Tibet, Sinkiang, Mongolia, Manchuria, etc and 3) build a strong navy to repel sea-based foreign predation and to protect its trade. Today and in the future, China is going to have cope with a panoply of threats to those geopolitical goals – rising inequalities, a disconnected bureaucracy, ethnic separatism and American and Japanese sea power. In other words, it’s going to have its hands full and Chinese willingness to pursue reconciliation and friendship with Russia is a reflection of its need for a safe strategic rear.

As I’ve mentioned here before, China is going to run into severe ecological problems within the next few decades. Water tables are plummeting in the northern breadbasket, yields are stagnating and the deserts are spreading. The south has plenty of water but is threatened by inundation due to the melting of the icecaps. The rivers that feed its people and industry are going to run dry as the Himalayan glaciers melt away. This means that as soon as the 2030′s, overpopulated China will be faced with a scenario in which it will either have to acquire new lands or face die-off. Would it invade the Russian Far East? The problem with this is that even if it were to succeed in conquering it, actually building up the infrastructure for human accommodation will take decades; the land is barren, mountainous and will remain very cold even after warming. The actual war will be very costly for the Chinese because the Russians will almost certainly use their huge stockpile of tactical nukes to check the assault. Should they lose, its possible they will unleash their much superior strategic nuclear arsenal on China or even worse – thus destroying their industrial infrastructure and precipitating a die-off in any case.

Hence I believe that if, or more likely when, ecological problems reach a critical point in China they will expand into (by then collapsed) East Africa, using the mighty navy they foresightedly built up to forestall anyone who has a problem with that. It will also guarantee continued energy, food and resource flows into metropolitan China from Australia and Latin America. Eventually it is possible that Russia (and Canada) will fully open up their borders to immigration from the sinking and drying south, in which case the Far East will become Chinese. But this is all futuristic speculation.

The essence of Russian demographic doomerism is that in a few decades the AIDS-ravaged, infertile and alcoholic ethnic Russian component will die out and be replaced by hordes of Islamist fanatics in the west and Chinese in the east.

NOTE: This article was edited by Charles Ganske and myself and reposted on the prestigious Russia Blog as The Myth of the Yellow Peril: Overhyping Chinese Migration into Russia. It’s a better version and I recommend reading it there.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.