We Were 52 Million

14 March 2012, 12:00

An all-Ukrainian census has been postponed, yet again,until 2013, according to Serhiy Tihipko, Vice Premier for Social Policy. Meanwhile, Ukraine is no longer the fifth most populated country in Europe, provided that Russia and Turkey are not taken into account, having been overtaken by Spain.                          

Based on official statistics, the Ukrainian population has shrunk by 6.2mn people from 51.8 to 45.6mn since 1990. By contrast, the Spanish population has grown by 8.5mn from 38.8 to 47.3mn people over the same period.


The demographic crisis, especially palpable right after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, was a well expected result of the adverse trends evolvingin the country’s soviet past.These included the continuously declining birth rates and life expectancy coupled with the aggravating ageing of the nation.

Before the Communists launched their socio-economic experiments, Ukraine had the fastest population growth rates in Europe, backed by high birth rates. The demographic situation changed dramatically in the second quarter of the 20th century. Forced industrialization required the most out of the workforce, leaving no energy for reproduction and this was coupled with a targeted attack on the country’s rural gene pool during the 1932-1933 Famine, which prevented it from offsetting the demographic damage of industrialization. Further aggravated by population loss during WWII, the gender and age balance, as well as the motivation of the nation, was tilted strongly. Liberated from the “second wave of slavery,” i.e. the ban on leaving villages without proper consent from local authorities during the forced collectivization of the early 1930s, the rural population fled in massive numbers to industrial centers, which were no places for starting a family, let alone preserving high birth rates.

In 1958–1959, the total fertility rate per woman at childbearing age in the Ukrainian SSR was 2.3, the third lowest in the Soviet Union, outnumbered only by Latvia with 1.94 and Estonia 1.95. In the 1970s, it fell below the replacement rate to 2.05 and down again to 1.84 by 1990. As a result, the birth rate shrank from 2.05% to 1.27% between 1960 and 1990. Compared to 871,000 babies born in 1960, 1990 saw only 657,000 newly-born Ukrainians.

It is a fact that the birth rate has shrunk in most developed countries. However, other factors which cause demographic crisis, such as the rising death rate and shortening life expectancy, aggravated Ukraine’s demographic troubles and it was the same for the rest of the USSR in the era of “developed socialism.” Unlike 1860-1960 when the death rate was pushed down from 3.3% to 0.69% thanks to progress in medicine, it almost doubled over 1960-1990, going from 0.69% to 1.21%. Average life expectancy in Ukraine decreased from 67.4 to 65.7 years.

This combination of the shrinking birth rate and life expectancy and growing death rate has multiplied the effect. As a result, the natural population growth rate plummeted fourfold over 1960-1990, down to 0.35% from 1.36%. The next decade further aggravated the trend pushing the population growth rate down sevenfold from 0.35% in 1980 to the barely noticeable 0.05% in 1990.

As was expected, the trend peaked in the early 1990s decreasing the population growth rate from -0.08% in 1991 to -0.76% in 2000-2002.


Despite the declared focus on demographic problems that are listed as one of the top priorities in the National Security Concept, the leaders of independent Ukraine have failed to take any effective steps to improve the situation. The lengthy economic crisis of the 90s resulted in the critical decline of the birth rate as every 10 women would give birth to only 11 babies, instead of 22-24 which is the replacement rate. The number of families with one child or no children rose dramatically. Infectious and parasite diseases, tuberculosis and other unnatural causes of death added to the soviet-inherited factors that spurred death rates. The accelerating decline in health amongst children and teenagers, which has resulted in just one healthy child or teenager per every four or five, poses the biggest threat to the nation’s gene pool.

Migration has also contributed to Ukraine’s population decline. According to official statistics, 1.22mn more people left Ukraine than moved to the country over 1994-2004. Due to obvious reasons, the scale of hidden migration, labour migration first and foremost, is impossible to calculate accurately, although Ukraine’s population automatically loses at least 2 to 3 million unless Ukrainians who currently work abroad return home. The accurate number of illegal immigrants in Ukraine is also unknown, but is roughly estimated at several million.

The generation shift and partial adjustment of the population to the new socio-economic environment in the early 2000s brought the first signs of improvement of the demographic scene, further supported by targeted steps of the new government that came to power after the Orange Revolution. These included financial aid to mothers, specifically increased child birth benefits. Over 2001-2009, the number of births rose by 36%, the birth rate per one woman grew by 34%. Yet, after the latest shift in government, the positive demographic trend is likely to change for the worse. The birth rate in 2010 and 2011 was lower compared to 2009, and to add to this fewer couples got married. In 2010, the natural population decline rate increased from -0.42% to -0.44%. This signaled a downturn in social expectations caused by the economic crisis and the frustration with the new government’s incapacity to implement an efficient anti-crisis policy. Moreover, the policies of the Ukrainian authorities questioned their ability to take steps, which were quite weak yet available before, to support birth rate and maternity. The new government has implemented initiatives to restrict the number of people entitled to child birth and care benefits, cut the term of maternity leave and raised the retirement age for women, just to name a few.

The declining expectations of the nation, especially the youth, resulting from the lack of prospects of finding a decent job and buying their own apartment, is one of the key risks for Ukraine’s demographic prospects.  In one out of seven families in Ukraine, one individual lives within less than 7.5 sq m, while only 50% of the population enjoys a slightly larger living space of 13.65 sq m per person, which is the sanitary norm. Around 31% of young families have no homes of their own, thus 14% rent apartments, 11% are crowded into communal or shared apartments while 10% live in dormitories. Only 33% of young families live in their own apartments separate from their parents, and 56.3% of all families live in their own homes. According to sociological surveys, the housing issue is the key reason that holds back marriages and facilitates divorces in young families. Government-funded programs are barely effective. Based on an audit of the ‘Foundation to Support Residential Construction for the Youth’ carried out by the Audit Chamber of Ukraine over 2002-2010, only 12% of the total due housing space was put into use over the eight year period. Less than 3% of young families out of all candidates for government-subsidized apartments got subsidized mortgage loans. In 2009, the government cancelled contracts to pay part of the interest on mortgages issued by commercial banks to young families, yet it does continue to cover its liabilities under earlier contracts.

Demographic prospects are dim for Ukraine unless the government and society dramatically change their approach to supporting young families. According to an analysis of the current trends, the South-Eastern regions, especially Donbas, as well as some Central regions, such as Chernihiv, Zhytomyr and Kirovohrad Oblasts will quickly become depopulated. The native-born populace will keep increasing in Western and parts of Central Ukraine. Odesa Oblast and the Crimea are likely to have population growth due to their Romanian, Moldovan and Crimean Tartar components. Yet, the growing appetite for migration amongst young people and the shrinking marriage rate might turn Ukraine into a nation that will no longer be able to solve the demographic problem with its own resources alone. 

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