Ukraine’s president wanders the deserted streets of the capital, Kyiv, feasting in vacated supermarkets and ringing the bells of Saint Michael’s Monastery, in the forlorn hope of reaching someone left to hear them. Elsewhere, a few souls can still be found: A pro-Russian fighter stalks empty buildings in the country’s east; a supermodel wins contest after contest in which she is the only competitor; an itinerant oligarch hammers signs into the ground to “claim” abandoned territory.
The scenes are fictitious—the first from a 2017 episode of a comedy series starring the man who is now Ukraine’s actual president; the others from a 2018 mockumentary—yet they testify to a growing unease in the country over its declining population. This worry pervades much of Ukraine’s immediate region: In a United Nations study, the top 10 countries ranked by their projected population decline over the next 30 years are all in post-socialist Eastern Europe, an area characterized by low birth rates, small numbers of immigrants, and large numbers of departing citizens.
Ukraine nevertheless stands apart. It is still a nation at war, yet in a survey last year, 55 percent of residents named mass emigration as the greatest threat to their country—the UN estimates that Ukraine could lose nearly a fifth of its population by 2050. And whereas politicians in Eastern Europe typically invoke demographic decline as a justification for conservative policies such as restricting abortion rights and providing financial bonuses for large families, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to reverse brain drain by improving his country’s economy and rule of law. In December, he announced a program to draw young Ukrainians back from abroad with promises of preferential loans to start their own businesses upon their return.
Ukraine’s experience also spotlights the fact that, try as they might, governments can do little to arrest emigration and depopulation, whether through populist right-wing programs to incentivize having babies or via financial handouts for returning émigrés. And while many Western countries, including the United States, have focused on the supposed perils or promise of greater immigration, others, such as Ukraine, illustrate the significant cost of a falling population, from the shallow labor force to the nearly abandoned towns that dot the landscape.