In Russia today the family is in trouble, according to demographer Victor I. Perevedentsev, a senior researcher with the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He calls it a “demographic and social revolution” that is breaking up families, lowering the birthrate and contributing to juvenile delinquency and crime. Abortion is legal and free. According to a 1978 Western study, about 8 million abortions are performed annually in the Soviet Union.
Part of the problem is caused by an urban-rural shift of nearly two million a year, Perevedentsev said in an August New York Times interview. A second important factor is the serious imbalance in the male/female population. Millions of Soviet men died in World War II and in 1970 there were only 100 adult men available for 170 women. This has created a severe need for women in the labour force; 91 per cent of Soviet women either work or study. Anna Sypula, who went to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1984 is now employed by U.S.A. Today. She says,
…women of all ages are involved in heavy physical labour. The sight of women cleaning streets, laying bricks, tarring roads is common. Indeed, the participation by women in all types of heavy, dirty manual labour is considered “women’s liberation” by Soviet standards and has never been criticized by the Soviet media or officials.
While women are encouraged into “equal” participation in the work force, men hold the majority of executive positions and higher-paying jobs in industry and agriculture, Perevedentsev says that “traditional family relationships have not yet changed and all the domestic responsibilities remain on the women’s shoulders.”
Those responsibilities are heavier than those faced by working women in the West. Clothes washers, dryers and dishwashers are rarely available and when they are, the price is too high for the average Soviet citizen. Shortages of food and other consumer items are everyday crises. Anna Sypula gives a Russian woman’s description of the average day.
Tired after the working day, Soviet women, in a terrible crush of people, run from one food store to another, searching for some food for their families. Even if they’re lucky, they’ll spend several hours standing in lines. Bowed by the weight of grocery bags, they wedge themselves into overcrowded buses, elbowing people aside, hoping to reach an empty seat – if there is one.
“Everybody knows,” Sypula continues, “about the Soviet Union’s long lines of shoppers seeking toilet paper, napkins, detergents, and other household items that American women waste with such abandon. But few realize that goods of special importance to women, which are too small or too simple to merit a place in the state’s industrial planning, are not available at all. Non-existent are: sanitary pads (many women resort to cotton or old linen), tampons, maternity clothes, diapers, and formulas for babies.
Housing shortages add to the problems. Yong married couples often wait years for an apartment, in the meantime sharing with parents. Even when they do get out on their own, apartments are small, adding to the pressures on family life and encouraging smaller families.
The Soviet divorce rate is 50 per cent of all marriages and it is women who file for divorce in most cases. Alcoholism is cited as the reason for the marriage breakdown in more than half the divorce petitions, along with complaints of unfaithfulness and incompatibility. In 98 per cent of divorces, the wives are awarded custody of the children and most women do not remarry. Perevedentsev talked about young people growing up without a male influence either at home or at school, where nearly all the teachers are women. Such children, he said, are likely to show hooliganism and theft.
“Sociologists have determined that much of this is from lack of the male involvement in their upbringing,” he said. “Each year, there are 900,000 divorces,” he continued. “From each 100 divorces we have 110 or 120 fatherless youngsters. So that’s about one million a year.”
While one million children a year are victims of divorce, the victims of abortion total eight times that figure. One Western estimate, quoted by Anna Sypula, put the 1978 abortion rate at about eight million. She describes the state-established abortion clinics as a “nightmare,” and goes on to say, “anaesthetics are not administered. In some clinics women are tied to the chair while the operation is performed. Some women have had as many as 15 abortions.”
Inevitably, the Soviet birth rate is now well below the figure demographers would like to see. Perevedentsev says the optimum is 1,200 or more children for each 1,000 couples. While the rural birthrate approaches this, in urban areas the rate is 880 per 1,000, while in the largest cities it is below 700 per 1,000.
The falling birth rate and the instability of the family are symptoms of a still-incomplete social shift, according to demographer Viktor Perevedentsev. Presumably, life will be better once “traditional family relationships” have completely vanished.