“For every ten girls there’s only nine guys”: Soviet World War II losses and the resulting sex ratios

Last week, my Russian cinema class watched and discussed Cranes are Flying, a Soviet cinematic masterpiece which focuses on the tragic side of World War II and the physical and emotional wounds it left behind. But the wounds were also demographic, and these wounds have hardly healed even now, 72 years after the war. The estimated 8.7 million military deaths, with significantly more men than women among them, left a huge disparity between the genders: far more women than men in the post-war period. In the 1960s and 70s, a popular Soviet song claimed that “for every ten girls, according to statistics, there’s only nine guys”. That, however, was not the case in real life: according to the 1970 census, for every ten women between ages 30 and 69, there were only 7.4 men in the same age bracket. By 1979, that number was up to 7.84, and the situation was a bit better among the younger generation. But even today Russia has not recovered the sex ratios of the pre-war and pre-1930s Great Terror period. The graph from an article by Nikolay Savchenko in Demoscope shows that the biggest drop in the men-to-women ratio occurred in the 20-year period that encompasses the war, between the 1939 census and that of 1959:

Sex ratio in the Russian Empire/USSR population data: the number of men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69


It is easy to blame the skewed sex ratios on the Nazi occupation: after all, nearly 2 million square km of Soviet territory and 45% of its population have been occupied during the war. But a closer look at the demographic data suggests that this is not the case. Although the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), as well as Belarus and Ukraine, were occupied in their entirety, it is the RSFSR (Russia), most of which was not under Nazi occupation, which showed the lowest sex ratio in the first post-war census of 1959 (chart from Savchenko’s publication, linked to above):

Sex ratios by republic: men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69 (1959 census)


Within Russia, there is no contrast in sex ratios between regions that were under Nazi occupation and those that were not. According to Savchenko, the lowest sex ratios (among those who were in age cohorts subject to mobilization during the war) is found in three of the regions in the Middle Volga: Mari ASSR (507), Chuvashia (517), and Mordovia (521). Next come three Russian oblasts, Ivanovo (528), Kirov (535), and Kostroma (538)—none of which were occupied by the Nazis!

Instead, the enormously skewed sex ratio must be due to the Soviet mobilization and military losses. As suggested by Savchenko, this can be seen from two statistics: (1) differences in sex ratios between age cohorts that were subject to mobilization and those that were not, and (2) differences in sex ratios between different regions of Ukraine and Belarus. Let’s begin by looking at the data concerning the age cohorts: among those born in 1930 (aged 15 in 1945), the sex ratio is 964—pretty much what would be expected in peacetime. The ratio declines as one goes back in birth years: among those born in 1926 (they were subject to mobilization in the last year of the war), the sex ratio is 829, and among those born in 1923 (and thus subject to mobilization from 1941 onward) the ratio is merely 644. In other words, for every ten 36-year-old women in 1959 there were only 6.44 male contemporaries, a far cry from the “nine guys” that the song claimed. This chart (based on the figures cited in Savchenko’s work) is easily explained: the older the guys were in 1941 and so the longer they were subject to mobilization, the more likely that they would be drafted and, sadly, that they would not come back from the war. The only anomaly is the data point for those born in 1927: the sex ratio for this age cohort is higher than for the next younger cohort, born in 1928. According to Savchenko, “this is a reflection of the fact that throughout the USSR, about 300-400 thousand young men born in 1925-1926 allegedly changed their papers to show 1927 as their birth date” (translation mine).

The second type of evidence that underscores the enormous effect of Soviet military losses on the remaining population structure involves sex ratios in Belarus and Ukraine. Since both of this republics were under Nazi occupation, based on the factor alone, one does not expect any differences within each republic, but that is not the case. Looking at those aged 31-70 in 1959 (the age bracket that made the men subject to mobilization),  Savchenko calculated that the sex ratio is highest in the westernmost parts of Belarus, and declines as one moves east. Thus, “in Grodno oblast of Belorussia there were 707 men for 1,000 women, in Brest oblast — 708, in Molodechno oblast — 700. But in the centrally located Minsk oblast the figure is 615, and in the eastern oblasts of Belorussia the difference [between the number of men and women] is even more conspicuous: in Vitebsk — 581, in Gomel — 578, in Mogilev — 562” (translation mine). If the Nazi occupation were the sole factor, this distribution would be counter-intuitive: after all, western areas such as Brest were under Nazi attack first and were generally occupied the longest. The real reason for this distribution, Savchenko suggests, is whether the area was part of the USSR, and hence subject to its mobilization, in the inter-war period. Western parts of Belarus were taken over by the USSR in the fall of 1939, before which time they were part of Poland.

The situation is similar in Ukraine, as Savchenko claims. For this post and for my class, I’ve created the map below, where the sex ratios for age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war are shown by oblast (Savchenko himself lists the figures only for half a dozen or so of the oblasts; I have calculated the remaining ratios based on the 1959 census data here). The base map here is one that shows territorial changes in Ukraine (I’ve discussed it also in my 2014 post):

As can be seen from this map, the highest (hence, most like peace-time) sex ratio, 843, is found in the westernmost region of Transcarpathia, which became part of Ukraine (and part of the USSR) only after the war. Areas that became part of the USSR in 1939 (Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Volyn, and most of the Rovno oblast) or in 1940 (Chernovtsy oblast and a substantial part of the Odessa oblast) exhibit fairly high sex ratios as well. The contrast between “Western Ukraine” (oblasts that were taken over by the USSR in 1939-40) and their immediate neighbors to the east (Khmelnitsky, Zhitomir, and Vinnitsa oblasts), as well as oblasts in central Ukraine (Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, Cherkassy, and Sumy oblasts), is quite conspicuous. Overall, areas that were not part of the Soviet Union before 1939 have sex ratios in the high 600s, in the 700s or even above 800, while virtually all regions that were in the USSR prior to 1939 have sex ratios below 650, and about half of them—below 600. (The only exceptions are the industrially vital Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine and the city of Kiev, with the sex ratios of 670 and 668, respectively.)

In light of these figures, it appears that the timing of becoming a part of the Soviet Union is the best predictor of the severity of the sex ratio bias: the longer an area was part of the USSR, the higher the discrepancy between the two genders (and the lower the sex ratio figure) in the immediate pre-war period. This generalization is further confirmed by another data point, alluded to by Savchenko: Tyva, which became a part of the USSR only in 1944 and was little affected by the Soviet mobilization, has one of the highest sex ratios of any region in the USSR in 1959: 903, based on the 1959 census data here. (Again, only people aged 30-69 in 1959, the age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war, are being considered.)

All these figures underscore the immense human losses that the Soviet Union suffered, the “cost in blood” of the victory over Nazism whose 72nd anniversary is being commemorated today. These losses, skewed heavily against the “stronger sex”, were felt for a long time after the last shots were fired, and are perhaps still felt today. One consequence of this shortage of men is that the birth rate after the war, though higher than during the war, never reached the pre-war level, in sharp contrast to the U.S. and Britain, which experienced the “baby boom” in the same period. (The birth rates are shown by the blue line in chart below, from http://e-lib.gasu.ru/eposobia/minaev/R_1_7.html.)

Birth rate (blue line) and death rate (pink line) in the Russian Empire and the USSR


But the consequences of the skewed sex ratios after the war may be psychological as well: a whole generation of children, most notably boys, grew up with few fathers around, and thus with few role models of how to be a man, a husband, or a father. Is that perhaps the reason why the protagonist of our next film, Autumn Marathon, is so weak, meek, indecisive, and spineless? Nor is he alone among male cinema characters of that time; in fact, it seems that many if not most of the cinematic “good guys” in the late 1970s-early 1980s were very much like Buzykin.

Thoughts, anyone?


“The Last Empire”, by Serhii Plokhy

In preparation for my Russian history class, I’ve recently read Serhii Plokhy’s book The Last Empire. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a detailed account of “the Final Days of the Soviet Union” (a bit too detailed, to my mind). The focus of Plokhy’s narrative is on the rivalry between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and, predictably, the role of Ukraine in bringing about the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Plokhy is a scholar of Ukrainian history, after all). All in all, although the book is illuminating as to the minute details of the fateful year of 1991 and the varying opinions, plans and attitudes of the major players in and outside the Soviet Union, it left me dissatisfied as to the answer to the crucial question, why. Plokhy’s explanation of why the Soviet Union disintegrated makes sense:  once Ukraine pulled out, as did the Baltic countries, it was pretty much Russia against the Muslim republics of Central Asia, and those two camps didn’t want to be left alone in one union or confederation. But it does not touch upon the question of why the communism (or more accurately, socialism) failed as, and when, it did. After all, Ukraine, as Plokhy justly points out, wanted independence first and de-communization later, if at all. In fact, as late as the 1998 legislative election, the majority of the areas in Ukraine still voted for the Communist Party, as can be seen from the following map from ElectoralGeography.com:

The Communist Party of Ukraine took part in the legislative elections in 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2012, albeit with more limited success. It was finally dissolved in December 2015.





One thing I did find beautifully poignant is a little vignette that Plokhy includes in the last chapter of the book, “Christmas in Moscow” (p. 374). Here, Plokhy tells the story of Gorbachev signing his resignation decrees. Apparently, for this final act as the first and last President of the USSR, Gorbachev had to borrow a pen from Tom Johnson, the president of CNN, whose crew was recording the events of those last few days of the Soviet Empire. The country that had once planned to enter the exalted state of communism by 1980 and later boasted to be poised “to catch up and overtake America” has run itself into such state of chaos and ruin that its president could not find a working pen in his own office.  A wonderful metaphor of what the collapse of socialism has been all about.


Russian history class: Perestroika and the dissolution of the USSR

Today’s lecture in my Russian history Delphians’ class was about the perestroika and the dissolution/implosion of the USSR. One of the students did a wonderfully touching paper on the Chernobyl catastrophe based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book. We talked about Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, “acceleration” (ускорение), glasnost’, the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the independence movement in Ukraine and the Baltics, the August Putsch, and more. Below is my visual “Table of Contents” for the lecture.

I closed with a quote from Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms (pp. 724-725):

The Soviet system was built on extreme force and extreme fraud. Practically everything that Lenin and the Leninists did was accompanied by killing; practically everything they said was based on half-baked theories, a total lack of integrity and huge, barefaced lies […] When a general secretary finally came along who was no longer prepared to perpetuate the fantasies and the coercion, all the circuits fused, and total paralysis rapidly ensued.


Experiencing Russia through film: “Cranes are flying”

Today’s film in my Russian film class was “Cranes are flying”.


It’s a powerful masterpiece! I had several students crying right after the film. We had a fascinating and enthusiastic discussion afterwards. Many of the students noticed things that I wanted them to notice, particularly some symbolic imagery and links between scenes, and some even saw things I never picked up on. One of the students remarked that, coming from an American perspective, it was amazing to see a Soviet film that is so nuanced, so complex and so artistic. I am ever so pleased with the class!




New OLLI Course: “Experiencing Russia Through Film” (Spring 2017)

This week I’m starting to teach a new (and very novel for me) course, “Experiencing Russia Through Film”, at Santa Clara University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This is my first time teaching a film course although I’ve done Russian history and culture courses before.

Course Description:

Lenin famously called cinema “the most important of all art forms”. In this course, we will explore Russia’s political and cultural history, its institutions, social norms and everyday life through the lens of the Russian cinema. We will immerse ourselves in different time periods and will try to re-imagine what it was like to live in Stalin’s Soviet Union, during the Great Patriotic War, in the time of the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev “stagnation period”, and in post-Soviet Russia by watching emblematic feature films such as “The Circus” (1936), “The Cranes Are Flying” (1957, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival) and others. All films will be shown with English subtitles, and the classes will be a combination of lectures, discussions and watching selected films. The films will also be available on YouTube and/or Netflix. We will also contemplate how the state may control people’s behavior and worldviews through cinema as an instrument of propaganda, and how the ways in which people react to films change with time and place. Parallels and contrasts with American cinema will be highlighted.

The first film we’ll be watching is “The Circus” (“Цирк”) from 1936:


New Online Course: “The Glamour of Grammar” (Fall 2017)

Yay! I’ve just completed the preliminary prep for my new online Continuing Studies Course, “The Glamour of Grammar” (to be taught in the Fall 2017). All I have left to do is to film the video lectures and to upload everything onto the course website.

Course Description:

School teaching of English grammar often makes this subject appear dull and dreary. Writing manuals like The Elements of Style further confound even the most curious reader with their arcane prohibitions against using passives, split infinitives, or “negative form”. Unsurprisingly, many people still view grammar as “mysterious or occult”, which is exactly what the word “grammar” originally meant! (“Glamour”, as it happens, comes from the same root.)

In this course, we will examine the principles behind English grammar and will dispel many a mystery surrounding it. We will ask: Why is there “stupidity” but not “smartity”? Why is “blog” a word of English and “lbog” is not and cannot be? Who decides what is a word anyway? How do we put words together into meaningful sentences? How do we interpret sentences to mean more than is being explicitly said? How do children acquire the knowledge of these grammatical intricacies? And how adults learn them in a foreign language? By looking at these and similar issues, we will develop a subtler and more thoughtful approach to grammar. While the focus of this course is on English, we will also see that other languages possess grammars that are based on the same principles and constraints. So in addition to learning many fascinating (and glamorous!) things about our own language, we will gain new tools that will be helpful in learning another language — any language in fact!

Course Structure:

Each of the 10 weekly modules contains:

  • a short (6-12 minute) video lecture
  • a set of slides for self-paced exploration
  • a real-time Zoom video session (optional)
  • additional reading materials
  • two discussion boards with problem sets and other activities

Students who take the course for a letter grade or credit will have to submit four written assignments.


  • Course sizes are limited.
    You won’t have 5,000 classmates. This course’s enrollment is capped at 40 participants.
  • Frequent interaction with the instructor.
    You aren’t expected to work through the material alone. Instructors will answer questions and interact with students on the discussion board and through weekly video meetings.
  • Study with a vibrant peer group.
    Stanford Continuing Studies courses attract thoughtful and engaged students who take courses for the love of learning. Students in each course will exchange ideas with one another through easy-to-use message boards as well as optional weekly real-time video conferences.
  • Direct feedback from the instructor.
    Instructors will review and offer feedback on assignment submissions. Students are not required to turn in assignments, but for those who do, their work is graded by the instructor.
  • Courses offer the flexibility to participate on your own schedule.
    Course work is completed on a weekly basis when you have the time. You can log in and participate in the class whenever it’s convenient for you. If you can’t attend the weekly video meetings, the sessions are always recorded for you and your instructor is just an email away.

Registration starts in late summer, so stay tuned!


2nd Edition of Languages of the World Coming Out Soon!

The 2nd edition of my textbook, Languages of the World: An Introduction is being published by Cambridge University Press. It is due to be released on September 30, 2017. Pre-order your copy from Amazon today!

  • If you crave to learn about the world’s languages, both seemingly familiar and exotic…
  • If you welcome an opportunity to explore languages without the tiresome process of learning to speak them…
  • If you are curious to know what all human languages have in common and in what ways they differ…
  • If a typical “Introduction to Linguistics” textbook scares you with its technical nature or Anglo-centricity…
  • If academically-oriented grammatical descriptions of languages seem too boring and inaccessible…
  • If you are curious about language relatedness and interactions between languages…
  • If you seek to know how language can be used to trace different peoples and their past…
  • If you want to see a connection between linguistics and other disciplines, such as history or genetics…
  • If you look for an engaging and intellectually stimulating reading that gives you the thrill of discovery…
  • If you wish to travel the world without leaving your cosy armchair…

…Then this book is for you!

Helpful features include 18 charts of family classifications, index of languages and general index, glossary, and bibliography to guide further reading.

The book has been thoroughly revised from the 1st edition:

  • Two new chapters have been added: chapter 3 “Languages of Iran and South Asia” and chapter 4 “Languages of Northern Eurasia”
  • New sections have been added to existing chapters, for example, section 1.4 “Focus on: How do languages diversify?” and section 8.4 “Korean and Japanese”
  • Several new textboxes have been added, for example “Adamorobe Sign Language” and “Indigenous African Writing Systems” in chapter 7
  • Numerous “Did you know?” boxes have been added
  • Some of the harder, more technical linguistic material has been set aside into “Advanced” sections, which can be assigned for more advanced students but omitted with a more beginners audience. Each chapter has one or more “Advanced” sections.
  • Each chapter now has a set of five assignments, including guided projects for online exploration, discussion questions, and problem sets based on data from unfamiliar languages.
  • The text has been fact checked and edited with additional passages added in various places.
  • The bibliography, glossary and indexes have been updated.

The 1st edition can still be purchased at Amazon, directly from Cambridge University Press, or from booksellers worldwide.




Yesterday, I gave a talk titled “Eventive Nominalizations in Russian and the DP/NP Debate” at the Formal Approaches to Russian Linguistics, Moscow.

The gist of the talk: Russian nominalizations cannot be used to argue either for the presence of DP in Russian or for its absence (as has been done in the previous literature); instead, all nominalization-specific morphosyntax happens lower in the nominal structure.

Contact me for the handout.