28.09.23 Review

A Story of War and Peace in Russian Demography: The demographic trend is showing signs of improvement, but the shocks of war and emigration are not yet evident in the statistics

Data from the first half of 2023 indicates that Russia is nearing the end of a demographic 'trough' – a period marked by a decline in the population, driven by natural population loss since 2018. This decline can be traced back to the dip in the birthrate in the 20th century. The scale of this population decline, which reached 1.9 million people, has been exacerbated by a reduction in immigration in recent years and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, despite economic challenges, data on migration from the first half of 2023 appears to have been relatively stable, although the dynamics of the second half of the year may present a bleaker picture. Overall, like other Russian statistics, official demographic figures are increasingly diverging from reality.

On the one hand, attempts to account for residents in occupied territories and the uncertainty surrounding the number of refugees and displaced persons from Ukraine cloud the statistics. On the other, it is evident that Rosstat, the Russian statistics agency, is not fully accounting for Russian military losses and appears to have completely disregarded what is arguably the most significant wave of emigration from Russia in a century, driven by the war in Ukraine, repression, and mobilisation.

During the first half of 2023, Russia's population decreased by 146,000 people, standing at a total of 146.3 million by July 1. This official figure does not include residents of the occupied territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson but it does include the residents of annexed Crimea. Without Crimea, the population of Russia was 142.6 million at the beginning of 2023, according to a report on Russia’s demographic situation by 'Demoscope.'

These calculations are based on Russia's statistics on population growth and migration outflow, which are overlaid with data from the all-Russian census of 2010. In 2021, Russia conducted a new census, but its results have been widely questioned by experts. According to the census, 147.2 million people lived in Russia on October 1, 2021, while calculations based on outflow data from the 2010 census suggested a population of 145.8 million, i.e. 1.4 million fewer people. Thus, the census records a significantly greater population increase between 2010 and 2020.

Dynamics of the Russian population, 1960–2023, millions of people

Data from the first half of 2023 reveals that Russia is approaching the end of its second demographic 'trough' of the 21st century. After a prolonged period of population decline, which persisted continuously from 1995 to 2007, there was a slight increase from 2008 to 2017. This increase was primarily as a result of a reduction in natural attrition (when deaths outnumber births) and, to a lesser extent, immigration (when the number of arrivals exceeds departures). However, while during the contraction period the population shrank by 5.8 million people, during the growth period it increased by only 1.8 million. In 2013, the population growth peaked at 320,000 people, after which its intensity began to decline.

2018 marked a turning point in the trend, with Russia's population decreasing by 99,700 people. Following that, the population continued to decline for five years, reaching its nadir in 2020 and 2021 when it decreased by 305,000 and 530,000 people, respectively. Over this period, Russia's population shrank by 1.9 million residents, returning to levels last seen in the mid-1980s and 2007.

These undulating trends do not primarily reflect the current social situation but rather the birthrate and echo the periods of low fertility rates throughout the 20th century. The low number of births in the early 1940s is echoed by the low number of births in the early 1960s, early 1980s, and beyond, while the post-war baby boom may be linked to high birth rates in the late 1980s. However, the decline in birth rates in the early 1990s is also reflected in these patterns and the phenomenon of the second 'trough'.

According to statistical data, the total population decline in the first half of 2023 was 3.2 times lower than in the same period of the previous year when the population decreased by 470,000 people. In 2022, the coefficient of overall population loss (calculated per thousand people) was -3.7‰, almost as much as in the pandemic year of 2020 (-3.9‰). Demographers predict a significant reduction in this coefficient this year, estimating around -2‰ by the year-end. This change is primarily a result of the demographic 'trough' coming to an end.

Natural attrition reflects the dominance of mortality over fertility among the permanent population of the country. In this context, the period from December 2020 to November 2021, which encompassed three waves of the pandemic, was one of the worst in the last 75 years, with the deaths of more than 2.41 million Russians. However, 2022 and the first half of 2023 were far less dramatic, with 272,500 natural deaths recorded from January to June 2023. During the same period in 2022, there were 383,800 deaths, and in 2021, there were 421,900.

Like other countries after the demographic transition, Russia cannot simply achieve population replacement through natural births. Moreover, birth rates have been declining again over the past five years. From January to June 2023, Russia, excluding Crimea, recorded 616,200 births, a 3% decrease compared to the same period in 2022 and almost 9% less than the first half of 2021. The total fertility rate (the number of births per female population) currently stands at 1.416 children per woman in Russia, matching the level seen in 2007. This rate gradually increased from 2000 and reached 1.777 in 2015 before declining once again. Experts from the HSE Institute of Demography note that a rate of 2.1 children per woman is required for simple population replacement, which is 15% higher than Russia was able to achieve in 2015 and more than 30% higher than current fertility rates. Therefore, Russia will only be able to ensure population replacement through immigration.

As can be seen in the graph above, population growth between 2008 and 2017 was driven by immigration, but in the second half of the 2010s, this began to decrease, exacerbating the overall population decline during the second 'trough' period. The years 2021-2022 were characterised by unnatural values in Russia's population exchange due to changes in statistical reporting rules, with 2022 recording the lowest growth in migration since 1975 at 0.4‰. In the first half of 2023, the migration growth rate returned to normal, with an increase in migration of over 126,000 people from January to June, offsetting nearly half (46%) of Russia's population losses due to natural decline. Excluding internal migration, migration growth totalled 79,300 people.

The data on immigration for the first half of 2023 appears to have been relatively stable despite economic challenges. This is likely influenced by a significant labour shortage in Russia, resulting in increased wages. However, in the second half of the year, the weakening ruble and the Russian authorities' efforts to send migrants arriving in the country to the war front will likely deter economic migration.

Generally speaking, as in other areas, Russian official demographic statistics are increasingly at odds with reality. For example, the number of casualties in the war in Ukraine, which according to the most conservative estimates exceeds 50,000 people, is most likely not being fully accounted for in official statistics. Attempts to account for the population of various occupied territories also create significant confusion. Nobody knows the exact number of Ukrainian children who have been illegally relocated to Russian territory or the total number of Ukrainian refugees. Finally, it is worth noting that migration statistics procedures cannot fully account for the waves of emigration associated with the invasion of Ukraine, repression, and mobilisation. According to Re:Russia's calculations, the number of people who left Russia in 2022 could have been between 650,000 and 700,000. Even if some of them returned to the country, this fundamentally changes the demographic picture for 2022.

Moreover, among those who have left, there is a predominance of younger individuals, meaning that their departure will impact birth rates, as well as population ageing and the ratio of working to non-working residents in the country. The proportion of Russia's working-age population (women aged 15-56 and men aged 15-61) currently varies from 51.38% in the Kurgan Region to 64.3% in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. In the central half of regions, it ranges from 55.5% to 58.3%, with a median value of 56.4%.