Russia’s demographic collapse in the 1990s was sharp and sudden and yet was preceded by many years of indications that things were not right for those that had eyes to see. In many ways, the demographic decline was a mirror to the political collapse of the Soviet empire: sudden and yet not unexpected in hindsight. According to Rosstat, the Russian state statistics agency, by 1995 the natural growth rate of the country’s population was negative: every year the country was losing net 5.7 per 1,000 people. By the turn of the millennium, and President Vladimir Putin’s first year in power, that population decline had grown to negative 6.6 per 1,000 people.
But according to Putin, speaking in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, this negative trend was reversed “at the beginning of the 2000s”, that is, when he came to power. However, the truth is somewhat more prosaic than that – the natural growth rate did start to reverse, but only in 2006. There is little doubt that this reversal was real however and significant and by 2012 the population growth rate was no longer negative but was at zero. In the next three years the Russian population even grew slightly: by 0.2 people per 1,000 in 2013 and 2014 and by 0.3 more births than deaths per 1,000 people in 2015.
The greenshoots of population growth were not longlasting and the Russian demographic winter has closed in again. In 2016 the population growth was back to zero and is projected to drop to -1.5 per 1,000 this year. It is also worth putting the years of growth into context: in 2014 the Russian population grew by 2.2 million people as the Crimean peninsula was annexed from the Ukraine and its inhabitants were added to the Russian demographic figures. Despite this addition, the growth rate was virtually unchanged and is now in the red again.
Overall then, Putin’s claims about reversing Russia’s population decline are overblown. While the situation is less dire than in the late 1990s, the Russian population has seen modest decline and only occasional anaemic growth since 2000. And one of the reasons for the lack of more Russian babies is perhaps down to the Russian economy’s struggles. Struggles that have been exacerbated by sanctions imposed on the country by the international community in response to Putin’s own aggressive moves.