What is Russia's real population?
The question in the title seems so simple, and it should be – but it isn't. The correct answer isn't esoteric, either. A number of core economic indicators are based on an accurate understanding of population trends – the classic example being per capita GDP.
If we want to assess whether or not international sanctions are having the desired effect on Russia, or whether the nation is in a demographic resurgence versus a societal decline, population trends must be reliable.
Unfortunately, major international datasets show we have a poor understanding of where Russia's population is headed, what it currently is, and even where it has been.
The following chart shows population estimates for Russia from 1989 onwards from the IMF World Economic Outlook databases over the past few years, as well as the current World Bank database.
All datasets show a major population decline starting after the end of the Cold War, but there is a substantial degree of variability along the way between datasets produced well after the fact and over a short period of time (i.e., compare the IMF 2010, 2011, and 2012 series for the mid-1990s through the early 2000s).
Over the past few years, population estimates for Russia have approached a fantasy land of conflicting trends and variation. In October 2010, the IMF indicated that Russia's population for that year was less than 140.4 million and declining very fast (down more than 1.6 million from 2008). Within 11 months, the IMF projection had apparently revised the 2010 population up to 142.9 million (presumably to match the results of the dubious 2010 Russian census), which now represented a substantial increase – not decrease – from 2008. Both the 2010 and 2011 datasets showed the population had been declining since 2009, and the decline was expected to continue out to at least 2014.
When the IMF April 2014 dataset was released, Russia's population was shown to be unchanged for the entire period from 2007 through 2014 – in sharp contrast to any prior dataset. Only six months later, a new population dataset was produced that now shows that the Russian population has been increasing over the past few years – and magically stayed exactly the same in 2013 and 2014 (an effective statistical impossibility).
As for the reliability of population projections for Russia, a 1997 Department of Commerce report predicted that Russia's population would remain stable at 148 million from 1990 through 2000, then gradually increase to 150 million by 2010. This did not occur.
Knowing Russia's real population would be useful, but it is exceedingly unlikely we know what is really going on in this nation. Consequently, all population-based economic indicators and their corresponding trends for Russia should be treated with extreme skepticism.