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Sex ratios in Siberia and the Chinese threat

Submitted by on April 9, 2012 – 9:42 pm 21 Comments |  
Maps such as the one on the left reveal a severe demographic imbalance in the sex ratio (the number of males divided by the number of females) in Russia. While few countries in the world have an even gender distribution, Russia experiences a strong female bias, with only 86 men for every 100 women. There are several serious reasons to worry about these numbers. For one thing, many nubile women are not able to find partners, which further threatens the already low fertility rates and may contribute to the growth of “out-of-wedlock” births, abortions, and single parenthood. Another concern focuses on the contrast with China, which has exactly the opposite bias, with over 105 males per 100 females. Given China’s gigantic population, this imbalance translates into more than 34 million surplus males. Russian nationalists fear that many of these marriageable Chinese men could flood across the border into the underpopulated Siberia in search of potential wives, which could eventually shift the cultural – and perhaps even the political – hegemony in Siberia from Russia to China. The Russian distrust for China is deep-rooted, and Chinese economic expansion is feared in areas as far from the Chinese border as St. Petersburg. But how serious is this demographic threat?

To start, let’s consider whether the female bias in Russia is biological or social in nature. Some studies find a biological basis to human sex ratios. Even though Kristen J. Navara admits that “a staggering number of social, economical and physiological variables” affects the human sex ratios, she nonetheless finds, based on data collected from 202 countries over a decade, that latitude strongly influences the ratio of males and females at birth. Specifically, countries in the tropics appear to produce significantly fewer boys (51.1% males) annually than those in the temperate and subarctic belts (51.3%). Given this tendency, we would not expect Russia to have as strong a female bias as it does. But Navara’s conclusion is challenged by other researchers. For example, a study that examined birth records in Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk, from 1959 through 2001 showed a curious drop in males born in the last quarter of the year (October through December), meaning that fewer males are conceived in the first quarter (January through March). It is not entirely clear whether this effect is due to cold temperatures or short days, but studies conducted on Siberian hamsters concluded that the length of daylight can skew sex ratios at birth – only more rather than fewer male hamsters were conceived on shorter days. (Of course, one obvious response is that humans are not like hamsters!)

One way or another, biological effects on sex ratios are clearest at birth (which is what all the abovementioned studies examined), whereas the biological impact on sex ratios in older age cohorts is much less pronounced, though male life expectancy appears to be universally shorter than that of females. However, in Russia the difference between male and female life expectancy is much more pronounced than in most other countries. As can be seen from the chart on the left, male life expectancy in Russia trails that of females by 12 years.* According to a political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, Russian figures for male health and life expectancy cannot be compared even to those in Third World countries, “it is in some sense a Fourth World. Russia trails even Ethiopia, Gambia, and Somali”. He also points out that neither the overall level of economic development, nor the specific financial crises of the last two decades can explain the constantly high rate of male mortality. Nor can environmental degradation and the sad state of the health system explain the gap between male and female life expectancy. According to an article published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2009, one of the main culprits is vodka: up to 600,000 Russians – mostly male – die from alcohol-related causes every year (although scholars such as Dana A. Glei of Georgetown University suggest that consumption of nonbeverage alcohol, including such substances as mouthwash, aftershave lotion, and alcohol-based fuels, has much more severe health consequences than vodka consumption). Unsurprisingly, the shorter life expectancy of men affects gender ratios chiefly in older age cohorts.

In fact, as the following series of maps help illustrate, Russia has a normal sex ratio of 105 boys per 100 girls at birth, which persists until the age of 15.









As a result, Russia’s female bias obtains only in the “over 15” age cohorts: among those between ages 15 and 64, there are 92 males per 100 females.



Among those of retirement age (65 and over), the female bias is even more marked, with a meager 46 men per 100 women!




The age at which the female bias comes into play can be estimated more precisely from the population pyramid on the right, derived from the 2002 census data: the difference in numbers between males and females, shown in grey, first shows up at the age of 33 and becomes pronounced from the age 40. As recently as 1989, only women aged 47 and up outnumbered men in the corresponding age cohorts, which indicates that unless the trends change, the female bias may soon affect even younger, marriage-age cohorts. Indeed, data from the 2010 census confirms this trend, as in this year the surplus of females starts at the age 31. So is there any truth in those fears of single Chinese men swarming across the border in search of potential wives? Perhaps not.

The maps and charts above aggregate data for the entire Russian Federation. However, the demographic situation is far from being uniform across the vast country, as can be seen from the GeoCurrents map on the left. In fact, most Siberia exhibits a higher sex ratio than the national average of 87.15 males per 100 females. The only exceptions to this generalization are the six regions in the highly industrialized southwest: Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Kurgan, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Kemerovo oblasts, but even there the ratio of approximately 86 males per 100 females is only just below the national average. In all other parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the sex ratio is less skewed, and in some regions –  Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Evenk Autonomous Okrug (of Krasnoyarsk Krai), Kamchatka Krai, and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug – actually have more men than women. The average sex ratio of the four regions bordering China directly – Amur Oblast, Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krais, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast – is 93.68 males per 100 females, which is significantly higher than the national average. In fact, if only “working age” adults are considered, these four regions boast very high sex ratios, ranging from 106 to 111 men per 100 women. Thus, the concern that large numbers of Chinese men might marry and settle in eastern Russia is unrealistic.

Neither Russia’s female bias nor the higher sex ratio in Siberia than in the European Russia are new. A preponderance of women has been observed since the first modern census of 1897, when Russian Empire had the average of 94.52 males per 100 females. As can be seen from the chart on the left, the female bias has been observed in all population groups in all censuses except for the urban population in 1897. The much higher urban sex ratio at the time, 112.99 males per 100 females, stemmed from the fast-paced urbanization and industrialization of the country, with more men than women moving from villages into cities and joining the factory-working proletariat. During the early Soviet period, the female bias grew and the sex ratio went down to 90.25 in 1926 and 89.21 in 1939, as Stalin-era collectivization and purges impacted men much more than women. The peak in the female bias is evident in the first post-World War II census of 1959: the sex ratio had plummeted to just 80.45 males per 100 females, lower than in any Russian region today. Although the female bias has since gone down, it has not yet attained the prewar level.

According to Elizabeth Brainerd of the Economics Department of Williams College, the peak in the female bias in 1959 is due to the devastating Soviet population losses during World War II, currently estimated at 27 million or nearly 14% of the prewar population. These losses, Brainerd shows, disproportionately affected young men, significantly influencing marriages, fertility, and health among both men and women in the postwar period. Crucially, however, wartime demographic decline affected the European part of Russia much more than Siberia. A large part of the western Russia (as well as Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states) was under Nazi occupation (see map on the left). While many women and children were evacuated from the occupied zone, most men either stayed behind or were shipped to the front. The military units stationed in the European part of the Soviet Union took a huge hit during the early months of the war. Massive disorganization led to extraordinarily high casualty figures, with the survivors either fleeing to the east or becoming prisoners of war, an experience that few survived. Siberian military units –  which included 400,000 men, 5,000 guns, more than 3,000 tanks – were shifted to the Soviet Union’s Western front only in the late fall of 1941, after Stalin became assured that the Japanese would not attack the Russian Far East. These Siberian units were instrumental in the Red Army’s first counteroffensive at the gates of Moscow and later in turning the tide of war in the streets of Stalingrad. Trained as children to hunt and shoot, Siberians were a force to be reckoned with. “The Siberian… is tougher and stronger and possesses considerably more capacity to resist than his European countrymen,” the Chief of Staff of Germany’s Fourth Army reported ruefully at the time of their retreated from Moscow (quoted in W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent. Siberia and the Russians, p. 362). More importantly, Siberian units received better direction from the top of the Soviet military command, which resulted in lower – if still enormous – casualties.

Overall, a higher proportion of Siberian men survived the war than those of European Russia. The factories that were relocated to the Urals and beyond during the war, as well as the growing exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the post-war period, attracted even more men to the east. As a result “marriages” (legal or otherwise) between ‘white’ men and indigenous women became common. This higher wartime survival rate of men in Siberia, along with the post-war influx of men into the region, also had a positive effect on the second-generation (and perhaps beyond). As Brainerd shows, boys born to women in areas of higher sex ratios (Siberia) attain better health and nutritional status than boys born to women in areas of lower sex ratios (European Russia). This interesting finding suggests that sex ratios are to a degree a self-perpetuating phenomenon: having a higher sex ratio in a given area (community, or age cohort) at a given time promotes a higher sex ratio in the same place in the next generation as well, and similarly having a lower sex ratio results a vicious circle, which may be difficult to break.



* Some demographers claim that the real life expectancy figures among men are one to five years higher, and that the corresponding mortality figures are lower. They blame these miscalculations on the imperfect registration of migrant workers, who are not included in the population counts, except for mortality figures, since registration of death is much better organized and accurate than the registration of migration.




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  • James T. Wilson

    I can vividly remember, in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, seeing lots of what appeared to me rather sad old ladies of the Great Patriotic War generation, and very few bemedalled old men.  That this should have continued in the late Soviet era of what seemed like stable stagnation I find a little puzzling.  As for those blue districts of Siberia, I hate to ask, but are those regions around the Ob and Yenisey and then out on the Chukchi penninsula places where men might be sent involuntarily?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      As far as the omnipresence of “sad old ladies of the Great Patriotic War generation”, there’s definitely a sex ratio bias resulting from a disparity in casualties during WWII at play here. But it is also important to remember that the said old ladies were much more visible in public in the age you describe: it would be them — rather than their male counterparts — selling produce at a market, taking away your coat at a theater or museum cloakroom, or just sitting on a bench by an apartment building entrance (usually engaged in gossip and volunteering comments and advice to passers-by).

      However, the disparity in mortality rates, life expectancy, and sex ratios has definitely grown since the fall of the Soviet Union. By the way, the rather sharper increase in life expectancy in men (vs. women) in the late 1980s is often attributed to Gorbachev’s prohibitionist policies that curbed binge drinking somewhat (though the popularity of the so-called non-beverage alcohol among drunks at the time has also grown).

      As for your question about “blue areas”, it’s a good point and can certainly explain some of the patterns. But there does not seem to be a direct correlation between Gulag camps (which imprisoned both men and women, by the way, although men were more numerous). In part this may be because most of those who were “sent involuntarily” did not survive for very long at all, especially men who tended to work in mines, where the average life expectancy was five weeks. So relatively few people living in those areas now are survivors of the camps themselves.

      I hope you have read my recent piece on Magadan — I am also planning to write about Gulag camps in a couple of forthcoming posts (on Norilsk and Chita). In the meantime, here’s a map of the Gulag camps (in Russian, but still…):

      • James T. Wilson

        Of course, I should have thought of the fact that the Gulags would have included women as well.  I suppose I was just picturing _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich_.  Thank you very much for the map–I’ve never seen one like it.  The URL includes the term NKVD; does this represent the Stalin era?  I look forward to your Gulag posts, especially as you mentioned you were going to talk about the post-Stalin continuations, which most people, like myself, know far less about.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Indeed, there were many women serving in the Gulag camps and their treatment was brutal to say the least. W. Bruce Lincoln’s “The Conquest of a Continent” has some very graphic descriptions of how cruelly female prisoners were treated, too graphic indeed to be included in the post.

          The map that Martin Lewis created is based on the census data — we couldn’t find such map anywhere so had to create our own. The geographical patterns are very obvious.

          NKVD stands for Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del = The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The name of this horrible organization has changed over the years though the nature of it remained much the same. It was known as CheKa in 1917-1922, OGPU in 1922-1934, NKVD 1934-1954, KGB in 1954-1991 (though parts of its functions in this period were given to MVD, Ministry of Internal Affairs), and since 1991 its functions are again divided between FSB, SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), and MVD.

          In the forthcoming posts I am hoping to set Gulag in the context of what came before and what came after…

  • Randy McDonald

    A lot of this is based on the folk belief that there are unstoppable pressures for migration from China, and that Siberia is so desirable–so empty, so filled with potential, et cetera–that if they’re allowed Chinese will repopulate the territory.

    This is unlikely. If the areas transferred from the Qing Empire to the Tsar’s in 1858–Primorye’ and the south of Khabarovsk oblast, right?–had instead stayed Chinese, then probably “Outer Manchuria” would have been as thoroughly Sinicized as Heilongjiang. It wasn’t, during the Soviet era whatever Chinese migration there was to southeastern Siberia stopped, and since then China has developed tremendously. While there are plenty of emigrants from China, overwhelmingly these migrants go to urban areas in developed countries. Even in Russia, there seems to be a concentration of Chinese immigrants not in Siberia but rather in relatively developed European Russia.

    As for as the Siberia/China balance goes, I’ve come across suggestions that migration might be more two-way than people think. Northeastern China is as economically developed and attractive to migrants as the Russian Far East, and is arguably moving ahead of the Russian territory; it wouldn’t be implausible for there to be substantial numbers of Russians moving to China. And indeed this does seem to be the case–I blogged about it back in 2010.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Randy, and for the link to your blog. Very interesting indeed!

      I generally agree with you that the “Chinese threat” is rather overstated. In this post, I wanted to examine this issue purely from the “boy meets girl” point of view. But your idea that the Chinese do not necessarily see Siberia as so desirable is quite valid. If one takes into account the levels of pollution in many industrial areas in Siberia — something I will write about in several forthcoming posts — one can hardly blame the Chinese men for not wanting to move to Siberia (or to marry Siberian women, who have lots of health and fertility problems due to pollution).

      You also make an excellent point about the migration being two-way. Indeed, there are numerous Russian migrants settling in northeastern China, just as you say. Russians who assert the threat is real do not mention this inconvenient fact. There is, however, some migration of Chinese men, mostly temporary workers, to the Russian Far East, again a subject of a forthcoming post — stay tuned!

  • Stacy Culpepper

     I just LOVE (LOVE LOVE LOVE!) the added “Print” command button on the top right.  THANK YOU!!  :-)

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      We hope you also love the blog :)

      • Stacy Culpepper

        Oh yes. This site is my daily ‘fix’ of what I miss in my current job/career.

        Thanks for all the efforts you all put into posting and maintaining this site. It’s a pure oasis on the internet.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you, Stacy!

    • Kevin Morton

       Thought that would be useful!

    • Kevin Morton

       Thought that would be useful!

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  • Peter Rosa

    A theory that pokes up its head in the blogosphere from time to time claims that the reputed beauty of contemporary Russian women is a lingering consequence of World War II. According to the theory, because so many Russian men (often young and unmarried) died in the war, the survivors were in a very strong bargaining position in the postwar years when it came to choosing women.  The women who were lucky enough to find husbands generally were the more attractive ones, and they passed on their beauty to their daughters and granddaughters.

    Whether this theory makes much sense is another matter.  Even leaving aside the issue of defining beauty, the fact remains that it’s only partly an inherited trait, especially since there’s no reason to believe that the Russian men who survived the war were any more handsome than the ones who didn’t.  I’ll also point out that Sweden and Brazil, among others, are nations which are known for the beauty of their women, and neither country has fought a war in many generations.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      That’s an interesting theory, Peter! I am not sure I am buying it, though. As you pointed out, how do we define beautiful? I, for one, wouldn’t say that Swedish women are all that beautiful in general… When it comes to the Russian women, I don’t think that their being beautiful is only a post-WWII phenomenon. Perhaps the idea in the West is a recent phenomenon, but I don’t think that it’s that new in Russia itself. They’ve always considered their women very beautiful. But doesn’t everybody else?

      One alternative theory (which I tend to agree with more) is that Russians have better “beauty genes” because of mixed blood: Turkic, Slavic, and Uralic. But more importantly — and it ties in with your idea that WWII had something to do with it — Russian women spent an enormous amount of effort on making themselves attractive (as apparently do Iranian women, I am told). They wouldn’t dare show up in public looking like many American women do! Make-up, manicure, fashionable clothes, high heels — you name it! And that may be more recent and related to the shortage of men (and the consequent need to outdo the competition).

  • RoyColeman

    The sex-ratio 2002 graph confirms Peter Frost’s “Sexual Selection and Human Geographic Variation” nicely don’t you think?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      In what way?

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  • liz

    nice images! but what’s the source of these data?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Which images specifically do you have in mind?

      • liz

        the world maps of sex ratios.