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Despite Recession 2015 Will Be a Good Demographic Year for Russia

Data is essentially the same as for 2014 which was the best year since the dissolution of the Soviet Union


The last time I checked in on Russia’s demographic situation, things didn’t look too great. 

Early in the year, the death rate was showing alarming signs of a broad-based increase, as deaths from heart disease, cancer, and respiratory ailments were all up by more than 3% on a year-over-year basis.

The birth rate hadn’t moved very much (it was down, but only fractionally) but the general situation looked rather scary: as Russia’s economy was entering recession, it seemed that many long-term and unaddressed health problems were reasserting themselves with ever-greater force.

The idea that recessions have a negative impact on population movements is, by this point in time, broadly accepted, even here in the US. Census data clearly show that the “great recession,” exerted massive downward pressure on the birth rate, a decline which has substantially outlived the recession itself.

Recent scholarly work by Angus Deaton and Anne Case (while not immune from controversy!) also suggests that deep-seated economic problems are increasingly wreaking havoc with the health of working class whites. Basically, even in rich democracies, big changes in the economic environment can have significant impact on birth and death rates.

With all of that as background it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the demographic situation in Russia was continuing to deteriorate. Rosstat data show that the economy saw quarter-over-quarter growth in Q3, but that obscures the larger reality that the economy has been shrinking since the beginning of the year and is more than 4% smaller than it was at this point in 2014.

So although the economy as a whole might have already bottomed out, the damage done to Russians’ pocketbooks is significant. Real wages are down by roughly 11%, unemployment is on the rise, and inflation is running at well over 10%. Declining wages, rising inflation, and increasing unemployment is not a propitious formula for demographic stability.

Rosstat’s latest population figures, however, show that the terrible performance of early 2015 might very well have been a statistical blip. Through the first 10 months of the year, there has been no meaningful statistical change in the death rate.

Total deaths are up by 2,500, or roughly 0.15%. The 0.7% decrease in the birth rate is slightly more disconcerting, but the data doesn’t suggest the kind of mortality surge that accompanied the post-default recession of the “transformative recession” of the 1990s.

Indeed, given the continued aging of Russia’s population (which, all things being equal, would be expected to exert upward pressure on the crude death rate) it now seems likely that Russian life expectancy will set a new record in 2015.

Different people will, of course, come to different interpretations about the meaning of the data cited above. Personally, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the (temporary?) stability of Russian demographic trends amidst a significant deterioration in the economic environment. Things can change quickly, and it’s entirely possible that, by early 2016, the data will look entirely different.

But what clearly seems to be the case is that the Russian population is more resilient to economic fluctuations than was the case in the 1990s. Back then, the sharp post-default downturn in the Russian economy caused an enormous spike (roughly 8%!) spike in the death rate and a further nose-dive in births.

That’s simply not happening today, as Russia is in essentially the exact same demographic position that it was in 2014, which itself was better than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Maybe Russia will enter a “death spiral,” but the data show that it’s not there yet.

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