The demographic news out of Russia is moderately improving. According to Mark Adomanis over at Forbes, for the first three months of 2016 the total number of births increased by around 4,000 over the previous year while the overall birth rate per 1,000 population remained largely unchanged (and has done for the last four or so years). Furthermore, the death rate for the same time period in Russia dropped by about 4%. If this decline is continued throughout the year, this would “put Russia on track to record its lowest death rate of the entire post-Soviet period”.
Now, all of this supposes (as does the following analysis) that the figures provided by the official Russian statistics agency, Rosstat, can be taken as true and accurate. This was the essential sticking point I believe between Adomanis and Masha Gessen at the New York Review of Books when they had a bit of virtual biffo nearly two years ago (you can see the full exchange in one of my previous blogposts). As Gessen claimed, Rosstat was not a credible source:
“Rosstat, the Russian statistics authority…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.”
However, leaving that to one side and assuming, faute de mieux, that these figures are roughly accurate, then an interesting point emerges. Despite a terrible recent economic performance, dedpite a fall in output, a slow and steady increase in unemployment, despite a rise in general economic stress, Russia’s birth rate has not fallen and the death rate is sharply decreasing. As Adomanis notes, this is in sharp contrast with the USA where “it is widely acknowledged that the Great Recession caused siginifcant downward pressure on the birth rate”. Not just in the United States, but in other western nations as well, as Shannon showed at the beginning of the week.
The link therefore between economic hardship and birth rates is perhaps not so strong in Russia as in other countries. (At least that link is not so strong today: in the 1990s the Russian state suffered a severe downturn in birth rates and an upturn in death rates as the economy tanked following the break up of the USSR.) It is fascinating to reflect on why this might be. In December of 2014 George Friedman of Stratfor argued that economic sanctions on Russia would be less effective than they might be on other nations due to the Russian people’s capacity to endure hardship and suffering. He wrote:
“The Russians pointed out that economic shambles was the norm for Russia, and prosperity the exception. There is always the expectation that prosperity will end and the normal constrictions of Russian poverty return.
The Russians suffered terribly during the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin but also under previous governments stretching back to the czars. In spite of this, several pointed out, they had won the wars they needed to win and had managed to live lives worth living. The golden age of the previous 10 years was coming to an end. That was to be expected, and it would be endured…
Russians’ strength is that they can endure things that would break other nations. It was also pointed out that they tend to support the government regardless of competence when Russia feels threatened. Therefore, the Russians argued, no one should expect that sanctions, no matter how harsh, would cause Moscow to capitulate.”
Perhaps the same holds true in relation to birth rates: perhaps Russians are not putting off having children despite a worsening economic condition because economic prosperity is not viewed as the “norm”. Perhaps their priorities are just different to those in the west? Or perhaps Rosstat has simply cooked the books.