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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Counting the Missing People

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The State Statistics Service recently published its latest data on the country's population, which it said was 143.3 million as of April 1 -- a drop of 224,000 from the beginning of the year. If we carry on dying off at this rate, there will be just over 142 million of us left at the beginning of next year.

In 2004, according to the service, Russia's natural population loss was almost 800,000 people. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin once again declared in his state-of-the-nation address in May that boosting the country's population was a priority task for the state. But the downward trend in the population is not being reversed.

If the population continues to shrink at current rates, the it will fall to a mere 100 million in 50 years. In several regions the population is already extremely low. For example, in the Republic of Buryatia, the population density is three people per square kilometer. But this is only the average: In several parts of this depopulated Siberian region -- which borders China, with its population of 1.5 billion -- the population density is under one person per square kilometer. In other regions of Russia the situation is no better, with the death rate exceeding the birth rate in 71 of the 88 -- on average by 50 percent. In densely populated regions like Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov, and Samara, the death rate has in recent years outstripped the birth rate by two to 2 1/2 times.

In 2001, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry forecast that Russia's population would shrink by "just" 700,000 in 2004. This did not happen. The ministry proposes, while Russians' social and economic situation disposes. More accurately, it does not dispose them to overcome the demographic crisis of the last 13 straight years. What are the main reasons for this crisis?

Conventional wisdom cites the lowbirth rate, but conventional wisdom is wrong. Demographic concepts like "population loss" and "population growth" are the result of the relationship between the birth and death rates. If the first is higher than the second, we see population growth, and vice versa.

Over the last five years, Russia's population has dropped even as its birth rate has risen -- almost 300,000 more Russians were born in 2004 than in 1999, and the figure topped 1.5 million for the first time since 1992. However, this is still far below the number at the beginning of the 1980s, when there was concern over the fact that the number of Russians born every year had fallen to 2.2 million. The numbers were better in 1986 and 1987, when some 2.5 million Russians came into the world each year.

But, to return to the last five years, in 2003 the death rate was the highest in the last half century, at 2.37 million. This comes against a backdrop of economic growth stretching back over five years to 1999. By comparison, at the start of the 1980s the death rate in Russia was just over 1.5 million people per year.

But this is not all. If we apply the same methods used to number the victims of Soviet-era political repression to calculate Russia's post-1991 population loss, then we obtain what is at first glance the fantastic figure of almost 20 million people. However, a closer examination reveals that there is nothing fantastical at all about it.

As a base for our calculations, let us take the relatively good year of 1991, when Russia's population reached its all-time high of 148 million. When radical reforms started in 1992, the population began to fall -- by some 220,000 in 1992 alone. Since 1993, the rate of loss has not dropped under 700,000 per year, and in some years -- such as 2000 -- it was close to 1 million.

In total, in the 13 years since the launch of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's liberalization campaign in 1992, Russia's population has fallen by 10.4 million.

Thus, starting with a simple calculation -- 148 million minus 10.4 million -- Russia's population today should be not 143 million, but 137.6 million. The 6 million people who have weakened the demographic decline came from an obvious source -- other former Soviet republics. Incidentally, the figure of 6 million is more or less compatible with the very rough data from the Interior Ministry, which says 5 million to 10 million citizens of the former Soviet Union have come to Russia in that period. Taking the higher of those two figures for repatriates -- 10 million -- makes the picture regarding the demographic catastrophe even more shocking.

But this is not the end of the arithmetic. For more than 40 years after 1945, Russia (in its incarnation as a Soviet republic) registered continuous population growth. The figures varied, naturally, but in the 13 years up to the start of the liberal reforms -- from 1979 to 1991 -- Russia's population grew by some 9 million people.

Thus, had it not been for the tremendous upheavals that Russia suffered from 1992 to 2004, the country's indigenous population -- or those permanent residents from before 1991 and their offspring -- would be not 143 million, as it is today, but 157 million (taking into account the 148 million in 1991 plus growth of 9 million from 1992 to 2004). Adding the 5 million to 10 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Russia since 1991 would give us a number between 162 million and 167 million. This is what Russia's population should be today.

However, in 2005, there were just 143 million Russians, and the population continues to shrink.

So what is the reason for this ongoing catastrophe, despite seven straight years of economic growth? Why is this growth not having an influence on Russia's demographic situation? The answer is relatively straightforward -- because the results of this growth are enjoyed by a very narrow group of people in big business that share some of that money only in the form of payoffs to government officials at various levels. What falls to the population from the very wealthy are mere crumbs.

Tellingly, some 60 percent of all deaths in modern Russian are the result of cardiovascular disease. The reasons behind this -- in addition to the alcoholism that has swept a country that even previously had always liked its drink -- are largely negative social factors such as hard work (lots of people are now working 12- to 14-hour days, with one day off a week, or holding down two or three jobs simultaneously), anxiety over possible job loss, unemployment and insecurity about the future. The meager salaries and pensions received by a significant number of Russians, coupled with inflation, are also factors.

The radical reforms of the early 1990s represented a double blow for the country's population, in the form of economic hardship and uncertainty about the future. These conditions bear the greatest responsibility for the demographic crisis the country is still experiencing today.

Alexander Zhelenin is a freelance journalist working in Moscow.