Nicholas Eberstadt (“The Dying Bear,” November/December 2011) is surely correct that a rapidly depopulating Russia would be confronted with a number of essentially irresolvable economic, military, and political problems. However, data from Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service suggest that over the last decade, Russia’s demographic indicators have in fact been getting better. Moreover, this improvement has intensified since the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, confounding a number of Western experts who predicted that the downturn would have a similar eªect within Russia to that of the country’s debt default in 1998, when fertility plummeted and mortality skyrocketed.
Russia’s demographic improvements are considerable: between 2000 and 2010, Russia’s rate of external mortality (deaths from vehicular accidents, alcohol poisoning, murder, and suicide) decreased by 31 percent, its fertility rate increased by 31 percent, and its natural rate of population loss (the rate at which the population is shrinking without accounting for immigration) fell by 75 percent. In fact, if one takes immigration into account, Russia’s overall population has essentially been stagnant for the past three or four years -- which would have been unfathomable ten years ago, when the country’s population was shrinking by a million people a year.
Eberstadt’s omission of any relevant comparisons is troubling. For starters, more enlightening than comparing Russians to Westerners -- Russians have been more unhealthy, more drink-sodden, and shorter lived than their counterparts in the West since public health statistics were first collected in the late nineteenth century -- would be comparing the Russians of today to the Russians of ten years ago.
Also glaring is the omission of Ukraine, a country that neighbors Russia and has performed significantly worse in terms of demographics over the past decade. In 2010, despite having a population of only 45.8 million people, Ukraine had a natural population loss of 200,000. In contrast, the so-called dying bear, with a population of 142 million people, naturally shrank by 240,000 that year. And it is not just Ukraine: that same year, three other countries that neighbor Russia -- Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania -- suªered natural population losses that were proportionally more severe than Russia’s, as did Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. In other words, postcommunist eastern European countries are experiencing a systemic demographic crisis, which, in turn, suggests that Eberstadt’s call to publicly berate Moscow would not have much of an impact on Russia’s demographic outlook.