A demographic tragedy is unfolding in Russia. I have stated many times in previous blogs that demographics is the one statistic that is difficult to manipulate when discussing the future of any country. Population statistics are set for the future by the population already born. For example, the number of 20-year-olds in 20 years’ time is already known because they are already born. Similarly, the number of 40-year-olds in 40 years’ time is already known…and so on. This holds true for all population statistics baring mass genocide, pandemics, war and massive migrations.
The demographics for Russia today are poignant. The current life expectancy of Russian males aged 15 has dropped by 5 years to a level equivalent to Haiti. The number of Russians born in April 2022 is no higher than it was during the months of Hitler’s occupation in World War II. This is partially because of the number of men of fighting age who are dead or in exile; over 250,000 Russian men have been killed in Ukraine according to some estimates, and somewhere between 500,000 and a million young people have fled the country. Russian women now out-number Russian men by over 10 million. The combination of the demographics, and the dead and fled, have profound implications for the future of Russia.
I am reminded of the effect of Britain loosing virtually a whole generation of young men in the trenches of World War I. That economic and human resource loss reduced Britain from the world’s dominant power to an “also-ran”.
I remember visiting the “Lost Gardens of Helican” in Devon. These were amazing gardens before World War I, which had developed cultivation and irrigation techniques that allowed them to grow many exotic fruits like bananas and apricots. Out of 28 gardeners employed, only one returned alive from the trenches of France. The estate closed, Mother Nature took over, and the gardens were “lost” for more than half a century.
However, the roots of Russia’s population problem go back much further than just the Ukraine War. The overall population dropped from 149 million in 1994, to 145 million in 2021. According to UN projections it will drop to 120 million in 50 years. That would take Russia from the sixth-most-populated country in 1994 to the 15th most populated country 50 years later. There are all sorts of reasons for the decline of a country, but a shrinking young population and a growing old population are among the most profound.
There are additional social changes that will also affect the future of Russia, alcoholism being a major one for Russian males. Russian men now die six years earlier than men in Bangladesh and eighteen years younger than men in Japan. Please re-read those last two numbers.
In Western nations, education plays a key role in supporting the social fabric of the country. However, in Russia, despite one of the best education levels of over-25-year-olds, the exodus of young educated Russians, has skewed this traditional advantage; for example, in 2022, over 10% of IT workers left the country.
The overall prospects are dim. Results from a diminishing population, the pandemic (1.2 – 1.6 million dead, in a population of 149 million), an aging population with a diminished life expectancy, the exodus of the young and educated, and the war in Ukraine, are combining to present Russia with an immense challenge, which the Kremlin seems unable to acknowledge; at least Vladimir Putin seems unable, or unwilling, to accept.
Putin’s craving for conquest, his personal vendetta against the West, his Napoleonic zeal in trying to re-establish and expand the former Russian Empire under the Tsars, and his myopic disregard for his people and the realities of his demographics, will very possibly eliminate any threat he can pose to Europe and the West in the future, without any outside intervention. The problem facing Europe is what he might do in the meantime.
I am grateful for an article in The Economist, which provided the statistics and information I have used for this blog. The opinions are mine.