The typical Soviet woman works an eight-hour shift at a regular job, lines up for two hours for food and lives in a cramped, communal flat. There, according to a portrait compiled from official government statistics, she spends three hours cooking and cleaning for a husband who seldom helps. But beleaguered Soviet women appear to be striking back with what may be their most powerful weapon: their fertility. Despite programs that reward a high birthrate with cash bonuses and better housing, and bestow “Hero Mother” awards on mothers of 10 or more children, Soviet Russian ethnics are having only an average of 1.8 children per family. That, demographers say, is not even enough to replenish their present numbers. As a result, despite the booming birthrate of the country’s traditionally Moslem Central Asians—who average more than five children per family—the Soviet Union has been saddled with a severe and significant manpower shortage.
Shortages: Spread across the largest nation in the world—covering one-sixth of the Earth’s land mass—the 286 million people of the Soviet Union are simply not numerous enough to fully staff the nation’s industrial, agricultural and military sectors. The shortages point up the importance of perestroika, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s plan of economic reform, which is designed to improve productivity— even without more workers—through harder work and more effective organization. At the same time, the low birthrate among ethnic Russians has led to a stark demographic fact: if current trends continue, Russians—members of the nation’s governing race who now make up about 52 per cent of the population—will be a minority by the year 2000.
In fact, the varying birthrates among the more than 100 ethnic groups in the Soviet Union are literally changing the face of the nation. While Ukrainians are the next-largest group after the Russians, by far the fastestgrowing population is in Central Asia, which includes the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, Tadzhikistan and Kirghizia. At only 18 per cent of the current Soviet population, the Central Asians account for 40 per cent of its growth—and some surveys indicate that almost 30 per cent of men there actually claim they want at least 27 children. “We cannot say to these people that they should not have more children,” said Vladimir Kostakov, a senior
official with Gosplan, the government planning agency. “Command methods do not work.” And while Central Asians could theoretically help solve the nation’s manpower problem, they have been reluctant to cast aside their strong ties to their home regions and migrate to the industrialized areas in the north.
Purges: The roots of the manpower shortage go back several generations to the severe losses the country suffered during its political purges, famines and, most significantly, the Second World War, when more than 20 million people were killed. “The territories where the birthrate is lowest,” said Kostakov, “are the areas where the effects of the Second World War are felt the most.”
A recent Soviet demographic study put the country’s population losses—including the number of children who would theoretically have been born to those who died in previous catastrophes—at about 100 million, or more than one-third of the country’s current population. Further aggravating the manpower shortage is the early death rate of Soviet men, whose life expectancy is between 62 and 64 years—a fact that demographers blame largely on alcoholism. By contrast, Soviet women live an average of 10 years longer.
Drop: Those factors, along with the low birthrate in some portions of the population, have resulted in a dramatic drop in manpower. According to Murray Feshbach, a demographer at Washington’s Georgetown University, the number of new workers will drop to only 600,000 from 1986 to 1990 from an annual increase of more than 2.5 million from 1971 to 1975.
The squeeze is particularly evident in the military. At present, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates the size of the Soviet armed forces at five million on active duty, 6.2 million who have served in the past five years in the reserves, and an additional 570,000 in the KGB and
the MVD, the country’s internal police troops. But, given the declining manpower pool, maintaining those numbers will plainly be difficult in a country where mandatory military service is already a fact of life. “It is not a matter of shifting where they recruit soldiers from,” said one Moscow-based Western diplomat. “The available soldiers just do not exist.” As a result, Western military analysts predict that the Soviets will propose a mutual EastWest reduction of military forces at the conventional arms talks in Vienna early next year. In fact, the Soviet press, which generally reflects official government policy, has recently published several articles discussing the reduction of both the size of the nation’s armed forces and the term of service for draftees. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee, printed an exchange between Gorbachev and a student at a recent rally of the Young Communist League. Asked why the Soviet military needs to be so large, Gorbachev responded that the Soviet Union could not disband the army unilaterally. But, he added, “Together with other states, we shall take the path of reducing armies and weapons.” Letters
and articles in other Soviet publications have called for a decreased term of military service in order to free badly needed manpower for the labor market.
Dominant: But along with the quantity of recruits, the Soviets are also concerned about their composition. Officers in the Soviet military have traditionally reflected the dominant ethnic Russian makeup of their government. But in recent years, the number of conscripts from Central Asia and the southwestern Caucasus—the region that includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—has grown to 37 per cent, up from 27 per cent eight years ago. That diversity is causing increased tension in the ranks. Said a Moscow-based diplomat: “Conscripts are arriving for duty unable to speak Russian and not prepared educationally to handle the increasingly complex weapons and equipment.” As a result, the diplomat added, the army officers “cannot have the combat readiness they want to have.”
Ironic: In the civilian sector, the manpower shortage is most evident in the Russian and Ukrainian republics among skilled laborers. Ironically, however, the shortage could actually strengthen Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for perestroika. Soviet and Western economists agree that getting the country’s laborers to work harder and improve production methods could pose at least a partial solution to the demographic problem.
Said the government planning agency’s Kostakov: “The reason we have a shortage on the labor market is the same reason we have a shortage of raw materials and energy in a rawmaterial and energy-rich country—it is an inefficient economy.” With that evidently in mind, Gorbachev has set a goal to move 16
million workers by the year 2000 to new jobs in high-tech and service industries that the Soviet Union currently lacks.
Incentives: But motivating the workers to higher productivity is a mammoth task in itself. In an effort to provide incentives for labor to work more efficiently, Gorbachev, like Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before him, raised wages dramatically— but to little real effect.
The current Soviet marketplace is riddled with challenges. Kremlin leaders, in their November budget, called for two-thirds of the state’s expenditures to be channelled into raising the standard of living, by improving the quality and supply of consumer goods. High-quality products are still in short supply and are found mainly at special stores that accept only foreign currency or on the black market.
If perestroika proves successful in creating less labor-intensive modern industry, Kostakov claims that the nation’s declining labor market will be less threatening. It could actually be “very favorable to us,” he says. An aging workforce could retire, Kostakov explains, preventing the massive layoffs that plagued Western countries when they replaced workers with technology.
But such a scenario seems decidedly distant. At present, government planners—obviously believing that the best solution to the manpower problem begins at home—is trying to encourage women to have more babies. With 93 per cent of working-age Soviet women now employed—comprising 51 per cent of the total workforce—the government is now lengthening paid maternity leaves to three years. The Kremlin also is providing more money for maternity and postnatal care and offering preferential housing to single mothers.
Abortions: So far, those efforts have failed to increase birthrates among ethnic Russians. With primitive contraception methods, Russian women have achieved their low fertility rate primarily through abortions. Government figures show that while 5.5 million children were born last year in the Soviet Union, there were 7.7 million abortions. And, noted Kostakov, “those are only the registered abortions.” Academics estimate that there may have been another seven million or more abortions performed outside of hospitals. Officials also say that one out of every six first abortions results in infertility—compounding future population problems. The upshot seems to be that, in all of Gorbachev’s grand plans, he cannot count on the fruitfulness of Mother Russia.
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