Russia is facing a demographic crisis so dire that its population could shrink by half within 50 years. The only obvious solution to encourage youthful immigrants from overpopulated Asian neighbors such as China is so politically sensitive that Russian leaders refuse to even discuss it.
Russia's challenge is a double whammy. Like most of the developed world, birthrates have fallen far below levels that would sustain the population. At the same time, Russian death rates, particularly among working-age males, have skyrocketed due to post-Soviet poverty, substance abuse, disease, stress and other ills.
Russia's population has fallen from 149 million a decade ago to just over 144 million today. Male life expectancy now stands at 59 years, with the average Russian woman living 72 years.
Demographic experts say that the country is losing one million of its population annually, and the nosedive is accelerating.
"Whole regions of Siberia and the Russian far east are already depopulated, and new deserts are appearing even in former 'black earth' regions of central Russia," says Lev Gudkov, a demographer with the independent Russian Center for Public Opinion Research. "We will not be able to maintain our industry, agriculture or our armed forces."
Since the USSR's collapse, mortality rates among young males have risen to levels never before seen in peacetime. Mr. Gudkov predicts that there could be one pensioner for every worker in Russia within 20 years. "Not even a rich economy could survive that kind of strain," he says.
Russian women, who tend to be as well-educated and career-oriented as their Western counterparts, have been been having fewer children since the 1970s. Births now stand at 1.1 per woman, far short of the 2.4 babies each that would be needed to stabilize the population.
Russian nationalists have widely blamed the demographic crisis on women, and their proposed solutions boil down to removing them from the labor market and sending them home to have more children.
Most Western countries compensate for lower birthrates by permitting temporary and permanent forms of immigration, which provide both skilled and unskilled workers to keep economies growing and tax revenues flush.
But even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia has resisted that solution.
"The only acceptable sources of immigrants for us are the Russian-speaking populations of former Soviet countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States," says Yevgeny Krasinyev, head of migration studies at the official Institute of Social and Economic Population Studies in Moscow.
The severity of Russia's population decline has been masked by an influx of mainly ethnic Russian immigrants from the former Soviet states of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Baltics, but the flow from the CIS is slowing to a trickle. Alexander Belyakov, a pro-Kremlin parliamentarian and head of the Duma's Resources Committee, says: "We will encourage people to come from CIS countries, but Russia does not need any other immigrants."
Experts say that Russia not only has no immigration strategy, it has no effective laws to govern the issue at all. "There are only prohibitions," says Viktor Voronkov, director of the St. Petersburg Center for Independent Social Research. "This guarantees that most immigration remains illegal, a boon to only the black market and the criminalized part of society." Tens of thousands of migrant construction workers, from Ukraine, Moldova, and other CIS countries fuel a growing housing boom on Moscow's outskirts, yet few have legal status in Russia or pay any taxes.
Mr. Vorontkov says the main obstacle to rational immigration guidelines is a deep fear of being overwhelmed by outsiders. "Xenophobia remains very strong, not only in the Russian street but at the highest levels of officialdom as well," he says. Most feared of all is China, sparsely populated Siberia's teeming neighbor. Experts say there are already as many as 200,000 Chinese living and working in Russia, mostly in trade and small manufacture.
Even among the most open-minded Russian experts, the idea of inviting Chinese workers to till Siberia's abandoned farmlands or lend their entrepreneurial skills to Russia's depressed cities seems dangerous. "The situation on the Chinese border is already out-of-control due to illegal immigration. Russia needs to protect itself," says Mr. Krasinyev. "Letting Chinese workers come in large numbers looks like a solution, but is it really?" says Vladimir Iontsev, a Moscow professor of demography. "You have to ask yourself, would Russia still be Russia?"