Population Aspects of Communist Countries

Communist rule was the Twentieth Century’s most dramatic, distinctive and fateful political innovation. Armed with a utopian but atheist ideology and with powerful, far-reaching state apparatuses built to actualize their official ideals, Communist governments were expressly committed to upending existing earthly economic and political arrangements and constructing in their stead a socialized paradise--i.e. “communism”--free from the injustice, alienation and exploitation that humanity had heretofore suffered under “capitalism” and all other previous historical orders.

Communist governance was distinguished by the absolute and unchallenged primacy of a ruling Marxist-Leninist party, state ownership of major national industries and other critical “means of production”, and a command-style system of “central economic planning” through which political decisions (rather than market forces) allocated goods and services within the national economy. Communist power was initially established over the Russian Empire (renamed the “U.S.S.R.”, also known as the “Soviet Union”) through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; over the following seven decades, war and revolution brought many more populations under Communist sway.

At its zenith--just before the 1989-91 collapse of Eastern European socialism, and the Soviet Union--the reach of Communist-style governments stretched across Eurasia from Berlin and Prague to Vladivostok and Shanghai, and from the frozen Siberian tundra down to Indochina; additional Communist outposts could be found in the New World (Cuba) and in sub-Saharan Africa (Ethiopia). In 1980, the world’s seventeen established Marxist-Leninist states presided over roughly 1.5 billion subjects (out of a total world population of approximately 4.4 billion). At that apogee, over a third of humanity lived under regimes that professed the “communist” intent: and the encompassed populations represented a tremendous variety of cultures, ethnicities, levels of material attainment, and demographic structures.

Communist Ideology and Its Bearing on Population Policy

Despite their prolixity, the founding theoreticians of Communism offered precious little dispositive guidance to their adherents regarding population affairs. Karl Marx railed against Rev. T.R. Malthus (“a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes”) and his demographic theories, but was completely Delphic about the purported “special laws of population” that he foresaw for socialist and communist society. Friedrich Engels was only slightly more forthcoming: according to his vague assurance, “if . . . communist society finds itself obligated to regulate the production of human beings, just as it does the production of things, it will be precisely this society and this society alone which can carry this out without difficulty”. (Perhaps Marx’s and Engels’ most important contribution to demographic discourse lay in popularizing the term proletariat: interestingly enough, their chosen designation for what they saw as history’s destined “class” drew on the Latin word for the lowest rung of classical Rome’s citizenry, those viewed as contributing to the state only through having children.)

V.I. Lenin, author of the Bolshevik Revolution and draftsman of the Soviet state, had almost nothing to say about demographic questions in his small library of writings (apart from a passing observation that the weight of sheer human numbers could bear on the international “class” struggle). He did, however, famously pronounce that “we [Communists] recognize nothing private”--and that declaration of principle, more than anything else, prefigured the Communist approach to population issues.

For in country after country, Communist regimes eager to reconstitute society through their own variants of “scientific socialism” avowed that there were no legitimate limits on their authority. Given the awesomely ambitious mandate it conferred upon itself, and essentially unrestricted means it granted itself for accomplishing its own objectives, Communist rule naturally had tremendous demographic repercussions--though those repercussions were often entirely inadvertent and quite unanticipated by the states that set them in motion.


“It is time to realize that of all the valuable capital the world possesses, the most valuable and most decisive is people”, the Soviet ruler Josef Stalin once declared. In the spirit of this dictum, Communist governments, after securing power, typically attempted to augment the welfare and productivity of the more disadvantaged “classes” from the old order through such measures as land redistribution, mass primary schooling and literacy campaigns, and expansion of medical access through an extensive system of state health workers (i.e., feld’sher in the Soviet Union, “barefoot doctors” in the People’s Republic of China). Under these and allied interventions, local mortality levels usually declined--often strikingly.

Within eight years of China’s 1949 “Liberation”, for example, reliable estimates suggest the country’s life expectancy may have soared by as much as two decades, while its infant mortality rate may have dropped by half or more. Dramatic progress against disease and mortality was likewise registered in many other, disparate regions under Communist control. In the late the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, estimated life expectancy at birth was 10-25 years higher in the Soviet Union’s five Central Asian Republics than in nearby Afghanistan, Pakistan, or India. In the 1970s, Cuba enjoyed one of the very lowest official infant mortality rates, and one of the very highest expectations of life at birth, of any Caribbean or Latin American nation. Perhaps most interesting, independent estimates indicate that Soviet Union’s pace of postwar health progress was so robust that, by the early 1960s, life expectancy in the USSR was almost equal to that in the United States--and Soviet life expectancy was poised to surpass America’s if trends just continued a few more years.

But any appreciation of Communism’s genuine achievements in improving public health and lowering general mortality also requires an appreciation of the powerful, independent historical factors at play in these results. In both the postwar Soviet Union and early post-Liberation China, for example, life expectancy was clearly buoyed by the restoration of civil order after prolonged and devastating periods of war and upheaval: mortality levels, in other words, almost surely would have fallen during those very years, regardless of the particular health policies those governments implemented. Cuba, for its part, could indeed boast of being one of the healthiest Latin countries in the 1970s--but before the 1959 revolution, Cuba had been the very healthiest country in the tropical Americas (by the criteria of life expectancy and infant mortality). In Eastern Europe, infant mortality rates did decline swiftly in the 1950s under new, postwar Communist regimes—but infant mortality rates had also been dropping rapidly beforehand: in the 1920s and 1930s, under the region’s previous and now officially reviled anciens regimes. In the Korean peninsula, partitioned between a Communist North and non-Communist South after World War II, something approaching a controlled experiment on the independent contribution to health progress of Communist policies had accidentally been framed; demographic reconstructions suggest the level and pace of improvement in life expectancy in the two Koreas over the quarter century following the 1953 Korean War armistice were virtually identical.

Under the best of circumstances, Communist claims to a superior systemic competence in ministering to the health of the masses were thus somewhat debatable. And the best of circumstances did not always obtain under Communist rule: for under Communist rulers, radical reconstitution of “feudal” or “capitalist” society very often involved the embrace of ruthless measures that doomed their subjects to death en masse. (A precise tally of the human cost of these deadly interventions will probably never be possible, but demographic reconstructions and historical provide us with approximate magnitudes.)

The collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union in 1932/33 (estimated excess mortality: perhaps 4 million in the Ukraine, and an additional 2 million elsewhere in the USSR) was but one of numerous deliberate Communist economic campaigns to result in massive loss of life for Communist citizens. Virtually every Communist state in Asia suffered famine when its rulers collectivized agriculture: in the case of China, the death toll in the wake of the 1958/59 “Great Leap Forward” is thought to be in the range of 30 million. (North Korea’s famine, which struck in the mid-1990s, was due to catastrophic economic mismanagement rather than collectivization: tentative estimates of its toll currently range between 600,000 and one million or more.) Ethiopia’s 1984/85 food disaster, which may have killed 700,000 people, should also be included in the tally of Communist famines. Terrible as this may sound, the fact of the matter is that if someone died of famine in the course of the Twentieth Century, he or she probably lived under a Communist government.

State-made famine was not the only form of mortality crisis visited upon the populations of Communist states. State-sponsored violence was also a specialty of Communist regimes, and was often meted out to the disfavored and suspect strata of the new society with particular enthusiasm. Under Joseph Stalin’s absolute rule (1929-1953), millions of Soviet citizens were executed during successive terror campaigns, or perished as prisoners under the murderous conditions of the “Main Administration for Corrective Labor Camps” (better known as the Gulag). In Yugoslavia, Tito’s regime may have killed as many as a million of its ostensible subjects between 1944 and 1987--as many as half a million of them after World War II was over. In China, at least several million landlords and other “bad elements” were programmatically slaughtered during the land reform of the early 1950s, and many sources guess that a million or more victims were later claimed by Red Guard terror during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” that commenced in 1966--though some respectable guesses place the death toll from the Cultural Revolution as high as 7 million. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign may have consigned a fifth or even more of the country’s 7 million people to death by starvation or terror. In theory human beings may indeed be the most valuable capital in the world, as Stalin averred--but in practice under Communist governments many human lives were evidently assigned an official value of zero.

A final noteworthy characteristic of Communist mortality patterns were the long-term increases in death rates that beset the Soviet Bloc in the decades immediately preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union. After rapid and pronounced general mortality declines in the 1950s and early 1960s, age-specific mortality rates for various Soviet cohorts began to rise: first middle-aged men, then almost all adult male groupings, then many adult female groupings. In the early 1970s, the official Soviet infant mortality rate recorded significant increases--after which point Moscow forbade release of this bell-weather statistic, and increasingly restricted publication of other mortality data. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ campaign unveiled in the late 1980s, inter alia, the previously-suppressed mortality figures, it became apparent that Soviet male life expectancy was actually lower, and Soviet female life expectancy only barely higher, than they had been in the early 1960s--an extraordinary outcome for a literate, urbanized and industrial society during peacetime.

Anomalous though it may have been, that Soviet experience was not unique: for by the late 1980s prolonged stagnation or even retrogression in health and mortality levels were being reported in every other Warsaw Pact state in Eastern Europe--and in Communist Yugoslavia as well. (In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, life expectancy in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite states seems to be returning to the familiar industrial-society pattern of steady, secular improvements; in every one of the 15 former Soviet Republics, however, overall life expectancy is estimated by the US Census Bureau to have been lower in 2001 than it was in 1991, the final year of Soviet rule.)


Fertility levels under Communism have spanned the gamut. Communist governments have presided over populations with extraordinarily high period-specific net reproduction rates (e.g. Mongolia in the late 1960s, with its estimated NRR of 2.8), and on the other extreme, over societies where sub-replacement fertility prevailed (among others, Hungary from the late 1950s onward). At particular times in given countries, Communist governments have attempted to elicit increases, or alternatively decreases, in national fertility levels--and at still other junctures in other locales, have indicated no particular preference for the course fertility trends and childbearing patterns should take.

Among the instruments that Communist governments utilized in pro-natal policy (especially in postwar Eastern Europe, with its relatively low levels of fertility) were child bonuses and allowances, increased maternity benefits, and preferential housing allocations. As best can be determined, however, those blandishments provided only a modest stimulus to childbearing under Communism--a result quite in keeping with the limited success of pro-natal policies attempted in non-Communist regions of the world. On the other hand, Communist governments typically relaxed restrictions on divorce, liberalized access to abortion, and encouraged the use of birth control and family planning techniques. All of these might be expected to constrain or perhaps reduce fertility levels to some degree--although again, the demographic impact of such essentially “voluntary” policies was probably modest in most cases.

The swiftest and surest means of altering a populations fertility levels, of course, is involuntary family planning. In principle, Communist governments had no objections to such measures, and when specific Communist regimes chose to engineer major and rapid changes in local childbearing patterns, they grasped for precisely these sorts of options.

In Communist Romania, the Ceaucescu government limited parental volition over childbearing in an attempt to raise the birthrate. In late 1966, abortion, which had been the primary means of national birth control, was suddenly and unexpectedly proscribed. The following year, Romania’s birth rate nearly doubled, though only temporarily; infant and maternal mortality also shot up as a result of the surprise decree.

Elsewhere--most notoriously, in China--Communist rulers used coercion to press the birthrate down. In 1979, Beijing unveiled the so-called “One Child Policy”, under which parents required the permission of the state before bringing a pregnancy to term--and faced legal, financial, and physical punishments if they failed to comply. Under the “One Child Policy”, China’s fertility level is believed to have fallen below the replacement level--a result pleasing to China’s birth planners, but one reportedly purchased through widespread human rights abuses, including involuntary abortions and delivery-room destruction of unapproved neonates. (At this writing, the “One Child Policy” is still in effect in China, although the severity of enforcement has varied over time and between locales.)


Communist governance came to some societies--e.g., the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)--that were already largely urbanized and industrialized, and to others--Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Mongolia among them--in which urban and industrial transitions had barely begun. Because Communist regimes favored forced-pace modernization--and evidenced a particular fondness for the augmentation of heavy industry--their economic plans correspondingly figured upon the steady induced movement of people from country to city and from farm to factory. In a very real sense, massive internal migration was indispensable for the success of the Communist “planned economy”.

What was most distinctive about migration patterns under Communist governance, however, was not the scope of planned migration per se, but rather the scale of involuntary migration.

In every new Communist regime, a network of political prison camps was established for the newly designated “enemies of the people”. In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, newly available archival documents suggest the Soviet gulag and its annexes may have contained over 5 million of the Soviet Union’s 190 million people; China’s laogai likewise processed millions upon millions of political convicts. In Vietnam and elsewhere, distrusted elements were detained for indefinite durations in “re-education camps”. In Cambodia, unlike other Marxist-Leninist governments, the Khmer Rouge forcibly de-urbanized the nation (Cambodia’s cities had been temporarily swollen by a wartime exodus from the countryside) and relocated the country’s population into a system of makeshift communes and prison camps.

Communist governance also generated enormous streams of refugees, escapees fleeing from the new order, or driven out by some particular policy or practice promoted by the new regime.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, for example, net out-migration from the Soviet Union is thought to have totaled about 2 million; roughly 2 million Chinese likewise relocated from Mainland China to the island of Taiwan with the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949. Between 1945 and 1950, approximately 12 million ethnic Germans (known as die Vertriebene or “the expellees”) relocated to Austria and West Germany from regions to the East that had fallen under Communist power. Between 1949 and 1961--when the East German government built the Berlin Wall to stanch its demographic hemorrhage--over 3.5 million citizens of the German Democratic Republic, nearly a fifth of its original population, walked over to West Germany. A roughly similar fraction of the local population fled from North Korea to South Korea after the peninsula’s 1945 partition, and before the 1953 Korean War ceasefire. It is thought that about two million of Ethiopia’s 33 million people fled the incoming Dergue in the late 1970s, and that in the decade after Saigon’s surrender to Hanoi, a million or more South Vietnamese left their newly Communized homeland--many as desperate “boat people”. And over a million Cubans have emigrated or fled from Cuba since Castro’s seizure of power--a figure that compares with a total Cuban population of about 7 million at the time of the 1959 revolution. Apart from annexation of nearby territories, not a single Marxist-Leninist state experienced any appreciable in-migration of outsiders during its tenure in power.

Population Structure

Given the great variety of mortality schedules and childbearing patterns observed under the Twentieth Century’s Communist governments, it follows that there was no “typical” population structure for a Communist society. But the population structures of Communist societies did nevertheless tend to bear one distinguishing feature: an unusual degree of “irregularity”. Due in large part to demographic perturbations caused or encouraged by their leadership--many of these already noted above--the age-sex pyramids of Communist countries were typically disfigured by unexpected deficits in specific birth cohorts, or by peculiar and biologically aberrant imbalances in the sex ratio. Russia and China offer contrasting examples of that latter phenomenon.

In the Soviet Union’s January 1989 census, the sex ratio in the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics (the R.S.F.S.R., predecessor to today’s Russian Federation) was just over 88 men per 100 women. That compared with the U.S.A.’s sex ratio of about 97. Part of the difference, of course, can be attributed to the R.S.F.S.R.’s catastrophic losses in World War II. But not all: Poland also suffered grievously in World War II, but its 1990 sex ratio was about 95. The R.S.F.S.R.’s deficit of men spoke not only to World War II (and Stalin), but also to extreme excess male mortality during the peacetime years of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

In China, on the other hand, the November 2000 census reported a countrywide sex ratio of nearly 107--almost ten percentage points higher than that of the contemporary United States. Historically, China’s population, like that of some other Asian societies, has been marked by a curious deficit of “missing females”, due to unusually high differential mortality. Yet in large measure, the current discrepancy is due to an “excess” of males--especially younger males. According to Beijing, China’s sex ratio at birth in 2000 was nearly 117: that number compares with a ratio of 104-107 in most other historical human populations. This biologically extraordinary disproportion was unexpected dividend of the “One Child Policy”: or more specifically, the conjuncture of extreme pressure for small families, a continuing cultural preference for sons, and the availability of sex-selective abortion. Thanks to China’s current population plans, China’s future leaders will have to plan for coping with an enormous army of unmarriageable young men.

Selected References

Banister, Judith. China's changing population. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Courtois, Stephane, et al. The Black Book of communism: crimes, terror, repression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Eberstadt, Nicholas. The poverty of Communism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1988.

Eberstadt, Nicholas. Prosperous paupers and other population problems. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000.

Goodkind, Daniel M. and Loraine A. West. The North Korean famine and its demographic impact. Population and Development Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, (June 2001), pp. 219-238.

Heuveline, Patrick. "Between one and three million": towards the demographic reconstruction of a decade of Cambodian history (1970-79). Population Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1, (March 1998), pp. 49-65.

Lutz, Wolfgang; Scherbov, Sergei; Volkov, Andrei, eds. Demographic trends and patterns in the Soviet Union before 1991. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Nydon, Judith A. Public policy and private fertility behavior: the case of pronatalist policy in socialist Romania. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Massachusetts, 1984.

Petersen, William. Population. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Rummel, R.J. Statistics of democide: genocide and mass murder since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998.

United Nations Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision, CD-ROM. New York: United Nations, 2001.

United States Bureau of the Census. International Data Base (IBD). Revised May 10, 2000; available electronically at http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idbacc.html.

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar at AEI.

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