Russian demographers from the Moscow High School of Economics published new demographic forecasts in April this year. They found out, among others, that to maintain its current population – about 146 million people (including the territories in Ukraine Russia considers its own) – Russia must attract an average of 390,000 migrants annually for the next 80 years.
In the event of a negative scenario, this would then be up to 1.1 million migrants per year to compensate for the country’s population losses. Otherwise, according to new and most pessimistic estimates, Russia will have only 67.4 million inhabitants in 2100, i.e., half as many as now.
Some time ago, there were opinions in the West that Russia’s future was an implosion of demographics. The American expert Ilan Berman warned in 2013 that Russia would change fundamentally. According to him, the reason was the change in the population structure – the decline of the Slavic population and, on the contrary, the demographic growth in the country’s non-Russian, mostly Muslim regions. Berman brought several arguments linked together: ‘Russia is dying out’, ‘Russia is changing’ and ‘The Chinese are coming’. He linked all of them to the demographic crisis.
This crisis was not created yesterday. It is essentially a legacy of the late Soviet period and the post-Soviet transition in the early 1990s.
This period brought about several factors that contributed to Russia’s cumulative entry into a spiral of depopulation. These are high mortality, low birth rates, a crisis of the traditional family (high divorce rate), a relatively high abortion rate, the AIDS epidemic and emigration. All these factors undoubtedly have a social and political dimension.
The 1990s impacted the social and economic well-being of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. In the past, some authors have argued that mass privatisation and neoliberal policies across the region have led to increased mortality in the region due to psychosocial stress. This thesis is, for example, consistent in the Russian case with the increased mortality in 1998 when the country effectively collapsed economically and socially.
Source: Rosstat (since 2016 data include Crimea and Sevastopol; 2023 is without annexed territories of Ukraine)
Vladimir Putin’s regime has tried to tackle the problem of Russia’s declining population by various means, but none of them have been sufficient. Some have even proved counterproductive. However, in principle, they were in keeping with the political character of the regime at the time.
The first years after economic and political consolidation, the regime relied mainly on economic stimulus. Among the best-known of these was the so-called parent capital. This form of state support for the family was introduced in 2007. It was first paid for the second or third child and from 2020 for the first child. For 2024, the total amount of support will be almost 631 thousand roubles for the first child and 834 thousand roubles for the second child.
In the context of the conservative turn in 2013, the regime began to rely more on emphasising the “traditional family” and “traditional values”.
The repressive actions against “promoting homosexuality” were not only part of the suppression of “the other” and the challenge to the West but also an appeal to resurrect the ‘traditional’, patriarchal family. All this in the context of a high divorce rate, with 6,8 out of ten marriages breaking down in Russia. In Czechia, it is approximately 4,5, Poland 3,5, and in Bulgaria 4 from 10 marriages.
Source: Rosstat (since 2015 data include Crimea and Sevastopol; 2022 is without annexed territories of Ukraine)
Migration policy is controversial, but it has become one of the solutions for population decline and labour deficit promoted by the government. Recently, it has emerged that Mikhail Mishustin’s technocratic cabinet is once again trying to “effectively” regulate migration primarily to meet the needs of the Russian labour market in the context of upcoming changes to the state migration policy (the current concept is valid until 2025). It is already part of Mishustin’s style of governance that he wants to rely mainly on digitalisation in migration policy.
However, as elsewhere, Russia is struggling between the economic dimension of migration and security and identity issues.
In October this year, Patriarch Kirill warned of a loss of identity due to the migration of culturally distant people to Russia. The main migration flows to Russia come from Central Asia and are more likely to be unskilled or less skilled workers in the remittent economic exchange. Uzbekistan or Tajikistan is among the main reservoirs of labour migration to Russia. In the first quarter of this year, 1.2 million migrants, mainly from Central Asia, came to Russia for work. However, these are mostly guest workers whose real integration and demographic effect on Russian society is questionable.
Especially after 2018, Russia has not fared well demographically. The pandemic of the COVID-19 disease was a mighty blow. In 2021, according to official figures (and perhaps entirely inaccurate), 465,000 Russians died of COVID-19, and by 2022 it was expected to be nearly 140,000 more. The pandemic of COVID-19 disease can be considered a vis major circumstance. However, the choice to invade Ukraine was already conscious and carried with it significant problems for Russian society from the start.
While we can only speculate about the real number of Russian soldiers killed and crippled in Ukraine, it is estimated that somewhere between 700-800 thousand people, primarily skilled and younger Russians, left Russia after the 2022 invasion. If we add up the demographic losses associated with the pandemic and emigration, we get to 1.4 million “extra” people in less than three years. On top of that, there is the factor of war and natural mortality of the Russian population, along with the low birth rate (in 2022, it was another 6.5% less than in 2021). Let’s add that in 2022, there were to be a total of 500,000 artificial terminations of pregnancy in Russia. Compared to 2021, the number of abortions has decreased by 2.3% and has been decreasing for a long time (for example, in 1990, there were more than 4 million abortions).
These estimates suggest that the demographic crisis that Putin’s Russia inherited has begun to re-accelerate in the context of recent developments for which the current regime already bears full responsibility. Along with this,
conservative and repressive tools for “solutions” are being strengthened, which avoid real solutions related to socioeconomic factors and war.
According to Patriarch Kirill, the abortion ban (which Kirill lobbies for) would lead to an increase in the population “with the wave of a magic wand”. Thus, recently, there have been more and more reports of bans on abortions in private clinics in various federal regions of Russia. At the same time, the State Duma has begun drafting a law on a total ban on abortions in these facilities. In other words, abortion will become a matter of state monopoly and state policy.
Even though most Russian citizens (55%) are against it, there have already been restrictions on the free sale of chemical preparations to induce abortion in Russia. Not only most of the public but also Russian gynaecologists were against it. We know from experience in other countries that banning abortion will not lead to a real demographic boom but will increase the risks for women who become subjects of imposed state policies. Russia seems to repeat this mistake for which Russian girls and women will pay. One doesn’t need to support abortion to understand that these measures are naked imposition of state power over its citizens and their rights.
This is not with certain paradoxes. Vladimir Putin himself was ambivalent about bans on abortion in Russia in his recent speech at the meeting with the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. It seems that he supported socio-economic measures rather than bans. Moreover, he publicly refused the subsequent securitisation of this issue by refusing to entrust the issue of demographics to the Security Council. This is still a moderate position. Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya pointed out in this regard, “Putin’s opinion no longer worries anyone since it is much more profitable politically to be a conservative and drown for restrictions. This is the essence of the current political trend: ideologization begins to live its own life and ignore Putin, whose opinion, at least on issues not fundamental to him, ceases to be a model.”
And so, despite what the man on the top thinks, the current conservative discourse in Russia framed by the war goes further.
Back in July, the Russian health minister said that women should not focus on education and careers but should understand that they must give birth as soon as possible.
Senator Margarita Pavlova said that girls in Russia must be oriented from childhood towards having children, not towards getting an education. She expressed the opinion that economic incentives for childbearing are “false” (so she disagreed with Putin), and the proper way is “patriotic and moral education”: “Why do women give birth to fewer children? This has been the situation for literally the last 100 years. Because the revolution made it possible for women to work. Women went to work en masse and forgot their feminine purpose – to give birth, to keep the home.”
But the reality is much more prosaic – now, the new conservative biopolitics also focused on women in the rear in wartime conditions. While men’s bodies are supposed to belong to the military, women’s bodies are supposed to ensure that the military machinery continues to run smoothly regardless of what society can and wants or even what the man at the top thinks.
Cover photo: Russian Orthodox women and children during a church service, 2019. This is how, according to Russian conservative turn ideologians, a perfect Russian woman looks like. Source.