Growing up in St. Petersburg, Dasha, a 29-year-old marketer and artist, dreamed of having a "complete family." Raised by her mother and grandmother, her father left when she was in elementary school.
"I grew up thinking that I would be married and have a family of my own before I turned 25," she told Fortune.
But Russia's political instability and financial uncertainties have recently led her to renounce having kids. In Dasha's lifetime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine twice; the war's consequences have taken a heavy toll on everyday Russians like her. Life in Russia has become "too complex," she says, with money worries coupled with fears over an increasingly autocratic government.
Dasha is just one of many young Russians whose stance toward having children is indicative of the economic and political anxieties facing the country today. Fortune chose not to publish the full names of the people interviewed due to concerns of government reprisals.
Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, Russia has confronted a continued population slump due to low birth rates coupled with high mortality rates. Throughout his rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has obsessed over Russia's shrinking population. Last year, Putin encouraged Russians to build a "strong family [with] two, three, or four children. [This] should be the image of a future Russia." This August, he revived the Soviet-era "Mother Heroine" award, which pays $16,000 to women who have 10 or more children.
But recent Kremlin actions, like its botched pandemic response and its war in Ukraine, shows that "Putin's regime doesn't serve the Russian people," Dasha said. Young Russians now facing an increasingly precarious future are delaying or refusing to have kids-or leaving the country for the sake of their kids-potentially spelling trouble for Putin's vision of a strong country and a big population.
When Putin came to power in 2000, Russia's fertility rate was 1.25 births per woman-its lowest point ever. In 2006, he described Russia's demographic decline as "the most acute problem facing our country today"; boosting Russia's population has been at the top of his agenda since.
The following year, the Kremlin launched its "maternity capital" scheme-an unprecedented program to increase birth rates through incentives like extended maternity leave and cash handouts for families with kids, helped in part by the 2000s oil boom. In the early 2010s, as the Kremlin began doling out family benefits and millennials came of age, Russia saw a modest jump in birth rates-from 1.3 births per woman in 2006 to 1.8 in 2014-but that proved to be only temporary.
After Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea, the country's fertility rates started dropping again, dipping to 1.6 in 2017 to 1.5 by 2019-much lower than the 2.1 rate needed to keep a population stable without migration.
Russia's economy and living standards were hurt by the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent fall in oil prices. But the Kremlin's 2014 Crimea invasion led to a collapse in foreign investment-FDI shrank to $6.8 billion in 2015 from $69 billion in 2013. Meanwhile Russians' disposable incomes plummeted 13% from 2014 to 2018, nurturing uncertainties about the future and family planning. "Things have been pretty bad for us since 2014," Dasha said.
Then came Putin's "incompetent management" of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated Russia's population decline overall, economist Sergei Guriev, provost at Paris's Science Po and research fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research, told Fortune. The state-produced Sputnik vaccine failed to win the public's trust, resulting in one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world (only 54% of Russia's adult population is fully vaccinated)-and one of the worst COVID mortality rates. Russia recorded 1 million deaths in 2021, alone-the biggest population decline since the fall of the Soviet Union (independent demographers have also accused the government of undercounting COVID deaths).
Now, Russia's February invasion of Ukraine could strike another blow to Putin's dream of resuming the nation's population growth by 2030.
Russia's fertility rate plunged 6.5% from January to September this year, with new sign-ups for the Kremlin's maternity program down by 12.6%. Meanwhile the country's death rate has reached the highest level since the end of World War II.
"Many people don't want to have children because of the anxiety and uncertainty due to war and mobilization," Kseniya Kirillova, an analyst for think tank Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told Fortune. The economic turbulence unleashed by Putin's war has made it more difficult for households to plan for the future, Igor Gretskiy, a research fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, told Fortune.
Western sanctions have isolated Russia from the global economy, which has hit young Russians particularly hard. For Marina, a 29-year-old content creator, Russia's war in Ukraine has snatched away job opportunities and burdened her with higher living costs. Before February, she had partnerships with international brands on her social media channels and sporadic work as a part-time model. "Now, I'm struggling with [a] lack of opportunities to travel and work abroad. Working online is a problem because of sanctions. Flights, visas, bank cards, now cost three to five times more for us. There are many nights when I can't sleep, because I don't know what the future will bring," she told Fortune. "Since I was 21, people [in Russia] have been telling me that I need to become a mother. I wasn't so sure, because of my lifestyle. But the war really convinced me that I shouldn't have kids because how can I afford it?" She will leave Russia permanently this month.
During the early months of the war, Russia experienced a wave of optimism and support for the government. But as the war dragged on, the "public sees the economic situation much more realistically than it did in the spring… and has begun to suspect that Putin's military adventure is taking place at their expense," Boris Grozovski, a Russian public educator, wrote for research institute the Wilson Center last week. A recent internal government poll found that only 25% of Russians supported continuing the war-down from 57% in July, according to independent publication Meduza.
Niki, a 28-year-old video blogger built his online following by documenting daily life in Russia. He told Fortune that financial anxiety plays the biggest role in young people's decisions to shun, or delay, having kids-more than older generations. Russian millennials and Gen Z are "more mindful about building their families. They want a good job and steady income [first] before thinking about having kids," he said.
Gretskiy, who has researched Russian Gen Z and millennial attitudes to the state and the war, said that Gen Z "relies on the state to a much lesser extent [than their predecessors]. They have somewhat different life priorities: self-realization and freedom of choice."
After February, young Russians were cut off from carving out successful and lucrative careers at international companies because new western sanctions effectively isolated Russia from the world, Niki said. For Russia's Gen Z, working at a foreign firm is the "most coveted," Gretskiy said.
"As a rule, Russians tend to postpone hav[ing] children if they aren't confident in their ability to provide," Gretskiy said. For many Russians today, "planning horizons are so short, child-rearing plans are still under question"-another impediment to resuming Russia's population growth, Margarita Zavadskaya, a social science researcher at the University of Helsinki, told Fortune.
Young peoples' financial anxieties have been compounded by political uncertainties, like the government's growing push for patriotic education to instil in kids unquestioning love and support for the state. In September, Russia's Ministry of Education ordered schools nationwide to teach a weekly lesson called "Important Conversations" to teach "traditional values" and "true" patriotism. Children will be tested on their understanding of "correct" proverbs like "[the] happiness of [Russia] is more precious than life."
The Kremlin's political education efforts have been the catalyst for some young people, particularly those living in big cities, to remain child-free. Katya, a 35-year-old sociology researcher, is on the fence about having kids. But she tells Fortune that if she does decide to become a mother, she doesn't want to raise her children in Russia.
"Russian public schools are the targets of very strong government propaganda, which makes me terrified. They teach kids terrible things like how to use weapons and justify the current politics [using] nonsensical arguments," she said. Tanya, a 25-year-old Moscow-based public relations professional, told Fortune that around 70% of her friends have left the country since February. "Young couples, some of whom have small children or who want kids, are most worried about Russia's crazy education system," she said.
Putin's war in Ukraine is making another "major contribution" to Russia's population decline, Guriev said. Russia has now recorded 100,000 battlefield deaths, 300,000 men mobilized, and the mass exodus of at least 700,000 mostly young and educated Russians. "In such a situation, a reasonable question arises: with whom should a woman start a family and give birth to children?," Kirillova said.
Russia's demographic problem hasn't yet deteriorated into a full-fledged crisis since the state and society are still functioning, Peter Rutland, a professor of government who studies contemporary Russian politics and economy at Wesleyan University, told Fortune. Experts point out that Russia's fertility rates and population decline aren't as bad as during the early post-Soviet years; Russia's fertility growth rates from 1991 to 1996 averaged -5.5%, compared to 0.8% from 2015 to 2020. Still, "most long-term forecasts predict a decrease in Russia's population. [An] optimistic scenario would entail large-scale institutional reforms" that appear highly unlikely," Russian economist Evgeny Gontmakher wrote in January.
And young Russians' growing uncertainties about the future could worsen the country's already-dire population forecasts.
"To live in Russia today is uncomfortable psychologically and economically. How can we even think about kids during this time?"
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com