That’s not it at all (Russian demographics)

Masha Gessen’s review of two books on Russian demography in the NYRB begins with her account of a personal experience from the 1990s:

People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

In his riposte in Forbes, Mark Adomanis does little to address the inescapable feeling Gessen attempts to communicate – the sense of Russians dying “before [their] time is due”. Gessen is hardly the only person of her age to detect that sad phenomenon from first-hand experience. Adomanis, who is much younger (1965 vs 1984 or 85) merely claims that Gessen’s evidence is outdated – that things have changed.

Perhaps they have, but where can I find data for that specific cohort, the “everybody” of Gessen’s review – let’s say inhabitants of Central Russia born in the 1950s through the 1970s? Have they stopped dying, or is their evanescence merely obscured by some other group of (younger?) Russians multiplying happily?

Adomanis prefers to speak about Russia as a whole and believes that Gessen is ignoring recent trends: Russia is no longer “dying”. That’s missing the point. First, Gessen’s piece is a book review and has to rely on the data in the books under review, somewhat outdated as good research takes time to edit and publish. Second, the most recent population data suggests that Central Russia is still dying out, although at a lower rate than 10 years ago. To put it differently, natural population growth in Central Russia remains negative, although the decline has considerably slowed down since 2005.

The rest of this post is a closer look at some demographic data for 2004-14. Russia’s state statistics service maintains a useful free database at, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in Russia and some knowledge of the language. I am suspicious of population estimates between censuses because interregional migration is difficult to assess but I trust their data on organic, or natural, population growth because vital records are probably kept with reasonable accuracy across the country.

According to, Russia’s population started growing, year over year, in 2009 but only because of immigration as the natural growth rate remained negative. It was only in 2013 that both total and organic growth turned positive, although the organic increment made up only 8% of total population growth. But how was it distributed geographically?

The tables below summarize my calculations from data. I have looked at four large parts of Russia. The first is “the Core” or “the Center”: in this Wiki map, it is districts 1, 5, and 6, that is the Central, Volga, and Northwestern federal districts. Then comes “the East”: the Urals, Siberian and Far Eastern districts, coded 2, 3, 4 on the map. Next, “the South”: for my purposes it is the Southern district of Russia (number 7) plus the Stavropol kray, region 49 on the map, whose settlement history and ethnic makeup are closer to Krasnodar in the Southern district than to North Caucasian republics. Finally, “North Caucasus” is the North Caucasian federal district (8) without the Stavropol kray.

Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.
Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.

Two things are clear: the natural growth trend has been positive in the Center, East and South since 2010 but the population of Central Russia is still declining: no longer at the rate of 600k+ per year as in 2004-5, but by a hardly intangible 125k in 2013, of which 90k was contributed by the Central federal district. The South got close to zero growth in 2013 but was still technically in the red. The East has been growing, propelled by the Urals, since 2009 – but not enough to offset the dying Center. Without the Northern Caucasus, Russia’s organic population change would have been negative in 2013.

Natural growth in the North Caucasus peaked in 2011 and has edged down slightly since, in contrast to the other three areas, but it remains incredibly high by Russian standards. In per mille terms, it was 12.5 in 2013, way ahead of 2.7 in the Urals and 1.9 in the whole East, to say nothing of the declining areas. It cannot be said that all of Russia’s organic population growth is due to the Caucasus, but that underindustrialized peripheral area with less than 5% of total population is contributing more to population growth than the whole area from the Urals to the Pacific with 26% of total.

More detailed breakdown of 2013 data
More detailed breakdown of 2013 data

I have also looked at the preliminary data for January-July 2014. The Center looks set to lose about 100k in 2014. On the other hand, the positive trend is still here. The negative 7-month totals are due to seasonality: December through May see more deaths than June through November, with January leading the death count.

Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014
Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014

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