Russia’s Out-Migration – the “Third Wave”

Putin and Medvedev

In a speech to the Russian Duma (Parliament) on May 10, 2006, then-President Putin called the problem of Russia’s dramatic population decline “the most acute problem of contemporary Russia.”  His successor, Dmitri Medvedev, has expressed similar concerns.  It is hard to avoid the harsh reality that Russia is experiencing a population decline of major proportions.  In fact, Chinese experts who are tracking Russia’s low birth rates have described Russia as “the world’s largest dying nation.”

When the Soviet Union came to an end, the population of the country was 148 million.  Twenty years later, Russia’s population is 143 million and population experts are predicting it will decease to 116 million by the year 2050.  If this occurs and the current spending rates continue, government age-related expenditures will increase from 13% to 25% of Russia’s gross domestic product.

The primary causes of this decline are a high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, and low level of immigration.  Russia’s death rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 people per year is far higher than the world’s average of just under 9.  The World Health Organization estimates the life expectancy of Russian men at 59 years, while women’s life expectancy is considerably higher at 72 years.  Alcoholism among Russian men is the primary cause of this difference.

In addition, Russia’s birth rate of 10 births per 1,000 people is half the world average.  Russian news services report that there are more abortions than births in Russia, estimating 13 abortions for every 10 live births.

These factors, together with a low level of immigration from former republics of the Soviet Union, are creating a major obstacle in the path of Russia’s future development.  For Kremlin leaders, the three most striking features of these data points are as follows:

  • the overall decline with all of its implications for the loss of a future labor force and recruits for the military services;
  • the worsening of the gender imbalance with women now 54% of the population; and,
  • the relative decline of the ethnic Russian share of the population and the growth of ethnic minority populations, especially Muslims.

The “Third Wave”

The newest related trend, however, appears to be tied to the current political realities in Russia.  Businesses that facilitate the relocation of Russian citizens overseas are reporting record numbers of clients.  One expert said, “It seems that the whole generation of 25- to 45-year old Russians is actively thinking about running away, especially considering the prospect of seeing the same people in power for another 12 years, starting in 2012.”

Analysts are calling this the “third wave” of out-migration.  The first wave came in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union imploded and the country struggled through outbreaks of anarchy during Yeltsin’s administration.  The second came following the 1998 financial crisis and before Yeltsin transferred power to Putin at the end of 1999.

The exact number of Russians who are fleeing the country is hard to pin down, but if the movement of people cannot be precisely measured, the flow of dollars can.  Last year more than $38 billion in capital flight was recorded.

One businessman who works with Russians seeking to move overseas notes that “a third of my clients are doing it for the sake of their children; one-third are simply sick of corruption; and one-third are people who’ve amassed enough wealth and just feel like doing it because they can now afford to.”

Another analyst comments: “The scale of the outflow of the most talented young prospective professionals from Russia is almost beyond belief.”  While the exact numbers are not known, estimates run as high as 40-45,000 per year.  Approximately three million Russians are now ex-pats in the European Union. 

There are no easy answers to this complex of public policy challenges, but people of faith have an opportunity to take a public stand by emphasizing the importance of strong and healthy families and promoting a vibrant pro-life agenda.  These will be the future goals of the Russian-American Institute, goals that Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics can work toward together.