The Health Crisis in the USSR

Rising Infant Mortality in the USSR in the 1970s

by Christopher Davis and Murray Feshbach
United States Bureau of the Census, Series P-95, No. 74, 33 pp., free


If we could judge it solely by advances in health, the twentieth century would be a fabulous success. Few of us who take food and doctors for granted realize or appreciate this. In 1900 life expectancy for the whole of the human race was about thirty years.1 Today it is twice as long: at least sixty-one years, possibly sixty-three or more.2 Since the human lifespan was probably never much less than twenty for any length of time—to drop much below that level is to court eventual extinction3—this means that about three-fourths of the improvement in longevity in the history of our species has occurred in the last eighty years.4

Over much of this century the nation in the vanguard of the revolution in health was the Soviet Union. In 1897 Imperial Russia offered its people a life expectancy of perhaps thirty years. In European Russia, from what we can make out, infant mortality (that is, death in the first year) claimed about one child in four,5 and in Russia’s Asian hinterlands the toll was probably closer to one in three. Yet by the late 1950s the average Soviet citizen could expect to live 68.7 years: 6 longer than his American counterpart, who had begun the century with a seventeen-year lead. By 1960 the Soviet infant mortality rate, higher than any in Europe as late as the Twenties, was lower than that of Italy, Austria, or East Germany, and seemed sure to undercut such nations as Belgium and West Germany any year.

Results like this could not have been achieved without a total transformation of living conditions for the USSR’s sizable Asian and Muslim minority. This indeed has taken place.7 By 1960 Moscow could demonstrate that its Central Asians were living fifteen years longer than the Iranians, twenty years longer than the peoples of Pakistan, and nearly twice as long as the Afghanis. In the face of these and other equally impressive material accomplishments, Soviet claims about the superiority of their “socialist” system, its relevance to the poor countries, and the inevitability of its triumph over the capitalist order were not easily refuted.

Things look very different today. The Sixties and the Seventies have proved devastating to Soviet society. To observant travelers and analysts this is apparent in a hundred different ways; none, however, is so dramatic as the turn in health of the Soviet peoples. As Christopher Davis and Murray Feshbach’s startling report argues in convincing detail, health conditions in the USSR have worsened steadily since the mid-1960s, and the deterioration shows no signs of stopping.

Although its findings are sensational, Rising Infant Mortality in the USSR is a very careful piece of work. The credentials of its authors are unimpeachable: Davis is now England’s leading authority on Soviet health care, Feshbach the foremost American expert on Soviet population trends. Their study is based on data not from spy satellites, intelligence agencies, or “think tanks,” but rather from reports released by…

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