• Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million: a broken dream?

    Refugees from Mariupol leaving Lviv train station on 24 March, 2022. Most of them left Ukraine. Photo: Ukrainian state railway operator.

    “What is cooler than a family of 44 million?” asks a phrase on a mural in central Kyiv. 44 million was the estimated Ukrainian population before Russia’s full-scale invasion, and the mural, painted after it started, rhetorically appeals to national unity. Despite Ukrainians answering this question with “nothing”, the figure is far from correct – and may always be unreachable.

    In almost two years of all-out war, about six million Ukrainians have left the country. Before the invasion, three million were working abroad, where they have mostly stayed since. Each new day they strengthen their ties with their host countries, and lower the chances of ever coming back.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understands the negative effects of depopulation. In his New Year’s speech, traditionally perceived as policy-setting, he said a rather controversial phrase: “I wish everyone who is still hesitating [about whether to come back] to make a bold choice next year ― […] to find themselves here, because it’s the only place on earth where we can all say: we are at home.”

    Many will probably do otherwise. According to the leading Ukrainian demographer, Ella Libanova, most of those abroad will never come back. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, a third of the refugees never returned ― and most of those wars ended in less than two years. It’s worth noting that Ukrainian refugees are mostly well-educated. “70 percent of women refugees have finished university. Do you think aging Europe is interested in keeping them there? It definitely is!” Libanova said in a recent speech.

    What can be done? A postwar baby boom is not expected: since the 1960s Ukrainian women haven’t been leaning towards having many children. So the key to making a family of 44 million again lies in tolerance of other nationals. Hopefully economic growth will attract people from faraway cultures ― and Ukrainians will have to kindly accept them, says Libanova.

    This article is part of the "The demographic battleground" edition
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    Ukraine's pre-war population of 44 million: a broken dream?