Population Policy in Russia: What Science and History
Can Tell Us

April 13, 2024
  • Sergei Zakharov
    CNRS Laboratory SAGE, Institut de Démographie (IDUS), Strasbourg University
  • Tatiana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Demographer Sergei Zakharov discusses Russia’s efforts encouraging people to have more children and, based on contemporary demographic theories, explains why they will not bear fruit.
Russia’s total fertility rate in 1980-2019. Source: Wiki Commons
The Russian authorities have recently grown concerned about declining birth rates. Various measures have been proposed to boost them: “carrots” in the form of maternity capital and “sticks” in the form of restrictions on abortion, along with mass propaganda of large families, which the church has been part of. What does science say? What measures are effective?

Modern science, first of all, has moved away from the view of children as goods, whose utility can be increased by government payments – as was believed, for example, by Nobel laureate Gary Becker, to whom economists like to refer.

In developed countries since the 1980s, the concept of reducing uncertainty has been popular. It suggests that the number of children can be increased by creating supportive institutions that give parents confidence in the future: these include benefits, kindergartens, and many other types of government support. But this concept also has its drawbacks. In extreme cases, a family, completely reliant on the state, stops working, which is seen in the phenomenon of unemployment being “passed down” in developed countries.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the economic view of the family is flawed – factors other than economics also influence decision-making. Thus, the theory of gender equity emerged: since the development of humanity has led to a change in the role of women in society, the roles of spouses in the family should also change.

The best embodiment of this theory is seen in the Scandinavian countries and France, where family policies are built around the equal participation of men and women in raising children – and it these countries that have the highest birth rates in Europe. Gender balance has not yet been achieved in all developed countries, and according to Australian demographer and sociologist Peter McDonald, women’s gains in social spheres in the 20th century have now run up against the fact that the distribution of roles in the family remains patriarchal and imperfect.

The important thing here is that all societies are imperfect, but imperfect in different ways, while the cultural contexts in different countries are different. For example, now the lowest birth rates are in post-totalitarian countries: Germany, Italy, Spain. Because all dictators pursue nationalistic and aggressive pronatalist policies: our nation should grow faster than others, our women should give birth more than others. Actually, the father of pronatalist policies was Mussolini: taxes on bachelors and childless people, packages for newlyweds, maternity capital and other “children-for-money” measures are his invention.

But then children born under that policy do not want to have children themselves?

Yes, the state – even if it hands out prizes and medals while interfering in your private life, in the life of your family – is later rejected. And at the end of the 80s, the modern concept of post-materialist societies or the second demographic transition appeared.

Note that modern demographic theories… do not cancel out the previous ones but complement them. Therefore, Becker’s idea about the need to cover family expenditures and the idea about reducing uncertainty are both right – they just have their limitations.

The theory of the second demographic transition states that a large role is played by sociocultural models, which do not change as quickly as the economy and social policy. And, in the case of post-totalitarian societies, the theory of post-materialism says that investments in traditional institutions and traditional ideas about family roles, oddly enough, lead to low birth rates, not high ones.

If we want the family to be successful, so that people strive to have a family, we should not conduct experiments using methods of social engineering, and even more so, we should not stimulate the “production of children” for the sake of statistics.

In other words, if today in Russia people are encouraged to have more children and earlier, then after some time birth rates in Russia will fall even more?

Yes. Because the theory of the second demographic transition states that focusing efforts only on material incentives and the propaganda of patriotism leads to low birth rates. It has been confirmed repeatedly throughout history.
Whereas until the 70s high female employment led to low birth rates, since then the opposite trend has intensified: birth rates are higher in societies and social groups where female employment is higher.
A population pyramid of Russia before the war in Ukraine. There appears to be a significant increase in people aged 5-15, likely due to the baby boom in the mid-2000s. Source: Wiki Commons
About 10 years ago, a stir was caused by an article in Nature [claiming] that as human capital grows, the birth rate initially decreases, as people first invest in their education, health, etc., before increasing in places where the human development index is already quite high.

Often, efforts to increase birth rates are defended because the small young generation is bearing the burden of providing for an increasing number of non-working pensioners. What is the solution here?

There is no clear answer to this question either in economic or demographic theories, as it is not yet possible to balance economic development at a rate of population aging like, say, Japan’s.

When a pay-as-you-go pension system can no longer handle the changing proportions of age groups, governments carry out reforms: changing the retirement age and introducing savings schemes.

In addition, it is necessary to reduce the vulnerability of the social security system to… demographic ups and downs. After all, the “hole” caused by World War II, though it is gradually fading, is still in effect.
And in Russia, family policy – both during the Soviet times, when in 1981 leave for mothers to care for children was introduced, and now under Putin, with payments of maternity capital – has worked the other way, strengthening demographic waves.
Both of these policies were adopted at the worst time – at the crest of a demographic wave, when a relatively large number of women were reaching childbearing age, which, when small generations reached the corresponding age, made the subsequent dip even bigger.

Since the time of Mussolini, “stimulating” policies have not affected the number of children born – only the timing of when planned children are born. The material incentives encourage women to have children earlier. But since the pattern of the two-child family was firmly established in the urban population as early as the 1930s, an “acceleration” of births naturally leads to a subsequent decline in birth rates.

By the way, unlike Soviet times, when the two-child family predominated, modern preferences across society, including in Russia, are becoming more diverse: families are deciding to have one or three children or not to have any at all.

Is this diversity of preferences leading to a decrease or increase in birth rates?

This is really interesting. The fact is that higher dispersion has little to do with the birth rate. There is a shift in births to a later age and a modulation of the intervals between them. Economists and politicians are accustomed to operating on calendar cycles, whereas we, demographers, look at the life cycles of people – at what age people decide to have a child, or when such a decision is no longer possible for physiological reasons. Meanwhile, the contraceptive revolution, which swept across the Western world in the 60s and 70s before reaching Russia in the 90s, is the cornerstone in the management of human reproduction: it has become possible to adapt your life plans to existing situations.
Anti-abortion rally Moscow, 2016. Source: Livejournal
What should modern family policy be like?

First of all, any family policy is based on a certain ideology. We demographers identify several value systems.

There is the traditional ideology: The family as a whole, preferably a big one, with the man dominating, based on marriage – this is precisely Putin’s ideology. So, it is not a certain type of family that is supported, but there is social compensation for risks. This approach took shape in the 20th century. This is a typical Swedish policy. Also, it is the children who are supported, not the family – the form of the relationship between the parents (formal/informal marriage, divorce, etc.) is not taken into account.

A more modern approach is the family as an institution of socialization: it is necessary to level the starting opportunities of children, to help the family to build up its socializing potential.

Finally, the “new social ideology,” a product of the late 90s, no longer sees the family as a fixed entity. A family can be organized on a variety of bases.The New Social Ideology says that the goal of family policy is to provide optimal opportunities for the well-being and development of all family members. But such a policy in its ideal form does not exist anywhere yet.

Can we say that the motto of this policy is: make conditions better and leave the family alone?

Yes. This is a values-oriented policy. There are two historical approaches to population policy. The instrumental approach is when politicians supposedly know how things should be. We need workers – we will pay them more, and they will have more kids.

Meanwhile, the values-oriented approach is based on existing values, norms and ideas in society. But now the ideal of a big family is nowhere to be found. They are trying to construct it, yet the truth is that there was no such value in the past. Because many children means poverty.

As early as 20 years ago, we noted an increase in the diversity of strategies among families in the process of the second demographic transition, where the key thing is the value of self-realization. And if we do not help people to find a place for a child in these values, we will not get that child.

So, when they say that Russia will again be a country with big families, this is wishful thinking, the motives of which must be understood. If we take Russian realities – for example, [take] some ethnic republics, where there are rules based on Sharia law, but not even there are big families widespread, like in Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip.
The social norm of having many children no longer exists, and the government cannot wish it back.
How do the calls to have more children mix with persecution of LGBT+ people and eroticism in general, as well as surrogacy? After all, homosexual couples in countries where same-sex marriage is allowed try to have children – their own, surrogate, adopted ones. And how is the widening prohibition on eroticism and – increasingly – on everything related to sex supposed to help birth rates?

All this persecution has nothing to do with demography, though it is supposedly being done out of concern for reproduction. But it is a fact that there are no more LGBT+ people in modern society than in the past. They just became more open, more in view. And this only shows that choice has become freer and lifestyles more diverse.

Why does Russia have such an anti-LGBTQ policy? All authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have tried to control not only the public but also the private lives of their citizens. They all climbed into people’s beds, owing to the fact that there was an island of freedom there. And when a citizen’s body is deemed state property, an object of external control, the rulers try to control all human actions. However, to no avail.

After the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall, anti-migrant hysteria has been rising. How might this affect demographics?

No totalitarian countries have liked migrants.

It is obvious that the state cannot control birth rates. It is easier to manage life expectancy and mortality rates, but that is expensive and today’s Russia does not have the resources for it.

But migration, they think, can be controlled: we will let in as many as we need. But officials significantly overestimate the controllability of migration. Historically, the regulation of migration has been very relative. Even in Stalin’s times – when citizens who did not have a city registration were not allowed to enter cities without permission, when entire peoples were displaced by the authorities wherever they wanted – people still kept moving about of their own free will.

But Hungary, for example, has almost no migrants. Does this mean that Viktor Orban’s anti-migrant policy is successful?

In Hungary, the main limitation to migration is the Hungarian language. If Hungary had its own [former] colonies in Africa, I would like to see how Orban would not let Hungarian-speaking Africans into the country. Sure, like all nationalists, he is trying to increase the population (but not that of gypsies!) by not letting in migrants, but for now Hungary is a country with a declining population (over the last 35 years the population of the country has decreased from 10.4 million to 9.6 million) and a small economy.
Migration in modern societies is regulated less by the issuance of visas and more by labor market demand. The economy always absorbs as many migrants as it needs.
An anti-abortion poster in Biysk (Altai Krai, Siberia, 2023) says "abortion is murder.” Source: VK
Besides migration, nationalists are very fond of limiting abortion. And now in Russia they are trying to limit not only abortions (see Russia.Post on abortion policy in today ‘s Russia) but also the use of contraceptives. There are quite a lot of cases of abortion being banned, from Stalinist Russia and Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu to modern Poland during the reign of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Does this affect fertility?

Abortion management does not affect fertility. In Poland, before the ban on abortion, birth rates were higher than in Russia, some of the highest in Europe; today, they are lower than in Russia and some of the lowest in Europe. Abortions are not done just on a whim – they are always a consequence of an unplanned pregnancy. And we should fight them with competent contraceptive policies.

At the same time, tolerance toward domestic violence is growing in Russia. Does this affect fertility?

Of course, with men coming home from the war, there will be more cases of domestic violence. And, of course, women will increasingly think about whether it is worth having a child with such a man. Modern society places self-identification and self-realization first, so individual desires and diversity of choices become natural. People are looking, if you like, for their own happiness. And happiness, which, by the way, is now measured, is strongly related to birth rates: the higher it is, the higher the birth rates are.
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