Is The Russian Federation Imploding?

My Forbes colleague Ilan Berman has written what sounds like an extremely provocative book about Russia’s “implosion” and what the “end” of the country means for the United States. Here’s how the book’s Amazon blurb describes its thesis:

Today, Putin’s Russia is fast approaching a social and political crisis—one that promises to be every bit as profound as the fall of the USSR. Author Ilan Berman tackles the crisis that has Russia on the fast track to ruin, and the grave danger Russian collapse poses to America’s security, in his new book,Implosion.

I don’t want to get into a shouting match about Russian demographics since that would be in poor taste and wouldn’t actually do anything to advance the debate. What I want to do is inject just a little bit of comparative perspective on Russia’s demographic trends by analyzing it alongside other countries in Europe.

First, let’s take a look at fertility since it’s the single most important driver of population growth or decline. Here’s how Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) compares to the weighted averages of Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Ukraine) and Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom):

Notice how it’s not that different? In fact, if you average the TFRs over the entire time period in the graph you get the following results:

  • Western Europe: 1.54
  • Russia: 1.57
  • Eastern Europe: 1.58

In other words, since 1983 Russia’s fertility rate has been virtually identical to the average for the rest of Europe. Its fertility pattern is just not exceptional for its region.

But what about Russia’s overall level of population change? How does that compare to other countries in the region?

Russia’s population is currently slightly higher than it was in 1983. That’s not rocketing growth, but I hardly think it qualifies as “implosion.” In contrast, a number of post-Communist countries, several of which have fully integrated into the West’s economic, political, and military structures, really have imploded. Since 1983 Bulgaria’s population has slumped by almost a full 20%. The Baltics, everyone’s favorite low-tax and low-regulation capitalist powerhouses, have lost around 15% of their residents. Ukraine has lost about 10% of its population. And Hungary, Romania, and Croatia have all shrank by more than 5% since 1983. As you can clearly see in the chart, Russia’s performance has been exactly the same as the Czech Republic’s. And the Czech Republic is not the first country that comes to mind when the subject is demographic apocalypse and disaster.

What about Russia life expectancy? Is it on a downward trend? Here’s what’s happened since 1991

Russian life expectancy is actually higher now than it was in 1991. It’s still not particularly high by international standards, but since it is higher now than it was twenty two years ago, and since it has increased every year since 2004, I don’t think it makes much sense to describe it as “declining.” In fact, if the trends that were evident in the first eight months of 2013 continue for the rest of the year, it seems likely that Russian life expectancy will set a new record.

I suppose that it’s entirely possible for someone to look at all of this data and decide that Russia is doomed anyway. I am certainly not suggesting that my (relatively optimistic) take is the only possible one. But what appears to be missing from Berman’s analysis, and what is often missing from the analysis of the “dying bear” school, is that Russia’s fundamental demographic trends are broadly similar to those of a wide swath of Western and Eastern Europe. Is Russian mortality still higher than in the rest of the region? Yes. Do Russians still drink too much? Yes. But long-term population change is ultimately driven by the fertility rate and by migration, when you look at both of those metrics Russia is not a poor performer or a strange outlier.


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