January 2006

IZA DP No. 1958: Reassessing the Standard of Living in the Soviet Union: An Analysis Using Archival and Anthropometric Data

published in: Journal of Economic History, 2010, 70 (1), 83 - 117

Both Western and Soviet estimates of GNP growth in the USSR indicate that GNP per capita grew in every decade – sometimes rapidly – from 1928 to 1985. While this measure suggests that the standard of living improved in the USSR throughout this period, it is unclear whether this economic growth translated into improved well-being for the population as a whole. This paper uses previously unpublished archival data on infant mortality and anthropometric studies of children conducted across the Soviet Union to reassess the standard of living in the USSR using these alternative measures of well-being. In the prewar period these data indicate a population extremely small in stature and sensitive to the political and economic upheavals visited upon the country by Soviet leaders and outside forces. Remarkably large and rapid improvements in infant mortality, birth weight, child height and adult stature were recorded from approximately 1940 to the late 1960s. While this period of physical growth was followed by stagnation in heights and an increase in adult male mortality, it appears that the Soviet Union avoided the sustained declines in stature that occurred in the United States and United Kingdom during industrialization in those countries.