Economic growth is affecting demographics: the country’s regional centres are pumping young people in from remote provinces. People in urban centres seem to be living in a different era compared with those living in the provinces: while the former focus on having successful careers, value democracy, and enjoy freedom of movement, villagers and residents of small towns have other concerns such as making ends meet.
Differences between urban and rural lifestyles will continue to grow, predict Nikita Mkrtchyan and Lilia Karachurina, assistant professors of the HSE Institute of Demography, who studied the migration to big cities that took place in Russia between 1989 and 2010. They summarized their findings in the article ‘Regional Capitals and Backwoods’, published in a recent issue of DemoscopeWeekly.
Mkrtchyan and Karachurina examined 1989, 2002, and 2010 census dataand found that different parts of the country responded differently to the post-communist economic transformation – in some communities people packed their bags and migrated to big cities, while in others most people stayed put, hoping to wait out the hard times by living off their household farms. Even the relatively prosperous Central Federal District "had hardly any peripheral towns or districts that did not lose members of their population" to migration in the 2000s.
Differences between urban centres and remote provinces already existed in Soviet times, but the country's profound transformation in the 1990s and 2000s further polarized the centre and the periphery. Today, they almost seem like two different countries – while in big cities the dollar exchange rate is a major concern, in the periphery life depends on the weather and a good potato crop.
Economic logic suggests that the population densities of urban centres and metropolitan areas will rise even further. The authors attempt to clarify the extent to which the distance to a regional urban centre affects a population’s dynamics.
Indeed, the farther away a community is from a regional centre, the faster people move away from it.
This trend was particularly evident in 1989-2002 in Russia's Central, Northwestern, and Siberian federal districts. A somewhat different tendency was observed in the Volga Region, the Urals, and Siberia, where communities around regional capitals – such as the booming industrial cities of Togliatti, Kogalym, Nefteyugansk, and Surgut – enjoyed even better population dynamics than the capitals themselves.
Between 2003 and 2010, big city populations were growing in most federal districts, particularly in cities around Moscow in the Central District; and Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Tomsk in the Urals and Siberia.
Local capitals were particularly attractive to young people: in the 1990s, migration to cities accounted for 25-30% growth in the 15-19 and 20-24 age groups in 19 Russian regions; the same pattern was observed in 2003-2010.
Three federal districts – the Far East, Siberia and the Northwest – have experienced the highest rates of depopulation due to intensive migration to the west of the country. "These largest, remotest, and least populated areas have lost a third of their population over the past two decades," note Mkrtchyan and Karachurina. By expert estimates, their combined population was 5.7 million in 1989, 4.4 million in 2020, and 3.9 million in 2010.
Population growth in the Central Federal District is particularly noticeable – even the cities of Tambov, Ivanovo, and Tver, which are perceived as less attractive, did not experience a significant population decline. In contrast, virtually every community in remote parts of Russia, according to the authors, faced a population decline in the 2000s.
While Moscow was excluded from the study, its attractiveness reflects strongly on the surrounding area.
The authors also examined in detail those cities which do not fitthe general rule that populations decrease in size as one moves further away for a centre.
In the Volga Federal District, these included a number of medium-sized and big cities in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan – Belebey, Salavat, Yelabuga, Neftekamsk, and Nizhnekamsk – and a few smaller industrial centres for oil refinery and organic chemistry. In Siberia, the oil-mining cities of Pyt-Yah, Nefteyugansk, and Surgut added to their population.
With a few exceptions, peripheral Russian communities shrink when their population migrates to big cities, particularly the capitals. Those who stay, however, appear to be used to their established way of life. The majority of those who move to big cities are younger people, but their overall numbers have declined over the past decade, and this negative demographic trend is likely to limit depopulation’s impact on the country's periphery.