Russia’s existential challenge is not just war but demography
“Russia’s destiny and its historic prospects depend on how numerous we will be.”
-- President Vladimir Putin, January 2020
Russia is staring down the barrel at an existential demographic crisis. No doubt about it. The Russian government is trying hard to fix it. In his 2021 Address to the Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin made the demographic crisis the centrepiece of his remarks, citing statistics to highlight the problem:
The aggregate birth rate, which is the key index showing the number of births per woman, was only 1.5 in 2019, according to tentative estimates. Is this few or many? It is not enough for our country. It is approximately equal to the figure reported in many European countries. But it is not enough for Russia.
I can tell you by way of comparison that the figure was 1.3 in 1943, during the Great Patriotic War. It was only lower in the 1990s: 1.16 in 1999, lower even than during the Great Patriotic War. There were very few families with two children, and some couples had to put off starting a family.
In February 2022, Russia entered the bloody civil war that had been ravaging eastern Ukraine for eight years. As always in war, both Russian and Ukrainian casualty figures are disputed. Indisputable is the grisly reality that wars kill, maim and traumatize soldiers and civilians (read families). It is an understatement to say that the current conflagration is demographically debilitating for Russia. The consequences are even worse for Ukraine.
Both Russia and Ukraine are caught in the perfect storm, a treacherous trifecta: excess mortality from the pandemic, war casualties, and the flight of young men from mobilization.
Russian demographer Alexey Raksha is not optimistic:
The war will affect births from December. We’ll see the effects as early as 2023. It’s going to be a bad year for childbirth in Russia. And the following year won’t be much better.
This has not escaped The Economist, which minced no words in their shocking report on the demographic crisis enveloping Russia headlined: “Russia’s population nightmare is going to get even worse.”
A demographic tragedy is unfolding in Russia. Over the past three years the country has lost around 2m more people than it would ordinarily have done, as a result of war, disease and exodus. The life expectancy of Russian males aged 15 fell by almost five years, to the same level as in Haiti. The number of Russians born in April 2022 was no higher than it had been in the months of Hitler’s occupation. And because so many men of fighting age are dead or in exile, women now outnumber men by at least 10 million.
The Economist cites more bad news for Russia:
- Over 500,00 have fled Russia since it invaded Ukraine.
- One Russian demographer reports that registered births in April 2022 were the lowest since the 19th century.
- Since 2010, the percentage of ethnic Russians has declined from 78% to 72%.
- Estimated excess deaths from 2020-23 are 1.2 to 1.6 million.
- According to The Economist estimates, Russia lost 1.9 to 2.8 million people from 2020-2023 over and above “demographic deterioration.”
- Male life expectancy declined from 68.8 in 2019 to 64.2 in 2021.
It’s true, although the numbers on who have fled Russia are contested. All the same, here’s a gentle reminder about The Economist and Western media in general: They do a great job reporting – what they choose to report. The Economist is a mouthpiece for City of London, Bank of England and World Economic Forum types. Globalist to the core. They care more about mammon than about families and children. Russia is a nationalist regime with rising global clout. Naturally, President Putin is the bête noire of globalist elites.
So Western media habitually amplifies the negatives about Russia while Vladimir Putin is in the saddle (much as Russian media follows runaway social pathologies in the US). President Yeltsin presided over the near destruction of the country in the 1990s while lionized by Western media. By 1999, Russian fertility had fallen to about 1.2. It was estimated to be 1.58 in early 2022.
Our MercatorNet coverage of Russia’s demographic crisis has been extensive. The Lancet’s ground-breaking population study found that Russia’s population peaked in 2017 at 146.19 million and projects a one-third decline by century’s end. Higher birthrates among the Islamic population will mean that the Russian Federation’s population could be one third or more Muslim by 2050.
The fact of the matter is, while things are looking up for Russia in the short term (military advantage in the Ukraine conflict, economic expansion and growing global footprint), the longer-term and far more important demographic picture is grim indeed.
Is there hope for Russia?
The better question would be: Is there hope for any of us? Fertility is declining everywhere, even in sub-Saharan Africa where most countries are still above the replacement-level fertility rate of 2.1.
But whatever we do, don’t underestimate Russia.
In the Great Northern War between Russia and the Swedish empire, by 1709 Russia was all but done. Then came the Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709, which changed everything in Russia’s favour. In September of 1812, Moscow was occupied by Napoleon. By March 1814, the Russians were in Paris. In early 1942, the Germans were just outside Moscow. By the spring of 1945, the Russians were in Berlin. Keep this in mind when house-trained talking heads tell us about the imminent Russian collapse in Ukraine. Barring a wider war overtly involving NATO (a calamity no matter the outcome), the Russians will likely “win” in Ukraine.
But can the Russians effect a demographic comeback?
Here is one possibility. Should peace break out in Ukraine with Russia’s security concerns satisfied, that will be trumpeted as a stunning victory throughout the country (and much of the world), solidifying the new multipolar order. With the resulting boost in morale along with an improving economy from increased trade (that has more than compensated for Western sanctions), could there be a Russian baby boom reminiscent of the post-World War II fertility spike in the US? Now that’s a really rosy scenario – but one that French demographer Laurent Chalard says is eminently plausible:
I think that everything will depend on who wins the war. If Russia wins, the resulting joy could lead to a boom in births. But losing and getting bogged down in an economic crisis will have the opposite effect. What is certain is that Putin has his back against the wall. From a demographic point of view, he has no other choice but to win.
Chalard notes, “Putin is obsessed with this demographic issue. In his mind, the power of a country is linked to the size of its population. The larger the population, the more powerful the state.” If that is indeed what Putin thinks, he is on target. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if President Biden and other leaders were similarly concerned about demography? Just think of the pro-family initiatives their governments could dream up!
Whatever folks may think of President Putin, he is a pro-natalist, pro-family guy. So why not accentuate the positive? Yes, the bloody Russia-Ukraine conflict is a sensitive subject, discussion of which can bring on the wrath of the speech police. But here where I live in the somewhat PC-resistant Shenandoah Valley, many folks will tell you they don’t have a dog in that fight.
Several family-friendly programs have been initiated or expanded under Putin’s leadership. This is from the France 24 article cited above headlined “Population decline in Russia: ‘Putin has no choice but to win’ in Ukraine:”
But that’s not to say that President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, hasn’t made efforts to curb the [low fertility] trend. In addition to modernising hospitals and improving healthcare options, he also launched a major set of childbirth policies. “Russia has become one of the most encouraging countries in this regard,” [French demographer Laurent] Chalard, who specialises in population movements, points out.
“In recent years, the government has set up financial aid programmes for parents, family allowance systems, bonuses for large families…” Chalard recounts. “Not to mention very active propaganda around the issue. Putin himself regularly advocates for family values and calls on the population to have kids in his public speeches.”
In 2007, Russia launched the Maternity Capital Program that provides a one-time payment for families for a second child and subsequent children.
Parental leave has been extended:
The Parental Leave starts right after the end of the Pregnancy and Birth Leave and can last till the child turns 3 years (36 months). The employee has the right to return to work at any time during the Parental Leave. During the duration of the Parental Leave, you should apply for the relevant statutory payment that you are eligible from the state for the first 18 months of the leave.
Additional child and maternity benefits include:
- early stages benefit (if pregnancy registered within the first 12 weeks)
- a one-time benefit for children born (or adopted)
- benefits for children of a serving soldier
- monthly childcare benefits
Russia has sharply increased subsidies for preschool education and after school care in an effort to lighten the burden of working families.
The government has created a network of family planning centres to provide counsel and assistance to families desiring to have children. This is certainly a different twist on what constitutes “family planning” in most of the West.
Russian state media promotes pro-natalism. Media campaigns include slogans such as “Be patriotic – give birth to more children” and “The more children the more joy.” Back in Stalin’s time, the Soviet Order “Mother Heroine” was awarded to mothers of large families. Putin resurrected this in 2008 with establishment of the Order of Parental Glory to be awarded to parents of seven or more children.
However, there is scepticism. Demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky says that declining fertility is the situation in every industrialized country: "President Putin's whole idea that the birth rate can be corrected solely by money is invalid."
I understand where Mr. Vishnevsky is coming from. So many know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Monetizing the family and all else under heaven has come back to bite us.
But Russia is trying. Their government at least realizes the critical value of family values.
If any person, politician, or organization from anywhere wants to strengthen families and make the world more hospitable for children, I’m all in. Politics shouldn’t get in the way.
Dona nobis pacem.
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