Demographics and Population Distribution

“Demography” is the study of populations. The population of a country can be classified by age, gender, occupation, health, and so on. We can look at where people tend to live, and at how and where they move. We also might be interested in the long-term prospects of a given society: Will it have enough resources to sustain its population growth, for example? This chapter deals with the general population distribution over Northern Eurasia/the former Soviet Union (FSU). It also examines changes in population and migration issues.

Population Numbers

Russia is the largest country in the world by area, but it ranked only 9th largest worldwide by population in 2009, with 142 million people—right after Nigeria with 153 million, but ahead of Japan with 128 million. Although 142 million seems like a lot of people, consider that the United States, with less than half the geographic area of Russia, has 305 million people. The European Union (EU) member countries had a total of almost 500 million on a fraction of Russia's land. Bangladesh was even more astonishing: It had over 1,035 people per square kilometer in its land area of 144,000 km2, while Russia had only 8, the United States 31, and Canada 3. The entire Soviet Union boasted about 290 million people by the early 1990s, of whom only slightly more than half lived in Russia. At that time, about 50 million lived in Ukraine. Uzbekistan, with about 20 million, was then the third largest republic. Today Ukraine and Uzbekistan still have the second and third largest populations in the FSU, while Estonia has the smallest.

Comparative Population Statistics for FSU Countries, the United States, and the World (Mid-2009)

The most important demographic characteristic after the total number is the growth rate. At present, Russia and many other post-Soviet states are actually losing population. In an estimate for 2008, Ukraine had the fastest rate of population decline in the world, at –0.5% per year. Russia, Latvia, and Moldova were at –0.3%; Lithuania at –0.2%; and Moldova at –0.1%. In contrast, the United States was growing by about 0.6% per year through natural increase and by 0.9% with immigration. The Central Asian states are markedly different from Russia or Ukraine, in that they keep growing; for example, Tajikistan was estimated to grow by 2.2% and Kazakhstan by 1.3% in 2008.

Although some European countries have posted declines as well in recent years, the change from positive to negative growth in the FSU was very abrupt. It coincided with the beginning of economic reforms in 1992 and was quite unprecedented, especially considering the lack of a major military conflict. Even with the impacts of two world wars, the civil war of 1917–1922, and the horrors of Stalin's GULAG purges, the population of the U.S.S.R. had never declined between censuses. The period between the 1989 and 2002 censuses was the only one in Russia's history when the population actually dropped. Although estimates for war losses are uncertain, it seems likely that at least 14 million lives were lost during the 4 years of World War II. The Soviet estimates of the losses were higher, between 22 and 28 million. However, no census was conducted in 1949, and by 1959 the population had more than rebounded to 117 million from the prewar level of 108 million in 1939. Since 1992, however, Russia has been steadily losing people to the tune of 500,000 or so per year, and this has become a firmly established phenomenon.

Why is population declining in some FSU countries? Demographers assume three general reasons why population can decline: (1) decreased fertility (i.e., fewer babies born per woman), (2) increased mortality, and (3) emigration. Of these three factors, the first two are decreasing population in much of the region today, while the third one varies depending on the country. In Russia, immigration actually exceeds emigration and helps to reduce the losses stemming from the first two. In Moldova and Tajikistan, on the other hand, emigration greatly exceeds immigration. Massive emigration from the entire region was a major concern of Western Europeans at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse; they were expecting a flood of 20 million economic migrants from the former U.S.S.R. into Western Europe by the end of the 20th century. This did not happen, however. Only 1.5 million Russian citizens thus far have left for permanent life abroad since 1992. The vast majority of those who have emigrated left in the first 5 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, between 1992 and 1997. More than half chose the United States, Canada, Israel, or Australia as their new home rather than Europe. In Europe, Germany received most of the rest. A few hundred thousand Moldovan and Ukrainian residents moved abroad as well.

In their stead, millions of migrants came to settle inside the Russian Federation from other FSU republics—particularly from the economically poor Central Asian states, but also from Moldova, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltics. Over 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves outside the Russian Federation at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 (Heleniak, 2004). People came to Russia to seek jobs, land, health care, and/or education, as well as to move away from conflict zones and from increasingly nationalistic non-Russian governments. This immigration flow now accounts for about 100,000 new arrivals per year, whereas emigration numbers are less than 20,000 per year. Thus emigration is low, immigration is high, and only two other factors remain to account for the decline: a drop in fertility and an increase in mortality.

Decreased fertility is a common phenomenon throughout the world, especially in postindustrial Europe and Japan. “Fertility” is usually defined as the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime in a given population. The global average 50 years ago was about 5 children; today it is about 2.6, the level in Peru. A fertility level of about 2.1 is called the “replacement level.” (Think: Why is it 2.1, if there are two parents? Countries at this level are expected to stop their population growth within a generation, because just enough people are being born to replace their parents' generation in about 20 years.) At present, the United States as a whole is at this level (the level is lower for whites, but slightly higher for Hispanics and blacks). Russia's fertility level is merely 1.5 today, and it is 1.3 in St. Petersburg and some other cities. This means that most mothers have only one child, while some have none at all, and very few have two children or more (Vignette 10.1). The typical American family has two parents and two children, which would be unusual in Russia. Virtually nowhere outside of some religious groups or in the poorest southern republics (Ingushetia, Dagestan) do you see families in Russia with more than two children.

A slight increase in fertility has been noted in Russia in the last 5 years, and this has been attributed to the improved economic conditions. However, this increase is still not enough to change the trend. In this sense, Russia is a typical European country: Fertility rates for Europe range from a high of 2.1 in Iceland to a low of 1.2 in Bosnia. The average is 1.6, the rate of Luxembourg. Children are still wanted in Europe, but having more than one is frequently viewed as an economic liability rather than an asset. In postindustrial societies both parents typically work, and additional children provide no economic benefit to a family, as they do in primarily agrarian societies. With modern contraceptive methods, it is easy for people to minimize the considerable economic sacrifices that additional children impose.

A few years ago, the Russian Duma approved an interesting proposal, which took effect in 2007: The government of Russia will pay parents the equivalent in rubles of about $10,000 for the birth of a second or third child. The hope is that this will increase the birth rate. However, no money will be given away at birth—it will be placed in some savings trust as a “mother's capital” to be cashed in later for a mortgage down payment or a child's education—so the overall impact of this legislation is likely to be insignificant. Ukraine is already making smaller, but immediate, payments to new mothers for every child they bear. This is controversial though, because it raises the possibility that people will have children just to get the money and then abandon the children.

What are notorious about Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are not their low fertility rates, but rather their high mortality rates. The rates for men in particular approach the levels of the poorest Asian or even African countries. The three Slavic states of the FSU lead the industrial world in high mortality for middle-aged men between the ages of 30 and 60. The average American man is expected to live 75 years, and the average American woman about 80. In contrast, the average Russian man is expected to live only 61 years, and the average Russian woman 74. The reasons for this discrepancy are complex, but the factor most commonly cited is the high rate of alcoholism among Russian men—which increases not only the rates of cardiovascular, liver, and other diseases, but the rates of suicides, accidents, and homicides. Some of these latter are not necessarily due to alcoholism, but also to the overall increase in violence in the post-Soviet period; still, alcohol consumption remains a leading cause.

Much of the alcohol consumed in Russia today is of inferior quality—low-quality locally made vodka and even moonshine liquor. In relative terms, vodka and beer today are more affordable in Russia than they ever were in the Soviet period and are widely available at ever-present neighborhood street kiosks both day and night. A 0.5-L bottle of vodka today costs about $4, whereas it was about $20 in the Soviet period if one adjusts for purchase parity. The legal drinking age is 18, but most teens are able to buy alcohol at the kiosks without too much trouble. Particularly worrisome are the very high rates of drinking as well as drug use among early teens, estimated in some communities at 20–30% for drinking and 5% for drug use among children as young as 14.

Many health conditions are not directly related to alcohol consumption, however, but are more the result of the crumbling health care network. Certain expensive, but routine, operations that save countless lives of Western men between the ages of 50 and 70 (e.g., cardiac bypass surgery or pacemaker installations) are available only to wealthy clients in private clinics. Indeed, Russia's elite prefers to have these types of medical procedures done in clinics in Switzerland and Germany, just to be safe. Another medical factor is the very slow response rate of ambulances. In many cities in the West, residents are accustomed to seeing someone about 5 minutes after they dial the emergency number. In most Russian cities today, it requires over an hour for an ambulance to appear, if it shows up at all. In rural areas, many people's only recourse is their closest neighbor with a drivable car.

Very high abortion rates constitute another grim factor that depresses fertility rates and increases mortality rates throughout the FSU. Abortion was legal and free in the Soviet Union for most of the post-World War II period, while modern contraception methods were slow to appear. Eventually abortions became the main contraceptive tool, although not necessarily by choice, for the majority of Soviet women. Recent reports cited cases in which women had over 15 abortions in less than 10 years! Although all traditional religions of the U.S.S.R. opposed abortions on moral grounds (with the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam being emphatically pro-life), their role in lowering abortion rates was minimal in the Soviet period because of the state's official atheism. Even today religion has a low impact, due to the low numbers of adherents and the separation of church and state. Russia's abortion rate today remains among the highest in the world (48 per 1,000 for women ages 15–49, as compared to the Bulgarian rate of 30, the U.K. and U.S. rate of 12, and the Belgian rate of 6). The general recent trend has been toward much greater use of modern contraception methods among Russian women: In 2008 47% of women used modern contraception in Russia, as compared to 68% in the United States. Of these Russian women, 8% used the pill, 14% used intrauterine devices, a few percent chose sterilization, and the balance relied on condoms. Nevertheless, Russia's abortion rate is still four times the U.S. rate. About 90% of these are early-term abortions (under 12 weeks) and are not medically necessary. The abortion rates are highest in the rural north and center of the country, where unemployment is high and societal pressure to perform an abortion is great. The rates are lowest in affluent Moscow and in the poor but traditional Muslim republics of the Caucasus.

In summary, the current level of demographic imbalance is such that Russia only replaces 62% of the workforce it needs and is bound to continue to lose population for decades to come. According to some recent projections, the country will have only 110 million people by 2050 (which would be the level of 1939), down from 150 million in 1988.

Can immigration solve the problem? Aside from an apocalyptic scenario (feared by some Russian nationalists) of a massive Chinese stampede into eastern Siberia, much more immigration would be needed to offset the current imbalance. Recall that only about 100,000 legal migrants come to Russia each year, while about 500,000 people are lost per year due to the fertility–mortality imbalance. However, there are indications that hundreds of thousands more are entering the country illegally. In a recent statement, the Russian authorities claimed that Russia has over 10 million undocumented immigrants, the second highest number after the United States in the world. Many of these are ethnic Russians from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, but quite a few are migrants of other ethnicities from Moldova, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other FSU states (Chin & Kaiser, 1996). Others come from Afghanistan, Vietnam, China, and even Africa. Whereas the Soviet Union's border with the outside world was a true “iron curtain” of thousands of miles of barbed wire and gun-toting border guards, today's Russia's border is relatively open to all of its previous satellite countries (except the Baltics, which are now members of the EU and have tight border security). Crossing from Kazakhstan into Russia on foot is not much different from crossing from one U.S. state to the next, and is easier than crossing from the United States into Canada. You do need to present travel documents on trains and planes, of course, but much of the border is not demarcated well, and many options exist for persuading the border guards to look the other way. However, only a portion of the demographic loss will be realistically compensated for migration in the years to come. Below are some other demographic observations that you may find interesting. (Many of the same statistics apply to Ukraine and Belarus as well.)

  • Overall, the Russian population is older than that of the United States, but younger than that of Europe or Japan, and there are more women than men.
  • Women in Russia are more educated than men and live 13 years longer on average.
  • About 16% of the Russian population has completed a college education (vs. 28% in the United States).
  •  The average Russian household has only 2.71 members, and about 22% live alone.
  • About 22% of Russian households are single-parent households, while dual-parent households make up 55%. These figures are very similar to the corresponding U.S. statistics.
  • Sixty-six percent of Russia's population live in apartments, while only 26% live in single-family homes, and most of those are in rural areas.
  • On average, one person has 19 m2 in which to live (only 200 square feet!).
  • Only three-quarters of all households in Russia have running water, while only 71% have flush toilets.
  • 82% of urban dwellers have central heat provided by a power plant, while 50% of rural dwellers depend on wood-burning brick ovens or on coal boilers.
  • The average age at first marriage continues to rise: It is now 26 years for men and a little over 23 for women. Just a generation ago, in the mid-1980s, these ages were 24 and 22, respectively.
  • Many more Russians today stay unmarried longer: Among 30-year-olds, the percentage who have never married is now 30% for men and 20% for women (as compared to 22% and 13%, respectively, just 20 years earlier).
  • 2002 censuses, Russia lost about 1.3 million people to emigration (most went to only seven countries: Germany, the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia, in that order). It gained about 6.8 million (almost all from the other FSU republics).
  • Increasing numbers of women from Russia and other FSU nations are marrying American men, and large numbers of children from the FSU are being adopted in the United States (Vignette 10.2).

Population Distribution

Where do all these people live? A quick look at a population distribution map reveals an interesting pattern: Three-quarters of all Russians live on one-quarter of the landmass. This populated land is west of the Urals, in the European part of the country. The effective national territory of Russia covers about a third of its landmass, stretching from Belarus and Ukraine east across the Urals toward Lake Baikal in a tapering-off triangle (Cohen, 2009). Only a quarter live on the three-quarters of land east of the Urals in Siberia. Moreover, there has been a definite trend recently toward migration from Siberia to the west and south of the country (Heleniak, 2004).

In addition, the population is patchily distributed in Russia. Most people live in big and medium-sized cities. The overall urbanization rate is 73%. Of particular note are clusters of population in and near Moscow (about 15 million), St. Petersburg (6 million), Novosibirsk (2 million), and a few 1-million-plus cities in the Volga basin (Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, Kazan, Perm) and in the Urals (Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Ufa). All of these cities are major political, financial, industrial, service, and transportation hubs for their regions. No cities larger than 1 million exist east of Novosibirsk, although both the Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk agglomerations come pretty close. The current population centroid for Russia is located south of Ufa and north of Orenburg in the southern Urals.

In Siberia, only 25 million people live east of the Yenisei, and many of them are eager to move to warmer western and southern areas. In contrast, the northeast provinces of China closest to Russia have about 130 million people. The future will tell us whether the increasing demographic imbalance between the two countries in general, and in this area in particular, will lead to any actual confrontation between them.

It is tempting to look at the population distribution of Russia as similar to that of the United States or Canada, with populated coasts and a relatively empty middle. However, even a cursory look at Figure 10.5 reveals that this is not the case. In North America, the majority of the population indeed lives along either the east or the west coast, with relatively few people in the middle of the country. Russia, on the other hand, has very few people on the Pacific side and a great many in the European part. The major Pacific seaport of Vladivostok has only a little over 600,000 people, and there are no other big cities nearby. The biggest city of Russia, Moscow, is not on a coast. The only two significant coastal cities in the European part are St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and there is also the northern and remote Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. Of the two North American countries, Russia resembles Canada much more than it does the United States in terms of its population distribution. Most Canadians live in the southern part of their giant country, within about 100 km of the U.S. border. Russia has a similar pattern of settlement in the Asian part (Siberia), with all the cities there strung along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the south. Unlike Canada, however, Russia does have substantial cities of a few hundred thousand people in the Far North. The biggest of those is Norilsk with a population of over 300,000, located at 70?N—well above the Arctic Circle! In contrast, Fairbanks, Alaska, has only 80,000 people about 2? south of the Arctic Circle. The biggest city in northern Canada, Whitehorse, Yukon, has 20,000. Both Fairbanks and Whitehorse are located south of Norilsk. The distribution of the rural population is similar to the urban distribution depicted in Figure 10.5.

Population distribution in Russia, as shown by mapping about 5,000 urban settlements

Hill and Gaddy (2003, p. 227) illustrate the difference between the distribution of the Russian population and those of Canada, Sweden, the United States, and other countries by using an interesting measure of population density called “temperature per capita.” Instead of merely looking at the overall distribution, they look at where cities are in relation to the average temperature on the list of 100 coldest cities over 100,000 population:

[There are] 85 Russian, 10 Canadian, and 5 U.S. cities. The first Canadian city to appear on the list (Winnipeg) would be in 22nd place. The coldest U.S. city (Fargo) would rank 58th. Americans are accustomed to thinking of Alaska as the ultimate cold region. But Anchorage, Alaska, would not appear on a list of the coldest Russian and North American cities of over 100,000 until position number 135, outranked by no fewer than 112 Russian cities. The explanation for this result is not that Alaska isn't cold. It is. It's just that Americans don't build large cities there … The United States has only one metro area over half a million (Minneapolis–St. Paul) that has a mean January temperature colder than –8°C. Russia has 30 cities that big and that cold.

In other words, Russians do live under much colder conditions overall than even Canadians do, let alone Americans. The biggest cities are found at convenient locations on rivers, which were historically conducive to defense and shipping. In the Soviet period, many cities were built as factory and mining towns or as sites for GULAG camps.

Outside Russia, the heaviest concentrations of people are found in Ukraine and the fertile Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Even in those republics, population density remains low (ranging from 77 people/ km2 in Ukraine to 27 in Kyrgyzstan). For comparison, Portugal's density is 115 and India's is 344. Local densities near cities can, of course, be much higher.

Recent processes that have been discussed with respect to Russia's population include increasing age and spatial migration within the country. First, the population of Russia is beginning to age faster, although at the time of the 2002 census the proportion of retirement-age persons was about the same as in the EU and Japan (20.5%), and only marginally higher than in the United States. (However, this conceals the sad fact that few seniors in Russia are living very long in retirement. Many men die at about the age of entering retirement, currently set at 60. The retirement age for Russia's women remains 55, but there are proposals now to raise this age for both sexes.) Between the 1989 and 2002 censuses, the proportion of people over age 40 has grown from 34.5% to 42.2%. Continued low fertility and the spread of HIV among younger people are bound to increase the average age even farther.

The spatial pattern of settlement is also beginning to change. The most pronounced trend in Russia is depopulation of the Far East and the north (Heleniak, 2007). Between the two censuses, five units in these areas—Chukotka, Kamchatka, Yakutia, and two autonomous okrugs (now part of Krasnoyarsky Kray)—lost between 15 and 60% of their population. All subjects of federation east of the Yenisei and north of the Arctic Circle lost 10–15% on average. Much of that loss (about 80%) was due to domestic migration to warmer regions of Russia, primarily to the central European part and the Caucasus. About 50,000 people per year are collectively lost to migration from northern regions and the Far East, and the process continues unabated. A particularly alarming aspect of this loss is that the proportion of children in these areas decreased by half. In effect, those moving away are not seniors (like the Americans moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt), but younger families who want a better future for their children. Many people who move are actually relatively wealthy. A personal interview with a successful businessman in Yakutsk revealed the reason: Although his family is economically secure there, the cold, dark nights of winter are sometimes more than his family can handle. Also, with skyrocketing airfares, many families find even temporary vacations to warmer places out of their reach, so the wealthier and healthier segments of the population are moving away for good. This, of course, means that the older, sicker, and poorer segments of the population are more likely to stay. Eventually this trend may dramatically reshape the human fabric of the vast hinterland of Russia. The only exceptions to the trend at the moment are the oil-rich Tyumen and Tomsk Oblasts, which are gaining population.


Russia is a multiethnic country. The whole United States is called one “nation,” but we talk about racial, ethnic, or linguistic groups in America as “African Americans,” “Asian Americans,” “Americans of Norwegian ancestry,” and so forth. Except for the Native Americans, these groups are all descendants of immigrants. In Russia one talks about “ethnicities” or “nationalities,” which are by and large indigenous. Russians constitute the majority, about 80% of the total. However, members of many other groups call Russia home, hold Russian citizenship, and (for the most part) speak Russian as their first language, but are ethnically distinct from the Russians. According to the 2002 census, there were 182 such “ethnicities.” The U.S.S.R. (as the heir of the bigger Russian Empire) was even more diverse, with as many as 200 ethnicities represented, although only 128 were officially recognized.

We have already seen in Chapter 7 that during Soviet rule, some of the largest ethnic groups were given individual Soviet Socialist Republics to themselves. For example, Ukraine was created in the areas where Ukrainians primarily lived, Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks, Georgia for the Georgians, and so on. Russians were also present in large numbers in some of these republics (notably in Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan). Many of these people have been politically marginalized in the past 15 years and have chosen to leave for the Russian Federation.

thnicities of Russian Federation in the Most Recent Census (2002)

The Russian Federation (or its predecessor, the R.S.F.S.R.) has always been the most complex of all units of the FSU (or the U.S.S.R.). Table 10.2 lists its main nationalities today, their numbers in 2002, and where they live in Russia. Most of these groups (except the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans, Kazakhs, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis) have their own ethnic autonomous republics, 21 of which are incorporated into the Russian Federation. Absent from the table are some small but important groups such as the Jews, the Roma (Gypsies), and various northern peoples (the Chukchi, Nenets, Komi, Karelians, and others). These are not listed in Table 10.2 because their populations are below a threshold of 400,000. Preferential emigration for some of these groups—especially for Jews to Israel, Europe, and North America, and for Germans to Germany since the fall of the Soviet Union—dramatically lowered their numbers within the FSU. Other groups, especially the Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Moldovans, and Tajiks, have greatly increased their presence in Russia in recent times. Most of these are economic migrants to cities in search of work; they typically come as temporary workers and then become permanent residents.

Notice also that despite all this diversity, the ethnic Russians remain by far the dominant ethnic group; every four out of five people in Russia are Russians. Virtually everybody in Russia (99%) speaks fluent Russian as a first or second language, and college education is available only in Russian.

Demographics in Other FSU Republics

Table 10.1 shows that the demographic situation in about half of the other FSU republics virtually mirrors that of Russia, while in the other half the situation is quite different. That is, in the former group the population is rapidly declining as a result of death rates far exceeding birth rates. This is the case even in prosperous Estonia. The situation is most alarming in Ukraine, which was the country with the fastest worldwide decline in 2008. Many of the same factors as in Russia play a role in these republics as well: low fertility among urban women, and high male mortality (especially among middle-aged men) due to alcoholism, depression, accidents, homicides, and suicides. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is becoming a very serious issue in all of the republics with already declining population.

On the other hand, the Central Asian republics and the Caucasus have a positive demographic balance. Although fertility in these countries is not high in the global sense, it is sufficiently high to offset the mortality. In Tajikistan, for instance, the fertility rate is 3.4 children per woman— about the level of Oman or Gabon, and 25% higher than the world's average.

Some of the FSU republics are currently struggling to keep their citizens. It is estimated that about 1 million ethnic Georgians now live outside Georgia, and more than 1.5 million Tajiks and Moldovans live outside their respective republics as well. Much of this population shift has occurred since 1992. In contrast, Armenia always had a very large international diaspora in the Middle East, Europe, and parts of North America. Russia serves as a magnet for those from Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Moldova, while Western Europe does the same for the Baltic states.