Why is it? Why is Putin grabbing Russian speaking pieces of Georgia, Moldova, and now Ukraine? Is it because as Masha Gessen makes clear that the Russians are dying, and to recreate a past empire people may be even more needed than land of which Russia is after all well supplied?
Masha Gessen, NYR, September 2, 2014
“Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.”
Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.
The deaths kept piling up. People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.
Back in the United States after a trip to Russia, I cried on a friend’s shoulder. I was finding all this death not simply painful but impossible to process. “It’s not like there is a war on,” I said.
“But there is,” said my friend, a somewhat older and much wiser reporter than I. “This is what civil war actually looks like. “It’s not when everybody starts running around with guns. It’s when everybody starts dying.”
My friend’s framing stood me in good stead for years. I realized the magazine stories I was writing then were the stories of destruction, casualties, survival, restoration, and the longing for peace. But useful as that way of thinking might be for a journalist, it cannot be employed by social scientists, who are still struggling to answer the question, Why are Russians dying in numbers, and at ages, and of causes never seen in any other country that is not, by any standard definition, at war?
In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nearly eight years sooner.
In 2006 and 2007, Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist who teaches at Emory University and had lived in Russia during the height of the population decline in the early 1990s, set out to explore what she calls “the cultural context of the Russian mortality crisis.” Her method was a series of long unstructured interviews with average Muscovites—what amounted to immersing herself in a months-long conversation about what made life, for so many, no longer worth living. The explanation that Parsons believes she has found is in the title of her new book, Dying Unneeded.
Parsons chose as her subjects people who were middle-aged in the early 1990s. Since she conducted her interviews in Moscow over a decade later, the study has an obvious structural handicap: her subjects are the survivors, not the victims, of the mortality crisis—they didn’t die—and their memories have been transformed by the intervening years of social and economic upheaval. Still, what emerges is a story that is surely representative of the experience of a fair number of Russians.
People of the generation Parsons describes were born in the desolate, hungry years following WWII. They grew up in communal apartments, with two or three generations of a single family occupying one or two rooms and sharing a hallway, bathroom, and kitchen with three or seven or even a dozen other families. But then, in the early 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev organized a construction boom: cheaply constructed apartment buildings went up all around the periphery of Moscow, and Russians—first and foremost, Muscovites—moved out of communal apartments en masse. By the Brezhnev years, in the late 1960s and 1970s, there were also Soviet-made cars and tiny country houses—such at least was the Soviet consumer dream, and it was within reach for a significant number of Russians.
In addition, three important things made life not only less harsh, relative to earlier years, but even worth living. One was the general perception of social and economic stability. Jobs were unquestionably secure and, starting in the 1960s, followed by a retirement guaranteed by the state. A second was the general sense of progress, both of the sort Soviet propaganda promised (the country was going to build the first communist society, in which money would be abolished and everyone would share in the plenty); and the personal material improvement this generation experienced itself moving toward. A third source of comfort of Soviet life was its apparent equality. A good number of people with connections enjoyed extraordinary perquisites compared to the vast majority of the population, but the wealth-and-privilege gap was concealed by the tall fences around the nomenklatura summer houses, the textbook and newspaper depictions of Soviet egalitarianism, and the glacial pace of mobility into one of the favored groups at the top.
Parsons and her subjects, whom she quotes at length, seem to have an acute understanding of the first two forces shaping Soviet society but are almost completely blind to the last: the hidden nature of Soviet social inequality. One woman says that the difference between current poverty and poverty in the postwar era is that “now there are rich folks.”
But by the early 1980s, the Soviet economy was stagnant and the Soviet political system moribund. Finally, a younger leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, emerged, but the decrepit structure proved incapable of change and, in short order, collapsed, taking with it the predictable life as hundreds of millions of people had known it. Russia rushed into a new capitalist future, which most of the population expected to bring prosperity and variety. Boris Yeltsin and his team of young, inexperienced reformers instituted economic shock therapy. As far as we know today, this series of radical measures jerked Russia back from the edge of famine but also plunged millions of people into poverty. Over the next decade, most Russian families—like their counterparts elsewhere in the former Soviet Union—actually experienced an improvement in their living conditions, but few who had spent many adult years in the old system regained the sense of solid ground under their feet.
“To Lyudmila, economic shock therapy looked a lot like war-ravaged Russia,” Parsons writes of one of her respondents. “In a terrible sense it was as if the poverty of her youth and the poverty of the early 1990s had merged together. Thirty-five years of her life, from age nineteen when she started work in the mechanics factory to age fifty-five when the Soviet Union fell, fell out of view.” Parsons devotes an entire chapter to comparisons between the collapse and chaos of the 1990s and the devastation that followed World War II. “Margarita told me with some disgust, ‘It is just like after the war.’ And then she would add—half angry, half baffled—’But there was no war.’ …The fifty-seven-year-old taxi driver I interviewed said, of those older than himself, ‘They will never understand what happened. No war, nothing. And everything fell apart.’”
Not only had the retirement system collapsed, but neither the job market nor their own families—those grown children who had once been entirely dependent on their parents—had any use for these people. Gone, too, was the radiant future: communist slogans were replaced with capitalist advertising that didn’t speak to the masses, who were in no position to over-consume. For those over forty, the message of the new era was that no one—not even the builders of an imaginary future—needed them anymore. Above all, the veil that had hidden the wealth of the few from the incredulous and envious gaze of the many had been ruthlessly removed: for the 1990s and much of the 2000s, Moscow would become the world capital of conspicuous consumption. No longer contributing to or enjoying the benefits of the system, members of the older generations, Parsons suggests, were particularly susceptible to early death.
Parsons’ argument is provocative but not entirely convincing. She describes Russia as though it were a new country that replaced the USSR, and it was this new country that suffered a mortality crisis, which can and should be explained entirely by social forces specific to itself. This is a standard way to approach the problem, and it is not a bad description of what many Russians actually experienced. But, by attempting to identify a single turning point, she overlooks more gradual changes that may have been underway well before 1991. For example, Parsons largely skips over the 1980s, with the broad social movements and the severe economic crises that marked the Gorbachev period.
In fact, if we zoom out from the early 1990s, where Parsons has located the Russian “mortality crisis,” we will see something astounding: it is not a crisis—unless, of course, a crisis can last decades. “While the end of the USSR marked one [of] the most momentous political changes of the twentieth century, that transition has been attended by a gruesome continuity in adverse health trends for the Russian population,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt in Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Causes, Implications, an exhaustive study published by the National Bureau of Asian Research in 2010. Eberstadt is an economist who has been writing about Soviet and Russian demographics for many years. In this book-length study, he has painted a picture as grim as it is mystifying—in part because he is reluctant to offer an explanation for which he lacks hard data.
Eberstadt is interested in the larger phenomenon of depopulation, including falling birth rates as well as rising death rates. He observes that this is not the first such trend in recent Russian history. There was the decline of 1917–1923—the years of the revolution and the Russian Civil War when, Eberstadt writes, “depopulation was attributable to the collapse of birth rates, the upsurge in death rates, and the exodus of émigrés that resulted from these upheavals.” There was 1933–1934, when the Soviet population fell by nearly two million as a result of murderous forced collectivization and a man-made famine that decimated rural Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Then, from 1941 to 1946, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people in the war and suffered a two-thirds drop in birth rate. But the two-and-a-half decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union are the longest period of depopulation, and also thefirst to occur, on such a scale, in peacetime, anywhere in the world. “There is no obvious external application of state force to relieve, no obvious fateful and unnatural misfortune to weather, in the hopes of reversing this particular population decline,” writes Eberstadt. “Consequently, it is impossible to predict when (or even whether) Russia’s present, ongoing depopulation will finally come to an end.”
Russia has long had a low birth rate. The Soviet government fought to increase it by introducing a three-year maternity leave and other inducements, but for much of the postwar period it hovered below replacement rates. An exception was the Gorbachev era, when fertility reached 2.2. After 1989, however, it fell and still has not recovered: despite financial inducements introduced by the Putin government, the Russian fertility rate stands at 1.61, one of the lowest in the world (the US fertility rate estimate for 2014 is 2.01, which is also below replacement but still much higher than Russia’s).
And then there is the dying. In a rare moment of what may pass for levity Eberstadt allows himself the following chapter subtitle: “Pioneering New and Modern Pathways to Poor Health and Premature Death.” Russians did not start dying early and often after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “To the contrary,” writes Eberstadt, what is happening now is “merely the latest culmination of ominous trends that have been darkly evident on Russian soil for almost half a century.” With the exception of two brief periods—when Soviet Russia was ruled by Khrushchev and again when it was run by Gorbachev—death rates have been inexorably rising. This continued to be true even during the period of unprecedented economic growth between 1999 and 2008. In this study, published in 2010, Eberstadt accurately predicts that in the coming years the depopulation trend may be moderated but argues that it will not be reversed; in 2013 Russia’s birthrate was still lower and its death rate still higher than they had been in 1991. And 1991 had not been a good year.
Contrary to Parsons’s argument, moreover, Eberstadt shows that the current trend is not largely a problem of middle-aged Russians. While the graphs seem to indicate this, he notes, if one takes into account the fact that mortality rates normally rise with age, it is the younger generation that is staring down the most terrifying void. According to 2006 figures, he writes, “overall life expectancy at age fifteen in the Russian Federation appears in fact to be lower than for some of the countries the UN designates to be least developed (as opposed to less developed), among these, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Yemen.” Male life expectancy at age fifteen in Russia compares unfavorably to that in Ethiopia, Gambia, and Somalia.
Eberstadt sets out to find the culprit, and before conceding he can’t, he systematically goes down the list of the usual suspects. Infectious diseases, including not only HIV and TB but also normally curable STDs and every kind of hepatitis, have the run of the land in Russia, but do not in fact seem overrepresented in its death statistics; from a demographer’s point of view, as many Russians die of infections as would be expected in a country of its income level. Cardiovascular disease is an entirely different matter:
As of 1980, the Russian population may well have been suffering the very highest incidence of mortality from diseases of the circulatory system that had ever been visited on a national population in the entire course of human history—up to that point in time. Over the subsequent decades, unfortunately, the level of CVD mortality in the Russian Federation veered further upward…. By 2006… Russia’s mortality levels from CVD alone were some 30% higher than deaths in Western Europe from all causes combined.
And then there are the deaths from external causes—again going from bad to worse. “Deaths from injuries and poisoning had been much higher in Russia than in Western Europe in 1980—well over two and a half times higher, in fact.” As of 2006, he writes, it was more than five times as high.
So why do Russians have so many heart attacks, strokes, fatal injuries, and poisonings? One needs to have only a passing knowledge of Russian history and culture to tick off a list of culprits, and Eberstadt is thorough in examining each of them. True, Russians eat a fatty diet—but not as fatty as Western Europeans do. Plus, Russians, on average, consume fewer calories than Western Europeans, indicating that overeating is not the issue. Yes, Russia has taken abominable care of its environment, but it sees only a few more deaths from respiratory diseases than does Western Europe—and fewer deaths of diseases of the kidneys, which would be expected to result from pollution. Yes, Russians have lived through severe economic upheaval, but there is no indication that economic shock in a modern society leads quickly, or at all, to increased mortality—the Great Depression, for example, did not. Russia spends roughly as much on health care per capita as do the less-affluent European countries like Portugal. Russians smoke a lot—but not as much as Greeks and Spaniards, who live on average roughly as long as other Western Europeans.
The most obvious explanation for Russia’s high mortality—drinking—is also the most puzzling on closer examination. Russians drink heavily, but not as heavily as Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians—all countries that have seen an appreciable improvement in life expectancy since breaking off from the Soviet Bloc. Yes, vodka and its relatives make an appreciable contribution to the high rates of cardiovascular, violent, and accidental deaths—but not nearly enough to explain the demographic catastrophe. There are even studies that appear to show that Russian drinkers live longer than Russian non-drinkers.
Tim Judah, NYR, September 2, 2014
The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine over the last week has to be seen to be believed. It amounts to a catastrophic defeat and will long be remembered by embittered Ukrainians as among the darkest days of their history.
A week ago a major rebel offensive began. On September 3 on a sixteen-mile stretch of road from the village of Novokaterinivka to the town of Ilovaysk, I counted the remains of sixty-eight military vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, pick-ups, buses, and trucks in which a large but as yet unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers died as they tried to flee the area between August 28 and September 1. They had been ambushed by rebel forces and, according to survivors, soldiers from the army of the Russian Federation.
These destroyed vehicles were of course only the ones I could see—those that were not destroyed are now in the hands of rebels. In Novokaterinivka, which is twenty-eight miles southeast of the rebel-held city of Donetsk, the body of a Ukrainian soldier was folded over the high power cable onto which he had been flung when his armored vehicle exploded, his clothes hanging off him. In what was left of the vehicle nearby were the charred remains of half a man and the grilled body of another, left where he had been sitting when he was killed.
On September 3, eighty-seven bodies were reported to have arrived in Zaporizhia, a large city in the region that is under Ukrainian control. But, more are yet to be found. Quite apart from the appalling military setback is the humiliation. At one ambush site two fresh graves marked with crosses made of sticks indicated that the dead had been buried close to their burned out vehicles by the side of the road. On the main street of Novokaterinivka locals posed for pictures in front of destroyed vehicles and cars that had been jacked up with logs because undamaged wheels had been unscrewed and looted. Euphoric rebel soldiers there told us they were “cleaning up”—looking for remaining Ukrainians who had fled into the fields and were still there.
A colleague told me that nearby, two Ukrainian soldiers had jumped out onto the road and stopped his car. They were about eighteen years old, he said, had been hiding in a field of sunflowers, and looked as though they had not slept for days. When they saw a car with the initials TV taped onto it, which is used to signify that there are journalists in it, they took their chance. They begged him and his colleagues for a lift and then for food and water. The Ukrainian media has begun to report on stories of stragglers limping in to safe territory and more than five hundred Ukrainians are reported to have been captured in this area. One called Sergey, who had been detained and released, said that the men who captured him said they were Russian regular soldiers: “They told us they had arrived two weeks earlier. They were very young.”
The fortunes of war have changed dramatically in the past two weeks. In spring, anti-Kiev rebels, taking the new and revolutionary Ukrainian government by surprise, seized towns and cities across the two predominantly industrial and mining regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. At first, Ukrainian forces either fell apart, were captured, or defected to the rebel side. By summer, however, the Ukrainians were better organized and went on the offensive driving the rebels back.
Rebel-held Luhansk came under a virtual siege, and was heavily shelled by Ukrainian forces, though bizarrely it is still possible to get to the town on a suburban train. Large parts of Donetsk too came under shelling from Ukrainian forces. Some areas have been badly damaged and targeting has been so woefully inaccurate that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the process. The result is that, by August, many ordinary people who did not care that much about who ruled them hated the government in Kiev and Ukraine as a whole.
Then, in the last two weeks of August, everything changed again. The Ukrainians said that regular Russian troops were crossing the border, a contention supported by western intelligence reports. More and more stories are being written in the Russian press too about soldiers killed in action in Ukraine, though the Russian government flatly denies that any regular soldiers—as opposed to volunteers who have come on their own—have crossed the frontier. However not only is there mounting evidence of the presence of regular Russian soldiers but the fact that the military situation has changed so rapidly also suggests the rebels have acquired new strength. Today, Donetsk is a much safer city than it was a few weeks ago. The reason for that is that Ukrainian forces have been pushed back though the two sides still trade artillery and Grad rocket fire every day.
This dramatic shift in the conflict is also made clear in the carnage on the road between Ilovaysk and Novokaterinivka and in the middle of fields across which some vehicles had tried to escape. Many of the vehicles, which had been coming in different convoys, from different places—though the bulk of them from Ilovaysk—had been not only professionally ambushed but utterly destroyed, meaning that much bigger weapons than rocket-propelled grenades had been used. Tank turrets had been hurled far from the rest of the tanks to which they had been attached, for example.
What all this reveals is that those attacking the pro-government forces were highly professional and using very powerful weapons. It also suggests there must have been a lot of men along the roads to be able to take out so many vehicles and soldiers, more or less at the same time. Gennadiy Dubovoy, who said he was chief editor of a rebel newspaper and who was dressed in military fatigues, estimated that there had been 2,000 Ukrainians in flight when the ambushes occurred.
The fighting in Ilovaysk began on August 7 when units from three Ukrainian volunteer militias and the police attempted to take it back from rebel control. It was heavily shelled. The rebels were never driven out, though, but held on to part of the town. Then, on August 28, they were able to launch a major offensive, with help from elsewhere, including Donetsk—though “not Russia,” according to Commander Givi, the thirty-four-year-old head of rebel forces here. By September 1 it was all over and the Ukrainians had been decisively defeated.
The Ukrainians claim that their units had made a deal to gain free passage out of Ilovaysk and that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had said they should be allowed to go. But Commander Givi, whose real name is Mikhail Tolstykh and who said that he worked in a rope factory before the war, denied there had been any agreement. The ambushed forces, he said, were militias not regular soldiers—“we don’t know who they are.” Their numbers had been boosted, he claimed, by foreigners, including Czechs, Hungarians, and “niggers.” When he arrived at his HQ he came in a big, shiny car with music blasting and some of his men in the back cradling guns in their laps with the muzzles sticking out of the windows.
The next targets, says Commander Givi, are the port of Mariupol in the south, on the Azov Sea, and Sloviansk, which had been a rebel bastion until the rebels retreated from it on July 5.
The situation on the Sea of Azov, an appendage of the Black Sea surrounded by Crimea in the west, southeastern Ukraine in the north, and Russia in the east, has, as in the regions further north, changed dramatically in the last couple of weeks. On August 27 the border crossing to Russia was taken by the rebels after it had been shelled with a few mortars and the Ukrainians there, with far less firepower, fled. They fled the nearby town of Novoazovsk too. On August 30 I saw a group of twenty people with their arms stretched up to heaven by the main checkpoint on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol praying for peace and for the protection of the city while volunteers assembled to dig trenches.
That weekend it was unclear how far the rebels had advanced because no one seemed to be in control of large areas. We passed a checkpoint close to Novoazovsk manned by men who seemed to be locals but were eating ration packs clearly marked as Russian army-issue. Behind us at various points we had seen tanks dug in. The road from the border with Russia appeared to be rutted with tank tracks, though Aleksandr Demonov, the rebel press spokesman, claimed that the marks had been made by a bulldozer pushing giant concrete bollards that the Ukrainians had put on the road out of the way.
At the village of Bezimenne, where you can see the sea from the road, we stopped to ask some people who was manning the next checkpoint and if it was safe. There was a Russian checkpoint at the exit of the village, they said. They could have used “Russian” to mean “rebel,” but in this case the men, who had modern communications equipment and some jeeps of a type which I have not seen elsewhere, did not seem in the mood to chat and ordered us to go. On the other side of the road was a tank, whose cannon was not pointing ahead to the Ukrainians whom we met a few minutes further down the road but out to sea.
As we sped away from the “Russians” we could see a column of black smoke rising from the sea. When we got to the Ukrainian checkpoint the men told us that it was a coastguard cutter that had been hit, they thought by a tank. They were from the Azov Battalion, one of the Ukrainian volunteer militias. On their vehicles and their arm flashes they had the “wolfsangel,” a neo-Nazi symbol, which is their insignia and which tells you much of what you need to know about their background. (On September 4, they were driven out of this position as the rebels, and presumably regular Russian forces, too, advanced.)
In Mariupol, people were packing the 5:05 PM train to Kiev. It was the end of the summer holidays, but many were also leaving because of the situation. Many of those leaving Mariupol were already refugees from Donetsk and elsewhere. Mariupol felt eerily empty, and like Donetsk from which perhaps half of its million people have fled, many of those who remain are elderly. The city is sharply divided. Half those I talked to supported the government in Kiev and the other half the rebels. But people are confused and loyalties shifting. Some told me they used to support the rebels but now supported Ukraine and vice versa.
Back in Ilovaysk, I went to see the school in which the Ukrainian militias had been living before being driven out. Extraordinary footage has been filmed of their days here showing them shooting from the windows and dousing fires started by incoming bullets. Now it is totally silent.
There were eleven destroyed vehicles around the school. In a store cupboard by the gym where many had been sleeping I came across a polystyrene Father Christmas. Outside there were some graves in which—according to Vergil, the twenty-year-old soldier who had been detailed by Commander Givi to show us around—the battalions had buried civilians they had killed. There was no way to verify this and the graves might well contain their own dead, though Vergil said that they had taken those bodies away. Vergil told us that he was from Luhansk and had been doing his Ukrainian military service in April. His unit had been captured and told that they could either leave or join the rebels.
On the road back to Donetsk there is a long straight stretch lined by tall trees. In the distance we could see something. Realizing it was a military convoy, we pulled over and I jumped out. The car leading the convoy of four tanks and three APCs topped with dozens of men screeched to a halt, as did all the cars that were behind us. Armed men jumped out of the car demanding to know what we were doing—one jabbing his fingers at the TV tape on the car. A fat, angry man with gold front teeth demanded our phones. A stocky lady in her fifties sat in the back of their car pointing her sniper rifle out of the window at my colleague a few meters away.
After a few minutes the neat tall man standing in front of me told me to put my hands down and asked me in good English where I was from. He told me he had once lived in Lausanne. As the situation cooled the angry fat man returned our accreditations and passports and the woman still pointing her gun at my female colleague began blowing kisses at her. The fat man got back in his car with our phones but our translator stuck her foot in the door yelling at him to return them, which eventually he did. The entire convoy then juddered back into action.
The tanks looked relatively modern. As they pulled away, a man whose head was sticking out of the hatch at the top of a tank waved at us. His features were central Asian. A large proportion of Russian conscripts are central Asians. The men on top of the APCs looked like locals, but if the tanks were Russian army ones, this could explain the otherwise inexplicable rage of the fat man encountering journalists seeing his convoy.
The war has a taken a decisive turn. There is now talk of a ceasefire, an advance on Mariupol, new sanctions on Russia, and what NATO might do at its summit in Wales now under way. According to the UN a million people have already been displaced by the war. Putin reportedly told José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, that he could take in Kiev in two weeks. The Ukrainians have suffered major reverses in the past few days, but they have not lost the war yet, though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko must now be wondering if he should cut his country’s losses and sue for peace. Poroshenko knows that alone, Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia; and one hundred years after the beginning of World War I, it is not clear that anyone is going to rush to help him win either.
Parsons discusses these studies in some detail, and with good reason: it begins to suggest the true culprit. She theorizes that drinking is, for what its worth, an instrument of adapting to the harsh reality and sense of worthlessness that would otherwise make one want to curl up and die.
For Eberstadt, who is seeking an explanation for Russia’s half-century-long period of demographic regress rather than simply the mortality crisis of the 1990s, the issue of mental health also furnishes a kind of answer. While he suggests that more research is needed to prove the link, he finds that “a relationship does exist” between the mortality mystery and the psychological well-being of Russians:
Suffice it to say we would never expect to find premature mortality on the Russian scale in a society with Russia’s present income and educational profiles and typically Western readings on trust, happiness, radius of voluntary association, and other factors adduced to represent social capital.
Another major clue to the psychological nature of the Russian disease is the fact that the two brief breaks in the downward spiral coincided not with periods of greater prosperity but with periods, for lack of a more data-driven description, of greater hope. The Khrushchev era, with its post-Stalin political liberalization and intensive housing construction, inspired Russians to go on living. The Gorbachev period of glasnost and revival inspired them to have babies as well. The hope might have persisted after the Soviet Union collapsed—for a brief moment it seemed that this was when the truly glorious future would materialize—but the upheaval of the 1990s dashed it so quickly and so decisively that death and birth statistics appear to reflect nothing but despair during that decade.
If this is true—if Russians are dying for lack of hope, as they seem to be—then the question that is still looking for its researcher is, Why haven’t Russians experienced hope in the last quarter century? Or, more precisely in light of the grim continuity of Russian death, What happened to Russians over the course of the Soviet century that has rendered them incapable of hope? In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarian rule is truly possible only in countries that are large enough to be able to afford depopulation. The Soviet Union proved itself to be just such a country on at least three occasions in the twentieth century—teaching its citizens in the process that their lives are worthless. Is it possible that this knowledge has been passed from generation to generation enough times that most Russians are now born with it and this is why they are born with a Bangladesh-level life expectancy? Is it also possible that other post-Soviet states, by breaking off from Moscow, have reclaimed some of their ability to hope, and this is why even Russia’s closest cultural and geographic cousins, such as Belarus and Ukraine, aren’t dying off as fast? If so, Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.