Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Faster Moscow and Petersburg Grow, the More Rapidly the Rest of Russia Hollows Out

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 23 – The two most important demographic trends in Russia today is the flight of population from the east to the west, and the movement of people from the provinces to the major cities – and above all, the urban agglomerations of Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to Nikita Mkrtchyan.

            Both Soviet and post-Soviet governments have tried to limit the growth of the cities, the Higher School of Economics demographer says, but without any success; and the collapse of subsidies to get Russians to move east and north has meant that they are flowing west and south (

                The combined consequence of these two trends, he continues, is that Moscow and Petersburg continue to expand and thereby contribute to the hollowing out of the rest of Russia and especially the Middle Volga and Siberia, a development that is so fraught with consequences for the country that one is compelled to ask “whenever will this end?”

            Mrkrtchyan points out that this development has many consequences for both the cities and the countryside. One of the most striking if least commented upon is that “at a minimum 90 percent of current urban residents have either parents or grandparents who are from the villages and countryside” and thus are more incompletely urbanized than many might expect.

            In the Soviet period, “the population of rural areas and small cities grew – and that compensated for the outflow of population to the cities.”  But after 1991, the population stopped growing and so there was nothing to compensate for losses caused by outmigration and both rural areas and smaller cities began to decline in size.

            In-migration from CIS countries between 1990 and 2016 numbered more than nine million, which compensated for about 70 percent of the Russian population decline; but almost all of this flowed to the cities and especially the two capitals, thus exacerbating the situation in smaller cities and rural areas. 
                In fact, Mrkrtchyan says, outside the capitals, “foreign migration compensated not so much for depopulation as for the outflow of their population” to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  And that was only in the regions of the European portion of the country and areas adjoining Kazakhstan. In the eastern part of the country, migrants from post-Soviet countries were unwilling to resettle.”

            During Soviet times, he continues, “people went ‘North’ for ‘the long ruble’ [high, subsidized pay] but now the ruble has become longer in the west and the vector of migration has changed direction. Especially rapidly have declined the number of residents of the Far East,” with 90 percent of its 1.8 million decline from 1990 to 2016 heading west.

                At the same time, “depopulation did not play such a role there as in Western parts of the country [such as predominantly ethnic Russian regions west of the Urals]: the population here is as before younger, and in a number of regions (Tyva, Sakha and Buryatia) [all non-Russian] a relatively high birthrate remained.” 

            Rosstat has made three estimates about the future of Russia’s population, high, mid-range and low; but “only in the optimistic” high one will the population outside of the capitals grow over the next 30 years – and that would require radical changes in behavior that few experts expect.

            The most likely pattern will see “the largest losses” in the Volga and Central Russian regions: “they will suffer both from depopulation and from outmigration.” The situation in the Far East while dire will not be as bad as in these two areas because the remaining population is relatively younger although it too will likely continue to fall, Mrkrtchyan says.

            The most pessimistic projections show Moscow’s population rising to 14 percent of the country’s total by 2030, a high figure but not as high as in many places where the capital city accounts for up t 30 percent of the population.  But what is worrisome is that few other Russian cities are population magnets.

            Policies adopted up to now have done little to change that, the demographer says. “What is required is a radical restructuring of socio-economic and budgetary policy and enormous investments in infrastructure,” none of which appear likely anytime soon.

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