Why the population decline in Russia has hit its highest in history

  • 2 Feb 2022

While officials blame the coronavirus for the rising mortality rate, the growing unwillingness of Russian people to have children has exacerbated the crisis.

( AP )

For the first time in the history of modern Russia, the natural population decline reached 1.04 million people.  

Although the Russian government points at the pandemic as a cause of decreasing population, experts say that the trend had started way before the health crisis struck the world.

The increase in the retirement age, the quality of medical care in the region, declining living standards and numerous other challenges Russians face are among the reasons why the country is facing a population decline for the fourth year in a row.

During this period, the number of residents of the country decreased by 1.4 million people, according to Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) data.

Migrants, the glimmer of hope

A natural decrease in population is when the number of deaths exceeds the number of births. Russia's federal statistics service Rosstat recorded that over the past year, mortality in the country has increased by 15.1 percent (to 2.44 million people) at once, and the birth rate fell by 2.3 percent (to 1.4 million people). 

The number of births, despite all support measures, is the lowest figure since 2002. As a result, the population decreased by 693 thousand people and amounted to 145.478 million on January 1, 2022.

The previous maximum natural decline in population in Russia was noted in 2000. Then, it was 958.5 thousand people. In 2020, Rosstat reported that the population decline was 702 thousand people, which was twice as many as in the previous, non-pandemic year, and everyone was aghast even then.

The data published by the agency does not contain statistics on the migration flow, although it has significantly improved the situation. In 2021, the net international migration to Russia increased by 3.3 times - almost up to 350 thousand people (up from 106,500 in 2020). The Russian media giant RBC notes that this increase is the result of a growing number of people arriving in Russia, especially from the Commonwealth Independent States, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, and at the cost of fewer departures from the country.

Mikhail Denisenko, director of the Vishnevsky Institute of Demography at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE University), explains that two factors may have caused the migration growth in Russia. 

Firstly, restrictions on international travel were partially lifted, including the entry of migrant workers. Secondly, migrants had their term of stay in the country extended, and if their term of stay exceeded nine months, they moved from the category of temporary to the category of permanent. But again: the exponential growth of the balance of incoming and outgoing migrants is hardly a consequence of profound socio-economic reasons.

It’s most likely that it is "an adaptation of administrative rules to the pandemic," points out Professor Irina Kalabikhina, head of the Population Department of Economics Faculty of Moscow State University.

Russia's fast shrinking population has become concerning for many people in the country but the government blames it on Covid-19 pandemic.(AFP)

How coronavirus impacted Russia

Experts believe that Russia's high level of population decline is primarily due to the pandemic - either as a direct cause or as an accompanying disease. 

"Covid-19 is not a joke, not the 'flu,' the losses are quite serious," Professor Kalabikhina emphasized to RBC. 

Demographer Denisenko is convinced that the coronavirus pandemic contributes 60-65 percent to the natural decline. However, this statistic is not consistent with reality.

The absolute record of mortality among people infected with Covid-19 was recorded in Russia in November 2021. At that time, 87,500 people died of the coronavirus and its consequences. In December, the disease was the main cause of death of 54.6 thousand people, and a total of 215.5 thousand people died that month. 

Taking into account past data from Rosstat, Covid-19 took the lives of 517,800 Russians during all of 2021. This is 3.2 times more than in the previous year. A total of 681.1 thousand people have died in Russia since the beginning of the pandemic in which coronavirus was considered the main or accompanying cause of death, according to Rosstat data.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who previously estimated an 81 percent increase in deaths from Covid-19 and its effects, said the other day that, excluding excessive deaths due to the coronavirus, mortality in the country over the past year decreased by 1.02 percent. She said deaths due to diseases of the circulatory system fell by 1 percent, those due to neoplasms fell by 3.7 percent, those due to HIV fell by 8.5 percent, those due to tuberculosis fell by 8.9 percent, and those due to endocrine system diseases, eating disorders and metabolic disorders fell by 14.6 percent. Could this be because all the forces of medicine are now focused on one disease? And others, due to the limited capacity of specialists, are less likely to be diagnosed? 

Fatal reform

Still, some officials insist that the death rate from coronavirus is even higher than the official one, because the statistics do not include, for example, people with chronic diseases who were cured, but died sometime later due to complications.

In general, authorities at various levels often justify their mistakes or their inaction by using Covid-19 as an excuse to manipulate people. Even if it is impossible to belittle the seriousness of this disease, there are other factors that have seriously influenced the grim statistics.

For example, the pension reform. "It's killing slowly but surely," said the “SVPressa” back in pre-Covid times, and they also predicted, "The life expectancy will begin to fall in proportion to the increase in the retirement age." 

Extending the working-age to 63 years for women and 65 years for men will definitely lower life expectancy in the near future, experts predicted in 2019. 

Political observer Dmitry Galkin explained, "Workers of pre-retirement age will take even less care of their health because it is now very easy for them to lose their jobs and very difficult to find new ones. In addition, people engaged in physical labour will work longer hours, so the likelihood of them developing dangerous chronic diseases due to the general wear and tear of the body will increase dramatically." 

Russians themselves complained to journalists: " I will definitely die right in the workplace, because I simply won’t have the strength to work, but I will have to work anyway. Otherwise, there will be no salary, no pension benefit.

"Pinching pennies forces people to buy cheap products that destroy and undermine the body, leading to the emergence of many serious diseases, including cancer!"

Even before the pandemic, economists at Credit Suisse, much to the convenience of government officials, were sounding the alarm: an ageing population is becoming a problem for the entire world, not just individual developed countries. 

Without reforms and faster growth of labour productivity, the growth rate of the global economy may slow down, and the welfare of people may decline, which will certainly affect their health.

Russia apparently tried to solve this problem at the expense of pensioners. But they did not take into account, or did not want to take into account, the fact that the life expectancy of Russians is often less than retirement age. Thus, in one-third of the regions, men do not live long enough to get their deserved rest.

Independent demographer Alexei Raksha believes that Russia has the worst mortality situation compared to any country in the world with a similar level of income and economic development. For example, by the level of "accumulated mortality," Russia ranks fourth out of more than 40 European countries.