Rosstat just released its latest batch of demographic indicators, and the dying bearwould appear to have a little fight left in it. Compared to the analagous January-July period of 2011, the birth rate increased by 6.7%, the death rate decreased by 2.9%, and the rate of natural population loss plummeted by 60% (from 138,000 in 2011 to just 57,000 in 2012). These trends are in keeping with the broadly positive ones that have been visible over the past eight years.
Russian demographics have now improved to the point that if the trends of the first half of 2012 hold for the rest of the year, that is if the birth rate for the whole year increases by around 6.7% and the death rate for the whole year decreases by around 2.9%, then Russia will actually record a small natural increase in population. The following graph shows how dramatic this turnaround is when compared with the countrys recent demographic trajectory:
Now Russias death rate is still way too high, and theres absolutely no reason for a country with Russias level of wealth and education to have a mortality rate so elevated. Much more progress can be made if better policies are implemented and if the authorities make health a greater priority: an effective and well-funded health system should be able to reduce Russias still-high death rate by anywhere from 20-30%. Likewise, Russias birthrate is still significantly lower than it was in the mid to late 1980s, when many of the people now entering prime child-bearing age were born, and it will need to keep increasing if the country is to avoid potentially crippling shortages of workers decades down the line. But when you compare Russias demographic performance over the past several years to the apocalyptic forecasts that were, and are, routinely made about it, you have to admit that it has consistently surprised on the upside.
Ive been reading about Russian health and demographics for quite a few years now, and I feel quite confident in saying that if I had stood up back in 2005 (a year during which Russia naturally shrank by over 840,000) and said in 2012 the Russian population will grow naturally I would have immediately been dragged off to an insane asylum. Russias recent demographic improvements do not mean that it is poised to run roughshod over its neighbors, or that it is going to present any kind of threat to Europe or the United States. They do strongly suggest, however, that narratives about endless Russian decline, decay, and collapse need to be urgently revisited and revised.
While Putinism is not in any way justified by the demographic improvements that have taken place over the past eight years, Ive repeatedly argued that representative government is an intrinsic good and not part of a utilitarian calculus, the fact that Russians are living longer and having more children ought to factor in to how we view the place. Or to put it differently: while Americans might think that Putinism is the worst thing ever, judging by their behavior Russians have a somewhat different view.