Population policy left to ‘amateurs’
December 2, 2022
  • Farida Kurbangaleeva
  • Aleksey Raksha
    Independent demographer
Farida Kurbangaleeva spoke with Aleksey Raksha about the state’s population policy and the "demographic collapse" that awaits Russia following the mobilization announced by Putin and the flow of many young people out of the country.
According to Aleksey Raksha, about 300 thousand men have been drafted since Putin announced "partial mobilization". About as many left Russia to avoid it. Source: Wiki Commons
According to independent media, about half a million men were mobilized in Russia. How might this affect the demographic situation?

If you’re referring to the Mediazona investigation, then those figures can’t be trusted. To estimate how many were mobilized by looking at marriage statistics, as Mediazona did, you need data about marital status, which is one reason why they took the 2021 census. But the quality of this census is so poor that there is an error of one and a half to two times.

According to my colleague’s calculation based on more trusted RLMS-HSE surveys, around 300,000 men were mobilized in the fall indeed, as stated by authorities, even 280,000 before correction. The number fled abroad after the mobilization was probably even bigger, and don’t forget that about 150,000 left after the invasion. Probably 100,000 men and 50,000 women.

Could these figures affect births in Russia?

Yes, they could. First, 2-3% of men aged 20-35 fled and 2% were drafted. Second, there is a psychological shock due to which the number of conceptions will fall. It is still difficult to say by how much, as we’ve never seen this before – the current situation is unprecedented. Births will fall by at least 4% in nine months. And that’s not taking into account other factors.


For example, the psychological shock of late February, which is still impossible to assess. The departure of 150,000 young people in February-March is somewhere around 0.5-0.6% of the youth population. Plus, prices jumped 10%, while real disposable incomes of households dropped. Rosstat says that incomes are down 1-3%, but I don’t believe Rosstat – I think incomes fell 5-7%, at least; spending dropped by 8-10%.

This automatically means lower fertility rates for second and third births. Meanwhile, the decline in the number of women of childbearing age – by 2.5-3% every year – is an echo from the 1990s, when Russia had a tremendous drop in births. In addition, the fact that the bulk of “maternity capital” is now paid out for the first child instead of the second is another minus 4% (details below – RP). The most important factor, however, was the late renewal of family mortgage subsidies and payments of RUB450,000 toward a mortgage for the third child in a family. These programs were extended in June, less than seven months before their expected end date, which, of course, was too late. People had already come to expect that there wouldn’t be any programs anymore. This will put further (downward) pressure on all, but especially third births, in January-February, by a few more percent.

Add up all these factors, and it becomes clear that next year there should be a collapse in birth numbers. It’s expected to be very large, by at least 10% for sure. This year, I expect 1.30 million births, followed by fewer than 1.2 million in 2023 and fewer than 1.1 million in 2024.

Even before the mobilization, you said that the number of children born in Russia in 2024 could be the lowest since the end of the 18th century. After the mobilization, have you adjusted your estimates?

It could happen as soon as 2023 if things keep going this way. It is almost guaranteed to happen in 2024.
In 2024, the number of births will be the lowest in two centuries. But it’s quite common among European countries."
True, there is good news: excess mortality is behind us, Covid has almost disappeared. It has become so mild that you might not even have to get vaccinated. Last year, deaths were a record 2.44 million, while this year I expect less than 1.90 million. Note that deaths from the war may not be recorded here in a timely manner or could be only partially recorded. But anyway that’s more than half a million fewer deaths – that's a lot. True, perhaps this is the only good news. Otherwise, the population is falling, the retirement age is rising and the population is aging.

Since some villages have been literally left without men because of the mobilization, will that lead to an acceleration in the decline of rural Russia?

That’s how it looks. The degradation and extinction will accelerate. Though that has been gradually happening. The decline of the village started accelerating in Western Russia during World War I, while the second time was during collectivization and the third during the Great Patriotic War. In later Soviet times, youth continued to leave the village. And then there was a period in the early 1990s when the whole economy was bad and more people started to grow potatoes to feed themselves. At that time, many military towns and “urban-type settlements” emptied out, with the share of the rural population increased a bit. But soon it stopped, and the village continued emptying out. Especially in the north, in the non-chernozem zone.
Anti-mobilization protest, Yakutia, September 2022. Source: VK
Even today, if you drive through some region like Smolensk, Tver or Pskov, you might not see a single light or village for dozens of kilometers, only peopleless bus and train stops, ruins of houses and endless fields and forests. There are already a lot of space like that. And the same thing is happening in Siberia as well. And it will continue, just at a faster pace.

At the same time, the rural population in Dagestan is unlikely to drop much, while in Chechnya it is still growing.

Where there was a denser rural population along with a good climate, it’s declining at a slower pace. And where there are higher birth rates, it’s not declining at all. But these are just a few ethnic minority regions – you can count them on one hand. Meanwhile, in areas where the winter is cold, the climate less favorable and the harvests are poor – of course, there the rural population is declining rapidly and could dwindle in the next 30 years. On the other hand, cities’ suburbs that are nominally considered rural are growing, with all sorts of cottages, townhouses and dacha parks. It looks like a rural population, but in fact most of the inhabitants have nothing to do with the village or agriculture. This "suburbia" – as in the US – will continue to proliferate.

Is the impression correct that it is primarily the so-called national minorities who being drafted?
We’ve been hearing about only three such republics: Buryatia, Dagestan and North Ossetia-Alania. In these three republics, apparently a larger percentage was mobilized than the national average. But elsewhere, in Udmurtia or Chuvashia, it seems to be below the national average.
There was a notable study of Mediazona and BBC on death rates in Russia’s national republics. Indeed, many of them suffered more intense losses, but it didn’t depend on nationality and included ethnic Russians. Their conclusion was that the poor are most disproportionally drawn to the war, among whom ethnical minorities constitute larger share.

I think that the location of military units, the level of poverty and regional politics are the key factors. Apparently, they are mobilizing more from the most loyal regions, where elections are falsified the most and where the local authorities roll over the most for Moscow.

In poor areas, a military unit is the center of gravity, they provide work there that is well paid and stable. People want to serve because it pays. 
The poorer the region, the more they want to serve, the more they were drafted for the war and the more deaths there are now and will be in the future."
And the whole area will be worse off in terms of population. Economically – maybe not, as they’ll get funeral money and all sorts of payments; but the demographics will definitely get worse.

According to independent media, Putin's decree had a secret clause that the Russian government planned to mobilize 1.2 million people. What might be the demographic consequences of such a large-scale mobilization?

There are almost 15 million men aged 20-35 in Russia. Each wave could take the number of births down 2-3% in nine-ten months – that is the minimum. We could have 3% due to the panic and 2% due to the first wave of mobilization. But with each new wave, the psychological shock will be weaker and weaker – that's for certain. People will get used to it.

What will labor migrants do – for example, from Central Asia? Should we expect an inflow or outflow?

The number of foreigners has fallen to low levels, unseen in decades: around 6 million, versus 11 million in 2013.On the one hand, the labor market is being stretched, and some concessions may be introduced for migrants. Moreover, the ruble is stronger and therefore salaries are bigger. But on the other hand, construction and other economic activity has suffered. Moreover, migrants can be mobilized. Maybe one day they will be offered so much money that they actually want to go and fight? It all depends on what the government does, on what rules and laws it puts in place. Migrants will likely continue to come to Russia, but the flows might be smaller. But now many of them seem to be fleeing Russia.

What can you say about the anti-abortion stance and repressive anti-LGBT laws that the Russian authorities have attributed to concerns about fertility?

[LGBT persecution] is pure PR, ideology and distraction from the real issues. This has nothing to do with demographics and won’t noticeably affect it in the coming years.

As for abortions, they are mostly a thing of the past. Compared to the Soviet period, induced abortions have dropped more than tenfold. Throughout the 1990s, and then over the following twenty years, the number steadily declined. It’s always falling – every year, no matter what. Thus, the authorities are simply diverting attention away from pressing problems, while they have completely different goals and objectives.

There are more women than men in Russia, and now the gap looks set to widen even more. Will that impact demographics?

There have always been more women than men in Russia. Before World War I the gap was very slight, and then it started growing – first with World War I, the Civil War, and mass emigration and later with Stalinist repressions and World War II – which made it almost the biggest such gap in the world.

Since then, the share of women in Russia has been declining almost nonstop, except for a short period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when men had tremendous excess mortality due to alcoholism, homicide and other phenomena associated with social turmoil. Now the share of women is back on the decline, though it still remains one of the highest in the world, and if nothing had changed, it would’ve continued to decline. But this abrupt departure of men, combined with their deaths in the war, of course, will halt that trend at least for a while.

Alcoholism has been cited as one of the key consequences of the PTSD that those returning from the front will face as the country becomes increasingly impoverished. How will this affect demographics?

If men are really drinking, there will definitely be a rise in mortality and fall in life expectancy. But I don't really believe that on a large scale, as there has been a massive, generational, all-out shift in alcohol consumption from hard liquor to beer. It’s fundamental, and it’s hard for me to imagine that it would come to a halt and reverse. These changes began in the 2000s and had constantly been gaining ground, but stopped recently around 2015.This is a bad sign. But the so-called “cardiovascular revolution” has been noticeable since that time, which allowed the mortality to decline further. Smokers’ share in deaths has been going down uninterruptedly since 2006. State regulation of spirits production tightened the same year, which showed 170k fewer deaths versus the previous one.

In addition, people’s checkbooks took a big hit in 2014-15. Our economic recession lasted 2-3 years and ended only in 2017. But it didn’t drive a rise in alcoholism or mortality, just stopped the transition to beer from liquor.

Are there measures that can be taken during the war that would help improve the demographic situation?

There are, of course. For example, if you pay RUB1 million for a second child and 1.5 million for a third. It would require less than RUB1 trillion (0.8% GDP) a year, and births would rise 10-15% on a permanent basis. It would compensate for the impact of the war and even all those programs that foolishly weren’t extended when needed. But instead, the authorities went and allocated RUB1 trillion for benefits to families with children next year – that is very good on its own, but it doesn’t directly give a boost to births.

You used to praise government programs aimed at raising the birth rate. Which ones were most effective?

The maternity capital for a second child was the most effective program of its kind in the world – in terms of the number of children born because of the program. It has brought at least 2.0 million additional children, and more likely even 2.5 million, which have never been born otherwise. But after maternity capital began to be paid for the first child, the program’s effectiveness began to fall and will soon tend toward zero. Previously, soon-to-be-expected deadlines and the last minute prolongation of this program have partially smashed gained momentum in fertility.

The second program is RUB450,000 toward mortgage payments for a third or a subsequent child, planned for termination after January 1, 2023. Since 2020, it has accounted for 80,000 third and subsequent children. Well, maternity capital from regions – if it was bigger, over RUB250,000-300,000, and if there weren’t so many restrictions on how the money can be used and criteria for qualifying for it. Those three programs were effective. They worked – but no more.

The program with RUB450,000 for mortgage payments was seemingly canceled as it was not prolonged till June, and maternity capital started to be given for the first child, though I urged not to do it. The authorities were guided by the narrow-minded, amateur logic: “You can’t have a second child if you don’t have a first.” But the number of first births at that time was dropping quickly since the number of young women was declining faster than the number of women over 30, among other reasons.

And soon it will be the opposite: the number of women over 30 will decline faster than the number of younger women, which is starting to rise.

And so these decisions are completely ill-informed – the people who made them don’t understand the issue. You get the feeling that Putin has foolish and unprofessional advisers.

It is strange that the same people could pursue such different demographic policies.

No, it’s not the same people. Maternity capital was invented in 2005-06. And now they (the so-called “experts”) are just poking around blindly; there is no system or evidence-based decision-making. Population policy is being handled by amateurs who don’t understand the difference between demographic and family/social policy.)

You criticized Rosstat for how it operated during the pandemic. But how will it now get out of reporting on statistics about the war?

I didn’t criticize Rosstat, you’re mistaken. I’ve always spoken up for and defended Rosstat – I said it wasn’t their fault, but rather their misfortune, that they were forced to do what they were forced to do. Rosstat was trying to get out of it somehow. I’ve cursed the Ministry of Health and especially the Consumer Protection Agency (Rospotrebnadzor).

Rosstat has a much worse problem. The census was simply a failure, its data can be thrown in the trash. Some tens of billions of rubles just went down the drain.
This census is absolutely unusable, it should be forgotten as if it never happened."
The highest quality census was the 1979 census, while in 1989 it was a little worse, in 2002 noticeably worse, in 2010 a little worse than that, and 2021 marked the worst census not just in the country’s history, but maybe in world history too.

And this is a gigantic problem of Rosstat, because now it is obliged, as it was instructed, to recalculate all the demographic indicators using the latest census results. If it does, it will be a disaster, because all the statistics will be distorted and become completely useless. But how Rosstat will get out of the situation with military deaths – that doesn’t bother me as much as the disastrous census.

To what can you attribute such a careless attitude to taking the census?

There are several reasons. The first is administrative degradation. For the same reason why the state transferred maternity capital from the second child to the first it also decided to arrange a census at the worst possible time: in the midst of the deadliest wave of Covid and second peak of the Delta strain. No sane person would have opened the door to the census taker under such circumstances. The second reason is that the census fell victim to politics. Note that elections were held one month before the census, which was again pushed back, now because of the elections, as the authorities considered them more important. And the third reason is the complete distrust of the state by the population. People don’t want to answer any questions at all and are generally not in the mood to cooperate with the authorities. These relations are deadlocked. And indeed, the whole country is facing a dead end.
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