Russia is experiencing an unprecedented demographic crisis, according to a prominent American population expert. The country’s dwindling population could make it hard for Moscow to implement its economic and diplomatic agendas in the decades to come.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), noted that while many countries in Europe and elsewhere are grappling with the twin dilemmas of aging populations and declining birth rates, Russia is experiencing a unique phenomenon – an extremely high mortality rate for a relatively developed country.
“Russia has taken us where no man has gone before,” Eberstadt observed during a recent presentation of his book, Russia's Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Causes, Implications. The book was published in the spring.
Russia’s fertility rate has declined dramatically since the end of the Communist era and is now considerably below replacement level. Compounding that problem is the premature mortality rate, which resembles those found in impoverished developing countries, not those with a moderately wealthy, well-educated population.
Life expectancy among Russians rose rapidly in the 1950s and early 1960s, stalled in the mid-1960s, and then experienced a sharp decline after 1990. Today, life expectancy at birth for an average Russian male is roughly 62 years. For a female it is 72.
Eberstadt, whose presentation was hosted by AEI in Washington, DC, readily acknowledged that neither he nor standard social science theory could fully explain Russia’s catastrophe. Russia has followed a uniquely morbid path.
Russians suffer from high rates of AIDS and other infectious diseases, but these only account for a small percent of deaths. A more serious problem arises from Russians’ cardiovascular disease rate, which is roughly four times higher than the population-weighted rates in Western European countries. Russians also suffer from violent deaths (injuries, murders, etc.) to an extraordinarily high degree for a country at peace and with such a high level of socioeconomic development. But again this aberration only accounts for a small number of Russia’s almost 7 million excess deaths since 1991.
Eberstadt rejected the obvious explanation that the trauma associated with the 1991 Soviet collapse was a major cause of excess deaths. He noted that Central European countries rapidly recovered and improved on their Communist-era life expectancies, while Western countries that suffered major economic losses during the Great Depression did not experience a Russian-style population catastrophe.
“Unfortunately, the Russian Federation is no stranger to bouts of depopulation,” Eberstadt noted. Yet the current crisis differs from the three previous declines since the early 1900s by not occurring during a time of war or famine. In the past, Russia quickly rebounded from its population dips. It remains unclear when the current decline will end.
Whatever the cause, Russia’s eroding human resource base will challenge Moscow’s ability to achieve its domestic and foreign-policy priorities. According to Eberstadt, Russia’s demographic crisis “has demonstrable and grievous humanitarian costs and manifestly adverse economic implications.” In addition, the Russian military will have difficulty finding soldiers, while Moscow’s hold over the resource-rich but people-poor Russian Far East will continue to decline.
Although there have been some modest improvements in some demographic trends over the last few years, Eberstadt thinks matters might take another alarming turn in the not-so-distant future. The number of future mothers is declining, the average Russian is aging, and the increase in disease and deaths has been greatest among the working age population. As a result, the labor force has shrunk more rapidly than the population as a whole, reducing Russia’s economic growth prospects for years to come.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
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