Saturday, July 25, 2020

Russia’s Population Decline Returning to Level of 1990s, Zhelenin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 23 – Even if one relies on official statistics which are in many ways suspect, Aleksandr Zhelenin says, the conclusion is inescapable that Russia’s demographic decline is being accelerated by the pandemic to levels not seen since the 1990s when the country had 500,000 more deaths than births each year.

            The downward trend of the Russian population has been in place for some time, the Rosbalt commentator says; the pandemic has only exacerbated it. But because the impact of what happens this year and next will continue for some time, the disastrous figures of 2020 are likely to be repeated for at least several years (

            During the first five months of this year, Rosstat figures show that in Russia deaths exceeded births by 181,000, 40,000 more than in the same period a year ago.  “If one extrapolates these figures,” Zhelenin says, then the figure for the entire year will be a decline of 500,000 to 600,000, not quite twice the figure of 316,000 in 2019.

            The pandemic is certainly responsible for much of this increase, although Rosstat suggests that the death rate for Russians infected by the coronavirus is only 1.6 percent, an improbable figure given that most other countries report far higher shares, ranging up to 15 percent, for example, in the case of the UK.

            Only three countries – Belarus, Turkmenistan, and North Korea – have better figures than Russia’s “phenomenal” one, the Rosbalt writer says.  That means either that Russian health care is vastly better than most countries, something contrary to the experience of Russians themselves, or that there is something in Russian genes that is protecting them.

            Zhelenin says that a more likely explanation is that “the real level of mortality from the pandemic or from causes triggered by it … is significantly higher than official statistics show.”  (Although he does not say so, it could also reflect the fact that many Russians with underlying conditions have already died whereas in other countries they have survived until the pandemic.)

            May featured especially disturbing figures. In that month, “almost 173,000” Russians died, 18,000 more than in May 2019. And because births fell dramatically at the same time, Russia’s natural population change amounted to a decline of 62,000, putting the country on track to decline by almost three quarters of a million people in this year alone.

            Even if as is possible the figures improve somewhat in the next few months, Zhelenin says, the demographic prospects for Russia in 2020 as a whole are going to be “disappointing.” Indeed, he suggests, they will return the country “to the level of the most difficult years of ‘the wild nineties.’”

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