Ukraine’s other battle: demography

Tired of hearing about Ukraine? Thought so. But if you follow demography, Ukraine is an interesting case, though a real basket case. Yours truly just has to weigh in.

First off, nothing happens in a vacuum. That includes war, racial/ethnic strife and all manner of mischief in which human beings indulge. Context matters.

The war didn’t begin with the Russkies marching in on February 24. That incursion simply—though dangerously—ramped up the bloodshed that had been underway since 2014.  Since the invasion, a veritable tsunami of misinformation about Ukraine has inundated the mediascape. As the Greek dramatist Aeschylus told us 2500 years ago, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

Before February 24, the three top issues of concern in Ukraine were the war raging in eastern Ukraine (2 million displaced persons), pervasive corruption (in government and business) and emigration. The last was particularly vexing. In fact, the steady stream of people leaving the country inspired The Atlantic to run a piece last year headlined “Ukraine’s Quiet Depopulation Crisis”:

In a United Nations study, the top 10 countries ranked by their projected population decline over the next 30 years are all in post-socialist Eastern Europe, an area characterized by low birth rates, small numbers of immigrants, and large numbers of departing citizens.

Ukraine nevertheless stands apart. It is still a nation at war, yet in a survey last year, 55 percent of residents named mass emigration as the greatest threat to their country—the UN estimates that Ukraine could lose nearly a fifth of its population by 2050.

According to Zhanna Deriy, a demographics professor at Chernihiv National University of Technology… “We’re losing our youth... That’s the reality here.”

The social chaos is also reflected in high mortality:

According to Ella Libanova, the director of the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences, 30 percent of 20-year-old Ukrainian men won’t make it to their 60th birthday, thanks in large part to alcohol abuse and road accidents.

Remember – this is pre-invasion.

Overall life expectancy in Ukraine is 71.0 years, one of the lowest in Europe: 77.0 for women and 66.9 for men. War will reduce it even further. The 10-year gender gap in life expectancy is a sure-fire indicator of social dysfunction.

Ukraine is divided. The east is mostly Russian speaking; the west is dominated by Ukrainian speakers. That is for sure an oversimplification, but it helps to know that there are profound divisions within the country that affect everything.

The 20th century was a horrible time for Ukraine. Roughly seven million perished in Stalin’s terror-by-famine known as the Holodomor (1932-33). So many children died that life expectancy briefly plunged to below 20. The corrupt New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his brilliantly written dispatches denying it and lying about it.  Roughly 7.75 million, one-sixth of the prewar population, perished in World War II. The latter figure did make the news but was quickly forgotten.

By 1950, Ukraine’s population was 37 million with a fertility rate of 2.8. The next 40 years (through 1990) brought the population to 55 million, partly through the addition of the mostly Russian Crimean Peninsula (1954), a seemingly impromptu gift from Nikita Khrushchev.

Ukraine gained independence in 1991 but quickly came under the thumb of greedy oligarchs, and for the average Joe things got worse economically (corruption on steroids) than they had been under Soviet Communism.

By 2008, Ukraine's population was declining by almost 5 percent each year. Emigration rapidly increased after the 2014 “Euromaidan Putsch” when the democratically elected government was overthrown. At that point, the benighted country began spiraling to oblivion.

By January 2022, Ukraine’s population was 41.17 million, having suffered a 25 percent reduction in 32 years. That included the loss of Sevastopol and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. Barring that loss, there would have been 43.4 million Ukrainians, still an almost 22 percent decline. Ukraine’s population shrinks by about 300,000 every year.

In 2018 the Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin confirmed that roughly 100,000 people were leaving Ukraine every month. Most leave for good. The vast and well-established Ukrainian diaspora, millions-strong and growing by leaps and bounds, offers a better life. There are huge (and successful) Ukrainian communities in Russia, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, the US, Canada, and elsewhere. Before the invasion, an estimated 23 percent of ethnic Ukrainians lived abroad (including second and third generation emigrants). Until Ukraine can offer something similar, students as well as those working abroad will not repatriate to a war-ravaged dysfunctional society lorded over by shady oligarchs and mired in corruption.

Oleksandr Turchinov, when head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, estimated that roughly 9 million Ukrainians worked outside the country for part of the year and 3.2 million had full-time work abroad with no plans to return. He called the situation a “migration tsunami”. There is no end in sight. By 2017, money transfers from Ukrainians abroad totaled US$9.3 billion, exceeding all foreign investment and about 4 percent of GDP. 

Of the thousands of Ukrainian students studying abroad, most are in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Few will return home after graduation. This brain drain – a stark negative selection of the young, intelligent and economically viable – does not bode well. 

Since the Russian invasion, an estimated two million have left. The bulk of those people fled to Poland, the rest to other neighboring countries. Since 2014, at least that many had already left eastern Ukraine for Russia.  

Chaotic conditions in Ukraine make it hard to compile accurate statistics. Ukraine’s estimated death rate (deaths per 1,000 people within one year) is between 14.7 and 16.3, one of the world’s highest. The birth rate, one of the world’s lowest, is estimated from 8.1 to 11.0.

The most widely agreed-upon figure on the fertility rate is 1.23, one of the lowest in Europe. The last time Ukraine had replacement-level fertility (2.1) was in 1987. Infant mortality hovers between 6.3 to 7.1, the third highest in Europe behind Albania and Moldova.

Well before the 2014 coup and the 2022 invasion, Ukraine was already locked in the vise-grip of chronic modernism. With falling fertility, low life expectancy and one of the highest emigration rates on the planet, if “demography is destiny,” it doesn’t look good.  

And then there is the war. Yours truly detests all war, not the least because it is “dysgenic” if you will, something of interest to demographers. What that means is that those of prime reproductive age, the youth most physically and mentally fit and courageous of character, are disproportionately culled in the mayhem. And those are just the folks doing the fighting. Precious future generations go unborn because of the slaughter. 

It is likely that Ukraine will have new borders once the fighting subsides – if it indeed remains independent. Do the wirepullers in Washington and Moscow realize that Europe blundered into World War I, setting in motion the state of affairs at the root of today’s troubles? Another world war, with today’s high-tech weapons, would certainly accelerate the coming extinction of Homo sapiens.

Pray for peace.


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