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A Post-Soviet Baby Bust Comes Back To Bite Russia

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Older Russians relax during a rally in Moscow. Even with steady improvements in life expectancy, Russian men — whose life expectancy was about 56 years in 1995 — today have an average life span of just under 66 years. Men in Europe live on average 10 years longer.

Moscow may be projecting a tough image abroad, but Russia is facing severe internal problems, including worrying trends that suggest the world's biggest country could run short of people.

That's not what you might assume, judging by the number of babies in buggies and strollers in any large Russian city. At a neighborhood park in St. Petersburg full of young families with children and toddlers, it looks like this country is in the midst of a baby boom.

Natasha and Shariv Azizov are here with their three children. Natasha says they're looking forward to having more, because, as Christians, they regard children as a blessing. "We don't know how many more children God will give us, but we're grateful to God for those we have so far," she says.

Her husband Shariv just grins. "We'd stop at 15," he says.

They say that even though Russia is facing a financial crisis, they regard a big family as a good investment, because brothers and sisters will take care of each other — and their parents — in the future.

Gayane Safarova, head demographer at the Institute for Economics and Mathematics in St. Petersburg, says couples like the Azizovs aren't unusual for Russians in their 20s and 30s.

"At present," Safarova says, "the total fertility rate is about the same as in the majority of developed European countries."

Young Russian women are having babies at a rate of 13 per 1,000 people, roughly the same as their contemporaries in Germany or France. But those countries have demographic issues of their own, and Russia, meanwhile, doesn't have enough young women.

During the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many people chose not to have children, leaving Russia with a demographic deficit.

The population was around 148 million at the time of the Soviet breakup. Russia then saw its population decline — something that is extraordinarily rare for a country during peacetime.

The numbers dipped as low as 142 million, but have edged back up to about 144 million today. (Russia also includes the more than 2 million people in Crimea, which it annexed last year from the Ukraine. That would bring the number to 146 million, though the annexation is not recognized internationally).

Regardless of how you count, Russia's population is still smaller than it was at the time of the Soviet breakup nearly a quarter-century ago.

"The number of potential mothers is not big, so we can't expect the growth of the number of births in the future," Safarova says.

Russian planners fear that this smaller group of mothers may continue the trend — by having fewer children themselves. That would have implications for whether Russia will be able to find enough workers for its factories — or soldiers for its armies.

Mark Adomanis, who analyzes Russian economic trends for Forbes, says there's another disturbing statistic: Russia's death rate recently rose by 5.2 percent between early 2014 and early 2015, after several years of declines. And one trend in particular stood out.

"There's been a modest increase in alcohol poisonings over the first part of 2015," Adomanis says. "They had been on a sharp downward trend for almost all the 2000s, and that is very disconcerting, because any uptick in that death rate has in the past gone alone with some pretty worrying trends."

Adomanis says those trends include other indicators that add up to an increase in accidents and health problems. Russians, especially men, used to be notorious for smoking, drinking and reckless behavior.

Even now, with steady improvements in life expectancy, Russian men — whose life expectancy was about 56 years in 1995 — today have an average life span of just under 66 years. Men in Europe live on average 10 years longer.

Analysts say Russia's economic crisis is likely to affect both the rate of deaths and births. When times are tough, people tend to take less care of their health, so death rates rise. If people are uncertain about their financial future, birth rates fall.

Take, for example, another couple I met in that park in St. Petersburg. They didn't want to give their names because they're unmarried, she's pregnant and their parents aren't happy with the situation.

The young woman says most of her friends are putting off having children because of the economy.

"Maybe it's because of the crisis, that's why so few people are planning to have kids," she says. "It takes a lot of money to feed the baby, to buy everything. It costs a lot more than it did before the crisis."

The latest economic figures suggest that Russians could be facing more years of financial hardship. And that could make the country's demographic problems even worse.

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