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Russia Is Dying To Learn Its Census Data

Russian prisoners being examined for tuberculosis. Russian data on TB and other diseases only reports "first-time" cases. Relapses, reoccurrences, and repeat infections are not included.
Russian prisoners being examined for tuberculosis. Russian data on TB and other diseases only reports "first-time" cases. Relapses, reoccurrences, and repeat infections are not included.
Last week’s announcement that the next Russian census will be held in 2010 as originally scheduled is welcome news indeed. There had been considerable speculation that the census had been delayed largely for political reasons, and it is encouraging to think that the opinions of experts who say the census information is crucially needed were heeded in this case.

The government originally said it would be forced to delay the census – first until 2012 and then later until 2013 – because of a lack of funds. But this argument never seemed convincing, especially considering that many former Soviet republics have conducted censuses or are proceeding with them despite economic situations far more dire than Russia’s.

Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan carried out censuses last year, while Belarus did one this year, and Georgia and Tajikistan will conduct them in 2010.

The lack-of-money plea seemed even more unconvincing considering the record of past Soviet and Russian governments in delaying or even canceling censuses. In 1937, a census was conducted, processed, tabulated, and presented to Josef Stalin. He didn’t like what he saw, so he jailed many of those who carried it out and covered up the results. Apparently, the demographic depredations caused by famine, purges, and collectivization were too severe to be made public.

Earlier in the 1930s, the government regularly failed to release data on birthrates and death rates. In later years, state statistical yearbooks periodically failed to report infant-mortality statistics. The omission of grain- or oil-production figures was clearly linked to shortfalls in these sectors of the economy.

Stalin’s government did publish a census in 1939, but the figures presented there were clearly too high. When it was originally published, the 1939 Soviet census covered little more than 10 pages. In comparison, the post-Stalin 1959 census ran several thousand pages, although it included much data from 1939 that had not been previously reported. The 2002 Russian census covered some 40,000 pages.

Accurate Information Needed

The 2002 census was harshly criticized, particularly for the nationality data it included. The report was questioned by ethnographer Valery Tishkov, demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky, and others for purported inaccuracies relating to the numbers of Chechens, Russians, and other nationalities. The government in Moscow needs accurate information in this area in order to formulate its nationalities policies.

Another issue of potential concern is the number of Muslims in Russia. Recently, the mufti of the Moscow area issued a report claiming that there are some 2 million people of Muslim origin in the capital, about one-fifth of the city’s entire population. He used the figure to argue that there is a severe shortage of mosques in the city.

Overall death rates in Russia have risen to at least three times the rates in Western Europe and North America.
Even Russia’s total population is open to doubt. Some observers have disputed the official figure of 142 million, arguing that the real figure is 139.8 million or, in one estimate, 137.8 million. Some analysts suspect the census could reveal dismal birthrate, death-rate, and migration figures.

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have repeatedly backed policies aimed at boosting the birthrate. But the political leadership has rarely acknowledged that Russia faces a sharp decline in the number of women aged 20-29, the cohort responsible for about two-thirds of all births. This imminent decline – from 13 million to 7 million or 8 million – will be the inevitable result of the 50 percent decline in all births between 1987 and 1999 (from 2.5 million per year to 1.25 million).

At the same time, although there have been varying decreases in deaths caused by alcohol poisoning, traffic accidents, heart disease, and cancer, there are still high and potentially embarrassing rates of suicide, narcotics overdoses, and death from alcoholism-related causes and smoking.

Overall death rates in Russia have risen to at least three times the rates in Western Europe and North America. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks Russia 150th in the world in terms of average male life expectancy at birth. The ranking for women is 100th. Only 50 percent of Russian males currently aged 16 will survive until their 60th birthday. With a life expectancy for men at 60 and for women at 73, Russia has the highest gender gap of all developed countries. Currently, 30-40 percent of all male deaths occur among the working-age population (officially, from 16 to 59 years of age, inclusive).

Premature mortality will be further exacerbated by the increase in AIDS-related deaths. Official data indicates shortages of anti-retroviral-therapy medications. One telling figure is the rate of co-infection between the HIV virus and tuberculosis (TB). Five years ago, about 50 percent of those with AIDS at death were also suffering from TB. Now that figure is about two-thirds.

'First-Time' Cases

It can be difficult to compare Russia’s statistics with those of other countries or the WHO because of the way Russia reports morbidity. Russian data on TB and other diseases only reports "first-time" cases. Relapses, reoccurrences, and repeat infections are not included, as they are in data kept by the WHO, the United States, and virtually every other country. This is likely the main explanation why official Russian figures put the number of new TB cases in 2007 at 118,000, while the WHO estimate for Russia is 157,000.

In addition, there have been startling increases in infection rates for other types of TB, including multidrug-resistant TB and extensively drug-resistant TB. Russia is the only country in Europe that is listed by the WHO Stop TB Partnership program as a high-burden TB country. The potential premature mortality from these new illnesses will likely increase mortality and restore the large disparity in ratio of excess mortality to the number of births.

Lastly, there is the issue of migration. The Federal Migration Service simply does not know the “correct” number of migrants in Russia today. Many Central Asian migrants have been returning to their countries because of the economic downturn in Russia, job layoffs, and racially motivated crimes. This out-migration will only worsen the demographic crisis and further reduce the supply of labor. The working-age population of Russia is currently declining by about 1 million per year, and this figure is expected to double over the next 10 years. This means Russia will need some 20 million to 25 million migrants over the next few decades.

Additionally, the military is competing with the civilian labor force: the numerical decline will make it increasingly hard for the military to meet its conscription targets. Already the military is drafting people with compromised health, as well as students and others whose induction was previously deferred. Even people in the penitentiary system are being taken into the military.

All these demographic developments have serious policy implications. How many children will the school system have to prepare for? How will labor shortages affect the government’s economic-development targets? And so on and on.

The government needs timely and accurate information -- even if it means facing hard truths at a politically inconvenient moment.

Murray Feshbach is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an emeritus research professor at Georgetown University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.