The deterioration of demographic conditions in Russia "truly qualifies as a crisis," argues Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. At a 15 November 2010 Kennan Institute event, Eberstadt outlined the major trends of the ongoing population problems plaguing the Russian Federation—as well as their potential future impact.

"Russia unfortunately is no stranger to bouts of depopulation," Eberstadt observed. He explained that during the twentieth century alone, the Russian population experienced four separate bouts of depopulation. However, these episodes occurred in response to specific catastrophes, and the population recovered once these disasters ceased. In contrast, Eberstadt noted the current decline is not the effect of a separate crisis altogether (war, famine), but rather is the result of a number of unfavorable adverse trends. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the population of the Russian Federation has declined by almost 7 million people. Eberstadt emphasized that no other nation-state in the postwar era has experienced population decline of this magnitude, with the notable exception of China during the Great Leap Forward period. For the post-Soviet period as a whole, Russia has experienced 13 million more deaths than births—that is to say, three deaths for every two births. Part of this gap was due to an upsurge in mortality. Measured against survival schedules from the Gorbachev era, the Russian Federation appears to have suffered a total of over 7 million "excess deaths" during the 1992-2008 period—a figure that would be more than triple the total number of deaths the Russian Empire incurred during World War I.

In light of these staggering statistics, Eberstadt cautiously extrapolated the reasons for the current crisis. "[T]here is nothing truly distinctive about Russia's current low fertility levels; these look quite European," Eberstadt noted, "but Russia's health and mortality situation is distinctive—and indeed catastrophic." The life expectancy for young Russian males—which was lower at age 15 than that of Haiti's male population in 2008, by WHO estimates—stands out as a glaring exemplification of this health crisis.

The causes of the Russian population's mortality rate are varied and complex, Eberstadt argued. Extreme stress, mental health issues, and depression may figure in this tableau, he noted. Alcoholism is notoriously severe in Russia—and other risk factors such as smoking and poor diet may also play a role in generating "excess mortality." From a cause-of-death perspective, the major killers in Russia today are cardiovascular disease (CVD—including heart attacks and strokes) and injuries and poisoning (including homicide, suicide, accidents and the like). Russia's CVD level is roughly four times as high as Western Europe's—and has been rising, whereas CVD rates in the West have been falling for decades. As for mortality levels due to injuries and poisoning, the toll in Russia is roughly six times higher than in Western Europe. So extreme are Russia's losses from injuries, Eberstadt noted, that "if this was all you knew about the place, you'd think it was a conflict- or post-conflict society in sub-Saharan Africa."

This human resource disaster has serious implications for the vitality of the state itself, most notably the economy. "The real engines of economic growth in any society have been their urban areas," he noted. "In the modern world, the real wealth of nations lies in human resources." Although many Russians and foreign observers regard the Russian education system as an asset for that society, Eberstadt cautioned that "the Russian example proves it is possible for a literate and urbanized society to suffer long term health stagnation and deterioration. In any event, it is not clear that the Russian education system is performing the function of generating knowledge effectively; he observed that the total number of US patents awarded to the Russian Federation each year is about the same as those awarded in the US state of West Virginia.

In light of the prospect of continuing population decline, labor force shrinking, and sub-standard health conditions, Eberstadt concluded with an assessment of the implications of the demographic crisis for Russia's future. The federal government in Russia has called the demographic crisis its "number one national security issue," and has implemented "neo-natalist" political campaigns to encourage reproduction nationwide—but he cautioned that, historically, such campaigns have seldom been successful in other countries. Although the Russian administration appears intent on following through with its proposals, Eberstadt expressed reservations regarding the future success of the government's efforts. More broadly, Eberstadt argued, the confluence of unfavorable demographic factors suggested that Russia's relative global economic influence might decline in coming decades—perhaps substantially. Eberstadt wondered if there might not eventually be a "collision between the Kremlin's very ambitious outlook" and the demographic realities that Russia faces.

Drafted by Amy Shannon Liedy.


  • Nicholas Eberstadt

    Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute