Did you know that demography debates can get a bit heated at times? I thought that the idea of side remarks and veiled ad hominem attacks by compilers of dry population statistics was faintly absurd. And unseemly. But then so is the idea of academics holding long running disputes about the meaning of a word in a statute or the meaning of a particular case: and I can tell you from experience that these debates can get very personal and bitter. (I haven’t been involved in one yet, but am looking forward to my first proper academic feud; it will be proof-positive that I have “made it”.) So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that demography can result in vendettas written via blogs and publications. This is especially so when one realises that demographic numbers are inherently political and especially so when these numbers can potentially show the slow death of a once mighty superpower: Russia.

The last couple of months has seen a slowly escalating “flame war” between Mark Adomanis at Forbes and Masha Gessen at the New York Review of Books. This debate has focussed on Russia’s demographic problems and whether and to what extent the last 5-10 years have seen a suspension or even reversal of Russia’s demographic decline.  The issue is one that we’ve mentioned earlier this year on this blog when I blogged about Adomanis’ argument that Russia was reversing its hitherto disastrous demographic statistics. He did make it clear however that he thought the outlook was bleaker for Russia in the medium term.  I quoted him as saying:

“It is true that structural factors will eventually cause Russia to revert to natural population loss: the generation born during the chaotic 1990′s is simply far too small to keep the crude birth rate at its currently level indefinitely. At some point before 2020 births will decrease, probably by a pretty significant margin.”

What makes this issue potentially politically sensitive is that Vladimir Putin has made a reversal of Russia’s demographic decline one of Russia’s top priorities. Hence a reversal in its population decline could be seen to be a success on his part. Conversely if things don’t improve then one could argue that Putin has failed in one of his top policy priorities

With that background in mind, let us turn to the first article by Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books entitled The Dying Russians. The gist of her argument can be gleaned from the title. She is trying to discover why Russians keep dying in such large numbers. The problem is a pressing one since:

“In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality.”

She points to the low birth rate as well:

“the Russian fertility rate stands at 1.61, one of the lowest in the world (the US fertility rate estimate for 2014 is 2.01, which is also below replacement but still much higher than Russia’s).”

She then dissects Nicholas Eberstadt’s book length study published in 2010 entitled Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Casuses, Implications. (We have blogged about Eberstadt’s very interesting research before on this blog: eg here and here.)  She concludes that a lot of the blame for Russia’s high mortality rate and low fertility rate is an interesting psychological one: that “Russians are dying for lack of hope” through generations of totalitarianism and being taught that human life is “worthless”.

Gessen’s article was picked up by Adomanis in his blog at Forbes in a post entitled 8 Things Masha Gessen Got Wrong About Russian Demography. Again, you can tell from the title exactly where Adomanis is going. He claims that he has “no interest in engaging in a lengthy or ad-hominum [sic] attack on Gessen” but is “disappointed” by her article because it:

“is so littered with factual errors that it would actually subtract from a non-specialist’s knowledge of the topic”

Ouch.  Adomanis’ overall thesis in this blogpost is that Gessen was presenting a picture that was out of date by at least 5 years. If you take the latest information into account then you can see that Russia’s demographic outlook is not so bleak.  So, by way of example, Adomanis argues:

“Gessen, for some reason, decided to provide out of date and inaccurate data for both Russia and US fertility, data that exaggerate the difference between the two. Russia’s fertility rate isn’t 1.61 (it was 1.71 in 2013) and the United States’ wasn’t 2.01 (it was 1.87 in 2013). The gap between Russian and American fertility has been progressively closing for the past 15 years and it’s likely that it will close even further over the next few years.”

What about the mortality rate? Again, Adomanis states that Gessen “inexcusably” left out “the large and sustained decrease in death rate over the past decade”.  And when it comes to life expectancy, Gessen has failed to note that “Russian life expectancy is at an all time high” (emphasis in original). In summation, Adomanis argues that:

“The economic improvements of the past fifteen years have had an obvious and highly positive impact on Russia’s most basic demographic trends. Regardless of what you think of Vladimir Putin and his “vertical of power,” the simple fact is that Russia has seen a substantial and long-term improvement in the health of its population and pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone.” (Emphasis in original.)

This lays open the political dimension underlying this argument. Gessen does not fail to pick this up (along with the gauntlet thrown down).  She replied in Russia’s Dying: A Postcript where she did not address of Adomanis’ individual arguments but instead sought to get at the essence of his argument:

“In essence, he is taking issue with a single phrase in my article: ‘In this study, published in 2010, Eberstadt accurately predicts that in the coming years the depopulation trend may be moderated but argues that it will not be reversed.’”

Whether or not it has been reversed or not in the last five years or so depends upon the accuracy of the statistics available. Gessen argues that the latest demographic data for Russia (which Adomanis relies on) is unreliable due to political meddling:

“Rosstat, the Russian statistics authority, does not make it easy to answer, because in 2011 it went back and revised the figures for 2004-2009 based on the 2010 census—as the Rosstat website notes. What it does not note is that the 2010 census has been widely discredited: the refusal-to-participate rate exceeded 20 percent; in addition, as several Russian journalists documented, regional authorities inflated their figures in order to demonstrate their success in fighting—you guessed it—depopulation. By this time, Putin’s focus on the demographic crisis was well-articulated, and every regional bureaucrat wanted to report good figures, much as they do with elections.”

Furthermore, any reversal or halting of the demographic decline in the official figures is also due to “aggressive” handing out of Russian passports to ethnic Russians in border areas (Ukraine etc). Thus her argument is not to dispute the figures with Adomanis, but to undercut any reliability in the official figures relied upon. She ends her article in this manner:

“The Russian media love Adomanis: his Forbes blog entries frequently go up on RT, the state propaganda network. He is not the only Westerner who has recently been hailing Russia’s successes in confronting its demographic woes. I love the irony: if you listen to Putin’s useful idiot, you might think there is no demographic crisis in Russia. Which would be a problem, since so many of Putin’s most important policies are ostensibly aimed at confronting the demographic crisis.”

Double-ouch. (Did you realise how nasty demography can get?) How did “Putin’s useful idiot” respond? In Russian Demography and Useful Idiocy Adomanis refuted the idea that he was a shill for Putin:

“The only time I even mentioned Putin in my original piece was when I said that “Regardless of what you think of” him, you shouldn’t pretend that recent demographic improvements haven’t’ taken place. In reality Putin deserves very little credit for the recent health improvements because these improvements are not primarily the result of changes in government policy but of a general improvement in popular living standards.”

However, he does not specifically reply to Gessen’s attack on the accuracy of Rosstat’s data in the last few years. This is a shame because this really seems to be the sticking point between the two. Adomanis seems to be relying on the official Russian demographic statistics to refute the idea that Russia’s population is still declining. Gessen argues that the official statistics cannot be trusted.

Adomanis does bring in some support for his view of Russian demography by appealing to other western professional demographers. He cites this quotation from an academic paper written by a number of Russian and British demographers (Components and possible determinants of the decrease in Russian mortality in 2004-2010):

“After a long decline, life expectancy in Russia substantially increased in 2004-2010; this is the longest period of health improvement that has been observed in the country since 1965… Russia’s recent health improvements are real and significant (their duration, on the other hand, is a matter of genuine scholarly debate). That is not an opinion of the tinfoil hat brigade, but of numerous professional demographers. Desperately pretending otherwise, as Gessen attempts to do, is an exercise in exactly the sort of politicized propaganda that she decries.”

Ouch, ouch, ouch.  The debate seems to have died down insofar as Gessen has not yet replied. So what have we learned about Russia’s recent demographic fate?  Certainly it seems as if the decline of the 1990s has moderated or reversed in the last five or so years. But then again, that is certainly only if one accepts that we can know anything based upon the official numbers and if we accept that allegations of official chicanery with the numbers are baseless.  We have also learned that Admonamis and Gessen think that each are engaged in “politicised propaganda”. Now what did Disraeli say again: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”?

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...