REPORT – Russian Muslims Face Challenges of Demography and Migration

SHAFAQNA - Migration and demographic processes and trends are of vital importance to the Russian state. This is a strategic challenge for Russia’s Islamic community. Already, because of the demographic processes going on, Russian Muslims have constantly been at the centre of public attention and the mass media.

Demographic growth

Currently, the overall fertility rate in Russia is about 1.7, whereas for simple reproduction of the population, one needs at least 2.1. Low fertility, broadly similar to the average in Europe and the US, is combined in Russia with a high mortality rate, which corresponds to the indices of countries in Equatorial Africa. In addition, Russia occupies one of leading places in the world for number of abortions, although this figure has declined twofold over the last decade. According to data obtained from official statistics, for the period from 1992 to 2010, 40.5 million children died before birth in Russia.

A low birth rate, high mortality and a large number of abortions has generated a phenomenon known in demographic literature as “the Russian cross” ‒ that is, large-scale depopulation that is graphically represented by the falling birth rate line crossing over the growing mortality one. In recent years, the decline in population has slowed down slightly, but it is expected that this trend will reverse and that the birth rate will once again lag behind the mortality one. According to forecasts from the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, by 2030, natural losses will make about 11 million people.

The most likely future of Russia is considered in the authoritative UN report “Russia Facing Demographic Challenges”, published in 2009. The conclusions drawn by experts are gloomy. If the current demographic trends persist, by 2050, Russia’s population will drop from its current size of 142 million people to just 116 million. The country will move from 9th to 14th in the world in terms of population size and will be outstripped by Ethiopia, Egypt, Congo, the Philippines and Mexico.

As evidenced by recent studies, depopulation processes primarily affect ethnic Russians, the people who form the core of Russian statehood. Some experts believe that the depopulation predicted by 2025 will concern 85-90 per cent of ethnic Russians, whose overall share of the population will decrease to 60‒70 per cent. Some are also forecasting that by 2050, the share of ethnic Russians in Russia will drop to 46.5 per cent.

The winners and losers in all this are the North Caucasian Federal District (NCFD) and the Central Federal District respectively. Between 2000 and 2012, the birth rate coefficient in the NCFD increased by 170 per cent. Between 2020 and 2030, the North Caucasus’ are expecting a baby boom.

Experts have noted that population declines are being observed in regions with predominantly Russian, Orthodox inhabitants. Regions where populations are stable or increasing include national autonomous republics with a high share of the Muslim citizens and low numbers of ethnic Russians, as well as the Tyumen region and Moscow, where growth has been achieved as a result of immigration and higher living standards.

Therefore, we see in Russia the same situation as what’s happening in Europe: followers of Islam have a higher and steadier birth rate, as well as a younger overall demographic. The relationship between religious affiliation and total fertility rate is a well-documented demographic fact.

All of this adds up to significant change for Russia’s ethno-confessional structure. We are already seeing how these factors are changing the face of Moscow and other large metropolises, and these processes are only set to worsen. A neat illustration of this is the fact that migrants now account for a third of all births in Moscow.


One of the most important claims of “The Concept of Demographic Policy of the Russian Federation for the period till 2025” is that the state views “attracting migrants in accordance with the needs of the demographic and socio-economic development, taking into account the need for their social adaptation and integration” as an essential priority. Currently, Russia is second in the world in terms of its absolute volume of immigration, lagging only behind the US.

Over the past two decades, due to high levels of immigration, Russia has succeeded in adjusting the dynamics of its population decline. According to official data, between 1992 and 2010, 8.4 million immigrants arrived in the country. The informal statistics suggest a much greater (and more realistic) estimate of between 15 and18 million people, approximately 10.5 – 12.7 per cent of the total population. It is important to bear in mind that high immigration leads to a substantial change in social reality. According to data from 2012, 91 per cent of all migration gain occurred in CIS countries and 63.5 per cent of these are predominantly Muslim states (Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan).

“Mass depopulation, a reduction in the share of ethnic Russians, population ageing, immigration flows and the demographic success of the Muslim people – all these factors testify that in the coming years, Islam’s role in Russian social and spiritual reality will grow significantly”, ‒ Damir Mukhetdinov, the Deputy Head of Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation, notes.

There is no exact data on the size of the Muslim population in Russia. This is a result of a lack of systematic polls and adequate estimates regarding immigration. According to a 2002 census, there were approximately 14.5 million Muslim people in Russia, about 10 per cent of the country’s total population. It is clear that even back in 2002, this figure greatly underestimates the true total. President Vladimir Putin has given a more realistic estimate, around 18-20 million people, approximately 14-15 per cent of the total population.

Based on these estimates, it is possible to speculate on the future of Muslims in Russia. According to estimates by the authoritative Pew Research Center (“The Future of The Global Muslim Population”), by 2030, the number of Muslims will increase by 3 per cent. However, it is important to understand that the authors of the report make estimates based on the most modest figures available, not taking into account the realities of immigration. According to other estimates, in particular the National Intelligence Council of the US, taking into account immigration and the depopulation of the Russian population, it is conceivable that by 2030, the proportion of Muslims in Russia will amount to 20-22 per cent. Thus, in 10-15 years, every fifth citizen of Russia will profess to follow Islam and in Moscow, this figure will be even higher. “It threatens further growth of interethnic and interreligious tensions” said former CIA director Michael Hayden.

Western experience has demonstrated that Muslim migrants do not fully assimilate. A surge of interest in one’s identity and awakening, not so much ethnic as religious, has been observed among second and third generation migrants. And there is no reason to believe that Russia’s case will be any different. The children and grandchildren of today’s migrant workers will demand a respectful attitude and relevant rights.

Migrants and the indigenous Muslim population of the Russian Federation

It is important not to forget that the changes in Russia’s population structure also affect its indigenous Muslims, especially regarding the sharp increase in immigrants from the former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. If migration continues to occur at its current pace, the number of Russian Muslims from Central Asia will outnumber the number of ethnic Russian Muslims, exceeding the combined populations of the Ural-Volga, Crimean Tartar and North Caucasus regions.

According to Russian sociologists, at the current rate of migration, the indigenous Muslim people of Russia – communities in the Volga-Urals and the North Caucasus – will themselves become minorities in relation to the Central Asian majority (yesterday’s immigrants) in as little as 20-30 years. It is a long-term trend that is very difficult to change. Even today, in some Russian cities, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz make up a larger proportion of the mosque going community than indigenous Russian Muslims.

The authorities and the heads of the official Muslim structures in many regions of Russia have tried so hard to restrain the activity and claims of Caucasians (who are considered to be not entirely loyal) in Islamic communities outside the North Caucasus that as a result, Russia is suddenly faced with the reality that its Muslim population is set to become a minority, something that has never happened before.

As well-known Russian researcher Alexey Malashenko, an expert on Islam, aptly remarks, if in the 1980s Muslims were associated by most people with the crafty but affable “Tatar neighbour”, from the middle of the 1990s, Muslims were more readily associated with Chechen fighters. Today, Muslims are viewed by the Russian majority as illiterate labour migrants from strange lands, evoking images of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs for the older generation.

In this sense, Russia is a reminder to Europe that the problem of Islam and migration are one and the same.

Response to challenge

Demographic trends and migration pose significant problems for the Muslim community. Their future and development hinges on finding workable solutions.

Currently, there are no effective institutions for the integration of migrants from Central Asia into the Muslim space of the Russian Federation. No wonder that the authorities and civil society are constantly urging Russian muftis to pay attention to this problem.

“Digestion” of migrants is a problem of enormous complexity, considering the low level of elementary political and administrative culture, lack of a Russian all-Muslim ideological platform and lack of experience and appropriate personnel, as well as the existence of huge numbers of internal conflicts. Russian Muslim organisations have barely been able to cope with simple tasks, let alone problems as difficult to tackle as these.

The outlook for the younger generation is not much brighter. There is an acute shortage of educational and training institutions, as well as projects for Muslim families, preschool and school-aged children.

There is also an increasingly common problem posed by those who are hostile to Muslims seeking to block the construction of mosques in Russian cities. They also frequently try and suppress Islamic activity, including youth and migrant work, using federal power and administrative resources.

All this significantly complicates the process of converting the quantitative growth of the Muslim population into qualitative practical achievements, which would have a useful impact onthe entire state and society. This means that Muslim “growing pains” will continue in Russia for several decades, which in turn will affect the surrounding population and therefore complicate the prospects of da’wah.

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