Counting the Soviet Nation: Population Politics Under Brezhnev

Lovett, Jessica E A (2023) Counting the Soviet Nation: Population Politics Under Brezhnev. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis addresses a period in Soviet history when, for the first time, basic indicators of health and mortality worsened in a sustained way that could not be explained by a temporary disaster. Not only did this worsening occur in combination with very low birth rates among ethnic Russians, but it stood in contrast to the progress on mortality and longevity being made in the capitalist West. As such, the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) provided uncharted demographic territory for leaders of the Soviet Union. The aim of this work is to examine the political implications of this change and subsequent response. An enormous literature shows how economic dynamics affected the Soviet Union, but these works often see demographic dynamics as a side-note rather than a political force in their own right. This study seeks to address this, arguing for the significance of population change in shaping late-Soviet politics and culture.

When Leonid Brezhnev took power in 1964, the Soviet population appeared in relatively good shape. Yet by end of the period, men were living three and a half years less than they had done a decade before. Alcoholism ran rampant, infant mortality had increased, and birth rates plunged below replacement levels. In response, the government attempted to supress knowledge about the population from the public and the world in general, fearing that the bad news about Soviet health would undermine its domestic legitimacy and status on the world stage. At the same time, elites tried to reshape the population by controlling reproduction in a bid to resolve the Union’s economic problems and bolster its military status. Instead, Soviet society developed independently of the regime, which was ultimately unable to affect basic life processes in the way the Party desired.

This work shows how political demography functioned in the Soviet Union, how population issues found purchase in official discourse, and why population dynamics became an important lens through which elites viewed other societal problems. Several themes emerge. Firstly, the research demonstrates the link between statistics and legitimacy, where indicators like life expectancy acted as a summary of the social policies of Soviet rule. Secondly, this study highlights the alluring nature of strategic demography, through which rulers seek to consolidate their power and mould the culture of society for generations to come. The Soviet Union was far from the only country aiming to reshape its population or halt changes brought by modernisation. This is a history of a specific region but its themes are global in nature. Strategic demography asks not only how many, but what kind of people live in a territory and how this can be changed in the future. Finally, the research demonstrates how the pursuit of an ideal Soviet population was ultimately reduced to attempts to hide evidence, restrain choice, and paper over cracks.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Baron, Nick
Badcock, Sarah
Keywords: Soviet Union, health statistics, mortality, Brezhnev era, political demography
Subjects: D History - General and Old World > DK Russia. Soviet Union. Former Soviet Republics
H Social sciences > HB Economic theory
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of History
Item ID: 72042
Depositing User: Lovett, Jessica
Date Deposited: 31 Jul 2023 04:40
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2023 04:40

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