Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Age pyramids can track the demographic history of a nation by showing how new births add to population (giving the country a wide base of infants and young children), and aging reduces population over time (narrowing the numbers remaining as age goes up). Irregularities show the impacts of such events as war, mass terror, and famine, on people of particular age groups. These pyramids show the demographic history of Ukraine, as seen from the perspectives of 1989 and 2001.

The toll of 1914-19: The earliest major disruption to Ukraine's population (therefore highest on the pyramid) is among people who were born during World War I, the Revolution of 1917 (when Ukraine claimed its independence), and the Civil War that followed. Many women postponed having children due to the war, and high infant mortality and child mortality decimated that age group still further. Their diminished numbers show up in 1989 as a "dent" in the number of people in their 70s, as compared with the numbers born a few years earlier or later.

The famine of 1932-33: Another heavy toll was taken when Soviet authorities demanded impossible amounts of grain from peasant farmers, and millions of peasants starved to death. Again, many of the women who survived did not have children, and many of the children they had did not survive.

Stalin's atrocity: On the heels of the famine came the Soviet purge of 1937-38, when several million Ukrainians were murdered by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. In the city of Vinnytsia, a mass grave was later found containing nearly 10,000 bodies (Nikita Khrushchev commented that Ukraine had been "purged spotless.") People born between the famine and the purge were between 52 and 57 years old in 1989, and indeed, the graph shows the numbers of people in this cohort sharply reduced. The gap is deepened by the fact that by the late 1930s, there were fewer potential mothers to even consider having children, because by then the women of child-bearing age were largely the children of the generation that had been previously reduced by the Revolution and World War I. This "echo" impact is a phenomenon repeated a generation after each major disruption through the century.

The trauma of transition: A new fall in fertility, caused by the deep and protracted social and economic crisis that has gripped Ukraine in the post-Communist period of transition, results in a dramatic narrowing of the pyramid's base. Many women are discouraged, and say they do not want to bring children into a world facing such dismal prospects. According to projections, the population age structure will lead to a "mushroom" shape of the age pyramid-an aging of the nation and a rising ratio of elderly people to working-age people.

A demographic echo of the diminished World War II generation of babies shows up in the number of children they, in turn, produced a couple of decades later. The war babies of the 1940s were so few that their own children-born in the late 1960s, and reaching their late teens or early 20s in 1989-were also relatively few.

World War II: The deepest dent carried through the changing pyramid of the past half-century is the one left by the devastation of the war's last years. Relatively few Ukrainian babies were born-or if born, survived infancy-between 1943 and 1945. Those who survived had reached their mid-50s by 2001, but in vastly fewer numbers than those who had been born a few years earlier. Thus, there are only about 200,000 women of age 55 in 2001, as compared with more than 400,000 of age 63.

Female longevity: In both graphs, women substantially outnumber men after middle age. The difference reflects both the greater longevity of women and the toll of war on boys born after the mid-1920s-the ones who became soldiers and died in large numbers in the 1940s and were thus missing 56 or more years later in 2001.

As time passes, demographic anomalies fade into memory. The scarcity of people who were born in 1916 or 1917 (the 72- or 71-year-olds as of January 1, 1989) largely disappears by the end of the century, when those who were a few years older and had outnumbered them a decade earlier have passed into their 90s and largely died off. The gap disappears, and the demographic action moves down the pyramid to record the impacts of more recent events-notably, the suddenly shrinking base of the past decade.