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Soviet Union Table of Contents

Soviet Union


CURVING AROUND THE North Pole and the Arctic Ocean like a huge arc, the Soviet Union spans almost half the globe from east to west and about 5,000 kilometers from north to south. It is the world's largest country, occupying the major portions of Europe and Asia and including one-sixth of the earth's inhabited land area. Its diverse terrain ranges from vast deserts to towering mountains, yielding huge stores of natural resources and enabling the country to satisfy all of its own essential natural resource needs. In terms of population, the Soviet Union ranks third after China and India. Its peoples, however, as its terrain, are as diverse as those of any continent.

The Ural Mountains extend more than 2,200 kilometers, forming the northern and central boundary separating Asia from Europe. The continental divide continues another 1,375 kilometers from the Ural Mountains through the Caspian Sea and along the Caucasus Mountains, splitting the Soviet Union into grossly unequal Asian and European parts. Roughly three-quarters of Soviet territory encompass a part of Asia far larger than China and India combined. Nevertheless, it is the western quarter, the European part, that is home to more than 70 percent of all Soviet citizens. Surveys of Soviet geography and population have long pointed out the acutely uneven distribution of human and natural resources throughout the country. Despite considerable attempts to settle people in Asian areas that are abundant in resources, this imbalance persists. Rapid depletion of water and fuel resources in the European part has continued to outstrip development in resource-rich Siberia, which is east of the Ural Mountains. From 1970 to 1989, the campaign to settle and exploit the inhospitable frontier region of western Siberia with its plentiful fuel and energy supplies was costly but successful.

Although the Soviet Union is richly endowed with resources, several factors severely restrict their availability and use. The extreme climate and the northern position of the country, plus the unfavorable location of major deposits, present formidable geographic impediments. Massive depopulation, firmly established patterns of settlement, and disparate birth rates have resulted in regional labor shortages and surpluses.

In the years since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the inhabitants of the Soviet Union have suffered terrible hardships. Before the 1950s, in each decade the population experienced a cataclysmic demographic event in the form of epidemics, wars, or famines and in state-sanctioned mass killings. Only those persons born since World War II (62 percent of the population in 1987) have been spared the havoc that ravaged their grandparents' and parents' generations. The long-term effects of these disasters on the population can hardly be overstated. The opportunity to examine in relative tranquillity the national demographic situation is a postwar phenomenon. During this time, Soviet officials have become increasingly aware of the importance of demographic issues. The most visible signs of this are the policies aimed at influencing and directing demographic processes such as reproduction and migration for the benefit of society and the economy.

Encouraged by glasnost' (see Glossary), in the 1980s Soviet and foreign geographers and demographers engaged in spirited and open discussions. Probing articles and books began appearing on previously sensitive or taboo topics. Alcohol and drug abuse, high rates of infant and adult mortality, environmental degradation, the decline of the Soviet family, and the frequency of divorce were among them. Population problems stemming from sharp differences in the reproduction rates and migration patterns of the numerous Soviet nationalities were also openly debated.

Data as of May 1989