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Human Fertility in Russia Since the Nineteenth Century

Human Fertility in Russia Since the Nineteenth Century

by Ansley Johnson Coale, Barbara A. Anderson, Erna Harm

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The birth rate in late-nineteenth century Russia was high and virtually constant, but by 1970 it had fallen by about two-thirds. Although similar reductions have occurred in other countries, the decline in Russian fertility is of particular interest because it took place in a setting of great ethnic heterogeneity and under economic and social institutions different


The birth rate in late-nineteenth century Russia was high and virtually constant, but by 1970 it had fallen by about two-thirds. Although similar reductions have occurred in other countries, the decline in Russian fertility is of particular interest because it took place in a setting of great ethnic heterogeneity and under economic and social institutions different from those in the West. This book tells the full statistical story of trends in Russian fertility since the first census in 1897 by examining the conditions—social, economic, cultural, and demographic—that existed at the beginning of and during the decline in human fertility.

Originally published in 1979.

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Princeton University Press
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Office of Population Research Series
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Human Fertility in Russia Since the Nineteenth Century

By Ansley J. Coale, Barbara A. Anderson, Erna Harm


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03122-4



In the last two centuries, two widely occurring basic changes in the dynamics of population have profoundly modified the lifetime experience of individuals and the structure of the societies in which they live: a dramatic increase in the average duration of life; and a dramatic decrease in the average number of children women bear by the end of their potentially fertile years. The mean length of life has increased as the risk of dying has been reduced at every age because of increases in real income and improvements in preventive and curative medicine; the number of children born has declined as married couples have been successful in deliberate efforts to restrict childbearing. The decline in mortality has in many instances doubled the mean duration of life, and the decline in fertility has frequently reduced by one-half the number of children women bear.

The decrease in mortality began in Western Europe in the late eighteenth century with rather modest declines in death rates, and it has continued up to the present. Once death rates began to fall in Latin America, Asia, and Africa (much later, often only within the past few decades), the reductions were frequently very large. The fall in death rates has by now become so general that it has been shared by every national population in the world. The decrease in fertility — the sustained modern decline that is associated with the spread of voluntary birth control — became evident on a national scale in France by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and perhaps began at about the same time in the United States. In Western European countries other than France, the decline began in the second half of the nineteenth century. It began later in Southern and Eastern Europe — in Albania, as late as the post-World War II period. Before 1910, large decreases in fertility had been initiated in most overseas areas populated by Europeans, including (in addition to the United States) Canada, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. A very large fall has also occurred in Japan, although the date of its beginning is hard to determine from the available records.

The decline in fertility has been a universal feature of the recent history of all countries that are usually accepted as the most highly developed, that is, those characterized by a fully modern organization of society and economic life. Fertility has also begun to fall, usually at a faster rate than was experienced by European populations, in many countries that are not so highly modernized. Unlike the decline in mortality, however, a reduction in fertility has not yet started in all national populations. Little or no change is evident in some populations in Asia (none in Bangladesh, parts of India, and Afghanistan, for example), in Africa (for example, no change in virtually all of tropical Africa, nor in parts of north Africa ), nor in Latin America (little change, for example, in Bolivia, Peru, and, until very recently at least, Mexico).

Lower mortality has an obvious implication of great importance to the individual: longer life itself . Lower death rates also mean that siblings and friends survive rather than die at an early age. With present-day low mortality rates, a child usually reaches his adult years without experiencing the death of a brother, sister, or close friend, and frequently with both parents still alive — all outcomes of childhood life that would have been exceptional a few generations back. Parents now rarely lose children, and the early disruption of marriage by death of a spouse has become uncommon. The forces that have reduced mortality have also brought reductions in chronic fever and other debilitating or painful consequences of infectious disease. To the individual child, lower fertility means that he grows up in the company of fewer siblings. When low fertility is combined with low mortality , children more frequently have living parents and grandparents, but young adults have fewer children, and older adults fewer grandchildren.

Reduced fertility and mortality affect society as a whole, first of all by increasing the rate of growth and altering the age structure of the population. The decline in mortality, which often precedes the fall in fertility, has caused a truly exceptional increase in global population. In 170 years the population of the world has increased from 1 billion to 4 billion; under the most favorable combinations of fertility and mortality of earlier eras the global population would not have doubled in this interval. The greatest acceleration of growth has been in the recent experience of the less developed countries, where mortality has dropped very sharply and fertility has not yet fallen. Mexico's population has doubled from 30 to 60 million in just 20 years.

The greatest alteration in age distribution resulting from these changes in vital rates is a shift to an older population, caused by the decline in fertility; indeed, the reduction in mortality alone, concentrated as it is at the younger ages, makes a population younger. This compositional change has reduced the fraction of children (for example, in the United States the proportion under 15 has fallen from 49.8 percent in 1800 to 28.5 percent), increased the median age (from 16 to 28 years in the United States) and caused a rise in the proportion that is aged (the proportion over 65 has risen from less than 2 percent to nearly 10 percent). The social effects of altered age composition extend from changes in the burden of dependency to the subtler differences in atmosphere that distinguish an old population from a young one. In Mexico City or Bangkok, it is the children who are numerically predominant; in Vienna or Stockholm, it is the aged. This feature, as well as differences in language, climate, and appearance of buildings, creates a difference in tone that is quite evident to the visitor.

There has been much speculation about the causes of the reductions in the birth and death rates. The best known set of ideas is the theory of the demographic transition (sometimes called the vital revolution), which finds a persuasive association between the reduction of mortality and fertility and the altered social and economic conditions that are a natural part of the change to modern technology and industrial organization. Many of the ideas that constitute the theory of the demographic transition were developed by European social scientists before World War I and were fully elaborated in Europe and America in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The demographic transition is invoked in simplified form today to support various positions in politicized debates concerning the best strategy for moderating very high fertility in the less developed countries. "Development is the best contraceptive" — obviously a distillation of the theory — was one of the popular slogans at the World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974.

The demographic transition is an interpretation of trends in fertility and mortality in a few European countries that had conveniently available data. This interpretation is buttressed by detailed information about particular subpopulations, such as patients at birth control clinics and respondents in select surveys. In 1962, at Princeton University, John Knodel and Nathaniel Iskandar collaborated in studying the decline in fertility, at the national level, in a number of European countries. They made the surprising discovery that the decline in marital fertility in Hungary began at about the same time, and proceeded at about the same pace, as in England and Wales. In Hungary in 1880 the population was still predominantly rural, deaths of children under age one were more than 25 percent of live births, illiteracy rates were still high, and industrialization had just begun. By contrast, England in 1880 was the acknowledged pioneer in industrialization, was two-thirds urban, had a moderate infant mortality rate of about 14 percent, and was far advanced toward the achievement of universal primary education. This unexpectedly parallel course of falling marital fertility (and the equally surprising parallelism of marital fertility in Norway and Rumania) brought into question any simple connection between industrialization, or general improvements in the level of living, and the reduction in fertility.

At about the same time that Knodel and Iskandar were conducting their research, William Leasure was writing his doctoral dissertation, in which he analyzed trends in fertility from the late nineteenth century to 1950 in Spain, province by province. Leasure found that in 1910, in the midst of changing marital fertility for Spain as a whole, levels of marital fertility were clustered at a similar value among the provinces within each of the major regions of Spain. For example, marital fertility was low in all of the provinces of Catalonia, although some of these provinces were agrarian and not high in the national scale of literacy, while others, including Barcelona, were relatively advanced in industrialization and literacy. Leasure's findings were also difficult to reconcile with a theory that postulates a strong and direct relation of industrialization, spreading education, and similar social changes with declining fertility.

In 1963 a plan was conceived at the Office of Population Research to investigate more thoroughly the experience that, through incomplete and impressionistic observation, had provided the prototype for the theory of the demographic transition: the decline of fertility in Europe. The plan was to extract from the unusually complete and accurate population statistics in Europe a record of how fertility has changed within areas smaller than whole nations — areas such as provinces, guberniias, counties, and departements — in order to examine the social and economic circumstances under which the decline occurred in each such small area. There are some seven hundred "provinces" in Europe, and by 1970 fertility had fallen substantially in virtually every one; yet the date of the initiation of the decline in individual provinces extends from before 1800 to after 1950. For most areas, vital statistics and census data from the period of the decline are gratifyingly full and accurate, at least in comparison with most of the rest of the world. Thus we have thought of Europe as a kind of statistical laboratory in which propositions about the pattern and causes of the modern fertility decline could be tested.

The scope of the project has exceeded the somewhat naive expectations that were held when it was launched. Forty-eight articles and a doctoral dissertation have already been completed; books on the history of fertility in Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium are already published; and work on book-length manuscripts on Great Britain and Switzerland is nearly finished.

The present study reports our findings after assembling and analyzing the record of the decline in the rate of childbearing within the area that now constitutes the Soviet Union. It does not cover areas that were permanently separated from Russia at the end of World War I, such as Poland. The original intention was to limit the study of Russia to its European provinces (the overall project is thought of as an examination of European fertility), but the value of comparing the experience of European Russia with that of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia was too appealing. Therefore, two sets of geographical areas have been subjected to comparative study: the provinces of the areas that constituted European Russia before the 1917 Revolution; and the republics of the Soviet Union, as defined after World War II.

In spite of rather formidable problems of inadequate data, Russia was an irresistible choice as a case study of declining fertility, for it offers a chance to test in a very different setting from the rest of Europe ideas about how fertility fell. Part of the fascination of Russia is its diversity. In the late nineteenth century European Russia was, as a whole, the poorest and economically least advanced large European nation; at the same time, the material conditions of life in a few provinces were as favorable as those in Western Europe. The extraordinary differences within European Russia in 1897 are illustrated by the range of variation in selected characteristics of the fifty European provinces: expectation of life at birth from 29 to 52 years; infant mortality from 147 to 415 deaths per 1,000 live births; population dependent on agriculture from 25 to 90 percent of the total; proportion literate among women 20-29 years of age from 8 to 98 percent.

The diversity of the Russian population was not limited to the great differences in these material conditions of life. There was also great heterogeneity in ethnic origin, language, and national identity within European Russia, and even more within the empire as a whole. In European Russia alone, there were twenty-six groups of more than 100,000 persons, each with a sufficiently distinct nationality (including a distinct language) to be tabulated separately in the 1897 census; if the Asian parts of the empire are included, the number of such groups jumps to forty-three. These nationalities differed in religion, economic and social organization, customs, and traditions. Religions having many adherents included several Christian sects: Greek Orthodox (Great Russians, Ukrainians, the majority of White Russians, Georgians, Rumanians, and Finnish groups); Roman Catholic (Lithuanians, Poles, and many White Russians); Lutheran Protestants (Estonians and Latvians); and the distinct branch of Christianity maintained by the Armenians. There were also many Muslims of two principal sects: Sunni Muslims (Turkmen, Tadzhiks, and Uzbeks) and Shiite Muslims (Azerbaidzhani). Jews were concentrated in a few western provinces, but constituted a substantial minority in some of these. There were also some Buddhists (Kalmyks near the Volga, and Koreans and Chinese in far eastern Siberia).

The ethnic, linguistic, and religious heterogeneity of the Russian population was the result of many centuries of invasion and conquest: from the west by Scandinavians, Germans, and Poles, and from the east by diverse Asiatic peoples, including Mongols and Tatars. The countervailing expansion from the center to the west, south, and east by the nationality that now is numerically dominant — the Great Russians — contributed greatly to the present diversity by the conquest of territory inhabited by many different national groups.

At the end of the nineteenth century, then, the majority population of Russia was the Great Russians, who were Greek Orthodox and 85 percent rural, who had a tradition of patriarchal family organization and of hereditary serfdom (abolished only in 1861), and with 17 percent of their women 20-29 literate. At the same time, at one geographic and cultural extreme were the Latvians, who were Lutheran, 84 percent rural, long dominated by German landlords and still culturally related to Germany and Scandinavia, liberated from serfdom in 1817, and with 98 percent of their women 20-29 literate. At the other extreme, in Central Asia, were the Kirgiz, who were Muslim, 99 percent rural, mostly pastoral nomads, and with fewer than 1 percent of their women 20-29 literate.

A second feature that makes Russia an interesting instance to consider in a comparative study of declining fertility in Europe is the profound economic, social, and political change that all segments of the Russian population have experienced. These changes are exactly the kind considered in the theory of the demographic transition to be the source of reductions in fertility: mortality has been reduced to a low level everywhere; urban residence has to a great extent replaced rural residence; industrialization has been consistently pursued by a powerful government as a goal of the highest priority; universal education is the norm in every area; and unparalleled emphasis has been given to employment of women outside of the household. Since the Revolution, there has been a ceaseless effort in schools, press, radio, television, and the Party apparatus to change bourgeois attitudes and traditional beliefs of the sort that might otherwise have impeded the acceptance of controlled fertility.

What has been the course of fertility in the diverse segments of Russian society during the twentieth century, and has this course been affected by the particular nature of the Russian experience? These are the questions to which the research reported in this book is addressed.


Excerpted from Human Fertility in Russia Since the Nineteenth Century by Ansley J. Coale, Barbara A. Anderson, Erna Harm. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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