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Soviet Union Table of Contents

Soviet Union


In a span of over seventy years, the Soviet Union has undergone a transition from a largely rural agricultural society to an urban industrial society. In 1917 only about 17 percent of the population lived in cities or urban settlements; in 1961 the urban and rural population was in balance; and by 1987 two of every three Soviet citizens were urban dwellers (see table 10, Appendix A).

The levels of urbanization in 1989 highlighted the uneven development of the regions and nationalities. The populations of the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Russian republics were 70 percent urbanized, approximating levels found in Western Europe and the United States. Four of the five Central Asian republics (the Kirgiz, Tadzhik, Uzbek, and Turkmen republics), however, continued to have a majority of the population living in rural areas, and the Tadzhik Republic's 33 percent rate of urbanization was only slightly higher than that of Albania. In the European part, the Moldavian Republic with a rural majority was an exception to the rule of higher rates of urbanization.

Until the early 1980s, the growth of large cities and the concentration of industry there went mostly unchecked. However, because of such problems as a chronic housing shortage, pollution, and a declining birth rate, authorities attempted to exercise greater control over migration to the major cities; among other things, the government encouraged greater development and growth in small and medium-sized cities. Nevertheless, the scope and tempo of big-city growth has continued. In 1970 ten cities had a population of 1 million or more, but in 1989 the number had risen to twentythree (see table 11, Appendix A). Most of these cities, including the three largest--Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev--were located west of the Urals. Only five of the largest cities were east of the Urals, and the largest city in the entire eastern half of the Soviet Union (beyond the Yenisey River) was Vladivostok (615,000 inhabitants in 1987).

Despite its size and the length of its coastline, the Soviet Union's global position and climate have restricted the number of seaports to fewer than a dozen key cities (Leningrad, Odessa, Murmansk, and Vladivostok, among them). Many of the largest cities, however, are located on water, primarily on rivers, that have long been powerful settlement-forming influences and key transportation arteries. The Volga and its tributaries remain the key geographic features toward which people and commerce continue to gravitate. Two of the youngest and fastest growing cities, Tol'yatti and Naberezhnyye Chelny, were boom towns that sprang up in the 1970s around giant automobile and truck plants on the Volga and Kama rivers, respectively.

Data as of May 1989