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  • The Paladins

Population decline in Russia and Ukraine: Towards an Explanation

Ever since the end of the Cold War, a consistent decline has been noticed in the population of the Soviet Union's two most populous republics - Russia and Ukraine. But nobody knows why this is taking place.

Russia's population in 1990 was 148 million. In 2021 it is 146 million. In Ukraine, the 1990 population was 52 million. Now it is an astonishing 43 million. You may not think these statistics remarkable; but you would be wrong. Global population in 1990 was 5.3 billion. In 2021 it is 7.9 billion. This is an increase of 49% over slightly more than 30 years. This increase is reflected in population growth statistics of virtually every country in the world - except Russia and Ukraine. What explains this?


There are common explanations heard far and wide. In the 1990's, it was said that Russia had a colossal rate of HIV infection. Like many touted explanations for Russian and Ukrainian population decline, this is an assertion for which there is statistical support. In both Russia and Ukraine, the rates of HIV infection are slightly less than 1%, compared to 0.17% in the United Kingdom and 0.13% in the United States. Nevertheless HIV is not the killer it was once imagined to be. With treatment, those with HIV can live indefinitely; without treatment, it is fatal within 8 to 10 years of infection. It is obvious that these statistics cannot explain even a moderate deduction from the global mean increase of 49%. In any event, hospitals and medical treatment in Russia and Ukraine are above global mean standards.


Russians and Ukrainians, perhaps as a feature of their intrinsically pessimistic cultural mentalities, love to complain about the poverty of the healthcare systems. True, in some regional provinces healthcare is diminished compared to that in the capitals and major cities. The public healthcare systems of both countries are fairly corrupt. But all of these things are true to far more substantial a degree in the majority of countries in the world. Public hospitals in the People's Republic of China are hardly a delight either; but the Chinese population has grown from 1.1 billion to 1.4 billion over the same period, notwithstanding the country's relatively poor public hospitals.


We must be careful in the comparisons we make, however; there are no reliable HIV infection rates for the People's Republic of China. Nevertheless the theory that Russians and Ukrainians are particularly promiscuous; this accounts for their higher HIV rates; and that explains why their population is shrinking (this theory was prevalent in the 1990's), is not supported by the statistics. Eswatini (the country formerly known as Swaziland) has the highest recorded HIV infection rate in the world, at over 27%. Nevertheless its population has risen from 880,000 in 1990 to 1.175 million in 2021. Whatever the reason for different levels of HIV infection in different countries (and this question in itself is far from clear), HIV infection rates are not substantially correlated with rates of population growth or shrinkage.


The idea that Russian and Ukrainian government standards are bad and this results in economic contraction and other matters that might disincline people to have children are not very plausible. True, government is bad in both of these countries. But it's also bad in a lot of countries where people are having a lot of children; Nigeria is one of many examples that comes to mind. Russia and Ukraine do not have a monopoly on bad government. Nor do they have a monopoly on bad weather (another theory sometimes heard, to the effect that it is too cold to reproduce). There are no statistics that support this; such statistics as do exist suggest that Russians and Ukrainians have relatively active sex lives. We cannot speculate like this, inferring patterns of sexual activity from how cold it is outside in certain months of the year. There is no reliable evidence supporting such unusual theories.


There are other theories we need to discount. One is alcohol abuse: the theory that Russians and Ukrainians drink themselves to early graves. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. Russians drink an average of something like 10 litres of pure alcohol a year. Ukraine is higher at almost 14. These numbers are fairly high; but Germany is 12.9 (as are Ireland and Latvia) and the Czech Republic is 14.4. All these countries have seen steady population growth. The Czech Republic has increased its population from 10.3 to 10.7 between 1990 and 2021, for example.


Another theory we should treat with scepticism is that everybody in Russia and Ukraine is leaving. Are they really, or is this just an elite top 1% or so that buys apartments in London and Dubai? That would not be anywhere near sufficient to explain the population drops in which we are interested. Ukrainians do emigrate; the statistics for 2019 suggest that 3.2 million Ukrainians live abroad. However 1.9 million of them are living in Russia, which is substantially wealthier than Ukraine. There may be some false accounting here: the population that disappears from Ukraine may not be recorded in the books of the predominant receiving state, Russia. Russia is a substantial receiver of immigrants from across the former Soviet Union and beyond, of whom most have Russian as a common language. Russia is a relatively easy country to emigrate to by international standards. One explanation of the population reductions may be pure statistics: most countries include immigrants in their population figures, whereas Russia may not do.


Poverty is likewise a poor explanation. Globally, poverty rates tend to be associated with higher childbirth rates and ballooning populations. While Ukraine is a poor country (GDP per capita USD3,700), Russia is not (GDP per capita USD10,100). One statistic which is more interesting is that women outlive men by substantial proportions in both such countries. The mean age of death in Russia is 65.1 years for men and 76.5 years for women. In Ukraine it is slightly better: 66.9 and 77. Relative poverty seems to have nothing to do with it. The consequent statistic, that there are more females than males in both Russian and Ukrainian societies, seems are mere corollary of the fact that women live longer - whatever the reason for that may be. Homicide rates are also very high in both Russia and Ukraine - but not enough to make statistically significant differences to population growth. Other than through horrendous war, homicides don't substantially change population levels. They're just too rare.


One possible explanation is a "gender bias" theory in favour of women: it is the men who are doing all the killing, drinking and HIV-dying, whereas the women are more responsible and hence live longer. If as a result there are more women than men, then there are fewer opportunities for women to have children because there aren't enough men for all of the women to have relationships with. This might be more to the truth. You can't have children if you don't have a partner. The principal source of Russia's and Ukraine's population decline may simply be the relative states of health of men versus women. If we want to reverse these population declines, then we need to encourage more Russian and Ukrainian men to live healthy lives, as (comparatively speaking) do their women.


It is not entirely obvious why Russian and Ukrainian men have relatively bad health habits. It is a global trend that women tend to live longer than men; but not by nearly so substantial a margin as is shown in Russia and Ukraine. Why are the men of these countries so comparatively lackadaisical about the state of their health? This may be a cultural matter that all of government, business and civil society need to address.