It's just plain wrong to say Russia's demographic problems are greater than those of Italy
It is true that the Russian Federation suffered a harrowing demographic collapse during the 1990′s. The wrenching transition from a planned economy to a more market-based one did not go smoothly, to say the least, and amidst the “transformative recession” that followed the removal of government price controls unemployment surged, wages collapsed, and accumulated savings were inflated away to nothing.
To make a long story short: during the 1990′s the Russian population was buffeted by a scarcely imaginable series of economic and political shocks, shocks which resulted in a horrifying surge in alcohol-related deaths along with an explosion in deaths from “external causes” (murder, suicide, accidents). The number of “excess deaths,” deaths which would not have occurred had previously mortality and life expectancy rates been maintained, was at least 2 million and arguably quite a bit more. This all suggested a widespread social collapse on a scale similar to that which would be experienced by a country which had fought and lost a major war.
Russia’s nightmarish experience during the 1990′s has permeated the popular consciousness, and it is now common knowledge in the political class that Russia is a “dying nation” with extraordinarily bleak future prospects. Both Obama (“the population is shrinking…history is on our side”) and Biden (“they’re clinging to something that is not sustainable”) have publicly gone on the record with dismissive views about Russia’s future course, as have analysts of a decidedly more conservative persuasion.
Just this past week Kevin Drum of Mother Jones waded into similar waters:
Still, much of Russia’s foreign policy is driven by the brutal fact that it has an economy about the size of Italy’s and demographic problems even worse than Italy’s, but still wants to be thought of as a great world power.
I don’t want to beat up on Drum. As the short collection of links above ought to indicate, his is a thoroughly bi-partisan, consensus position. It’s basically taken as a given that Russian demographic trends are uniquely horrible, and that this will dramatically curtail the country’s power projection capabilities in the future.
But when you look at actual fertility data from the World Bank, the picture you get is just a little bit different. Russia’s long-term demographic prognosis is clearly better than Italy’s: over the past four decades fertility has been about 15% higher in Russia than in Italy. Even more interestingly, this difference has grown substantially over just the past decade. In recent years Russia’s fertility rate has rebounded to around 1.75, while Italy’s has stagnated at around 1.4. The damage from the 1990′s collapse is real and will prove lasting. But over both the long and short terms Russia’s fertility rate has been noticeably higher than Italy’s.
Indeed when you look broadly at the past four decades, you see that Russia’s supposedly uniquely terrible demographics almost precisely match the European Union’s: since 1975, they’ve had essentially identical birthrates. The data suggests that there is little, if any, fundamental difference between Russia’s long-term population trends and Europe’s: both are fated to experience significant long-term shrinkage.
The point isn’t that “Russia is awesome!” The underlying demographic trends suggest that the Kremlin will face significant and mounting long-term population challenges, challenges that are likely to place sharp limits on the quantity of resources that can be devoted to military spending or various other kinds of international adventures. But Russia’s challenges aren’t unique nor are they particularly severe. The EU average presented above masks enormous differences between different countries. Some countries, such as Sweden, the UK, and France, seem set to experience significant long-term population growth. Other countries, like Germany, Italy, Greece, and Spain, are going to have population crises that are likely to be significantly more acute than Russia’s.
Despite our greater awareness of Russia’s population problems, the data shows that it is the rule rather than the exception.