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Why Is Russia Dying?

The role of hopelessness in Russia's unusually high mortality rate.
Why Is Russia Dying?

Before I get into the meat of this post, in the interest of balance, I want to highlight some comments that Fr. John Whiteford, a Russian Orthodox priest, made on the thread under yesterday’s blog about the politicization of Orthodoxy in eastern Ukraine:

There seems to be a leap from “some” clerics supporting the rebels to the Russian Orthodox Church supporting the rebels… and there is no basis for such a leap. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, under the Moscow Patriarchate, is the only major religious group in the Ukraine that tolerates a diversity of opinion on this issue. There are very outspoken clergy who support the current government, and who are very critical of Putin. Naturally, there are clergy in Eastern Ukraine who share the sentiments of the people living there. The Russian Church has no interest in seeing this civil war continue, and has been in fact supporting a peaceful settlement. The Patriarch did not attend the ceremony in which Crimea was formally received into the Russian Federation, and the Church still considers Crimea to be under the authority of the Autonomous Church of the Ukraine.

The Russian Church has spoken out against the use of indiscriminate rocket fire, shelling, and bombing of of civilian population centers. What is hypocritical is how many of those who criticized what Israel did in Gaza who have not said a word about what the Ukrainian government has been doing in Eastern Ukraine.

If we compare Russia’s involvement with Eastern Ukraine to the United States involvement in Kosovo, the hypocrisy is even more striking. At most, Russia is supplying weapons, and encouraging Russian nationals to support the rebels. The United States became the air force for the Kosovo Liberation Army — which had known connections with Al Qaeda. We bombed the entire infrastructure of Serbia — killing many civilians in the process. We promised the Serbs that we would respect the territorial integrity of Serbia, and that Kosovo would remain part of Serbia. We also promised that the border of Kosovo would be managed by the Yugoslavian Army, and that they would be allowed to protect Serbian areas… and then once we got in, we threw all of that out of the window, and then recognized Kosovo as independent.

And the US has no historical connection with Kosovo, and thus no claim to a right to interfere. Russia and Ukraine have been part of the same country for most of the past several centuries, and large portions of its population consider themselves Russian.

And why is it that the New York Times is not doing a story about “some” Ukrainian Catholic clergy supporting neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine?

As most of you know, I’m taking a university class in modern Russian history this fall. It is an extraordinary thing, this class, because it illuminates so much of what is going on in Russia today, and that has been going on over the course of my lifetime. To me, it is especially fascinating to see in detail how the Bolsheviks were essentially a much worse version of the system they overthrew. What I mean is that there are characteristics of Russian culture and society that are constant, across regimes and systems. They were there under the Tsars, they were there under the Bolsheviks, and they are there under Putin. It makes me much less hopeful for a resolution to the Ukraine situation, and the broader issue of relations between Russia and the West.

Masha Gessen is an emigre journalist whose byline sets off alarms with me. She absolutely hates Putin, to the point where I strongly question anything she writes about him. She is also an LGBT activist who endorses lying to serve the cause. As she said in a 2012 speech at an LGBT conference, “Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there.”

So that’s Masha Gessen. But I’m glad I read her recent piece on the New York Review of Books blog, in which she puzzles out why so many Russians are dying. There are actual statistics, and it’s a pretty straightforward attempt to understand why things are so bad for Russians. Excerpts:

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.

She talks about how alcoholism, for example, is taking many Russian lives, but the Czechs and the Hungarians drink more than Russians, and are not suffering rates like the Russians are. The Russians have the worst cardiovascular disease rate in the world, even though other peoples eat fattier diets than they do. She goes on through other explanations for Russia’s population drop and unusually high mortality rate, before concluding that the problem is, at its core, psychological. More:

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.

In other words, things were terrible under the Soviet regime, but people had the illusion that things were at least stable, and getting better. Plus, they couldn’t see how good the privileged class had it, meaning that they were ignorant of their own situation. More:

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.

Read the whole thing. I’m curious to know what you readers who know something about Russia and Russians think of her thesis. Please do not make your remarks an ad hominem attack on Masha Gessen. Argue the data, and tell of your own experiences. To what extent does hope and its lack explain Russia’s death spiral? And: how can this be turned around for Russia? Can it be?

UPDATE: What I’m getting at is wondering whether the kind of “failure to thrive” dynamic that has been observed when Westerners make contact with some primitive peoples who seem to lose their will to live after contact is at work here. Obviously the Russians were very far from primitive. That’s not the point. The point is that the shock of all of one’s certainties, psychological and otherwise, falling apart in more or less an instant was something from which many Russians have not recovered.

UPDATE.2: Many of you have recommended this Forbes article by Mark Adomanis, who is a demographer of Russia, in which he points out errors in Gessen’s essay. Gessen responded here, and ended by calling Adomanis “Putin’s useful idiot.” In his response, Adomanis gallantly avoided sinking into ad hominem abuse. Excerpt:

As I explicitly said in my initial article, and in direct contrast to Gessen’s argument, a country’s demographic trajectory has nothing whatsoever to do with its liberal credentials or its government’s “ability to inspire hope.” Some of the most demographically unstable countries on the planet, places like Germany and Japan, are social democracies with robust welfare states, democratic elections, and clean and transparent governments. And some of the most demographically ascendant countries are horrible dictatorships like Saudi Arabia or chaotic failed states like Iraq. There are many ways in which one can gauge the goodness or badness of a government or a country, but looking solely its long-term population projections might very well be the worst.

Russia’s recent health improvements are real and significant (their duration, on the other hand, is a matter of genuine scholarly debate). That is not an opinion of the tinfoil hat brigade, but of numerous professional demographers. Desperately pretending otherwise, as Gessen attempts to do, is an exercise in exactly the sort of politicized propaganda that she decries.

It’s certainly true that demographic collapse is happening in many countries. What I found interesting about her piece is not the failure to replace the dying, which is happening all over, but her observation that the rate of death in Russia is unusually high, and hard to explain.



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