Quick with statistics when they can score points from them, Soviet authorities are always slow to report figures that are embarrassing. Chances are that some of the most significant details from the latest census (1979) will never be divulged. These include age structure of the population by nationality and data on migration to and from the various republics and regions.
What we do know, and what specialists in the United States and Europe have discovered by combing through regional newspapers and specialized publications, explains the official sensitivity. The 1979 census refuted the Kremlin's claim that Soviet society is healthy. Most of the basic trends are bad and getting worse.
Birthrates in the European USSR have continued to decline. Among Balts and Slavs birthrates may sink below the replacement level in the 1980s. Infant mortality is on the rise. If the soviet rate were calculated like Western rates , it would be 40 per 1,000. This contracts with rates between 10 and 15 in the US, Western Europe, and Japan.
Longevity among Slavic males has gone down strikingly and currently stands at barely 60. Such a decline is unprecedented for a modern industrial country. The prime cause? Alcoholism. Women still outnumber men in the whole Soviet population by nearly 18 million.
Many factors contribute to the decline in growth rates of the european Soviet population: pollution, overcrowding, mediocre food and medical care, strains on working women. High consumption of alcohol and abortion are both cause and effect. They are the most appalling manifestations of the mounting Soviet demographic crisis.
There are at least 20 million abortions per year in the USSR. This means an average of six per lifetime for every Soviet female.
National averages for alcohol consumption among the European population. Their rates are really much higher, because Muslim men drink little if at all and Muslim women are proud of bearing six, eight, or ten children. Family cohesion reinforces aversion to alcohol and abortion. More than a third of all Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen live in families with seven or more members. Less than 2 percent of Slavs do.
Except in the Baltic and a few small non- Russian areas in the Urals and Siberia, the trend is toward consolidation of each nationality in its own republic. Slavs are starting to move out of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Kiev is becoming more Ukrainian, Baku more Azerbaijani, Tbilisi more Georgian; and Tashkent now has an Uzbek majority for the first time in its modern history. The melting pot principle is not working in the USSR.
European Russia is suffering from lack of labor. So is Siberia, which never has enough people. Why not bring in Central Asians? Efforts to do so have not worked. Unlike Turks and Algerians who eagerly go to Germany and France to work , Uzbeks and Tajiks find bargain in moving to Minsk or Moscow which could compensate for the loss of their fruits and vegetables and convivial family life. They cannot earn more and save to invest when they come home, as Turks and Algerians do.
As in the US, Soviet census returns provide no specific information about religious belief and practice. There is an enormous body of other evidence which attests to the continuing vitality of religion among all the peoples who make up this vast multinational empire. The religion on which census data offer the strongest circumstantial evidence is Islam. One in every six persons counted in 1979 belonged to a Muslim nationality. The total Soviet population grew by 20 million between 1970 and 1979. Muslims accounted for 43 percent of this gain.
Age data by nationality have not been released for the 1979 census. In 1970, 57 percent of all Azerbaijanis and 59 percent of Tajiks and Uzbeks were under 20 . The percentages cannot have changed much, for there was a net increase of nearly 3.3 million Uzbeks in nine years. Overwhelmingly young populations such as these ensure continued momentum toward rapid growth.
Increasing numbers, social and economic gains, and heightened awareness of their history and traditions give Soviet Muslims selfconfidence. In the future they are likely to be even less susceptible to manipulation than they have been in the past. There will be 75 million to 90 million of them by the year 2000. They are not blending with the Slavic population. Russian attitudes toward them intensify their sense of separateness.
Efforts to suppress religion could produce active hostility, but there is little evidence of this. Soviet ambitions in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world force the leadership to tolerate the religious and cultural inclinations of their own Muslims.This toleration, in turn, encourages greater self-assertion.It is an awkward dilemma for a Kremlin already grappling with the Polish problem.
Inside the Soviet Union manpower for the armed forces poses a long-term dilemma. Muslims already constitute a quarter of the draftees available for military service. By the end of the century the proportion will have risen to at least one in three.
The Soviet military utilizes Muslims in much the same way the US Army used blacks before the sweeping integration decisions that were implemented after World War II. The Soviet officer corps remains 95 percent Slav and mostly Russian. Recent studies of attitudes in the Soviet armed forces, based primarily on detailed interviewing of emigres and defectors with military service, provide solid evidence that tensions among nationalities are growing.
Muslim reservists first sent into Afghanistan fraternized with the local population and had to be withdrawn. Soviet commanders must take this episode into account in planning for future operations in Muslim areas. The experience has undoubtedly become widely known throughout the Soviet military forces and resulted in resentment among Slavs and defensiveness among Muslims.
Afghanistan could become an increasingly divisive experience for the Soviet armed forces. The longer the fighting there goes on, the more feedback it is likely to have on issues of religion and ethnicity in the Soviet Union itself.
Brezhnev and his aging colleagues may go on ignoring Soviet population problems. They have been at muddling through. But the next generation of Soviet leaders will have to face the dilemmas the 1979 census reveals.