For decades, first the Soviet Union and then Russia languished under adverse population trends. Deaths far outpaced births, life expectancy was dismally low, and social ills, from alcoholism to unsafe abortion practices, were rampant.
Over the past several years, however, this demographic picture has somewhat brightened. In 2012, live births outnumbered deaths for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That indicator has remained marginally positive, and others have also begun to improve. By 2013, Russia’s average life expectancy reached a historic high, at 71 years, and birthrates nearly matched European averages. These reversals have been modest, but they have been enough for the Kremlin to proclaim victory in its decades-long fight against demographic decline. In a December address to Kremlin officials, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the “effectiveness” of Russia’s demographic programs in reversing the country’s trajectory.
His conclusion, however, is extremely premature. That is the assessment of a 2015 study by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), a state university. The report points to some marked improvements in Russia’s recent demographic fortunes, with fertility rates, for example, rising from 1.3 children per woman in 2006 to 1.7 children per woman in 2012. But it maintains that Russia’s demographic prospects are profoundly negative in the longer term. “Despite . . . recent positive dynamics,” the report notes, “the potential for a demographic crisis is not over.”
Indeed, Russia’s window for further population growth is rapidly closing. Within a decade, according to RANEPA’s estimates, the population of Russian women aged 20 to 29 will shrink by nearly 50 percent. The corresponding decrease in birth rates, particularly when combined with the country’s mortality rates—the 22nd highest in the world, according to the study—makes it clear that Russia is still in for long-term decline.
Russia’s window for population growth is rapidly closing.
In fact, without remedial action, Russia’s population could shrink to 113 million
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