The twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union saw Russia suffering a demographic winter. The population declined as the birth rate collapsed and death rates spiked. Then around 2010 a demographic spring began: the natural population decline slowed and then even flipped into (very small) natural population growth for about three years. For most of the past decade the Russian population grew, both through this natural population growth as well as immigration.

But spring proved short lived and the budding population growth was killed by the return of the demographic winter. In 2016 the natural population growth slipped into negative territory and from 2018 the number of incoming migrants could not prop the Russian population. The trend has continued up until 2020 and the future projections are not good. The most pessimistic scenarios see the Russian population fall by about 8.5 per cent in the next 15 years, while even the most optimistic forecasts still predict that that the population will be naturally declining in 2035.

This is of course a concern for the Russian government and, in particular, for President Vladimir Putin who has made reversing Russia’s demographic crisis a major priority. And so family-friendly policies have been introduced to boost fertility rates (the Russian total fertility rate was 1.57 in 2018) while anti-tobacco campaigns have been organized to try and bring down the stubbornly high death rate (the seventh highest in the world in 2020 according to CIA estimates). But the challenges to reverse natural population decline are high. In Russia, the probability that a Russian man will die before he turns 55 is one-in-four. This is generally said to be due to poor medical care and nutrition, lack of exercise and alcohol, tobacco and suicide.

And then there is migration: in 2018 around 90,000 Russians were granted residency or citizenship in an EU country. If these Russians had all stayed in the Motherland then almost all of the total population decline for that year would have been wiped. The attraction for overseas is only growing for younger Russians: the share of people aged 15-24 who want to leave Russia increased from 29 to 53 per cent in the last decade.

Perhaps then it is no surprise that the Russian government has turned to immigration to reverse its negative population trends: after all it is working to keep much of Western Europe’s populations growing. In the first three months of this year Russian authorities issued over 160,000 passports to foreigners, more than double the number issued during the same period last year. Then in April, Putin signed a dual-citizenship law that hopes to attract up to 10 million new citizens, mainly from former Soviet Republics with large Russian speaking populations. This follows decrees signed last year by Putin which made it easier for those living in the parts of Ukraine controlled by the Russian-baked separatists (the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) to apply for Russian citizenship. This seems to have been successful; more than 60 per cent of the 500,000 migrants to Russia last year were Ukrainian.

Now, let us not confuse Russia with Japan. Russia is not a country which has no history of immigration and in which the government must move carefully in allowing more foreigners in. In fact, more than 11 million foreign-born migrants live in Russia, making the country the second-most popular destination for immigrants in the world, behind only the USA. And it is likely that Russia will continue to be an attractive destination for much of the former USSR nations: it is richer and contains more job opportunities than its neighbours. But the numbers needed to reverse Russia’s population decline are very large, and will grow larger as the years pass. Putin’s goal of thawing Russia’s demographic winter will be hard to attain, even with generous immigration laws.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...