The Depopulated Superpower
№3 2003 July/September
Anatoly Vishnevsky

Director of the Institute of Demography of the State University- Higher School of Economics. He holds a Doctorate in Economics.

Anatoly Vishnevsky, Doctor of Science (Economics), is
Director of the Demography and Human Ecology Center, Institute of
Economic Forecasting, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Анатолий Вишневский

The 20th century saw an explosion of the world population; the
21st century is likely to be a time of a great new resettlement of
peoples. This rather limited perspective is becoming apparent
today, although it is little understood by the policymakers and
analysts who are shaping the strategies for the new century. Russia
is now in the capacity of generals making preparations for a war of
the past as it attempts to enter the third millennium with
traditional stratagems, concepts and legal notions established in
the 20th or even the 19th century. Meanwhile, even if the world
were now as it used to be, demographic changes alone would be
enough to make the most advanced contemporary stratagems and
concepts into relics of some museum of history.

The new demographic situation is challenging all countries as
never before. This article is not intended to address all of the
in-depth aspects of such a challenge. Rather, this challenge will
be considered in the way that it affects Russia. Nevertheless, we
will see that the new demographic situation that seems to be
specifically Russian, will be largely typical of the situation now
existing in other countries.


The successes of many generations of Russian people who grew up
in the Soviet Union have been traditionally compared with the
achievements gained by 1913. This was the last peaceful year of the
Russian Empire before the tremendous upheavals of WWI and the
Bolshevik revolution, and has become a reference point for a large
number of analyses, especially that many of these comparisons
attempted to demonstrate the advances of the state. However, the
demographic changes embracing the period between 1913 and 2003 have
been very discordant. The full decade that is left to us before the
year 2013 promises a further reduction in Russia’s population. This
will make any comparison to the year 1913 increasingly less

The 20th century was a time of demographic modernization for
Russia, which resulted in new approaches toward reproductive rates;
these have become widespread in the industrially developed
countries, but were delayed from being introduced into Russia.
Today, Russia is confronted with conditions of low birth and death
rates. In the early 20th century the reproductive pattern in Russia
was considered to be ‘medieval’: the birth and death rates were
equally high. Today, to have the same end result, fewer children
are to be born, so the reproduction process has become more
efficient and “less energy consuming” than in 1913.

This fundamental modification has brought about many changes
that are generally considered to be positive attributes of
modernization: the near elimination of infant mortality, longer
lifetime expectancies, the emancipation of women and the
fulfillment of their self-realization, democratization of family
relations, the growing social investment in children, the growth of
education, and so forth. However, this modification has placed some
very serious challenges before Russia that will need to be answered
within the present century.


Today, one of the most obvious and perilous challenges
confronting Russia is a high and continuously increasing mortality

True, the demographic modernization processes have brought
drastic changes to mortality rates in Russia and elsewhere: the mid
1960s saw a sharp decline in mortality rates in comparison with
1913, whereas life expectancy actually doubled for males and even
more so for females (Table 1).

Table 1.  Life expectancy in Russia in 1913,
1964 and 2001

Year       Life expectancy Growth since 1913
Males Females Males Females
1913 г. 33,6 36,2
1964 г. 65,1 73,6 31,5 37,4
2001 г. 59,0 72,3 25,4 36,1

However, the successes have proven short-lived. The highest life
expectancy figures were achieved in 1964, while in the following
decades mortality rates in Russia, unlike other countries, showed
stagnation and even growth. By the beginning of the new century,
life expectancy had markedly declined, particularly for males, and
the gap between this country and other nations where this indicator
had been continuously increasing – widened and eventually exceeded
that of 1913.

Table 2. Life expectancy in other countries in 1913, 1964
and  2001 

(compare with Russia above)

Country Males Females
1913 г. 1964 г. 2001 г. 1913 г. 1964 г. 2001 г.
U.S.A. 18,1 1,7 15,2 19,2 0,2 7,6
France 15,8 2,6 16,5 17,3 1,3 10,7
Sweden 23,6 6,5 18,5 23,8 2,4 9,8
Japan 10,6 2,5 18,8 8,5 –0,8 36,1

Let historians analyze the developments in the USSR after 1964
that account for these figures; for a demographer it is apparent
that a decline in the mortality rate was not among the priorities
which Russian society sought to resolve in the late 20th century.
Those developments that involved the reduction of the mortality
rate no longer existed; the result was that the country suffered a
tremendous loss of life. According to estimates, failure to arrest
the high mortality rate cost Russia some 14 million premature
deaths between 1966 and 2000; of these, over 5 million were people
below the age of 65. Remarkably, over 80 percent of these numbers
were males. Not every war is capable of inflicting such damage.

Such a serious failure could not be the result of individual
factors, whatever their importance. The analysis requires a
systemic, critical approach to the principal objectives of society,
its priorities and, eventually, their fundamental revision.
However, this has not been accomplished to date, and the situation
is only deteriorating.

Currently, many people tend to explain the high mortality rate
by the momentous events that took place in Russia in the 1990s.
However, the pitifully low life expectancy of Russian males – less
than 59 years in 2001 – is in line with the trend that took shape
in 1963 and continued through 1983. That trend continues to

Russia would be grateful to have the mortality gap with the West
reduced at least by half by the year 2013. Unfortunately, there are
no signs of improvement any time soon: the mortality crisis in the
country has remained stubbornly persistent for the last four

A very real mortal challenge has been sent to Russia, but nobody
so far has dared take it up.


Being one of the most critical demographic challenges facing
Russia today, high mortality rates are not necessarily a condition
caused by modernization. It is rather the effect of various factors
that promote this condition. All other challenges are initiated
through the effects of modernization, which are not rooted in the
past, but in the present and the future. Therefore, they could be
considered more dangerous. The low fertility problem is one of

In 2000, fertility rates in Russia fell to their lowest levels
in its history – 1.21 births per woman. Combined with a high
mortality rate, these fertility rates could only ensure the
replacement of the present generation by 57 percent. The last few
years have witnessed a slightly higher fertility rate, but this
fact cannot give us much optimism. Fertility fluctuations under the
influence of momentary factors, both demographic and
non-demographic, are possible. However, there is little ground to
expect fertility rates to climb so high as to reach the level
necessary for the replacement of generations – 2.1 — 2.2 births per
woman (fertility rates in Russia have remained below this level
since the mid 1960s).

In 1964, for the first time in its history, fertility rates in
Russia went down below simple reproduction of the population —
earlier than in most industrialized nations. Today, most urbanized
industrialized countries have typically low or very low birth
rates. During the concluding year of the past century, fertility
rates were less than two children per woman in all advanced
countries, except the U.S.A. and New Zealand, and many countries
ranked very close to Russia (Germany and Poland – 1.34; Bulgaria
and Italy – 1.25; Spain and Slovenia – 1.22, Romania – 1.20; the
Czech Republic – 1.14, etc.)1. Furthermore, fertility rates
decreased below the level of a simple replacement of generations in
some less industrialized countries, particularly in China.

The very fact that low fertility rates are characteristic of all
industrialized and urbanized societies demonstrates that the
demographic crisis is not specifically a Russian phenomenon.
Instead, it may be more appropriate to speak of a general crisis
confronting modern civilization.

But is it actually a crisis? Would it be better, taking into
account the changes in people’s procreative behavior (together with
their consequences), to speak not about the catastrophically low
birth rates but rather about the opportunities that this
reorganization of the “public body” offers, that is, a possible
shift toward a better-quality life? The appealing nature of the low
fertility pattern in the majority of populations appears to be
deeply implanted in the lifestyles and the overall value system of
modern urban societies.

Moreover, if globalization – which is now so much talked about –
is not a mere phrase, the worldwide tendency for declining
fertility should be considered globally, in a much broader context
than just within an individual country. In fact, this tendency is a
clear manifestation of a systemic response to the global population
explosion and the increase of the load on the planet’s limited

Today, the main demographic problem confronting mankind is the
burgeoning global population, as opposed to its deficiency.
Therefore, from the viewpoint of universal interests, fertility
rates remaining below the level of simple reproduction on a global
scale should not be considered a negative development, but a boon.
Low fertility is the sole factor for stopping the global
demographic explosion and reducing the world population to a size
that is in proportion to the limited life-support opportunities
available on the planet. Accordingly, decreasing fertility in
Russia, as well as in the West, can be considered as an episode in
the commencing global transition from growth to reduction of the
world population. Then the low modern fertility pattern should be
understood as a proof of modern civilization’s tremendous
adaptability, rather than its decline and fall, as too many people
argue today. Having opened up new opportunities for an
unprecedented reduction of the mortality rate on a global scale,
Western civilization is now paving the way for low birth rates. To
achieve the latter without the former would become one of the
greatest hazards for mankind.

In the industrialized countries, low fertility rates which are
accompanied by a slowly growing or even a shrinking population can
prove to be dangerous, especially when we consider the population
surge in many developing countries. There exists a particular
danger when the population of the globe is moving in two directions
at the same time. Nevertheless, a due account of the demographic
component of global development makes futile all the speculations
about increasing birth rates and returning to a simple reproduction
of the population in industrialized countries, including Russia.
The main priority in terms of global development is slowing down
the growth of the world population. It is more probable that the
birth rate in Russia will continue to be low and the reproduction
of the population will follow a reduced pattern for a long period
of time, which means that the country will have to face at least
two more serious challenges – demographic ageing and


The share of elderly (60 years and older) people in Russia has
grown from 6.7 percent in 1939 to 11.9 percent in 1970. In 2001,
this number stood at 18.7 percent and continues to go up. In many
countries the elderly citizens exceed 20 percent of the population;
in the European Union they account for 21.5 percent, in Japan –
23.7 percent.2 A similar future is awaiting Russia. The age pyramid
is irreversibly changing because declining death rates radically
change the time structure within the life of generations: the years
lived in the middle and old age brackets expand as does the share
of these age brackets in the aggregate lifetime of each

The economic and social consequences of demographic ageing have
been discussed for more than a decade. Of special concern is the
economic stress this places on the working population. This is due
to the fast growth rates of the older population who now qualify to
receive their pensions. Other consequences are also mentioned: the
ageing of the employable population, a decrease in the renewal of
knowledge and ideas, less vitality in generations, gerontocracy,
and so forth. The negative effect of this “growing debilitation” on
the dynamic development of a society seems apparent and is usually
perceived as a factor that devalues many of the gains attributed to
demographic modernization. It is not unlikely, however, that such a
perception is one-sided, being caused by the “novelty shock” that
usually accompanies change. This jaundiced outlook hinders any
appreciable understanding of the potential positive outcomes.

There should be nothing unexpected or undesirable in the fact
that a longer life expectancy demands a responsible allocation of
the cumulative resources consumed by a generation. Until recently,
this was the privilege of the minority, but it is now enjoyed by
the many. Is it then reasonable for a society that has achieved
outstanding successes in prolonging the life of its people to a
very old age to express anxiety that these people will continue to
be consumers till the end of their lives?

True, transition to a new time structure within the life of
generations, as with any other change, creates many problems; many
of these concern the various social institutions adapting
themselves to the new demographic realities. The development of a
pension system is one of the main responses to the fast-growing
numbers of elderly people in the 20th century. The present-day
growth of the pension load is indisputable, but we need not view
this burden so dramatically, especially when it is considered that
these demographic changes, in and of themselves, can actually
stimulate new economic opportunities for working out a solution.
The decreasing mortality rate leads not only to the growth of the
aggregate number of consumption, but also of production. Moreover,
these parameters are proportional. So the time ratio between a
person’s “period of dependence” and “the period of production”
remains practically unchanged. This fact alone gives us sufficient
reason not to overexaggerate the negative effects of population
ageing. Child dependents start to consume before they are able to
produce; society, so to speak, subsidizes them in advance. Elderly
people fall into the category of dependents after their working
life ends, thus we may say that their consumption has been paid for
by their labor.

In Russia, many people subscribe to the notion that population
ageing is detrimental for the pensioners and to the general
economic situation in the country. However, up until the end of the
20th century Russia has not seen any profound changes in the age
structure of the population. Of course, the population was ageing,
but one should not forget that the “productive period” supports
both periods of dependence – in old age and in childhood – while
the aggregate load on the working population changes in a way that
differs from that characteristic of the load produced by elderly
dependents alone.

In postwar Russia, the aggregate load of children and the
elderly varied wavelike. That was the result of the peculiarities
of the Russian age pyramid, which was influenced by both the
evolutionary processes and the upheavals of the first half of the
20th century. The general ageing tendency does not significantly
affect the aggregate load but mainly involves the replacement of
child dependents with elderly dependents.

As a result, at the end of the 20th century, Russia was in a
relatively favorable position in terms of its population age
structure; in fact, it was probably in its best position in all of
its postwar years. Of course, the load produced by the elderly
continued to grow, but the aggregate load produced by the
dependents in the young and old age brackets was decreasing at the
same time, and by the end of the century was unusually low (see
Table 3).

Table 3. Load on 1,000 employable persons (males, 
from 16 to 59, females – from 16 to 54 years of age)
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
Load by the elderly 18,1 1,7 15,2 19,2 0,2 7,6
Total load 23,6 6,5 18,5 23,8 2,4 9,8

Changes in the Russian population age structure will continue
for quite some time; Russia’s population will continue ageing.
However, there is no reason to panic over the economic consequences
of this demographic ageing: the actual consequences of population
ageing, including the economic ones, are not as dangerous as they
are sometimes presented by modern demographic mythology. The share
of elderly people grows in proportion with the demographics, as
well as with the other changes, all of which create opportunities
for neutralizing the negative consequences of ageing. We need only
to learn how to address the problem. The well-known American
demographer and economist Richard A. Easterlin believes that it is
necessary, using taxation methods, to draw upon family savings
(that are intended for the upkeep of the younger dependents) so
that these funds may be used to cover the growing public
expenditures on the elderly dependents. The problem surrounding the
political acceptability of this measure is serious enough, but not
unsolvable, considering that the working citizens who are paying
the tax will one day be the potential receivers of these same

In order to make the redistribution of resources of the elderly
within the life of generations politically acceptable, we need a
social philosophy and a political economy that would meet the
demands of new demographic realities. These are non-existent now.
They are most likely to appear and gain recognition after the
transition period of continuous fluctuations in the age structure
is completed, and a new stable age pyramid with a narrow basis and
a broad apex emerges. Until then, people will continue to believe –
without sufficient reason – that with every new decade the growing
number of the elderly complicates their own position and that of
national economies.

However, it would not be prudent to conclude this section with a
too pacifying note. First, in the developing nations, a
disproportionately young population structure actually produces
more economic difficulties and acute problems than does an ageing
one in the industrialized economies. To compare: in the rich
industrialized countries there are 800 young and elderly people per
each thousand employable members of the population (between 20 to
59 years of age); in poor countries with fast-growing population,
the figure reaches or exceeds 1,000 (for example, in Nigeria, where
the population will soon exceed that of Russia, the demographic
load is 1,450 per 1,000)4. The main reason is simply the huge
proportion of children: in Nigeria it is 1,339, whereas in Russia
it is only 464, in China – 585, in Brazil – 723, in India –

Secondly, being concerned with their own problems, the
industrialized countries underestimate the political dangers
involved with the high percentage of young people within the
population structure of the developing countries. Currently, there
is only one person in the industrialized countries per every four
representatives of the developing world. But among children and
young people under 20 this ratio exceeds 7:1, or 2.1 billion
children and teenagers in the countries of the “South” against less
than 300 million in the countries of the “North”. Therefore, we may
conclude that in the 21st century the prosperous, ageing and
slumbering “North” will more than once be challenged by a young and
vigorous «South» which has nothing to lose but its chains. Is the
“North” ready for this challenge, not to mention Russia, which is
its integral part?


In 1913, the population of Russia within its present borders was
calculated to be 90 million people. In later decades, the country
was a stage for active demographic processes, which generally
involve an accelerated growth of population. However, the potential
demographic explosion was nullified by huge human losses caused by
the disastrous events of the first half of the century; Russia
missed its chance to markedly increase its population. Yet, despite
all the calamities, the population grew due to the natural growth
rate, which for a long time remained high and helped to bridge many
of the demographic gaps. Owing to this factor, the country overcame
the demographic crisis caused by WWII. By 1955, Russia reached its
prewar population level, and for the next ten years – until the
second half of the 1960s – its natural growth rate was so high that
it was able to ‘export’ citizens to other republics within the vast
borders of the U.S.S.R.

However, later, due to the fertility decline, a halt in the
mortality decline and the beginning of population ageing, the
natural growth rates began to quickly slide. In 1964, the natural
growth rate of the population fell to its lowest level – below ten
births per every thousand of population. In 1967, it dropped
further to seven births per every thousand. Ever since, the figure
has stubbornly remained, varying between 5.5 and 6.5 per thousand,
and only occasionally departing from these boundaries. In the late
1980s, these fluctuations gave way to a quickly declining fertility
rate. Thus, since 1992, when the population of Russia reached its
maximum number ever (148.7 million people), natural growth rates
became negative, and initiated a population decline. By the
beginning of 2003, the loss exceeded 5.2 million people, or 3.5
percent (of 143.1-million population according to current estimates
of the State Statistics Committee. According to the latest
all-Russia census preliminary results, Russia’s population as of
October 9, 2002 amounted to 145.3 million people). Over the past
decade, the population grew by 8.7 million people, or 6.2

The present population decline in Russia, its fourth since 1913,
greatly differs from the three previous ones. Those declines were
caused by the most dramatic social upheavals – WWI and the civil
war, famine, repressions of the 1930s and WWII; the current
population decline is caused by consistent changes in Russia’s mass
demographic behavior. Therefore, one cannot expect natural
population growth rates to become positive in the near future, or
to bring about an increase in the population.

Population decline in Russia is most likely to be long lasting,
as most demographers believe. Specifically, according to the median
scenario of the latest (2002) UN forecast, by 2050 the population
of Russia will decrease by 30 percent in comparison with 2000, to
reach 101.5 million people.6 Similar figures are presented in
Russian forecasts.

In general, one can find many arguments against the perception
that population growth is always beneficial and population decline
is always detrimental. However, as concerns Russia, it would be
difficult to argue that a population reduction is a favorable

Although Russia ranks with the most populated countries, there
is an obvious discrepancy between its population and the size of
its territory, the length of its borders, the scale of areas
requiring economic development, its poor settlement network, etc.
Russia has always been a country with vastly underdeveloped,
underpopulated areas. These features became particularly acute
after the breakup of the Soviet Union when Russia inherited
three-fourths of its territory and only half of its population.

The European part of Russia is comparable by population density
with the U.S.A. (in European Russia – 27 and in the U.S.A. – 29
people per 1 square kilometer). On the other hand, the historical
core of the country appears to be underpopulated when compared to
the industrialized countries of Western Europe. One-fifth of the
Russian population lives in the Central Economic Region, which
accounts for less than three percent of its territory. However,
even in this region, population density (slightly more than 62
people per 1 sq. km) is twice as low as that in the European Union
(119 people per 1 sq. km). As for the Asian part of Russia, it
makes up 75 percent of the country’s territory, but is home to only
22 percent of its population with a density of 2.5 people per one
sq. km. The demographic potential of Siberia and the Far East is
apparently insufficient for the development of the local natural
resources, as well as for creating a ramified, relatively
continuous economic and settlement network.

Russia’s limited demographic potential affects not only the
distribution of its population over regions but also the
development of the structure of populated areas. Although by the
share of its urban population (73 percent) Russia stands at an
average European level and differs little from such countries as
the U.S.A. (75 percent) or Japan (77 percent), its urban population
is “smeared” over a large number of settlements, whereas the
network of large cities is underdeveloped. After the breakup of the
U.S.S.R., Russia inherited 13 of the 24 Soviet cities having over
one million inhabitants (the latest available data show that by the
year 2002, it has only ten such cities), including only two cities
eastward of the Urals. (According to preliminary 2002 census data,
currently Russia has again 13 million-strong cities, but in some
cases their population is so close on a million that it immediately
suggests some wishful thinking. For instance, according to the
census, there are 1,000,100 people in the city of Perm.) Only two
Russian cities have a population exceeding two million residents
(in the U.S.A., 14 cities have a population over two million
people, including eight with more than 3 million). True,
“underdevelopment” of large cities is evidence of Russia’s
inadequate regional development and its inability to give birth to
many powerful regional and interregional capitals. However, this
process is not without feedback: urban population gravitates to
only several large centers, which, in conditions of limited
demographic resources, prevents the emergence of large regional
cities capable of giving an impetus to the development of the
entire regions.

These are but few internal difficulties which Russia faces
already now owing to its underpopulation, and these difficulties
will aggravate as its population continues to decline. However,
there are also external difficulties concerning the country’s place
in the world community.

Russia is quickly losing its position in the world demographic
hierarchy. In 1913, the Russian Empire accounted for approximately
8 percent of the world population, and Russia proper – 4.4 percent.
Even in 1950, the share of the Russian Federation, which had not
yet restored its pre-WWII population, was more than 4 percent, and
the U.S.S.R. accounted for 7.1 percent of the planet’s

Currently, the share of Russia in the world population does not
exceed 2.4 percent and is shrinking fast. According to the UN
forecast mentioned above, by 2050 its share will have reduced to
1.1 percent. In 1913 and 1950, the Russian Empire and the U.S.S.R.,
respectively, were the third most populated nations after China and
India. In 1950, Russia in its present borders stood fourth after
China, India and the U.S.A; now it is placed only seventh, being
overtaken by Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. By 2050 Russia will be
placed 18th in the world, yielding to several African countries, as
well as Bangladesh, Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan,
and Iran.

It is worth noting that Russia occupies almost 13 percent of the
world’s land – the biggest and rich in natural resources, but
extremely scarcely populated territory. It borders on several
densely populated states, with some of them making claims on
Russian soil.

Thus, by both internal (economic) and external (geopolitical)
considerations Russia’s shrinking population runs contrary to its
national interests. Is it possible to halt the process?

The main reasons for Russia’s losing its high place in the world
demographic hierarchy lie both inside the country and outside it.
The internal factors affecting demographic changes in general and
its Soviet pattern, in particular, have been discussed above. The
external factor – the world demographic explosion which has sharply
sped up the growth of the population in developing countries
overtaking Russia – is also attributable to demographic
modernization, but in global dimensions. How can Russia respond to
this and other demographic challenges of the 21st century –
fertility decline, population ageing and negative natural growth
rate? And even if a solution is found, can we guarantee that it
will not produce new and more hazardous challenges?


All of the above questions are not idle. Presently, there seems
to be only one possibility for responding to the demographic
challenges, and that is through large-scale immigration policies.
It is primarily through immigration that Russia, as well as the
other “post-transitional” industrialized and urbanized countries,
is capable, at least partially, of counteracting the debilitating
effects of population decline and ageing. Yet, immigration is
fraught with new dangers.

The estimates suggest that in order to keep Russia’s population
at its early 21st century level (146 million people), it will be
necessary to receive annually (beginning from the first year of the
new century) some 700 thousand people (net migration); this annual
number of migrants would gradually increase to 1.2-1.3 million
people in 2030-2035 (these are not exact figures but rather levels
showing the order of magnitude)7.

However, the present realities are far from achieving these
estimates. In the last quarter of the past century, the annual
increase of the immigrant population was 232,000 people. Today,
most immigrants come from the CIS and Baltic countries: the
population growth due to migration from these countries amounted to
4.3 million people in 1990-1999 and was much higher than in
1980-1989 (1.6 million) However, this growth was not so much due to
more people coming to Russia, as to fewer people leaving the
country. Immigration per se actually showed a tendency for
reduction: during the decade of 1981-1990, 8.9 million people
immigrated to Russia from the former Soviet Republics, whereas
during the next decade this figure amounted to 6.9 million people.
Furthermore, Russia has lost part of its population due to the
emigration of its citizens to the ‘far abroad’ countries, so that
the overall population growth in 1991-2000 due to migration came to
only 3.3 million people – less than in Germany over the same period
(3.8 million people).

If a decision is taken to recover the demographic situation with
the help of migration, much effort should be made to increase the
inflow of migrants. However, the very acceptance of such strategy
is rather problematic, as it is not overly supported by society.
Anti-immigration sentiments exist in many European countries, but
they have arisen as a reaction from a part of their society to the
real presence of a significant number of immigrants. In Russia, the
malevolent attitude of the population to immigrants had emerged
long before their numbers had reached any remarkable level. The
country has developed a demographic mythology that exaggerates both
the number of immigrants (while migration flows, at least those
officially registered have been continuously decreasing) and the
negative consequences of their presence. It is politically risky at
this time to propose any increase in the numbers of immigrants to

However, to avoid using the immigration resource is also
impossible; Russia cannot be too late in making this sound
decision, as has often been the case in the past. To close its
doors to immigrants would mean the continuous reduction of its
population, increased ageing, losing a place in the world
demographic hierarchy and the continuous deterioration of its
already unfavorable population/territory ratio. The experience of
the most industrialized countries indicates that other options are

In Germany for instance, the negative natural population growth
rate appeared much earlier than in Russia, and continued with this
trend for more than 30 years. However, Germany’s population has
been increasing ever since 1985, due to the constant inflow of
immigrants that adequately covers the natural loss of its
population. In the European Union as a whole, the population growth
due to migration between 1990 and 1999 reached a level of 8.7
million people; the overall growth of the population over that
period stood at 12.7 million people.8 The annual population gain
due to migration is estimated to be more than 700 thousand people
over the next 20 years.9

The U.S. experience is particularly useful. While Russia saw a
5.2-million reduction of its population over the past decade, the
U.S. experienced an unprecedented population growth. Its population
surged by 32.7 million people between the 1990 and 2000 censuses –
the biggest increase of the U.S. population in its history between
two censuses. Its population will continue to grow. According to
the UN forecast, the U.S.A., which in 1950 was the third most
populated country (if we do not take into account the Soviet
Union), will retain this ranking in 2050, whereas Russia will fall
from fourth place to eighteenth over this one-hundred year period.
The demographic situation of the U.S. fares much better than that
of Russia and Europe: fertility rates are higher, mortality is
lower, and the natural growth rate is positive. Furthermore, the
U.S. receives a high level of immigrants (8.7 million people
between 1990-1999, or as much as the European Union, although the
U.S. population amounts to less than 60 percent of the population
of the EU). According to a long-term demographic forecast, the
growth of the U.S. population will reach some 45 million people in
the first half of the century due to migration.10

But all of this growth is not without its problems. The
recipient countries believe that they control the migration flows,
and can channel them to serve their interests. The Russian
authorities also seem to believe that they hold the keys to all of
their problems: things will proceed the way they decide; the only
matter to be argued is what decision will best suit the national
interests of Russia.

Such logic was characteristic of the past stage of migration
interaction between the industrialized and the developing world. At
that time, the main locomotive force of migration flows remained –
for quite some time – with the recipient countries. However, once
these flows matured, they acquired their own locomotive forces.
Now, their continual increase adequately reflects the situation in
the countries that supply migrants. “The golden billion” is
becoming a world minority, while its capability for withstanding
the pressure of the billions of inhabitants of the Third World has
been weakening: not so long ago there were only two billion people
in the Third World countries, its population has now swelled to
five billion. This number is likely to grow still further.

When legal migration channels provided by the recipient
countries appear to be too narrow, illegal channels immediately
begin to open up. According to estimates, in the mid-1990s, the
number of illegal immigrants to the U.S.A. was close to five
million people, while Europe experienced a surge of some three
million illegal arrivals.11 It is believed that millions of illegal
migrants are flowing into Russia as well. The agenda of illegal
migration is becoming increasingly pressing and presents a major
concern for politicians and public opinion in the recipient

The demographic pressure of the overpopulated Third World upon
the rich countries, which represent “the golden billion”, explains
all this. This pressure will be definitely growing and increasingly
difficult to control. Improvement in migration controls usually
means that new ways and means of illegally penetrating national
borders are getting more sophisticated. There is no doubt that the
redistribution of the population between the overpopulated and
depopulated countries is a response to the many challenges caused
by the demographic changes of the 20th century. However, this
response rather unwittingly becomes a challenge, and it seems
inevitable that it will soon turn into the main challenge of our

The current migration pressure seems to be the remote roar of
the coming thunderstorm. The demographic pressure of the “South”
upon the “North” is capable of acquiring the most varied forms;
under certain critical circumstances it can combine with a
military-political pressure and lead to large-scale political
re-mapping of the world. Against such threats, the trivial economic
migration which permits to “let out the steam” from the overheated
boiler of the “South,” thereby preventing a real explosion, appears
to be a less dangerous solution. However, this solution should not
be considered as an entirely safe one.

The demographic masses of both “worlds” are incommensurable. The
potential supply of cheap labor from the developing countries is
practically unlimited, while the requirements of the industrialized
countries appear to be finite. There are other limits to the
migration capacity related to the limited social adaptation
capabilities of the immigrants who are confronted with new cultural
traditions, stereotypes, etc. When the number of immigrants is
fairly small, the local cultural environment quickly assimilates
them, dissolves them, without creating any serious problems of
intercultural interaction. However, if the number of immigrants
grows rapidly and becomes significant, they start forming compact
socio-cultural enclaves; at this point, the assimilation process
slows down. There will arise intercultural tensions aggravated by
objectively existing economic and social inequalities between the
local population and the new arrivals.

The situation can become more conflict-prone due to the very
process of adaptation; the people of the traditional Third World
rural cultures will have to adapt themselves to the modern urban
culture of the industrialized countries. They cannot avoid – at
least temporarily – the crisis of cultural identity. A similar
crisis is also taking place within the Third World countries that
are gradually moving along the road toward modernization. All of
these countries are entering a basically new, painful stage of
inner cultural conflict; they are experiencing a struggle between
their traditional values and the dynamics of modernism.

This conflict has been developing against the background of
growing claims voiced by the new social strata caused by
modernization, as well as of stubborn (and even increasing)
economic and social inequality, overall poverty, and so forth. The
conflict eventually affects the majority of the rural population
who also find themselves under the growing pressure of the
consequences of modernization, including such demographic changes
as fast mortality decrease and population growth. The people who
remain in their traditional lifestyles are unprepared to accept
these changes. Hence, a massive rejection of all novelties; this
would also include an aggressive opposition to all “urban” or
“Western” innovations. These sentiments pave the way for social
discontent, which creates an ideal soil for political, ideological
and religious extremism to grow.

Immigrant enclaves inside the industrialized countries, which
often appear to be near replicas of the societies from which they
left and with which they keep close contact, are torn by the
contradictions of their cultural identity. They are therefore very
receptive to oversimplified “fundamentalist” ideas. They think
these will help them overcome their cultural split, while helping
them to regain their identity. Under the circumstances, the
assimilation of immigrants does not occur and many of them
(although not all) find themselves in opposition to the recipient

Industrialized countries that are now dependent on their foreign
workforce are becoming increasingly aware of the limited nature of
their immigration capacity; they become a scene for competition
between the “domestic” and “alien” workers. Society more resolutely
expresses its anti-immigrant sentiments, while the debates on
immigration problems become an important card in political gambling
and a respective mythology begins to take shape. Often this
mythology involves the intellectual elite, although it often
differs very little from other mythologies that are popular with
the poorly educated, increasingly marginalized, immigrants.

The above said is equally valid for Russia. Like all other
countries where the demographic transition is complete, Russia is
now under migration pressure from the outside; it cannot but
realize the objective limits of its migration capacity. Here, as
elsewhere, there are acute problems associated with the position on
the labor markets, together with the peculiar problems of adapting
to a new culture. These include the vast, underpopulated areas rich
in mineral resources, which include some very important assets such
as arable lands, fresh water and energy fuels. This factor
increases Russia’s requirements for human resources and its
attractiveness for immigrants from the overpopulated “South”.
However, Russia’s immigration opportunities are not very promising
from the viewpoint of its geopolitical position. Specifically, the
massive inflow of the Chinese to the Russian Far East – should such
a scenario occur – would never result in any profound cultural
assimilation (since there is already a powerful cultural entity
nearby), but would provoke more intensive territorial claims by the

True, the limitations of Russia’s migration capacity, and that
of other countries, cannot be considered to be very rigid; it can
be increased if dedicated policies that are aimed at removing the
various impediments to immigration are pursued. However, such
policies, no matter how aggressive, are only capable of widening
the migration borders, but not totally removing them.


Regrettably, the results of the present analysis are not very
encouraging. The demographic challenges that Russia will have to
meet are very serious. A search for solutions, although very
slow-moving at the present time, is a must, and it is apparent that
Russia’s internal and global realities leave almost no choice.
There is nothing more dangerous than new “concepts” mushrooming
inside the bureaucratic agencies, promising quick solutions to
formidable problems. What Russia requires is not the sowing of more
illusions, but plainly seeing the painful truth. This is the only
way to find realistic solutions to the present-day challenges. To
offer simplistic answers to these perplexing questions of history
would mean to confront a very serious danger while being fully

1 40 industrialized countries of the world. Supplement to the
Internet edition of the Demoscope Weekly, http://demoscope.ru/weekly/app/app4007.php

2 Statistiques sociales europ?ennes. D?mographie. Eurostat,
2002, p. 43.

3 Easterlin R. The Birth Dearth, Ageing, and the Economy. In:
Sisay Asefa and Wei-Chiao Huang (eds). Human Capital and Economic
Development. Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for
Employment Research, 1994, p. 22.

4 Statistiques sociales europ?ennes…, p. 43.

5 Ibid.

6 Press Release POP/850. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/pop850.doc.htm

7 The Population of Russia 2001. Moscow, 2002, p. 181. – Russ.

8 Statistiques sociales europ?ennes…, p. 47.

9 Ibid., p. 129.

10 Statistical Abstract of the United States 2001. Washington,
2001, p. 9.

11 Skeldon, Ronald. Myths and Realities of the Chinese Irregular
Migration. IOM Migration Research Series, 1/2000, p. 12.