Biggest Soviet cities

Biggest Soviet cities

21 April 2017

Русские версии первой и второй карты.

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.

This next map shows the absolute change in population for these same Soviet cities:

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
1 Moscow 8,967,000 12,330,126 Russian SFSR Moscow
2 Leningrad 5,024,000 5,225,690 Russian SFSR Saint Petersburg
3 Kiev 2,587,945 2,908,703 Ukrainian SSR Kiev
4 Tashkent 2,072,459 2,371,300 Uzbek SSR Tashkent
5 Baku 1,795,000 2,181,800 Azerbaijan SSR Baku
6 Kharkov 1,609,959 1,449,700 Ukrainian SSR Kharkiv
7 Minsk 1,607,100 1,959,781 Byelorussian SSR Minsk
8 Gorky 1,438,000 1,266,871 Russian SFSR Nizhny Novgorod
9 Novosibirsk 1,437,000 1,584,138 Russian SFSR Novosibirsk
10 Sverdlovsk 1,365,000 1,444,439 Russian SFSR Yekaterinburg
11 Tbilisi 1,259,692 1,062,282 Georgian SSR Tbilisi
12 Kuybyshev 1,254,000 1,170,910 Russian SFSR Samara
13 Yerevan 1,201,500 1,068,000 Armenian SSR Yerevan
14 Dnepropetrovsk 1,177,897 980,825 Ukrainian SSR Dnipro
15 Omsk 1,149,000 1,178,079 Russian SFSR Omsk
16 Alma-Ata 1,127,884 1,716,779 Kazakh SSR Almaty
17 Odessa 1,115,371 1,008,311 Ukrainian SSR Odessa
18 Donetsk 1,109,102 936,257 Ukrainian SSR Donetsk
19 Chelyabinsk 1,107,000 1,183,000 Russian SFSR Chelyabinsk
20 Kazan 1,094,000 1,206,000 Russian SFSR Kazan
21 Perm 1,091,000 1,036,000 Russian SFSR Perm
22 Ufa 1,082,000 1,106,000 Russian SFSR Ufa
23 Rostov-on-Don 1,019,000 1,115,000 Russian SFSR Rostov-on-Don
24 Volgograd 999,000 1,017,000 Russian SFSR Volgograd
25 Riga 915,106 641,007 Latvian SSR Riga
26 Saratov 902,000 842,000 Russian SFSR Saratov
27 Zaporozhye 883,909 756,900 Ukrainian SSR Zaporizhia
28 Voronezh 882,000 1,024,000 Russian SFSR Voronezh
29 Krasnoyarsk 869,000 1,052,000 Russian SFSR Krasnoyarsk
30 Lvov 790,908 728,300 Ukrainian SSR Lviv
31 Kishinev 722,000 809,600 Moldavian SSR Chisinau
32 Krivoy Rog 713,059 647,727 Ukrainian SSR Kryvyi Rih
33 Izhevsk 635,000 642,000 Russian SFSR Izhevsk
34 Vladivostok 631,000 605,000 Russian SFSR Vladivostok
35 Tolyatti 629,000 720,000 Russian SFSR Tolyatti
36 Yaroslavl 629,000 604,000 Russian SFSR Yaroslavl
37 Ulyanovsk 624,000 619,000 Russian SFSR Ulyanovsk
38 Krasnodar 619,000 830,000 Russian SFSR Krasnodar
39 Karaganda 613,797 496,173 Kazakh SSR Karaganda
40 Frunze 611,000 944,300 Kirghiz SSR Bishkek
41 Barnaul 599,000 636,000 Russian SFSR Barnaul
42 Khabarovsk 598,000 607,000 Russian SFSR Khabarovsk
43 Dushanbe 595,820 802,700 Tajik SSR Dushanbe
44 Novokuznetsk 583,000 550,000 Russian SFSR Novokuznetsk
45 Vilnius 576,747 539,939 Lithuanian SSR Vilnius
46 Irkutsk 573,000 620,000 Russian SFSR Irkutsk
47 Tula 540,000 488,000 Russian SFSR Tula
48 Penza 522,000 523,000 Russian SFSR Penza
49 Mariupol 518,933 455,063 Ukrainian SSR Mariupol
50 Orenburg 517,000 561,000 Russian SFSR Orenburg