wrinkled hands

Is Putin Too Old to Rule Russia?

June 12, 2024
RM Associates and Staff

When Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a fifth term as Russia’s president at the age of 71, the Russian ruler—whom the country’s exiled opposition likes to refer to as the “old man in the bunker”— he was visibly the oldest participant in the lavish ceremony broadcast from the grand halls of the Kremlin on May 7, 2024. However, as our research indicates, when it comes to advancing age, Putin is not an outlier among Russia’s rulers of the past century nor among the present rulers of some of Russia’s peers, allies and adversaries.

We have analyzed the ages of top officials in several countries that are either Russia’s peers or competitors, including the following comparands in our non-random sample: the founding BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) plus South Africa, the United States, Germany and Ukraine.1 Of these eight countries, Russia is somewhere in the middle: Putin is the fourth oldest head of state or “chief executive” at 71 years old, and Russia has the fifth highest average age of top officials, at 58, tied with Brazil (see Table 1). The most significant outlier is Ukraine, where the average age of the ruling elite, 46, and the age of the president, also 46, is 13 years and 24 years, respectively, below the average for the group of countries analyzed.

As for Putin’s “age ranking” among the members of the Russian ruling elite, our research shows Putin is 13 years above the average age of Russia’s top officials, but he is not the oldest. Valery Zorkin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, is the oldest representative of Russia’s ruling elite at 81 years old,2 while Putin is the seventh oldest. For comparison, the average age of Politburo members under Leonid Brezhnev at his death in 1982 was 67, but it dropped to 55 under Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Of Soviet and Russian leaders in the 20th and 21st centuries, Putin is currently younger than Josef Stalin was when death ended his rule at the age of 74 in 1953; younger than Leonid Brezhnev when he died in office at the age of 75 in 1982; and younger than Konstantin Chernenko when he died in office at the age of 73 in 1985. However, Putin is now older than Vladimir Lenin was when the grim reaper ended his rule at the age of 53 in 1924; older than Nikita Khrushchev, who was 70 years old when he was removed from his post in 1964; older than Yuri Andropov, who died in office at the age of 69; older than Mikhail Gorbachev, whose rule ended in 1991 when he was 60 years old; and older than Dmitry Medvedev, who was 47 years old when his presidency ended in 2012.

Do all these age comparisons matter, though? In other words, is the age of a country’s ruler and his retinue a relevant factor to consider when evaluating their performance in running the country? We have approached four experts with that question, including two demographers who have studied Russia among other countries and two political scientists who study Russia. Below is a summary of what they told us.

Until recently, the age of elites mattered significantly, especially in countries in transition from socialism to capitalism, and Russia was no exception, according to Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Certainly, as a rule, younger elites tend to be more committed to modernization values and technocratic. For Russia, this rule gradually ceased to apply as Russian authoritarianism became increasingly rigid and anti-modernization,” he said in written answers to RM’s questions. “So, in Russia, age does not matter much now—young officials and politicians are no less politically loyal to the regime than older ones. And it's not just Putin's age—among people his age and a little younger (as well as a little older), there were many liberal politicians. What matters is the environment (special services) from which he came and the worldview he shares,” Kolesnikov added.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, senior research scientist at CNA, cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that aging ruling elites necessarily lead to poor governance outcomes, citing both positive and negative examples from the past half-century: “Aging leaders are on average less flexible and have more difficulty adapting to new ideas or circumstances. For Russia, the obvious example is the Brezhnev period of the Soviet Union, when there was little ability to adapt to shifting circumstances,” according to Gorenburg, whose recent research focuses on decision-making processes in Russia’s senior leadership. At the same time, Gorenburg wrote that he wouldn’t overstate the role of age. Brezhnev’s problems had more to do with poor health than his actual age. “One might refine to suggest that advanced age increases the likelihood of health problems and early dementia in leaders, but there are plenty of examples of older leaders making astute political decisions in both democratic and authoritarian societies. Deng Xiaoping and his push to reform China in the 1980s (when he was in his late 70s and early 80s) comes to mind for the latter category. And, of course, Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden were/are both fairly old U.S. presidents (though surrounded by younger advisors). So, the aging of the Russian elite may lead to less flexibility and poorer decision-making, but this is not a given by any means,” Gorenburg wrote in answer to RM’s questions.

Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt argued, like Gorenburg, that health matters just as much as age, if not more. An internationally renowned demographer and the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, who has undertaken extensive research on demographics and economic development in Russia, Eberstadt recommended considering health-adjusted age when examining countries’ leadership age data, noting that “of course, decision-makers are elites, typically with better than [average education] and health.”

Finally, Dr. Raul Magni-Berton, who has explored whether the age of ruling elites impacts quality of decision-making, drew attention to his article, “Gerontocracy in a comparative perspective,” which finds that older leaders tend to underperform in their roles, with declines in economic growth, increases in international conflicts and initiations of war—whether they lead democracies or autocracies. Dr. Magni-Berton noted, however, that: “It is important to distinguish between the length of the term and the age of the leader. They are correlated, but they are associated with two different mechanisms to explain the leaders' behavior.”

Although Putin, at the age of 71, is not an outlier among Russian rulers of the last 100 years, his age is above the average age (70) for leaders of the countries in our non-random sample.3 That said, while older leaders or ruling elites can increase the likelihood of poor decision-making and outcomes, it is not a given and probably not the key factor determining the performance or quality of a leader’s governance. Health (problems with which correlate to advanced age), background and length of tenure in office—among others—are deemed to be equally, if not more important factors. In addition, factors such as the presence of institutionalized checks and balances and robust debates on policy dilemmas probably play a greater role in preventing poor decisions by a country’s leader than his or her age or health.

Table 1

CountryAverage life expectancy at birth (World Bank, 2021)Average age of country’s ruling elite at end of 2024 Age of country’s head of state or “chief executive” at end of 2024 
Germany815566
China786571
United States766082
Brazil735879
Ukraine704646
Russia695872
India676474
South Africa626272

Sources: World Bank, RM analysis

Footnotes

  1. Top leadership posts included in the analysis are as follows: head of state, supreme court head, constitutional court head, national security adviser/security council secretary, head of presidential staff, heads of legislative bodies, deputy heads of legislative bodies and cabinet members.
  2. Long-time chairman of Russia’s Supreme Court Vyacheslav Lebedev would have been the second oldest in the audience, but he died on the job at the age of 80 on Feb. 24, 2024.
  3. Let’s also not forget that Putin enjoys better healthcare than any of his predecessors thanks to leaps in medical care around the world.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals polled. Photo available under a Pixabay content license.