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Demographic crisis in Russia

Demographic crisis in Russia
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Demographic crisis in Russia

Recent demographic trends in Russia have caused widespread public concern. Russia is experiencing unusually high death rates from nonnatural causes, many related to alcoholism. Life expectancy, especially among working-age males, has dropped precipitously. The Russian fertility rate has declined to among the world's lowest, while its abortion rate is the highest. As a result, for the first time in Russian history, the annual number of deaths has exceeded the number of births. Compounding these challenges, the population is aging rapidly--a trend that will accelerate over the next two decades--and immigration continues to increase, posing thorny political and social problems for a nation historically accustomed to a net outflow of people.

These events are widely seen as posing a national crisis for Russia. Civic leaders and the general public are especially concerned about the effects these trends may have on the progress of reform--for example, how a shrinking working-age population will support a growing number of elderly citizens. Opponents of reform have exploited these trends for political purposes. They have depicted these events as direct outcomes of reform and even as a conspiracy aimed at destroying the Russian state.

Policymakers and analysts are eager to learn more about the causes and consequences of these trends so that they can define appropriate policy options as the reform process continues. The underlying causes of these phenomena had previously not been studied in great depth. Policymakers in the former Soviet Union had no interest in policy informed by research; therefore, social and behavioral analyses of demographic trends were shunned in favor of descriptive, often historical, work. More recently, scholars using newly available information have begun to delve into the roots of Russian demographic changes and the long-term patterns underlying them.

To shed light on these issues, RAND and the Center for Demography and Human Ecology of the Russian Academy of Sciences invited a group of Russian demographers to present the results of their research. The aggregate picture that emerged from this groundbreaking work is more complicated than the "crisis" language suggests. Some of the demographic trends currently affecting Russia are the continuation of long-term patterns. Others are by-products of recent events, although not necessarily the reforms of the 1990s. Still others are harder to explain and have probably been exacerbated by the reforms and the current economic slump.

The "Depopulation" of Russia?

In 1992, Russia's population entered a period of negative growth--that is, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births combined with the number of immigrants. This was a first in the peacetime history of Russia.

This historic population decline has been met with increasing concern in some Russian circles. The Russian mass media have overflowed with alarming articles on population issues. Based on popular, nonprofessional interpretations of available vital statistics, some are calling "to save Russia from depopulation." As a result, the general public has been misled about population issues. The average citizen is likely to draw a direct connection between the current economic slump and a demographic crisis.

This alarmist view ignores long-term trends in fertility. As in many Western industrialized nations, Russia's fertility rate has fallen over the course of the 20th century from a relatively high level to a low one. In 1920, the average Russian woman was expected to give birth to about 7.5 children in her lifetime; in 1994, that number had fallen to 1.4. This demographic transition is characteristic of industrial and industrializing nations and is usually associated with greater numbers of women joining the work force and increased divorce and cohabitation, all of which tend to reduce family size and drive down fertility rates. Similar patterns have emerged in the United States and other Western countries.

However, Russia's fertility patterns have followed their own unique path over the past two decades. In addition to the decline in births, the age patterns of childbearing have been changing. In many Western countries, the peak childbearing age for women has grown older and now falls between 25 and 29; by contrast, the peak age in Russia has become younger, occurring between ages 20-24. Furthermore, by 1991, fertility between ages 15-19 exceeded that in the age groups over 30 and rivaled that of the 25-29 age group.

This tendency towards fertility at younger ages is reflected in marriage patterns. Between 1960 and 1995, the average marrying age of women in Russia fell by 4.2 years, from 26.2 to 22.0. This trend sharply distinguishes Russia from other industrialized nations, where the tendency is for women to postpone marriage and childbearing.

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