Soviet Union Table of Contents
Unless unfavorable trends can be reversed, the Soviet Union eventually will have to deal with the threat of depopulation in much of the European portion of the Russian Republic and in the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian republics, the very political, military, and economic base of the country. Persistently low birth rates and a sharp downward trend in family size among most Soviet Europeans has been the root cause. The pattern became more obvious, and the alarms became louder, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The declining Russian representation in the multinational Soviet population has caused great concern. Such a trend has serious international and national political, economic, social, and military implications. For example, with fewer native speakers of Russian, it becomes progressively more difficult to maintain Russian as the national language. As the Russian language declines in importance, the challenge of both raising the national level of education and training a skilled labor force becomes more complicated and costly. The armed forces, as well, face the prospect of adding to their ranks a smaller percentage of Soviet Europeans and a greater share of Soviet Asians, who may not serve with the dedication of the Slavs and whose service imposes additional demands on the military in terms of special training to improve communications skills.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the government introduced some key initiatives that were intended to ameliorate demographic difficulties: occupations restricted to males for health and safety reasons were expanded; maternity leave was extended to one year after the birth (eight weeks fully paid), and the leave was counted as service time; lump-sum cash payments for each birth were provided, with higher premiums for the third and fourth child; child support payments to low-income families were increased; and families were to be given preferential treatment in the assignment of housing and other services.
At the same time, campaigns were introduced aimed at raising overall "demographic literacy" (developing a citizenry better informed about the national demographic situation) and improving public health. By far the most publicized and most controversial of these campaigns was the attack on alcoholism and public drunkenness. The sale of alcoholic beverages was sharply curtailed in the mid-1980s. Soviet authorities felt that the elimination of this traditional social ill would have an immediate and direct impact on demographic processes by eliminating a major cause of divorce and premature disability and death. In addition, promoting safe and healthful working and living conditions was one of the chief aims of the growing numbers of officials and citizens concerned with the environment.
The success of these government measures remained in doubt in 1989. Persuasive evidence supported the view that patterns of urbanization, extreme reluctance to migrate, and higher fertility rates in Soviet Central Asia have continued. These demographic patterns, together with the strengths and limitations of the physical environment, have affected such critical issues as the cohesion of the Soviet federation and its nationality representation, the acutely uneven distribution of natural and human resources, investment in industrial development, and the character and composition of the work force and the military.
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By far the most important English-language source of current information on the geography and population of the Soviet Union is the monthly journal Soviet Geography. Much of the information in the chapter derives from the excellent articles in this journal, some of which were written by its founder and editor, Theodore Shabad, who was, until his death in 1987, the foremost expert on the subject in the United States. Some standard texts on the geography of the Soviet Union are Paul E. Lydolph's Geography of the U.S.S.R; J.P. Cole's Geography of the Soviet Union; David Hooson's The Soviet Union: People and Regions; G. Melvyn Howe's The Soviet Union: A Geographical Study; and William Henry Parker's The Soviet Union. Pending publication of the final results of the 1989 all-union census, the most important source of data on the Soviet population has been the statistical handbook Naselenie SSSR, 1987. In recent years, more information has been made available to both Western and Soviet scholars on demographic developments in the Soviet Union. As of 1989, among the experts on the subject in the United States were Murray Feshbach, Stephen Rapawy, and W. Ward Kingkade. All three, especially Feshbach, have written extensively on various aspects of Soviet population (fertility, mortality, age and sex structure, and ethnicity). Particularly valuable was Kingkade's article "Demographic Trends in the Soviet Union." (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents