Russia’s great ‘die-off’: High death rate and fewer births is a nightmare bigger than Ukraine for Putin

Apr 2, 2022 | 8 comments

Hundreds of Russian towns and cities have been abandoned as death rates rise and birth rates plummet. Life expectancy for Russian men is on par with countries such as Madagascar and Sudan.

By Paul Morland

“One hundred and forty-six million [people] for such a vast territory is insufficient,” said Vladimir Putin at the end of last year. Russians haven’t been having enough children to replace themselves since the early Sixties. Birth rates are also stagnant in the West, but in Russia the problem is compounded by excess deaths: Russians die almost a decade earlier than Brits. Their President is clearly worried that he’s running out of subjects.

It’s a humiliating state of affairs because Russian power has always been built on the foundation of demography. Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw that Russia would become a world power, because “Russia is of all the nations of the Old World the one whose population is increasing most rapidly”. The only other country with its population potential was the United States. De Tocqueville prophesised that, “Each one of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold in its hands one day the destinies of half the world.” A century later, they were the world’s two uncontested superpowers.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia’s population was 136 million, and was still booming, just as those of other European powers started to slow. Germany’s population was 56 million, excluding its colonies, and the threat of ever-larger cohorts of Russian recruits into the Tsar’s ranks haunted Germany’s leadership; historian and public intellectual Friedrich Meinecke fretted over the “almost inexhaustible fertility” of the Slavs while Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg complained that “Russia grows and grows and lies on us like an ever-heavier nightmare”. This pressure was probably the decisive factor in Germany’s 1914 leap in the dark. German Secretary of State Gottlieb von Jagow wrote to the German ambassador in London as the storm was gathering that “in a few years, Russia will be ready … Then she will crush us on land by weight of numbers.”

In the First World War, it turned out, numbers were not enough to compensate for Russian industrial and organisational inferiority. But by the Second World War, Russia’s numeric superiority had exploded. Despite the horrors of Civil War and Bolshevism, the nation’s population grew at about three times the speed of Germany’s in the opening decades of the century. The army had an endless supply of soldiers, the military infrastructure an endless supply of workers, giving the country a decisive edge in the Forties. Vast spaces and appalling weather helped, but ultimately it was the endlessness of Russian manpower which ground down the Wehrmacht in what was perhaps the most epic military struggle of all time. Field Marshall Erich von Manstein complained as he faced Russia’s armies: “We confronted a hydra: for every head cut off, two new ones appeared to grow.”

A Russian seaport was abandoned in the 1990s due to a shortage of workers.

But if demographic prowess buttressed Russian power then, population decline has undermined it in the years since. Most nations have developed out of the high birth and death rates seen throughout most of human history: as mortality and then fertility falls, first the population expands, then it flattens; eventually, it may contract. But in Russia this process has taken place with a vengeance.

At the time of its dissolution, the Soviet Union was the home of 290 million people, 50 million more than the USA. Today, the Russian Federation has less than half that number — and less than half of the USA’s current total. In large part, this is the result of the loss of non-Russian republics, including Ukraine (which at the outbreak of the current conflict had a population of 43 million). But in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period, the country also collapsed into an orgy of suicide and alcoholism, particularly affecting the country’s men.

One journalist in Russia at the time wrote about how “the deaths kept piling up. People … were falling or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartment with jammed front door locks … drowning as a result of driving drunk into a lake … poisoning themselves with too much alcohol … dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes”. By the early years of this century, life expectancy for Russian men was on par with countries such as Madagascar and Sudan.

Meanwhile, Russian women were having fewer and fewer children. In the later decades of the Soviet Union, the average woman in the Slavic heartland had an estimated six or seven abortions in the course of her life. The populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia were booming, though, undermining Russians as the USSR’s majority ethnicity.

This proved especially corrosive in the military. Year after year, the share of recruits from the peripheral republics went up, while the share from Russia went down; in the late Eighties, three-quarters of recruits from Central Asia could not speak Russian. (The problems of having a polyglot military had been rehearsed earlier in the century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire — which had, of course, fallen apart.)

It’s also worth recognising that the Russian men who fell fighting the Germans in the Forties were from families of six or seven siblings; those who fell fighting the Afghans in the Eighties were from families of two or three. Those falling now, fighting in Ukraine, are likely to be only-children or one of two siblings. The preparedness of a society to sustain military losses falls as family size falls; the only conflicts in today’s world that go on and on for years — from Libya to Syria to Yemen to Congo — are in places where the men who die have many brothers.

Once the Soviet Union was abolished, Russia maintained its population size only by inward migration. Ethnic Russians returned from the now-independent periphery to the Soviet heartland. Increasingly, people of other ethnicities followed them to the North-West, where prospects were better. At least a million and a half Muscovites are ethnically non-Russian, some from places such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, others from Muslim regions of Russia like Tatarstan. In 2013, the mayor of Moscow swore that there would be no more mosques built in the city, hoping to discourage more Islamic migration.

Putin has never publicly expressed concern about the ethnic mix of contemporary Russia, but this demographic nightmare haunts him, and informs his worldview. In 2006, he launched policies to encourage larger families. And last year he lamented: “We have a little more than 81 million people of able-bodied age. We are obliged to increase the number by 2024 and 2030. This is one of the factors for economic growth. Not to mention the geopolitical component of this major issue.” At around 1.5 children per woman, Russia is still dwindling. In the next decade, Russia’s population is forecast to decline by around 300,000 a year, though some suggest the decline will be much faster — perhaps 12 million in the next 15 years.

This steady depopulation is more than a nuisance; it is a strategic headache. Russia’s immense size was supported by the preparedness of its people to settle in some of the most inhospitable habitats in the world. As it reduces, it retreats back towards the big cities of the west and centre, and will leave vast regions uninhabited. “In Siberia it becomes harder and harder to find people to maintain big infrastructure. Things are starting to collapse. And that is making the place less and less liveable which reinforces the problem,” one expert told me. Thousands of villages have been abandoned, particularly in remote areas.

What is Putin to do? “Ensuring sustainable natural population growth” was at the top of the executive order of National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation signed by the President in 2018. Payments were given to those with two or more children, who are eligible for increasingly generous welfare benefits. Now, payments are given to those with one child. But the best evidence so far suggests that, after a modest bounce-back, fertility is in decline again. At this stage it is not clear that these policies have had any material impact at all.

Of course, one way of growing the population is to annex neighbouring countries and try to persuade its people and the world that they are really Russians. After all, definitions of ethnicity and national identity can be easily manipulated. Turkey, for instance, has tried to redefine Kurds as “mountain Turks”. There were even suggestions in the 18th century that Scots be considered “North Britons”.

But if an incorporation of Ukrainian identity into a wider Russian one was Putin’s plan, it has backfired. The invasion has undoubtedly solidified a sense among Ukrainians that their identity is distinct and that they are in no way Russian. Vitaly Chernetsky, an expert in Slavic languages, commented that, “this crisis galvanized, consolidated, accelerated the development of this new civic identity, where folks who never in their lives spoke Ukrainian all of a sudden made a conscious choice to make an effort to start speaking Ukrainian in public”.

Meanwhile, the war could undermine Putin’s plans to boost the birth rate in Russia’s heartlands. With sanctions starting to bite, the funds for generous payments to parents will simply not be available. On the contrary, the economic hardship which the Russian population must now endure is likely to further depress childbearing.

And to compound the problem, many Russians will look to emigrate. It was said in Soviet days that dissidents were trying to change the unleavable, refuseniks to leave the unchangeable. Putin’s Russia seems unchangeable but, for now, it remains leavable. It is estimated that 200,000 people left the country in the first ten days of the conflict alone; millions more are likely to follow, whatever the outcome — partly to reject the regime, partly to escape the impending, sanctions-driven economic crisis which the country faces.

Meanwhile Russia is losing thousands of young men in the war in Ukraine. Many in their early twenties, they are unlikely to have had any children, which doesn’t bode well for Russia. Already ageing and shrinking, the nation simply cannot sustain the kind of campaign it has fought in the past. Its days of vastly superior manpower are over. A long, grinding war followed by a bloody occupation would cripple it.

Dr. Paul Morland is a business consultant and senior member at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His latest book is Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers.


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