Population characteristics and trends

In the first half of the twentieth century, imperial Russia was transformed from a backward but powerful multiethnic nation into a major world superpower. Yet, from October 1917 until the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953, the people of the Soviet Union experienced one catastrophe after another. Millions of Russian soldiers died during World War I. At least 2 million people were killed in the Russian Civil War of 1919–1921. More than 3 million died between 1917 and 1923 in epidemics of cholera and typhus. A famine in 1921–1922 killed at least 9 million people. Another 5 million died during the forced collectivization of agriculture and the elimination of the kulaks (prosperous private farmers) in the early 1930s. A second major famine followed the horrors of forced collectivization in 1932–1934, when at least 9 million people died. Stalin's purges of the Communist Party and the rigors of concentration camps led to the deaths of 5 million people. Direct war-related deaths during World War II totaled more than 20 million. In 1946–1947, the Great Ukrainian Famine led to the loss of nearly 5 million Soviet citizens. Some demographers believe that the nation's 1989 census figure of 289 million would have been 200 to 250 million higher had the country been peaceful and wisely governed over the years.

Following Stalin's death, the Soviet Union went through a period of rapid population growth, followed by a decline. World War II left the nation with a great deficit of males. The process of balancing this abnormal sex distribution was slow. In 1950, there were 80 males for every 100 females. By 1970, this ratio had improved to 86 males per 100 females. In 1989, the ratio was 90 males per 100 females. These figures are still far from the 95–99 males per 100 females in populations with normal growth. In 1959, the number of females exceeded the number of males by 20.7 million. Thirty years later, this imbalance had been reduced to 15.7 million. Females begin to outnumber the males after the age of 40. Since migration into the Soviet Union was negligible, population increases since the end of World War II were determined by births and deaths. During the 10 years between 1979 and 1989, the Soviet Union's population increased by 24.3 million, or 9.3 percent.

The 1989 census showed the same regional shifts noted in 1959. One trend was the shift of the country's population center from west to east. This change was caused by high rates of natural increase in the central Asian republics and in Azerbaijan. Another long-term trend was the movement of many people from the western and central areas of European Russia to the southern republics. This led to serious regional imbalances in manpower. Young men continued to migrate from rural areas to cities. Growth in urban population was very high in central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Here, urban growth resulted from high rates of both natural increase and immigration. The traditionally agricultural republics of Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova experienced massive rural-to-urban migration.

Urban population increased by 24.3 million between 1979 and 1989.Natural increase added 13.7 million people. Another 10.6 million migrated to urban areas. Rural population decreased by 900,000. At the same time, growing rural communities were reclassified as urban. In 1959, only three cities—Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev—had more than one million inhabitants. By 1970, 10 cities exceeded the one-million mark. In 1989, there were 24 cities of one million or more. The number of cities with populations of 100,000 to 500,000 grew by 9 percent. The number of cities of between 500,000 and one million people increased by 18 percent. Population increases, both urban and rural, were not uniform.Most of the overall population growth took place in central Asia. The central Asian republics had a strong tradition of large families.

There are many reasons these figures have not changed for decades, including the social structure of village life, the low level of education, and the reduction in infant mortality.Many Soviet demographers believed that high population growth reduced the quality of life; consequently, they strengthened family planning services in these areas.

The Russian Federation (Russia) is the largest post-Soviet nation. It contains more than 75 percent of the territory, but only half of the population of the former Soviet Union. Russia remains the world's largest country. With approximately 143 million people, Russia today has the world's sixth-largest population.

Russia's population growth rate is negligible. In some years, it is negative. For example, the estimated growth rate for 2001 was -0.35 percent, while five years later it still remained practically unchanged at -0.37 percent. Birthrates are very low, between 9 and 10 for every 1,000 people. Death rates are relatively high, at 13 to 15 per 1,000. The net migration rate is slightly more than one migrant per 1,000 people. Life expectancy in Russia has dropped drastically in the past decade. This reduction is the result of harsh economic conditions and poor medical care. Estimated male life expectancy has fallen to 60.45 years, the levels of many less developed countries. Female life expectancy is only 74 years. In the mid-1960s, life expectancy was 67 years for males and 76 years for females. Life expectancy for Russian males is similar to what it was for American men in the early 1940s. Russian females compare with U.S. women in the late 1950s. Overall, Russia's population is roughly 60 percent of the population of the United States.

Socioeconomic reasons influencing population trends remain similar among all former Soviet republics, including Russia. Lack of adequate resources and government funding during the 1990s damaged, in particular, health-care systems. Although conditions are gradually improving, it will take some time for Russia to reach the health standards of developed countries. Low life expectancy is strongly influenced by the effects of Russia's high rate of alcoholism among males. Russians have always battled with problems relating to excessive drinking. Economic hardship that occurred in postindependence years further contributed to social imbalances. As seen elsewhere, Russians also battle various diseases such as tuberculosis, and recently HIV/AIDS has spread rapidly. Various projections put the number of infected Russians at around one million. This is an especially difficult disease to battle because of extremely expensive treatments and medications, which ordinary people are unable to afford. The problem of rapidly spreading AIDS poses a major concern not only to Russia, but also to the other former Soviet republics. Ukraine, for example, faces an AIDS crisis. Russia, however, faces another challenge. It may lose international funds for prevention of AIDS because of its recognition as a middle-income country due to rising revenue from high energy prices. Thus, the country may slide from the largest single recipient of foreign help for AIDS prevention to almost no help at all. On a positive note, Russia has well-educated health-care professionals who can reorganize the system once the government manages to provide adequate financial resources. That will stop the expansion of AIDS and other diseases, while increasing the quality of life, especially those in lower economic classes.