Russia's shrinking population mars Putin's superpower ambitions

Putin's Progress is a GlobalPost ongoing series on the Russian leader's ambitious agenda.</p>

Putin's Progress is a GlobalPost ongoing series on the Russian leader's ambitious agenda.

Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series about how Vladimir Putin is attempting to remake Russia. Read previous articles about the "Eurasian Union" and efforts to regain Moscow's superpower status.

MOSCOW, Russia — Vladimir Putin is spinning a beguiling vision of Russia's future that could reshape global economic and military realities.

He imagines his country as the core of a mighty "Eurasian Union," a confederation of former Soviet states spanning two continents, from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic.

"We suggest creating a powerful supra-national union capable of becoming a pole in the modern world, and at the same time an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific Region," Putin wrote in the Moscow daily Izvestia earlier this month.

But Putin's dream is hobbled by one big, inconvenient fact: Russia's population is shrinking dramatically.

More: Putin advances Eurasian Union

By mid-century there may not be enough working-aged adults to man the country's factories or defend its borders. The decline is most pronounced in those areas that should constitute the heartland of the future Eurasian Union: Siberia and the Russian far east, which abut the teeming economic powerhouses of China, South Korea and Japan.

It’s tough just to get by with a shrinking population, no less re-establish yourself as a global power — especially in a sprawling neighborhood like Russia’s.

The former Soviet Union built cities and planted industries along its 2,600-mile border with China. It used the arbitrary powers of an authoritarian state to ensure that its claims of eternal suzerainty over those far-flung territories were anchored by concentrations of ethnic-Russians. But since the collapse of the USSR, the number of Russians inhabiting the eastern lands has plummeted by almost 20 percent. The young and best-qualified people have headed to Moscow in search of economic opportunity, and the exodus is accelerating.

More: Can Russia regain its superpower status? The fighter jet is key.

Mother Russia appears in no condition to generate more warm bodies, even if the state was able to develop economic or other programs to entice Russians to return to Siberia.

Russian fertility rates have been falling for decades. They stood at 1.4 babies per woman in 2010, far below the 2.1 needed to naturally replenish the population. Death rates, particularly among males between the ages of 25 and 45, spiked in the post-Soviet period and still remain considerably higher than births. As a result, Russia's population has been simultaneously contracting and aging. That’s a double-whammy that holds dire implications for Putin's hopes of returning Russia to the world's center stage as a great power.

Drowning in vodka

In 1991, Russia's population was nearly 150 million. According to the US Census Bureau's international data base it's currently just under 139 million. Projections show it plunging to 128 million in 2025, and to 109 million in 2050.

"Here in Russia we have a European birth rate, but an African death rate," said Yury Krupnov, director of the independent Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development in Moscow.

"A special feature in Russia is the super-death rate for working age males, which is five times higher than the comparable rate in Europe and has crippling implications for our economic development."

The astronomical mortality rate for young Russian men is due to a post-Soviet cocktail of bad news: deteriorating environmental conditions, collapsing health care, rising accidents due to decayed infrastructure and growing social violence.

More: Another billionaire stands up to the Kremlin

But the single biggest cause, according to a 2009 article in The Lancet, a respected medical journal, is the post-Soviet explosion in alcoholism. Extreme even by traditionally hard-drinking Russian standards, alcohol abuse leads to an estimated 600,000 premature deaths each year.

Some warn of even more alarming consequences for the future from a population drowning in vodka. "If this tendency continues, Russia will die out," said Svetlana Bocherova, chair of Good Without Borders, a Moscow-based family advocacy group.

"By the 2020's the schools will be empty of children. By the next decade there won't be enough workers or soldiers. By 2050, we won't have enough people to call ourselves a country."

Cash for moms

In hopes of reversing these trends, Putin introduced a series of measures during his first two terms as president. These include huge cash bonuses — typically about $10,000, enough to buy a small flat in a provincial Russian town — for women who have more than two children, and generous resettlement programs for ethnic Russians who choose to be repatriated from former Soviet republics in the Baltics and central Asia.

Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev, launched a tough anti-alcohol campaign reminiscent of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's draconian attempts to wean his countrymen from the vodka bottle.

And there have been some successes in the past few years. Death rates have stabilized, birth rates rose markedly over the past decade, and male life expectancy has jumped from a low of 58 years in 2003 to 63 today.

"There are some positive changes, but they're not enough to overcome the negative trends," said Anatoly Vishnevsky, a demographer with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "In fact, the growth in birth rates is already falling off. We need more comprehensive solutions."

Eurasian ambitions

This may be where Putin's idea of a Eurasian Union comes in. The former Soviet Union drew heavily on labor and military reserves from its teeming, mainly-Muslim central Asian republics, where high birth rates are still driving rapid population growth. Even today, most construction and other unskilled work around prosperous Moscow is done by migrant workers from Tajikistan and other poverty-stricken but still largely Russian-speaking former Soviet republics.

Some analysts suggest that a formal confederation of states under Russian hegemony would allow the Kremlin to restore some Soviet-era economic synergies, including orderly transfers of labor — on a temporary basis — from populous central Asian republics to zones of Russian economic development.

That might avoid the painful political issue of formulating an immigration policy similar to those of the European Union or the US, in which large numbers of outside workers come, stay and often place themselves on a path to citizenship.

"There is strong social resistance in Russia to allowing permanent immigrants from Asian countries," said Vishnevsky. "This is going to be problem No. 1 in Russian politics for a long time to come."

But Putin's scheme may not offer any solution for the growing problem of depopulation in Russia's own vast Asian lands. Analysts point out that efforts to entice ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics to settle in Siberia or the Russian far east have achieved meager results.

"Of course ethnic Russian immigrants prefer to come to Moscow, where the opportunities are, and not go to some backward place in the middle of Siberia which is being abandoned by its own inhabitants," said Nikolai Petrov, a regional expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

In the long run, Russia's demographic dilemma may force Putin to drop Soviet revivalism, slash government controls and initiate genuine liberal market reforms, said Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist with the Institute for Contemporary Development, a Moscow think tank linked to Medvedev.

"We don't require that every square kilometer of Russia be inhabited, but for solid strategic reasons we do need the Russia-China border to be populated" with Russians, he says. "If Russia wants to be a part of that economically dynamic region, the only way is to bite the bullet, open up and reform.

"It may be possible to reverse our dismal demographic trends, but it will require fundamental changes in the way our leaders think. We need to create economic opportunities, and drop all these grand plans based on state methods. It's a historic task facing our nation, and there isn't much time left to come to grips with it."

Editor's note: this article is part of Putin's Progress, an ongoing series about how Vladimir Putin is attempting to remake Russia. Read recent articles about the "Eurasian Union" and efforts to regain Moscow's superpower status.

Editor's note II: After publication of this article, a Forbes blogger took issue with some of the facts in the piece. GlobalPost investigated these allegations, and found them to be without merit. Click here to read GlobalPost's response to the Forbes blogger. Click here to read Fred Weir's response


This is GlobalPost's Europe editor writing. I am responding to a posting by Forbes blogger Marc Adomanis, who alleged factual inaccuracies in a recent article by Fred Weir, titled Russia's shrinking population mars Putin's superpower ambitions. Neither Adomanis nor Forbes ever contacted us, and their blog was posted on Reddit prior to us learning of these allegations.

We looked into every detail, and found the allegations to be without merit. We stand by Fred Weir's story. Here are the details of GlobalPost's investigation:

- Adomanis takes issue with Weir's statement that "Russian death rates have stabilized in recent years." Here, Adomanis illustrates his point with a chart that appears to show a decline in the death rate. But that's only because Adomanis starts at 2003, the year that Russia posted its worst death rate since 1950, at 16.4 per 1,000. (This is like posting a chart that begins in the depths of the mortgage meltdown to show what a great investment the S&P 500 is.)

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the death rate never exceeded 11.6, and it averaged 9.3. The average since 1991 has been 14.7, according to the Rostat data that Adomanis uses. Since 2004, the death rate has been 16 per 1,000, 16.1, 15.2, 14.6 and 14.7, according to Rostat.

Weir is right and Adomanis is wrong — the current death rate has dropped to the post-Soviet average — in other words, it has stabilized.

Here's a link to the Rostat death rate data:

And here's a chart that shows Russia's death rate since 1950. The blue line is the post-Soviet average. The dashed vertical line is where Adomanis' chart begins. 

- Adomanis says Weir is wrong in stating that “Russian fertility rates have been falling for decades.” Oddly, to "prove" his point, Adomanis links to a chart that ... illustrates clearly that he (Adominis) is wrong. Adomanis' chart shows a fertility rate of 2.52 in 1960, 1.99 in 1970, 1.89 in 1980, 1.89 in 1990, 1.21 in 2000 and 1.54 in 2009. The 2009 number is up from 1.3 in 2006. Still, this is clearly a downward trend, even if there are occasional upticks, including one in the last few years and another in the 1980s. More importanly, Russian fertility has remained well below the 2.1 rate required for replacement.

The fertility drop is even more pronounced if you look at previous decades — down from nearly 7 in 1925 and about 3 in 1950; see page 26 of the UN report linked above for a chart).

So Weir is correct: Russia's fertility has been declining for decades.

For the record, here's the chart Adomanis uses:

- Adomanis says that Weir's population figure for Russia is wrong. The difference: Adomanis used the Russian government's numbers, while Weir used the US government's. It matters little whether Russia's population is 142 million (per Rostat) or 139 million (per the US government), a difference of about 2 percent. What matters is that Russia's population has shrunk, it is shrinking, and is expected to continue doing so. It's currently **shrinking** at a rate of 0.47 percent per year. That makes it 222nd in the world in terms of population growth.

In suggesting that GlobalPost got its facts wrong, Adomanis is at odds with Foreign Affairs magazine ("Russia's Demographic Disaster") as well as the United Nations, which in 2008 dedicated a report to the matter, titled "Russia Facing Demographic Challenges," which can be found here:

If you're interested in checking Weir's numbers, the demographic projections are on page 25.

- Adomanis doubts that 600,000 people die in Russia from alcohol deaths, as Weir claims. Weir's figure was used in two 2009 articles published in the prestigious journal, The Lancet. Here are links to the articles:, Adomanis bases his assertion not on actual alcohol mortality data, but on a speculative extrapolation from Rostat data. We will use Lancet's numbers.

We stand by all of the facts — as well as the larger themes — in Fred Weir's article


Editors note: GlobalPost investigated Forbes' blogger's assertions of factual innacuracies in detail, and found them to be entirely without merit. Below is Fred Weir's response to the blogger.

MOSCOW — A blogger named Mark Adomanis has taken exception to my GlobalPost article on Russia's demographic crisis. He implies that my work gives a false view of population dynamics in this country over the past several years.

In his blog, posted on the prestigious site, Mr. Adomanis makes harsh allegations about the quality of my work.

Mr. Adomanis blog is sub-titled, "Where are the fact-checkers when you need them?" He goes on to say that my story is "littered with basic factual errors" and concludes: "It’s really not that hard to get this stuff right. . . so it really frustrates me when professional journalists can’t seem to do it."

When you insert those kind of statements about a colleague into the public record they can do real harm, and so you'd better know what you're talking about.

Does Mr. Adomanis present any kind of case that might justify those assertions?

No. His critique consists of a few quibbles that might make for an interesting coffee break dispute among demographers, but in no way affect the basic facts that I reported.

I interviewed several scientists in the course of researching that story. Bad journalism, which is what Mr. Adomanis seems to be accusing me of, would consist of misrepresenting, misunderstanding, cherry-picking or otherwise distorting what the sources told me. And they told me the following key facts about Russia's demographic crisis:

1) Russia's birthrates are too low to sustain the population, and vigorous social measures implemented under Vladimir Putin have not been sufficient to fix that problem.

2) Russia's mortality rates, particularly among working-age males, are disastrously high. Much of this is down to catastrophic post-Soviet rates of alcoholism. As Yury Krupnov, a leading Russian demographer, told me: "Here in Russia we have a European birth rate, but an African death rate."

3) Internal exodus is hollowing out Siberia and Russia's far eastern regions, leaving vast swathes of strategically vital territory virtually uninhabited.

From these facts, I drew the journalistic conclusion that Putin's efforts to restore Russia's superpower status, and particularly the dream of an eastern-oriented "Eurasian Union," face severe long-term physical challenges that may make them unrealizable.

In a story like this it is important to check the wider literature, to make sure your sources aren't oddballs of some kind. I consulted the most comprehensive study ever done on Russia's demographic crisis, the massive 2009 UNDP-sponsored report entitled "Russia Facing Demographic Challenges" that was prepared by an all-Russian team of scientists, and covers virtually every aspect of the problem.

I also had a look at an almost equally weighty, but more recent (2011) study prepared by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, entitled "The Waning World Power" — here's an English-language version.

Over the years I have written on Russia's demographic crisis several times, and in the past I've been deeply indebted to the work of Murray Feshbach — whom I've had the pleasure of knowing personally — one of the leading demographers in the US, who has spent decades studying Russia's population decline. Some of his more recent articles can be found here and here.

To put it bluntly, the entire scientific literature on this subject agrees that the three points I outline above are factually accurate. Of course demography is a tricky science, and future projections may vary between more optimistic and more pessimistic ones. But they invariably predict radical, long-term depopulation for Russia. Indeed, the only person I've ever encountered who appears to argue otherwise is Mr. Adomanis.

On his specific points of criticism:

First, he accuses me of misstating the fertility rate of Russian women, which I said stood at 1.4 babies-per-woman in 2010. I got that figure from the US Census Bureau's international data base, which can be accessed here. Mr. Adomanis' second complaint is that I employed data from the US Census Bureau, rather than Russia's official statistical service Rosstat.

Well, I did that because one of the experts I interviewed said she was dubious about Rosstat's figures, which are somewhat more rosy than those employed by the global community, and pointed to the long-standing tendency of Russian state statisticians to tweak their data to please politicians. If Rosstat's figures were wildly different from those that are generally accepted, I would have had a duty to my readers to at least mention that. But, the thing is, they're not.

Rosstat puts Russia's fertility rate at just over 1.5 babies-per-woman, which may be a difference that demographers can get excited about, but it is not one that changes the basic outlook in any way: the level at which populations become sustainable, according to all sources, is 2.1 babies-per-woman.

Next, Mr. Adomanis takes me to task for saying that Russia's death rate "has stabilized" in recent years rather than saying it's shown improvement. Actually, the passage in my story reads: "And there have been some successes in the past few years. Death rates have stabilized, birth rates rose markedly over the past decade, and male life expectancy has jumped from a low of 58 years in 2003 to 63 today." Then follows a quote from demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky, who is one of the authors of the massive UNDP population report, who states flatly that the improvements are not enough to overcome the negative trends, and that the recent growth in birth rates are already flagging. On this point, it’s not clear what Mr. Adomanis' argument is, except that he seems displeased with the conclusion that the population crisis remains with us.

[Editor’s note: according to Rosstat data, the death rate trend has settled at 14.7 percent, which is the average for post-Soviet Russia. In other words, the rate has in fact “stabilized.” See this posting for more information.]

The other main point on which Mr. Adomanis takes issue is my citation of a 2009 report from the medical journal, The Lancet, which found alcohol abuse leads to 600,000 (mostly male) premature deaths in Russia each year. That study can be found here.

Mr. Adomanis slams the report in The Lancet (a highly respected medical journal) as outdated and based on bad methodology. The Lancet is hardly the only piece of evidence pointing to catastrophic rates of alcoholism in Russia, which continue to impact heavily on the country's population dynamics. But, again, virtually all experts say the same thing.

A couple of years ago I covered the campaign launched by President Dmitry Medvedev aimed at countering Russia's tidal wave of alcohol abuse. I quoted President Medvedev as saying the problem is a "national disaster. . . The alcohol consumption we have is colossal. ... I have been astonished to find that we drink more now than we did in the 1990's, even though those were very tough times." And this is from a guy who definitely gets his data from Rosstat.

My personal, anecdotal observations jibe very closely with what the experts say. A couple of years ago I traveled out to several Volga towns (Myishkin, Ryabinsk, Yaroslavl) with a group of Russian doctors who were touring local orphanages. Everywhere we found the orphanages stuffed with children, the vast majority of whom were not technically orphans at all, but children who'd been abandoned by or taken away from incompetent parents. In Ryabinsk, a former closed military-industrial city, I was told the city had one orphanage in 1991; it has six now. Every doctor, child care worker and official that I talked with specifically identified rampant alcoholism as the prime cause, the scourge that is blighting their communities.

So, if Russia's mass alcoholism catastrophe is a thing of the past, as Mr. Adomanis appears to be alone in claiming, I'm going to take a good deal more convincing.

Given the consensus of expert opinion on these matters, I found myself wondering why Mr. Adomanis had singled me out for special attention. But now I see that he didn't.

A very similar blog post by him, also on the Forbes website here, attacks a recent Foreign Affairs article by Nicholas Eberstadt, entitled "The Dying Bear," in rather similar terms. Mr. Eberstadt's piece, which is an exhaustive, scholarly review of the evidence, comes to extremely dire conclusions about Russia's demographic future. Mr. Adomanis' subsequent attack blog accuses Mr. Eberstadt of being "consistently hysterical" and littering his piece with "legerdemain."

Which leads to the question, who is Mark Adomanis, and why is he saying these things? His thumbnail bio suggests he is a student, who has "been lucky enough to be educated first at Harvard and then at Oxford." In which subjects, he doesn't say. Other blog postings of his suggest a strong interest in Russian politics, and the fact that he is an occasional contributor on the Kremlin-funded English-language satellite news station Russia Today, or RT as it prefers to be known. Beyond that, he doesn't provide enough information to answer the question.

In any case, we do have something in common after all. I have had a lifelong fascination with Russia — I've lived and worked as a journalist in Moscow for the past 25 years — and I happen to have been a fairly frequent guest commentator on RT.

I'm not going to question Mr. Adomanis' motives. However, I do have my doubts about his expertise. And on one matter I am certain: when he accuses me of bad journalism, he is wrong.

 Editor's note: Read also GlobalPost's response to Mr. Adomanis.