Saturday, January 26, 2019

Rapid Population Growth Brought Down Russian Empire, Statistics Suggest

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 25 – At a time when Russians are focusing on their demographic decline, one Russian commentator has recalled that rapid population growth in Russia in the past helped to destroy the Russian Empire because, in the words of Stanislav Vorobyev, this was an opponent against which there was no effective weapon that could be deployed. 

            Between 1897 and 1913, the population of the Russian Empire grew by 33 percent, far outstripping emigration, new land, or productivity and driving down the average age to under 19, with two-thirds of the population being younger 30, with most of these rural and with little education, the Svobodnaya pressa writer says (

                That created a favorable seedbed for the growing of radical trends, a situation that was radicalized by Russia’s involvement in World War I, in which the Russian Army mobilized almost 15.5 million people. As a result, “semi-literate rural youth received a coat, a gun and a primary agitation which allowed it to reach agitation leaflets.”

            “After that,” Vorobyev says, “everything was only a question of technique.”

            Given this demographic explosion, the only policies that made sense were to resettle people in the borderlands, expand the industrialization of the country and increase labor productivity both in agriculture and in industry. But those things required some years of peace, and World War I blocked them.

            As a result, the commentator says, that war and the civil war that followed meant that Russia’s “’human capital’ was spent in the most insane way.”

            Vorobyev’s argument is important in terms of the end of the Russian Empire, but it is even more important now to provide context for the debates about what the Russian Federation must do to cope with population decline. That is because it is a reminder that population growth, especially rapid growth, can be a problem too and not the simple salvation many believe.

            Indeed, when a country’s population is growing more slowly or not at all, that reduces many of the pressures on society and the political system that may otherwise be too great for the system to cope with, outcomes that radical pro-natalist advocates all too often ignore or forget. 

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