oDR: Opinion

Millions of people are leaving Russia – here’s why

OPINION: Russia’s long-running demographic crisis is not the cause for Putin’s war in Ukraine, but will contribute to its outcome

Alexander Etkind
31 March 2023, 7.00am

Thousands of Russian citizens have fled the country since the authorities announced mobilisation last year


(c) Getty Images / Michael Metzel. All rights reserved

Western experts have been claiming ‘Russia is a normal country’ for a generation or more, ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. In fact, normalising Russia grew into a massive and high-profile endeavour, an intellectual effort equivalent to the Marshall Plan.

How wrong can you be?

The reality in Russia was different on many levels. During the past decade in particular, the Russian state has overseen a multidimensional crisis – political, ecological, moral, medical and, most visibly, demographic.

Russian governmental institutions have failed to mitigate this crisis, despite their significant resources. Instead, as has happened so many times in history, waging a successful war looked like an easy solution to these unresolved problems.

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If you wish to understand the Russian-Ukrainian War that started in 2014 and will continue for months, possibly years, you need to comprehend the crisis that was both its cause and background. For the ‘normalising’ experts who did not see this crisis unfolding, the war came as a big surprise.

Unhealthy, unstable and unhappy

In 2012, the World Bank upgraded Russia to a high-income economy, but Russian incomes have since been falling, a trend seen in very few rich countries. Russia ranked 59th in the world in terms of adjusted net national income per capita, according to data from 2020 compiled by the World Bank, and is currently ranked 51st by the Harvard Economic Complexity Index. Russia’s health spending per capita is pitiful – ranking 109th – while its underspending on education is gruesome.

Russia may be a small economy in global terms, but it’s the fourth largest polluter; China tops the list, but Russian carbon emissions per capita are much higher. Siberia has been extensively logged and ravaged by fires, while methane leaks at Russian mines have created massive emissions.

The 2021 Happiness Index placed Russia 78th in the world, between silent Turkmenistan and protesting Hong Kong

A World Health Organization study published in 2019 found that Russia had the third largest number of suicides. And a 2021 World Bank rating of political stability ranked Russia 146th, nestled between Mexico and Mauritania. More recent estimates are not available, but my guess is that they would be off the chart.

No wonder then that Russians are so unhappy: the 2021 Happiness Index placed the country 78th in the world, between silent Turkmenistan and protesting Hong Kong.

Perhaps much of this has contributed towards the country’s pathetic performance in population growth in recent years, which reflects fertility, health and migration. The country is currently 203rd, with negative growth, very close to the bottom of the list.

How is it possible that the well-educated people of this rich country are so poor and unfree? Where does Russian money come from and where has it vanished to? Why does this richly endowed country with its long history and famous technological advances make its people so unhappy and unhealthy?

Fossil fuels and the military

The answer is simple: the Russian state. It is huge, archaic and very expensive. It does not rely on the people but is fully dependent on natural resources, and mostly on one type: fossil fuels.

Up until the war, Russia, the US and Saudi Arabia made up the troika that led the world in oil extraction. Russia was also the biggest exporter of natural gas worldwide and the sixth largest producer of coal.

If you totted up all these carbon calories, Russia would likely top the world rankings. Counting Russian fossil fuels that were delivered and burned abroad, in 2018 it produced more carbon emissions than any other country in the world apart from the US.


The "Z" symbol has come to symbolise Russia's "special military operation" against Ukraine


(c) Getty Images / Natalia Kolesnikova. All rights reserved

Over the 20 years since Putin came to power, Russian military expenditure has exceeded a trillion dollars – an enormous sum of money, but a minor part of Russia’s oil and gas profits. Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, military, security and law enforcement costs equalled a third of federal expenditure. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund forecast that by 2016, a quarter of Russia’s federal budget would be secret – unparalleled in modern economies.

In the early 21st century, Russia was the most unequal of developed countries, the most militarised of big countries and the most unpredictable of them all.

By saving money on social spending – including on healthcare, education, pensions, urban development – Putin and his allies cultivated mutual understanding with the right wing of the US Republican Party. This was a faction known as the Tea Party movement, which existed from 2009 to 2016 and, like Russia, was both fiscally conservative and dependent on oil money. But in fact, Putin’s overblown, highly militarised state was exactly the opposite of the Tea Party ideal.

As a ruler, Putin was much closer to the pompous and erratic King George III than the protesters who threw tea chests into Boston Harbour. A combination of internal colonisation, libertarian taxes and uncontrolled corruption created one of the most unequal, top-heavy and conservative societies in history. It’s no wonder that people were leaving.

Albert O. Hirschman, а pioneer of developmental economics, argued that when people are unhappy with their leaders, they have two options: voice or exit. In the 1990s, the Russian people had a voice – an opportunity to express their discontent in the public sphere and sometimes in democratic elections. That voice was silenced when Putin came to power in 2000.

The new president then proceeded to launch his first battles against modernity, open society and fundamental rights. In response, millions of Russians and non-Russians left the country. Others were sapped of their desire to bring children into the world. Russia’s depopulation was an exercise of the people’s right to exit. Insecure, unhealthy people died young; unhappy, hopeless people refused to reproduce. Demographic processes responded proactively to political events.

Births, abortions and depopulation

Russia’s birth rate has been steadily decreasing since 2014 and is now at a historical low. Since the invasion of Ukraine last year February, fewer children were born per day in Russia than during the two years of the coronavirus pandemic. As Russian demographer Alexey Raksha has noted, 2023 will see the lowest number of babies born in the whole of Russian history, even lower than during the Second World War.

Since the late Soviet period, Russia has been a global leader in abortion rates. The Russian state, seemingly concerned by this, has long attempted to discourage abortions by various means, from a ban in the last years of Stalinism to Putin’s ‘maternal capital’ payments, designed to support and stimulate families.

From 1991 to 2015, the number of abortions in Russia decreased from 3.6 mln to 0.8 mln. However, no burst of fertility was achieved. The number of births per year slowly approached the number of terminations but exceeded it only in 2007. Russia was starting and ending its wars, but Russians were removing their embryos at the same rate at which they were dying of natural causes.

In 2020, the ratio of terminations per births in Russia – a country in which abortion is almost never talked about – was two times higher than in the US, where it has become a central political issue.

Five million citizens left Russia during the first 20 years of Putin’s rule. One million have fled in the last year alone

During the country’s ‘fat’ oil and gas years, which ended in 2014, Russia attracted about ten million migrants, most of them young males from central Asia and China. Coming to Moscow and southern Siberia, they were lured by the relatively high wages for non-qualified labourers.

The authorities encouraged this immigration as long as it boosted their revenues. Without inward migration, the depopulation crisis would have been much worse. On the other hand, migrants competed with unqualified locals, increasing unemployment and discontent.

After the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the devaluation of the ruble in 2016, millions of migrant workers left Russia, most of them broke. Five million citizens of the Russian Federation left the country during the first 20 years of Putin’s rule, but one million have fled in the last year alone, since the invasion of Ukraine. Many of them are skilled professionals – IT experts, doctors, nurses, journalists, engineers. This brain drain has only added to the Russian depopulation problem.

As it turns out, the millions of Russians who have decided to exit ‘the Russian world’ – either literally by emigration, or metaphorically by abortion – have been very insightful.

Comparing their hard but timely decisions to the easy flattery or sheer ignorance typical of many (though not all) Western experts on Russia, one should admire the common people’s understanding of their country.

These statistically dominant responses are a kind of passive aggression towards the Russian state by its citizens – though they’re not as visible as the street riots we recently witnessed in Georgia or Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution. But on such a massive scale, even these casual acts of resistance combine in a force of political and military significance.

Undoubtedly, this mass exit – or, if you wish, the “people’s desertion” – from the Russian world will play a major role in the future course of its war on Ukraine and the West.

Alexander Etkind's new book, Russia Against Modernity, is out this month with Polity.

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