When, in 1959, the USSR conducted its first census in 20 years, it revealed something remarkable about the geographic distribution of the Soviet Union’s population.


Artemy M. Kalinovsky

Artemy Kalinovsky is Assistant Professor of East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He teaches BA and MA level courses on Russian, Central Asian, and Cold War history.

Artemy is the author of Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (Cornell University Press, 2018),  A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2011), and co-editor with Sergey Radchenko, of The End of the Cold War and the Third World (Routledge: 2011), as well as the Routledge Handbook of Cold War Studies with Craig Daigle (2014). More recently, he co-edited, with Michael Kemper, Reassessing Orientalism: Interlocking Orientologies in the Cold War Era (2015) and Reconsidering Stagnation: Ideology and Exchange in the Brezhnev Era (Lexington, 2016), with Dina Fainberg.

Academia, Twitter

While the rate of population growth had slowed across the USSR as a whole, it remained relatively high in the Central Asian republics, while having fallen substantially in the RSFSR, Ukraine, and Belarus. (Note that the census conducted in 1937 was suppressed because it showed that Soviet population growth had slowed significantly in the wake of collectivization and famine; as such, the 1939 census results are generally considered to be somewhat inflated.)

These findings had all sorts of implications for health policy and economic planning, especially questions of industrial placement. At the time, demographers, planning officials, and even party leaders, while certainly concerned about the declining population in the European USSR, did not see the booming population of Central Asia as a threat. Rather, they began to consider these republics as an important source of industrial labor power and possibly even a location for new plants.

Ibadullo Narzikulov, one of the first Tajiks to hold a doctorate in economics, and Rashid Rakhimov, who became the first head of Tajikistan’s Institute of Economics, argued that Tajikistan’s booming population made it an ideal target for industrial placement

They were encouraged in this regard by Central Asian planners and economists, who emerged as vocal supporters of industrialization. In Tajikistan, for example, Ibadullo Narzikulov, a planner and one of the first Tajiks to hold a doctorate in economics, and Rashid Rakhimov, who became the first head of Tajikistan’s Institute of Economics when it opened in 1963, argued in a number of articles and books that Tajikistan’s booming population made it an ideal target for industrial placement. At the time, most of the working-age population was still engaged in agriculture, especially cotton production, but planners expected that mechanization would free up a significant proportion of this labor force in the near future.

Institute of Economics and Demography of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan opened in 1963

Proponents of industrialization also believed that work in factories would raise standards of living and help create modern subjects and citizens.

Their ideas reflected a broader enthusiasm at the time among some development specialists about how a large population could help drive industrialization, particularly in post-colonial countries. Although the notion of using “surplus labor” from the agricultural sector to help drive industrialization had been circulating since the 1920s (including within the Soviet Union), the idea became associated in particular with the Trinidad-born economist Arthur Lewis, whose landmark 1954 article “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor” became one of the most influential works on economic development.

Not all scholars and planners were so confident about the benefits of a booming population. In Europe and North America, a number of organizations supported family planning policies for the world’s poor. The Soviet Union, however, largely rejected what its demographers called a “Malthusian” view of population growth. Internationally, the Soviet Union sided with those countries that rejected policies aimed at reducing population growth, seeing in these initiatives another attempt to control the former colonial world. Domestically, Soviet policies in these decades aimed to stimulate population growth. Although they were directed toward the European part of the union, where population growth was declining, these incentives were applied uniformly across the USSR.

Central Asian peasants did not seem eager to move to industrial towns in their republics, let alone beyond their republics

By the late 1970s, however, attitudes had begun to change. Central Asian peasants did not seem eager to move to industrial towns in their republics, let alone beyond their republics. Sociological studies showed that young men and women both desired large families with at least five children, which also had implications for the planning of urban space and for industrial policy more generally. Standards of living had risen in absolute terms but increasingly lagged behind those of the European republics. At the same time, populations continued to rise in Central Asia, even as pro-natalist policies seemed to do little to stimulate birth rates in the European part of the USSR. Some demographers began advocating a more differentiated population policy, one that would provide cash assistance to women for their first three children but not for those that followed. That could help stimulate families in the European USSR, who often stopped at one child, to have two or three, while discouraging couples in Central Asia and the Caucasus from having more than three or four.

These debates became more urgent in the perestroika era.

On the one hand, a number of prominent social scientists and medical professionals in Central Asia began to support family planning. Economists like Hojamamat Umarov broke with the earlier consensus about population growth providing the preconditions for industrialization, arguing that it would be impossible to raise standards of living without reducing population growth. The physician Sa’diniso Hakimova similarly supported family planning because of what she had seen in her decades of work with women, particularly in rural areas.

These debates about the shortcomings of Soviet development in the Central Asian republics coincided with growing skepticism in planning circles about “subsidies” for the poorer republics and a rise in nationalist sentiment within Russia. Although some Moscow-based demographers had previously questioned the wisdom of a policy that seemed to encourage large families in regions where people were inclined to have them anyway, they never spoke of these large populations as a threat. In the perestroika era, that began to change.

Once again, what happened beyond Soviet borders affected how officials interpreted domestic developments. But whereas previously Soviet officials had connected their development and social welfare policies in Central Asia with their support for developing nations beyond Soviet borders, they now began to look to the Third World to illuminate what was happening in their own periphery. Meanwhile, against the background of the war in Afghanistan, some Soviet officials began, for the first time, to talk about Islamic radicalism as a potential threat. In a 1990 article in the journal Planovoe Khoziaistvo (The Planned Economy), two demographers, A. Avdeev and I. Troitskaia, argued that “At the present moment the USSR, in demographic terms, is a kind of scale model of the contemporary world,” with an impoverished but booming population in the “south” and a relatively better off but stagnant population in the “north.” They explicitly mentioned the threat of radical Islamism as one of the possible scenarios for the growing number of unemployed and underemployed people in the Central Asian republics. Scholars of the Third World like Georgii Mirskii noted how overpopulation and rapid urbanization in developing countries had led to social and political instability and worried that the same thing would happen in Central Asia.

In one sense, the warnings of people like Mirskii proved prophetic. Tashkent, Dushanbe, Osh, and Alma-Ata, along with other cities in Central Asia and the Caucasus, experienced some form of urban violence in the final years of the Soviet Union. Tajikistan also saw a civil war in the 1990s that included avowed Islamists among the belligerents. And yet there was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in looking at these booming populations as possible threats. Avdeev and Troitskaia had talked about a diverse range of policies, including investments in social infrastructure and family planning, to help address the challenges of a booming population. But increasingly, looking at these populations as a threat encouraged those pushing for a looser union or even the end of the USSR altogether. After 1991, it helped shape how Moscow looked at the region.

As its own economy picked up in the early 2000s, Russia began to look to Central Asia as a source of cheap labor. As migrants from the region began coming to Russia by the hundreds of thousands, fears that these groups represented a security threat—or a cultural or demographic threat more broadly—once again came to inform public attitudes and debates. Yet one could just as easily use contemporary labor migration to support the arguments of the demographic optimists who believed that sooner or later these individuals would enter the industrial workforce and help fuel economic growth.

Of course, Europe and the US are hardly immune to the simultaneous fears about a demographic threat from the “south” and imperatives for migrant labor. In this sense, current dynamics in the former Soviet Union are a microcosm of global processes.

Recent book

Artemy Kalinovsky’s Laboratory of Socialist Development investigates the Soviet effort to make promises of decolonization a reality by looking at the politics and practices of economic development in central Asia between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Kalinovsky places the Soviet development of Сentral Asia in a global context.

Connecting high politics and intellectual debates with the life histories and experiences of peasants, workers, scholars, and engineers, Laboratory of Socialist Development shows how these men and women negotiated Soviet economic and cultural projects in the decades following Stalin’s death. Kalinovsky’s book investigates how people experienced new cities, the transformation of rural life, and the building of the world’s tallest dam. Kalinovsky connects these local and individual moments to the broader context of the Cold War, shedding new light on how paradigms of development change over time. Throughout the book, he offers comparisons with experiences in countries such as India, Iran, and Afghanistan, and considers the role of intermediaries who went to those countries as part of the Soviet effort to spread its vision of modernity to the postcolonial world.

Laboratory of Socialist Development offers a new way to think about the post-war Soviet Union, the relationship between Moscow and its internal periphery, and the interaction between Cold War politics and domestic development. Kalinovsky’s innovative research pushes readers to consider the similarities between socialist development and its more familiar capitalist version.


Subscribe now to our newsletter