Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
On January 17, 1979 the sixth all-Union census was conducted throughout the USSR. Enormous weight was attached to the results which were analyzed by demographers, economists and other social scientists and discussed in the Soviet media. The three most significant — and to many, alarming — trends revealed by the census were the low birth-rate among the European peoples relative to Central Asians, the continuation of rapid urbanization, and the increasing gap between men’s and women’s life expectancy.
Ethnicity was identified as the “chief variable” in birthrates. The data showed that whereas Russian women of childbearing age bore 2.08 children, Ukrainian women bore 2.02 children, and Latvian women bore only 1.93 children on average, corresponding figures for Kirghiz, Tadzhik, Turkmenian, and Uzbek women were 4.14, 4.84, 4.57 and 5.32 respectively. These fecundity rates were part of a demographic “shift to the south.” Compared to the 1970 census, Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia experienced rates of population growth of only six percent. But Uzbekistan’s population had grown by 30 percent and Turkmenistan’s by 28 percent over the same period. Russians were fast on the way to becoming a minority of the Soviet Union’s total population of 262.4 million.
Ethnic differences in birthrates could be correlated with differential rates of urbanization. Throughout the USSR, the urban population increased by 27.6 million (20 percent) over 1970 figures, whereas the rural population declined by 6.9 million (6.5 percent). The most urbanized republics were Estonia (70 percent), Russia (69 percent), and Latvia (68 percent), and the least urbanized were Tadzhikistan (35 percent), Kirghizia (39 percent) and Turkmenia (48 percent). Moreover, the highest birthrates in Central Asia were recorded in rural areas which is why the rural population of Tadzhikistan increased by 36 percent and Turkmenistan’s by 28 percent. The Russian republic experienced the largest absolute decline in rural population (6.7 million people), exacerbating concerns about the “dying village” and the disappearance of Russia’s rural heritage already expressed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Valentin Rasputin, Fedor Abramov, and other writers.
Finally, the gap between the average life expectancy of men and women widened by two more years compared to 1970, with the result that men were living on average ten years less than women. Higher rates of alcoholism, smoking, and fatal accidents among men were considered the main culprits. Overall, as Viktor Perevedentsev, one of the Soviet Union’s foremost demographers, concluded, “the census confirmed once again that unfavorable changes are taking place in the processes of population increase and reproduction.”