When I was looking for the Soviet Union’s largest cities, I couldn’t find any good list, let alone a map. Strange, I thought, considering that Russian Wikipedia seems to have incredibly detailed records of every Soviet city’s population. And yet, nobody had collected them in one place.
I managed to find a report titled Статистика для всех (“Statistics For Everyone”) that summarizes the results of the 1989 Soviet Union Census. Inside it was a list of cities, which amazingly enough was digitized so I could just copy and paste the data into a spreadsheet. After some cleaning, some geocoding (God bless Nominatim), and some head-scratching with python’s Basemap, I came up with these maps. The text was added later using Adobe Illustrator, because Matplotlib’s text features are very frustrating.
The one above simply plots the 296 largest Soviet cities, which is every Soviet city with over 100,000 people. It becomes much easier to see just how important Ukraine and the other Republics were, compared to Russia alone.
Moscow is by far the biggest gainer, adding 3.3 million people since 1989. The Soviet capital’s privileged status remained even after the USSR dissolved, as millions of Russians, Ukrainians and others moved to the city in search of jobs during the lowest lows of the 1990s. Today, along with St. Petersburg, Moscow is still the only post-Soviet city where development is fully on par with the West. The capitals of Ukraine and Belarus—Kiev and Minsk, respectively—show a similar, though smaller effect.
Besides Moscow, virtually all the big gainers are located in Central Asia. These areas never experienced the massive drop in fertility that followed the USSR’s economic crisis. Adding to the natural population increase, countless rural migrants moved to cities like Astana, Almaty and Shymkent seeking opportunity.
The losers form a few distinct groups. The biggest loser is Riga, the capital of Latvia. In general, the Baltic states have been steadily losing population due to emigration to the West (made easy by EU membership), as well as the repatriation of many local Russians struggling in legal limbo.
Cities in eastern and southern Ukraine have also lost considerable population. It is not a coincidence that these are the most heavily Russian-speaking parts of the country. Even before Ukraine’s civil war, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians moved to the West or to Moscow (many of my friends among them), feeling alienated in their own country.
There are many smaller groups of cities as well. Georgia and Armenia have lost millions to emigration. Smaller cities near Moscow were at the mercy of the capital’s vacuum-like effect, losing many people. Russian industrial cities like Nizhny Novgorod (“Russia’s Detroit”) and the Kuznetsk Basin (coal mining country) declined sharply when the free market took over, similar to America’s Rust Belt.
Last but not least, the Far North has also seen a sharp population decline. During Soviet times, workers living in northern cities like Murmansk and Norilsk received a special “Northern Bonus”—extra salary, housing and vacation time compensated for the inhospitable climate. As the Soviet system of aid dried up in the 90s and 2000s, many people saw little incentive to continue living in such extreme conditions. Despite having 468,000 people in 1989, the port city of Murmansk saw its population decrease to just below the 300,000 mark, making it one of the top 10 loser cities. There are notable exceptions to the decline of Russia’s Far North. Surgut, and nearby Nizhnevartovsk, are seeing large flows of people and money due to the booming oil and gas industry. Yakutsk, meanwhile, is Russia’s largest city where Europeans are a minority. Yakut people, and other native Asians, are steadily migrating away from nearby villages and into the growing city.
Here’s a table of the 50 largest cities of the USSR in 1989.
|No.||City||1989 pop.||2016 pop.||Soviet Republic||Present-day name|
|2||Leningrad||5,024,000||5,225,690||Russian SFSR||Saint Petersburg|
|8||Gorky||1,438,000||1,266,871||Russian SFSR||Nizhny Novgorod|
|32||Krivoy Rog||713,059||647,727||Ukrainian SSR||Kryvyi Rih|