“Save the Men!”

Demographic Decline and the Public Response in the Late Soviet Period

in Sibirica


In 1968, the Soviet economist and demographer Boris Urlanis started a national conversation in the Soviet Union with his article “Beregite muzhchin!” or “Save the Men!” in the popular journal Literaturnaia gazeta. The essay, translated here, points out the increasingly troubling imbalance in male and female health as men were dying, on average, eight years earlier than women. Urlanis calls for attention to accidents and lifestyle problems (smoking and drinking, as featured in propaganda posters) as well as a nationwide set of health institutions centered on male health. The essay precipitated a flood of essays, letters, commentaries, cartoons, and even a movie under the same title.

In 1968, the Soviet economist and demographer Boris Urlanis precipitated a deluge of ink with an article in the popular journal Literaturnaia gazeta. The essay, provocatively entitled “Beregite muzhchin!” or “Save the Men!,” merited several columns and opens with Urlanis pointing out what he considered the logically improbable but real issue that the weaker sex was outliving the stronger.1 Urlanis’s plea to “save the men,” translated below, hit a nerve. A flood of essays, letters, commentaries, cartoons, and even a movie met his call and continue to appear under the same title.2

The debate around what exactly was leading to the decline in male life expectancy, and what to do about it, took place against a backdrop of increased health care propaganda of all types and in an environment of increasing material comfort for Soviet citizens (see figure 1). Yet even as a new era of plenty emerged for Soviet citizens, disquiet over Soviet performance as an economic, military, and political power on the world stage tempered feelings of comfort. Concerns over declining male authority, powered by the sexual imbalance, lurked within the commentary by Urlanis and others. The eruption of social critique after the publication of “Beregite Muzhchin!” revealed a “crisis of masculinity” in the late Soviet period, in which the declining health of men was a multivalent symbol for male victimization, biological weakness, and the dangers of modernization, as well as a shorthand warning for the predicted chaotic violence because of the lack of strong father figures. The crisis became what political scientist E. Zdravomyslova and sociologist A. Temkina term “a metaphor, which conceals a realization of the social diseases of society. The impossibility of fulfilling traditional male roles, connected to the limitation of liberal rights (property, political freedom, freedom of conscience) implicitly considered the cause of the destruction of true manliness.” This crisis came as Soviet modernization floundered in comparison with a global surge, as “masculinization of women and the feminization of men was considered a social problem.”3

The gendered discussion surrounding Urlanis’s essay and the many ways in which the essay occasioned anxiety can be easily seen in a set of letters submitted as part of the “discussion club” published by the editors of Literaturnaia gazeta a few months later.4 In an introductory section, the editors admit that they had been inundated by readers’ responses and that they decided to print just a few representative responses. One reader—M. Barovich, an engineer—argues that Urlanis had correctly seen the differential in age of death as a problem, but Barovich thinks urbanization is the root of men’s decreased longevity. Vladimir Zharko, a pilot, attributes the higher male mortality to men’s disproportionate numbers in highly dangerous professions like “sailor, geologist, miner, and driver.” Oddly, he does not include pilot. Not only were these professions dangerous on their face, but the high accident numbers hit when men were just entering and learning these occupations and therefore more likely to make a deadly mistake. While men were endangered by their employment, Zharko argues that forcing men to change their lifestyles would not solve the issue:

I am not convinced that the answer is that a man should hang around the kitchen with his wife. Incidentally, Marx also had a wife. And she, by the way, did not demand that her husband rearrange his life to completely revolve around the house. And humanity has only benefited from this.

Figure 1
Figure 1

“Alcohol and Smoking Destroy the Organism,” Moscow City Committee of the Red Cross RSFSR, 1969. Reprinted with permission of the Russian National Library, Moscow.

Citation: Sibirica 17, 2; 10.3167/sib.2018.170206

As can be seen from the translation below, Urlanis had mentioned nothing of men retiring from the public sphere, nothing of their softening or of taking to the kitchen. Drinking, smoking, and auto accidents had merited special attention from him in his essay, but nowhere does he recommend that men take up women’s lifestyles. Zharko’s protestations against “feminizing” men reveal a great deal about the place of drinking, smoking, and danger within the spectrum of behaviors expected of men during the 1960s.5

“Beregite muzhchin!”

Literaturnaia gazeta, 24 July 1968, 12

by Boris Urlanis (Doctor of Economics)

From ancient times women have been considered “the weaker sex.” If we mean their physical strength, this is true. Indeed, you will not find a Vlasov or a Zhabotinskii among women …6 But if you put the question in demographic terms, then there is all the foundation, on the contrary, to name men “the weaker sex.”

Their7 weakness reveals itself already at birth. Judge for yourself. In 1966 in our country, there were 2,175,000 boys born, of whom 63,000 did not reach one year of age. This constitutes 29 for every 1,000 births. In the same year, 2,066,000 girls were born, of whom 48,000 did not reach one year of age—that is 23 per 1,000 births. There is a significant difference between 23 and 29! And remember a baby boy does not drink, smoke, and enjoys all the advantages of Soviet health care. Baby boys and girls are on equal footing. A baby boy need not complain of insufficient attention from his mother, who in equal measure generously cares for her child regardless of the sex.

From where, then, comes this higher infant mortality among baby boys? Obviously, the cause must be found in the greater biological viability of the female organism, which developed over hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Remember, the life of woman is more important for the survival of the species than the life of man.

OK. No one can argue with biology. But what is the deal with the deaths of grown men in comparison with grown women? And here, we cannot say the concern about men is unimportant. A few months ago, the TsSU SSSR8 first published data on deaths according to charts of sex and age. From this publication, it became clear that already at the age of 15–19 years, the coefficient of deaths of young men was two times higher than that of young women. With age, this difference increased, and for men age 25–29, the coefficient of deaths was 2.5 times higher than for women! For those of more advanced age ranges, the difference continued—the death rate of men is twice as high than that of women of the same age. Is this perhaps biology as well? No, here there are reasons over which we have power and over which we have influence.

Already 306 years ago, it was known that boys were born at a rate 6% higher than girls. But, sadly, this precious surplus of male births over females, a surplus that could balance the sexes, is quickly spent during the years of childhood and youth. For instance, at the ages of 20–24, the number of young men already equals the number of young women. With further age brings the “female surplus,” which strengthens more and more so that in the last census, the young women of age 20–24 were already 230,0009 more than the young men. And at the age of 25–29 years, that was 350,00010 more. Subsequently, this difference has quickly and steadily increased.

Think only what kind of great and positive effects in all areas of our life would come if the number of adult males were equal to the number of adult females!

Let us begin with economics. Every person is a type of accumulator of national materials tied to his feeding, upbringing, and education. It is not difficult to calculate the amount of investment since we know the expenditures in all these areas for children, adolescents, and youth. Every year of education in schools is 100 rubles. Every year in higher education is 1,000 rubles. The costs for buying clothes, shoes, and other points of upbringing are about 500 rubles a year, and so on.

The accumulation of all these costs for the entire life of the person before entering the workforce can be seen as a type of “capital,” and his output after entering the workforce can be seen as return on that capital.

In bourgeois political economies, everything is translated into money, and many economists in capitalist countries look upon people as a part of the national wealth and calculate the general value of the population in dollars and pounds sterling. One economist argued that the beauty of a courtesan should be included in the wealth of nations.

In contemporary America, economists predict to the last dollar the cost of a newborn.

It is blasphemy, however, to translate the life of a person into money. Human life is priceless. A man is not “capital.” He creates “capitals,” leaving behind him both “miraculous” and “man-made” monuments to his activity.

An adult over his long working life with his golden hands builds homes and factories, behind the wheel of a tractor or standing at the machines provides the people with all necessities, thereby returning the investment expended on him in the working period of his life. The life of such a man must command the attention of all of society. And that is why the loss of a man in the prime of his working life is 2 to 2.5 times more significant than the loss of a woman. It is not difficult to imagine what damage this brings to the national economy.

The consequences of increased male mortality are also great for family life.

Husband, Wife, and Children—this is what must make up the family. If the family is left as just mother and children, then this greatly harms the normal existence of every member of the family. Only in an operetta may a widow be happy. Typically, a widow does not have special reason to make merry. There are not many chances to marry a second time and bring into the home at least a stepfather. You see, we know that there are many widows and not many widowers. A man losing his wife typically fairly quickly will remarry. A woman who loses a husband finds a second marriage difficult for a number of reasons. The main reason is from the imbalance in the numbers of men and women. This is especially relevant to women of more advanced age or burdened with children. As a heroine in an old play once said, “Men will do everything so that they are in shortage.”11 This “shortage” of men is very detrimental to many areas of our lives. There is truth in the popular song that “statistically, for 10 girls there are 9 guys.” It exaggerates the situation but anticipates the point when men and women between the ages of 20–30–35 years find that the ration of the number of men to women will be close to the one they sing of.

Thus, the surplus of male deaths over women’s means that there are hundreds of thousands of “broken” families—that is, hundreds of thousands of women who have lost the benefits of a normal family life.

Some may think that a deciding factor in this is the war. But this is not so. Presently, almost all men at an age up to 42 years did not participate in military action during the Great Patriotic War. Meanwhile, it is precisely at the age of 30–40 when the sharp increase in male mortality is evident in comparison with that of females. This means that the war is not the issue, nor is it the aftermath. The issue is that we are much less attentive to male health compared with that of women.

Take the consultation.12 We have one for women but not for men! Why? I am convinced of the necessity to cover the entirety of the country with a dense network of male consultations. What should be their functions?

In the first place, they must focus on the struggle to prevent accidents in the neighborhood. After all, most men are killed in accidents.

In the second place, they must conduct anti-alcohol and anti-nicotine propaganda. Alcoholism is one of the most important causes of the rise in male mortality. The fight with alcoholism is especially important because with the rise of the income of the population, there has been an increase in the use of alcohol. Thus, for example, for the seven years from 1960 to 1967, the sale of alcoholic products rose much more than the population increased. This situation cannot be sustained. Alcoholism brings great damage to our economy, our society, brings discord into the family, and increases the number of divorces. Alcoholism undermines men’s health and increases the cases of alcohol poisoning, illness with cirrhosis of the liver, and the destruction of normal heart function. We must carry an active fight with the “green snake” and begin this fight in the schoolroom, in order to instill an aversion to alcohol abuse for life.

Smoking also causes significant damage to the male organism; in addition, the use of tobacco products also is very quickly growing among us. Especially alarming is the spread of smoking among youth. The sale of cigarettes and papirosy13 has increased so much in recent years that it translates to almost one pack a day on average for every male—smoker or nonsmoker. This means that the share for a smoker rises to an average of much more than a pack a day. The spread of smoking cannot but cause an increase in the deaths from lung cancer and from other illnesses caused by the use of tobacco. We must begin a serious fight with this, especially not in the form of “a lecture on the danger of tobacco” but in the form of effective measures.

In our proposed men’s consultations, we must also focus on prophylaxis and treatment of specific male illnesses—consultations for questions of sex life and sexual pathology in particular. In them there must also be professional consultation that systematically investigates the relationship between a man’s profession and the status of his health. In addition, of course, it is important for these consultations to take into observation men of working age of their neighborhoods and systematically bring them in for appointments similar to dispensary observation.

Among us, the overwhelming majority of doctors (to be exact—four-fifths) are women. Consequently, the health of our men is in the hands of our women. This fact gives us the foundation for a full understanding of the importance of the problem of preserving the lives of men. After all, if you save the men, then the girls will find their life partners, and then there will be no deficit of young men for them.

A general indicator of the mortality rate is the average life expectancy. For men in our country, it is 66 years, and for women it is 74—a difference of 8 years! Indeed, such an “abyss of rupture lies between us” …14

If we managed to close that gap from 8 to 4 years, then it would be of enormous benefit for the life of our entire people.

We face an intense penetration of technology into all aspects of our lives. Already, the iron ore has probably been extracted from the earth that will be welded in 1969 and 1970 into hundreds of thousands of automobiles, behind the wheels of which will sit, for the most part, men. Every technological application brings with it some types of danger, which we must neutralize with technology for safety. The technology of safety we must raise to a higher level. It will help us to save men during the most valuable period of their lives.

For women and children, the revolution has done tremendous things, providing them with special attention and care, which has led to a massive decrease in child and female mortality.

The life expectancy of men has also markedly risen, but it could rise much further. Therefore, we propose with every reason: “Women, save the men, because they are also a beautiful half of the human race …15 Let’s make sure that we meet not only great-grandmothers but great-grandfathers. A current rarity.”


Boris Urlanis, “Beregite muzhchin,” Literaturnaia gazeta, 24 July 1968, 12.


See, for example, the poems by Iurii Blagov, “Beregite muzhchin!” Krokodil, no. 21 (1974): 12; and Vladimir Volin, “Beregite muzhchin,” Krokodil, no. 25 (1974): 8; or the companion pieces “Women and Work” and “Men at Home” that appeared the following year: Larisa Kuznetsova, “Zhenshchina na rabote,” and V. Bolgov, “Muzhchina doma,” Literaturnaia gazeta, 6 June 1969, 12. The movie, directed by A. Seryi, came out in 1982. The latest repetition of the title was in 2005 by Eduard Grafov, “Beregite muzhchin, poka ne pozdno,” 25–31 May 2005, 4.


The four-part meaning is delineated within the article at much greater length. See E. Zdravomyslova and A. Temkina, “Krizis maskulinnosti v pozdnesovetskom diskurse,” in O muzhe(i)stvennosti, ed. S. Ushakin (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2002), 432–451; quotations on pp. 434, 435.


“Diskussionnyi klub,” Literaturnaia gazeta, 9 October 1968, 12.


“Diskussionnyi klub, ‘L!’” Krokodil, no. 41 (1968): 12.


Ellipsis in original. Iurii Vlasov and Leonid Zhabotinskii were two Soviet weight lifters made world famous for their competition at the 1964 Olympic Games.


The bolding of headers in sections is as in the original.


Central Statistical Authority of the USSR.


The number was unclear in the original; this number is taken from the reprinted article in B. Ts. Urlanis, Narodonaselenie: Issledovaniia, publitsistika (Moscow: Statistika, 1976), 326–332.




The quotation is given as “Muzhchiny delaiut vse dlia togo shtoby ikh ne khvatalo,” but I could not find a play of origin.


The consultation refers to a specialized clinic for women with gynecological services.


The peculiar Russian smoke that consists of a hollow cardboard tube affixed to a “cartridge” of tissue-wrapped strong tobacco (often makhorka, or Nicotiana rustica).


Ellipsis in original. The quotation is from the famous romantic tune “My tol’ko znakomyi” [We are only acquaintances].


Ellipsis in original.

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Contributor Notes

Tricia Starks is associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) and Smoking under the Tsars: A History of Tobacco in Imperial Russia (Cornell University Press, 2018). With Matthew P. Romaniello, she coedited Tobacco in Russian History and Culture: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present (Routledge, 2009) and Russian History through the Senses: From 1700 to the Present (Bloomsbury, 2016). E-mail: tstarks@uark.edu


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    “Alcohol and Smoking Destroy the Organism,” Moscow City Committee of the Red Cross RSFSR, 1969. Reprinted with permission of the Russian National Library, Moscow.


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