The science fiction author Robert Heinlein was a socialist in his youth, but became a strident anticommunist during the Cold War. In 1960, he and his wife Virginia went as tourists to the USSR, and he wrote a magazine article about the experience, titled "Inside Intourist." He depicts the trip as interesting, but filthy, overpriced, and highly restricted by the presence of official minders. Virginia spoke fluent Russian, Robert just a little. They made a game out of evading control and seeing things they weren't supposed to see (like slums), and they made attempts to gather reality-check information on things like how much money people made and what their standard of living was.

The article was anthologized twenty years later, with an afterword in which Heinlein discusses at some length his theory that official figures on the population of Moscow were wildly overstated.

At that time the USSR claimed a population of 225,000,000 and claimed a population for Moskva of 5,000,000+... For many days we prowled Moskva--by car, by taxi when we did not want Intourist with us, by subway, by bus, and on foot. In the meantime, Mrs. Heinlein, in her fluent Russian, got acquainted with many people... she is a warm person. But, buried in the chitchat, she always learned these things: How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have?

Meanwhile, Robert was looking at traffic on the river and comparing with shipping on the Rhine or the Panama Canal. He told Virginia that he thought the city felt to him like it had a population of 600,000 to 800,000, not five million. Virginia agreed:

"It's a lie. Unless they are breeding like flies everywhere outside Moscow, they have lost population since the War--not gained. I haven't found even one family with more than three children. The average is less than two. And they marry late. Robert, they aren't even replacing themselves."

Robert then says:

About a year later I had a chance to discuss it with an old shipmate, an admiral now retired...I asked him how many people there were in Moscow... "Make a guess. You must have some idea." ... He closed his eyes and kept quiet for several minutes. "Seven hundred and fifty thousand, not over that... I simply worked it as a logistics problem, War College style. But I had to stop and visualize the map first. Roads, rivers, railroads, size of marshalling yards, and so forth... The city just doesn't have the transportation facilities to be any bigger than that."

Is it possible that the USSR's official statements about the population of Moscow in that era were really inflated by an order of magnitude? It seems like modern demographers ought easily to have been able to notice such a huge discrepancy. Even a very crude post-Soviet census should have been able to detect it, e.g., by simply checking the number of old people in 1995 and seeing whether there were enough of them to account for the cohorts 35 years younger in 1960.

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    You would not think that New York City had a population of 8.5 million if you stayed in Manhattan around Central Park and south. Moscow city now has a population around 14 million and the surrounding Moscow oblast a further 7 million, a much faster growth than the rest of the country, but like other cities worldwide the driver of population growth is migration rather than fertility – Henry Jul 31 '16 at 20:50
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    One reason the "argument from logistics" could be wrong is that Soviet consumption rates were an order of magnitude below that in the West. – sds Aug 9 '16 at 17:47
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    antidotal evidence from a non-objective observer. estimating population from wandering around a city. pretty suspect methodology and questionable reliability of witness. is there any actual evidence to support the claim rather than wild traveller tales? – pugsville Aug 14 '16 at 2:51
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    The data gathered by Virginia Heinlein concerning family size could well be explained by selection bias: the parents of a family with more children are more likely to be at home taking care of them, and the people out on the street would then be less likely to have large families. – Michael Seifert Aug 16 '16 at 14:07

Russian urbanization in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras (2012), p. 22, states:

However, the GPW rapidically reshaped the population dynamics of the region. Even as late as 1959, the populations of St Petersburg and nearby cities remained far below their pre-war levels, and the Moscow conurbation had shrunk back towards its centre. In constrast, nonfront-line cities such as Orenburg, Ufa and Chelyabinsk experienced growth. For the rest of the Soviet period, the Moscow conurbation would grow towards these unscathed areas –

Note that GPW = Great Patriotic War in the above quote.

On p. 20 this paper notes that Moscow was growing by annexation in 1960:

today’s cities have swallowed thousands of smaller settlements (in 1960 alone, Moscow was expanded to incorporate 150 villages)

So Moscow had lost population following the GPW, and the conurbation of Moscow had shrunk back towards it's center; to increase the official size of city it absorbed 150 nearby villages in 1960.

These two statements imply that the land area of the City of Moscow included many not-so-urban areas, and would have appeared very different than a similarly sized city in America, circa 1960.

Some of the statements attributed to Heinlein as "proof" don't stand up to even cursory analysis: why should shipping on the Moskva River be comparable to that of one of the busiest river systems in the world, the Rhine?

Are Heinlein's outlandish conjectures realistic? No, they are not. But the situation he observed was indeed that of a city that had suffered during the recent "Great Patriotic War", and should indeed have seemed a bit hollow in 1960. Moscow's official population was pumped up by incorporating 150 villages just that year - at 10,000 per village (a typical number for the very urban Germany), that would add 1,500,000 people! So if the official population was 5 million, then the inner regions held only 3.5 million.

Today it is over 11 million, with over 17 million in the larger metro region.

Additional note: The Soviet Union conducted a new census in January of 1959; footnote 1 links to a detailed analysis of Soviet census falsifications, but does not discuss the census of 1959. The 6th footnote is a report on the census of 1959; it states that the first preliminary results were published in May of 1959. The analysis provided is worth reading. Footnote 7 reports on the migration from rural to urban areas: 33% urban in 1939, increasing to 48% urban in 1959. This means that all cities were growing rapidly, despite the loss of population from GPW.

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    The Becker paper is interesting. It has some relevant material on p. 26 as well. It confirms that at least some Soviet censuses (1939) were inaccurate and politicized. It also says that no census was taken after WW II until 1959. I don't know how rapidly the 1959 results would have been analyzed, published, and disseminated in the West, but the population figures that Heinlein disbelieved in 1960 may have actually been ones from before 1959, meaning that they were not even based on any census. – user2848 Aug 15 '16 at 15:12
  • Also on p. 26, Becker describes huge differences of opinion among demographers about Russia's population loss from 1915 to 1947. – user2848 Aug 15 '16 at 15:16
  • On p. 23, Becker says, "From the 1950s, however, fertility declined sharply, and urban population growth slowed as well." This would be tend to support Mrs. Heinlein's observations, although her claim that "they aren't even replacing themselves" is presumably an overstatement, like Heinlein's claims. Her observations and inferences also don't appear to take into account the existence of net migration into Moscow. – user2848 Aug 15 '16 at 17:11
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    @BenCrowell: Natural growth follows when fertility rates exceed mortality rates; even a declining fertility rate may result in increased population. However, in the case of Moscow in 1959 the dominant effect was neither fertility nor mortality: it was net immigration from rural to urban, which was up 39% from 1939. The Soviet Union was a generation (or more) behind the urbanization of the west. – Peter Diehr Aug 16 '16 at 21:14

I would have made first page headlines in the early 90s if true. No, I think Heinlein was led to this conclusion by ideology more than by observation.

ETA: A source about the subject:

Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis, by Timothy J. Colton

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    Can you provide research to support this opinion? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 31 '16 at 19:21
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    The population of Moscow was about 11 million in 2010. That's census data. How would it have been 600,000 in 1960? If Heinlein's claim was true, the population ought to be much smaller now. And I am a firm believer in the notion that those making incredible claims should provide the evidence, not those who sustain that the fabric of reality is reasonably strong. – Luís Henrique Jul 31 '16 at 22:15
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    @LuísHenrique: You've added a link and a comment with two arguments now. It would be nice to see this expanded put together into more of a systematic answer. The link does not actually appear to be a valid URL, just an http:// followed by the title of the book. Is there anything specific in the book that you wanted to cite? For Moscow to grow from 600k to 11M in 50 years would be a factor of 18, which would be surprisingly high, but not impossible on the face of it. For example, the population of Brasilia has grown by a factor of 19 in the same time period. – user2848 Jul 31 '16 at 22:53
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    @BenCrowell The population of Brasília grew extraordinarily because the city was founded in 1960 to be the capital of the country, so there was a deliberate move of government personal from Rio de Janeiro, which in turn attracted a service sector. Moscow has been the biggest city of Russia throughout history, and its capital except for the period where the capital was transferred to St. Petersburg. There is no rationale for it loosing most of its population since WWII to 1960, and then having a population boom from 1960 to now. – Luís Henrique Jul 31 '16 at 23:02
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    @WS2 For Moscow until recently (2011) the population was counted mostly for the area encircled by the Moscow Automobile Ring Road which was started in 1956 and completed in 1962. In 2011 Moscow was expanded andministratively a lot beyond this, but mostly sparsely populated areas (forests) were added. – Anixx Aug 16 '16 at 10:22

He told Virginia that he thought the city felt to him like it had a population of 600,000 to 800,000, not five million.

Such assumption is clearly wrong and marks your source as highly unreliable.

Is it possible that the USSR's official statements about the population of Moscow in that era were really inflated by an order of magnitude?

First population census held in 1897 in the time of Russian Empire. According to it, Moscow (should I remind that it wasn't a capital city at that time?) population already was slightly more than 1 million. And later Moscow population only grew on as all subsequent census show.

So any "estimate" less than 800,000 is totally absurd and needs no other disproof.

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    What about the numerous famines and wars Russia has gone trough between 1900 and 1945? What about Stalin's purges and random arrestations and Gulag prisons which costed life to a significant part of Russia's population? I'm not saying you're wrong, just saying that seeing the city's population regularly decrease is not unrealistic at all. Trusting census made by Stalin is however, doubtful, this is man is not the most honnest guy we could think off... – Bregalad Aug 15 '16 at 18:02
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    @Bregalad You could be surprised but human population has tendency to grow despite of almost everything. All wars (at least in modern time) could only slow down it a bit (about 20 years of peace could cure it all). Only small "depressive" cities become smaller, capitals don't. Moscow didn't suffer of great famines. And numbers of victims of Stalin's repressions are definitely exaggerated (not that order of magnitude to affect city population significantly). Not believing to anything "of Stalin" seems to be a sort of paranoia, especially if one considers that in 60s Stalin was already dead. – Matt Aug 15 '16 at 18:15
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    @Bregalad there were no famines in Moscow. The Gulag population was about the same as the prison population now in Russia per person and about two times less than in modern USA. – Anixx Aug 16 '16 at 10:27

Traffic on the river is absolutely irrelevant, Moskva river is not used much for transportation, neither for people, nor for goods. I do not know how one can make conclusions from this. At most people use tourist ships over it. Why one would use river if there is a lot of metro and commuter trains? Comparing to Panama Canal which connects two hemispheres is totally out of sense.

The census of 2002 had shown 10,382,754 official (permanent) residents (not counting illegal/temporary migrants, those who rents realty).

The census of 2010 had shown 11,503,501 official (permanent) residents.

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    The question is about the city's population ca. 1960, so I don't understand the relevance of the 21st century population figures. The information about the river is interesting, but would be better as a comment. – user2848 Aug 13 '16 at 11:54
  • @BenCrowell Since you asked for numbers, and the presented analysis also based heavily on assumptions on a 20 year earlier event and assumed rate of population change, I think it is logical to use newer, more reliable data similar fashion for similar argument. – Greg Aug 13 '16 at 18:49

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