The Dying Russians
September 2, 2014 4:52 PM   Subscribe

The Dying Russians 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.
posted by Nevin (48 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I can only sort of cite this because I have no idea what this book was called or what happened to it, but I distinctly remember reading a book of non-fiction works by Robert Heinlein, which included an account of his (rather rare for an American back then) trip to the Soviet Union via their official Intourist tourism agency sometime in the... early 60s I guess?

The main thing I remember about it (along with learning that nye kulturny, or "uncultured," was about the worst insult you could possibly throw at a Soviet tour guide) was his observation that the Soviet Union was eventually going to collapse because the Russians simply weren't replacing their population and were essentially just drinking themselves to death.

He credited this to a lack of interest in living under the oppressive Communist regime, but clearly Communism wasn't the problem. I'm not sure what is, but while it may be accelerating these days, this is definitely nothing new.
posted by Naberius at 4:58 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

But my mother-in-law is going to live forever!
posted by newdaddy at 5:00 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

They aren't a happy people, the Russians. Depressed people don't make babies.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:09 PM on September 2, 2014

But they've got Levis!
posted by klangklangston at 5:44 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I distinctly remember reading a book of non-fiction works by Robert Heinlein

It was an essay published in Expanded Universe (specifically "Pravda Means 'Truth'"). It's... not reliable.
posted by asterix at 5:46 PM on September 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Oh I guess it could also have been "Inside Intourist". Anyway, among other things Heinlein repeats the Lost Cosmonauts theory, and claims that just by looking at the river traffic in Moscow he can tell that the Soviets are radically exaggerating the population of Moscow. The possibility that the USSR was simply far poorer than he realized, and that families were living much more densely than they would have in the US, seems to have escaped him entirely.
posted by asterix at 5:53 PM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

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?

Christ, so many words for a variation of "life in the orient is cheap."
posted by gorbweaver at 5:57 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality.

Well I know what will fix that! Starting, and then interceding in a civil war, right on your borders! Imagine what you'll save in transportation time alone!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:00 PM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I know not much about Russians, but I've met a few, and they drink.

They drink to a scary level. They make Aussies look line puritans. They drink, they drink hard, and they don't stop.

One of these Russians I met? A grandmother. And if I kept up with her, I would have died.

I have no idea why they do, but they do. I'm completely unsurprised that they have a shorter lifespan. In my experience, this is a folk that takes down a fifth of vodka in 90 minutes and stands up to order more.
posted by eriko at 6:21 PM on September 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period

Let's call "the mid-1990s" 1995, and "the end of the Communist period" 1989. So life expectancy declined seven years over an approximately six year period? How do you even do that? Either a metric shitload of dying went on or the standard of recordkeeping changed.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:27 PM on September 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

I had a pretty good Russian friend in college, who, sad to say, didn't keep up the necessary GPA for his international scholarship and had to return to the motherland. He was horrified at the prospect, because it meant he had to finally serve his time in the military and he didn't want to kill anyone in Chechnya. But yeah, the guy really could drink. He told us that we americans had no idea how to drink even at our normal college bingedrinking parties, and he was right. He really could outdrink all but a few of us. Incidentally, when he got good and drunk he would start ranting about how Stalin really was great and nobody understood (this was in about '04 so it's not like he really had any memories of the Soviet era). Every Russian I've met is a strange cat (almost as idiosyncratic as every Israeli I've met).
posted by dis_integration at 6:31 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of these Russians I met? A grandmother. And if I kept up with her, I would have died.

Some years ago there was a National Geographic feature story about Russian vacation homes. One notable photograph of a family scene actually included a grandmother smiling while grasping a half-emptied bottle of vodka beside a plate of hastily carved watermelon and several shot glasses (only momentarily dry one imagines).
posted by Winnemac at 6:35 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the link. This also may be of interest (via Billmon's twitter feed):

The Eternal Collapse of Russia

RUSSIA, IT IS often said, is a country that is barely able to stumble out of bed and put on matching socks in the morning. In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and continuing during the Games, the U.S. media declared open season on the nation. Americans were told that Russia is a country just about bereft of functioning elevators or toilets. Or even a national food, “except perhaps bad sushi.” Its people “hardly know who they are anymore” and its essence is defined by copyright infringement and “all-encompassing corruption.” All in all, Russia is “a country that’s falling apart,” as a New Republic cover story in February put it.

It’s a hardy theme. It’s also a completely bogus one. But that hasn’t stopped the media from reviving it again and again.

posted by longdaysjourney at 6:41 PM on September 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

tl;dr - maybe communism wasn't so bad?
posted by photoslob at 6:51 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems almost self-evident that this would be the country that invents Krokodil. It seems to me that Krokodil illustrates some part of the Russian archetype, in much the same way that Meth illustrates the American dream.


Maybe I missed something in that article, but all I read was a 6 page litany about how Russia is morbid, scary, and dying. That then ends by with a "but Putin is still the craftiest bond villain around, and they're importing even more desperate immigrants to fill the ranks, so you'll have to deal with them in the future. I'ma gonna stick with my Krokodil-zombie analogy.
posted by DGStieber at 6:53 PM on September 2, 2014

(Posting the article doesn't mean I agree with it. Just thought it was an interesting counterpoint from a person who has lived, worked and reported on Russia.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:12 PM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

The author's theory (shared, I guess, with the author of the book she's reviewing) doesn't make a lot of sense to me. There've been a lot of eras without hope in human history, plagues, wars, overcrowding and so on, and yet human populations always seem to rise. Look at Gaza...

What's happening in Russia may be the confluence of many related factors: harsh winters with little sunlight, epigenetics, alchoholism, and lack of economic oppurtunity, plus who knows what else, all happening together and feeding on each other.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:19 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just thought it was an interesting counterpoint from a person who has lived, worked and reported on Russia.

Masha Gessen is Russian. She fled last winter when the antigay laws came down and she and her family were getting threats because of her life and her reporting.
posted by rtha at 7:32 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know enough about Russia to understand nuances of Russia versus the Soviet satellite states and such, but I don't think it's about whether or not communism was really "all that bad"... it's more about how intangibles-- things like depressed national sentiment, perhaps, or the societal sense of control over one's fate and lifestyle... the lack of feeling that one belongs to something larger than oneself... can be damaging to the psyche and possibly (but not always) manifest in the form of an increased mortality rate.

I feel like this is in some way similar to an articles that might report that victims of early childhood bullying or individuals who have experienced sexual trauma have a higher mortality rate (and not only due to increased suicide risk-- for example, rape survivors end up requiring more healthcare during their entire life span and so on). Psychological burdens manifest in a variety of ways.

I think I would have liked to see more hard data on this instead of just a qualitative narrative. Still, I thought this was an interesting read.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:41 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ain't no party like a Russian party, cuz a Russian party don't stop... until everyone involved is dead.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:14 PM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

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.
So...if lifespans fell for men by about five years, then how exactly is that experiencing an improvement in living conditions?

Fuck neoliberals--- those murderers.
posted by wuwei at 8:17 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

That's the problem with wild speculation - it's easy to do when you don't bother to look for counterfactual evidence.

If indeed it's the sad Russian soul and sense of hopelessness that's behind the increased mortality, then how to account for the fact that it is majorly skewed toward men? Are Russian women naturally more sunny and optimistic? I doubt it. But I don't doubt that while Russian women drink like fish, they don't drink as much as the men do. So.

Meanwhile, the alcohol hypothesis is getting short shrift. Czechs and Hungarians might imbibe more units of alcohol in a year compared to Russians, but what about the pattern of drinking? We know for a fact that f.ex. binge drinking is much more destructive even at lower overall alcohol intake levels compared to non-binge drinking. That's an established medical fact. It is also pretty well understood that Russian drinking falls into very bad patterns. Further, were these statistics carefully compiled to account for the unhealthy teetotler effect (people who stop drinking because they're very sick)? And while I don't have the statistics about drinking during the Khruschev time, I do know that Gorbachev was a rare leader who actually attempted to tamp down on alcoholism through control of selling times etc., and that in fact rates of death from alcohol dropped sharply during that campaign, which would quite well account for the drop in mortality without reference to the much put upon Russian soul. Bottom line, at least from this article, I don't see how alcohol does not account pretty much exclusively for the excess mortality.

Lot of irritating speculation with little in the way of hard data.
posted by VikingSword at 8:27 PM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's not just cirrhosis of the liver-- Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb-- an article in World Affairs from 2009, lists multiple reasons why alcohol shortens lives-- people fall down stairs, get in fights, have automobile accidents.
mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on.

No literate and urban society in the modern world faces a risk of deaths from injuries comparable to the one that Russia experiences....Russia’s patterns of death from injury and violence (by whatever provenance) are so extreme and brutal that they invite comparison only with the most tormented spots on the face of the planet today. The five places estimated to be roughly in the same league as Russia as of 2002 were Angola, Burundi, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
the crisis in mortality is leading to a crisis in fecundity-- people aren't getting married, they are not staying married, they are not raising children in an intact family.

in post-Communist Russia, there are unambiguous indications of a worsening of social well-being for a significant proportion of the country’s children—in effect, a disinvestment in children in the face of a pronounced downward shift in national fertility patterns.

School enrollment is sharply lower for primary-school-age children—99 percent in 1991 versus 91 percent in 2004. And the number of abandoned children is sharply higher. According to official statistics, as of 2004 over 400,000 Russian children below 18 years of age were in “residential care.” This means that roughly 1 child in 70 was in a children’s home, orphanage, or state boarding school. Russia is also home to a large and possibly growing contingent of street children whose numbers could well exceed those under institutional care. According to Human Rights Watch, over 100,000 children in Russia have been abandoned by their parents each year since 1996. If accurate, this number, compared to the annual tally of births for the Russian Federation, which averaged about 1.4 million a year for the 1996–2007 period, would suggest that in excess of 7 percent of Russia’s children are being discarded by their parents in this new era of steep sub-replacement fertility.
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:00 PM on September 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I know quite a few Russians. Smart people; good hearts, but savaged souls. Russia has been controlled form the center for centuries; people have been kept down, cowering in fear for their lives. The Soviet Union raped Russia's soul; you couldn't trust anyone - "survival of the fittest" was the name of the game. "Community" was just a propaganda word used by the psychopaths who ran the country (and still do).

There are some really balanced Russians; I have met a few, but most seem like they have had something essential torn out of them. Russians are tough people (generally); they often come off as rude and harsh (I think this is because of what they have been through).

One day, I hope they catch a break, but it's probably going to be a while, because they are still ruled by psychopaths (that's true of a lot of countries, but some psychopaths are worse than others (e.g. Putin vs. Sarah Palin or Mitch McConnell)
posted by Vibrissae at 1:17 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was 19 I was personally drunk under the table by a then 85 year old Russian woman, a close family friend (and a virulently anti-Soviet and religious [Orthodox, like my family] White Russian).

She said I was still a boy and should grow a beard. I took her advice. Toughest woman I've ever met. She was famous for having chewed out a Soviet border guard when she was busted with a suitcase full of then-restricted bibles she was smuggling back into Russia in the 1980s. Apparently she hissed "Peasant, these are for your MOTHER." And the story goes that he let her and the bibles pass.

I would have too. A full bottle of vodka didn't take any of her edge off either. She spoke six languages fluently and expected me to keep up in at least a mix of Russian, French, and English.

Russians are a breed apart. I grew up around them, mad respect for true crazy.
posted by spitbull at 2:59 AM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I know many Russian ex-pats, and they mostly seem very level-headed and clever people, typically with fine family lives and they're not particularly self-destructive or substance-dependent. They're usually proudly Russian in the way many new immigrant groups are, preserving even to parody elements of Russian culture in their personal lives. I don't think there's anything wrong with the "Russian soul."

Russia the nation suffered a breakdown of social institutions in the late Soviet era that hasn't been replaced with anything of substance by the inept leadership in the following years. (It's like instead of Washington and Jefferson, they had U.S. Grant followed immediately by Nixon and Agnew in a rotating presidency you can't vote out of office or impeach.) They're going through their "Gilded Age" where jingoism and the glitter of easy wealth in the popular media hides a fundamental breakdown in civil society, a breach of the social contract. To say the Russian state has failed its people is probably more accurate than saying there's something wrong with the Russian people, which sounds kind of bigoted.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:49 AM on September 3, 2014 [18 favorites]

I don't see how alcohol does not account pretty much exclusively for the excess mortality.

I agree with you, but there are a bunch of other factors that amplify the effects of alcohol, like poor diet, poor housing, questionable public health practices and vast (so we're told) industrial pollution. I'd like to know what kind of heavy metal and pesticide loads people are carrying, for example, and how reliable are water supplies generally. Those are effects of the breakdown of social institutions, as above.
posted by sneebler at 6:31 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The CIA was calling the Soviet Union "Upper Volta with missiles" before the wall even came down. And that was when they were able to marshal the energies and resources of half of Europe.

I was tempted to say that trying to be a world power when you're situated at best to be a regional power can't help. However, Russia's military spending is only a little higher than America's in terms of of GDP (4.1% vs 3.8%). Still, that's the third highest in the world. Maybe the US economy is just so big, varied and interconnected that even GDP percentage isn't an apples to apples comparison.
posted by spaltavian at 6:39 AM on September 3, 2014

Russian *culture,* in response to perennial hardships over the centuries, is famously fatalistic and sardonic. Russian literary critics and historians have said so, too. So I don't think it's necessarily "bigoted" (albeit of course it's stereotyping, essentializing, and romantic) to note these qualities in their current form.

Luckily Russians often think of westerners as ridiculous optimists with grandiose ambitions, correctly from a similarly essentialist perspective and proudly claimed (like the sardonic hard drinking character for Russia) as a national character trait by Americans ("exceptionalism," as the right calls it, is hilarious to the unexcepted).

So we stare at each other across the table of history, Americans with a stupid grin on our face, Russians drinking us under that table to try to wipe the grin off our faces.

Cartoon version, but there is a visceral quality to essentialized national character stereotypes that makes living up them pleasurably intimate and amusing at the same time.

I grew up in a Russian church community. The old ladies really could drink harder than anyone else I've ever known and show the effects less. And they knew it and took it as a point of ethnic pride.
posted by spitbull at 6:51 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Luckily Russians often think of westerners as ridiculous optimists with grandiose ambitions

As a fan of Soviet science fiction, and a colleague of Russian engineers and technologists, I don't buy that for a second. Their ambitions are just as grandiose as ours. They built this, for crying out loud.

You really shouldn't mistake mannerisms for a cultural essence - black pessimism is politeness, not an actual outlook, same as "yankee optimism."
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:16 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

A typically thoughtful and thought-provoking piece by one of my favorite writers on contemporary Russia (who, as rtha notes, has paid a high price for speaking out). Lots of typically thoughtless and simplistic commentary here; it's remarkable how Russia lends itself to shoot-from-the-hip bullshit. For those pushing the "it's the drinking, stupid!" approach: the Russians have always drunk like fish (the very first account of them from a foreign source mentions it), and Gessen discusses it ("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"). Obviously it's a contributing factor; equally obviously, it's not The Answer. There is no one Answer. Perhaps quoting a couple of paragraphs here will help prompt a more nuanced discussion:
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.

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.
Anyway, thanks for the post, Nevin; it's always a pleasure to read Gessen.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

> Luckily Russians often think of westerners as ridiculous optimists with grandiose ambitions

As a fan of Soviet science fiction, and a colleague of Russian engineers and technologists, I don't buy that for a second. Their ambitions are just as grandiose as ours.

Huh? You're not providing a counterexample; their ambitions have nothing to do with their perceptions of westerners.
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on September 3, 2014

heir ambitions have nothing to do with their perceptions of westerners

The perceptions any two people have of one another usually boils down to superficialities rather than an essential nature. Russian culture can and has been as optimistic and ambitious as American culture. It's only the mannerisms at odds.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:52 AM on September 3, 2014

You're not getting my point. Whether perceptions are superficialities is irrelevant, and if Russians have a perception of westerners as ridiculous optimists with grandiose ambitions, it is equally irrelevant to talk about Russian ambition. Why is this so hard to grasp? If someone says "Brits have a perception of Russians as heavy drinkers," do you think it would be a refutation of that to point out that Brits are also heavy drinkers?
posted by languagehat at 8:36 AM on September 3, 2014

Not sure if this was linked in the comments yet or in the original article, but back in 2009 a study was released by The Lancet and Oxford (link to article on Oxford's site) indicating:
As many as one million working-age men died due to the economic shock of mass privatisation policies followed by post-communist countries in the 1990s, according to a new study published in The Lancet.

The Oxford-led study measured the relationship between death rates and the pace and scale of privatisation in 25 countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, dating back to the early 1990s. They found that mass privatisation came at a human cost: with an average surge in the number of deaths of 13 per cent or the equivalent of about one million lives.
More overview of the methodology at the link. I'm sure they have a link to the actual paper/study/article by the Lancet as well.

Just one more factor to keep in mind.


And let's not forget Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!, an artist event, basically an orgy, in protest of Medvedev and Russia's "pro-breeding" policies.
It was dedicated to the newly baked (we should not call him newly elected, who elected him?) puppy president, Medvedev, and mocked one of the 'national projects' curated by him, namely 'on the increase in birth rate'.
posted by symbioid at 8:46 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

From the article:
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. 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.


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.
posted by twirlip at 9:01 AM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

If someone says "Brits have a perception of Russians as heavy drinkers," do you think it would be a refutation of that to point out that Brits are also heavy drinkers?

If you want to boil it down to pure intercultural stereotypes, unexamined and without caveat, sure, people think stupid things about themselves and others based on cultural bias all the time. It's not a terribly useful exercise.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:18 AM on September 3, 2014

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 The Red Flag, Priestland (based on various surveys and interviews, if I'm remembering correctly) said that Soviet inequality was viewed in two very different ways near the end.

The Soviet working class, in general, wanted the regime to end because there was too much inequality; those at the top had too much power and privilege.

Soviet managers and professionals, on the other hand, wanted the regime to end because they weren't being properly rewarded for their work and skill. There wasn't enough inequality under the Soviet regime, in other words.

I don't know if the second group won when the Soviet regime fell, but the first group definitely lost.
posted by clawsoon at 9:51 AM on September 3, 2014

This continued to be true even during the period of unprecedented economic growth between 1999 and 2008.

But doesn't "economic growth" really only measure how much money is moving around? Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always understood that it's not the best indicator of how everyone in a population is doing. If the top 10% is moving a lot of money around amongst each other, you're still going to show economic growth even if 90% of the population is still living in poverty, right?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:31 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

"...Gessen’s article is so littered with factual errors that it would actually subtract from a non-specialist’s knowledge of the topic: someone who knew nothing about Russian demography before reading the article would end up believing a number of things that are not true."

8 Things Masha Gessen Got Wrong About Russian Demography (Mark Adomanis, Forbes 9/03/2014)
posted by Auden at 10:33 AM on September 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Further to Auden's link, Adomanis had more to say on this topic just two weeks ago.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:05 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can safely say that if you follow Russia topics at all, having @billmon1 and @MarkAdomanis on your Twitter feed will be an invaluable and bracing sanity check on anything you see.

Maybe I missed something in that article, but all I read was a 6 page litany about how Russia is morbid, scary, and dying.

Sorry, but you did. What you read was a six page litany about how Western media love to repeat the claim that Russia is morbid, scary, and dying. It is helpful, though not necessary, to be aware of the history of Orientalism -- the casting of non-Western-European cultures as weird, strange, and exotic, summarized by the ubiquitous adjective applied to Asia[ns], inscrutable. The most telling pull-quote in the article is this, of the nineties: Russians were said to recover their humanity and decency precisely when their national power was at a historic ebb. In other words, it was only when Russia was not seen as an enemy that Americans in particular allowed ourselves to think of them as ordinary human beings.

War on the Rocks is another source I've been following for heterodox commentary on Ukraine. I don't necessarily agree fully with any individual argument, but I like to hear things that are outside the Beltway (or the Brussels, or Westminster) consensus:
* Russian Aggression is a Predictable Result of Bad Western Policy
** Critical pull-quote: "...there are more interests that align Russia and the West than separate it. Between dealing with [the many challenges in the world from the Middle East to trade markets] there should be more that ties us to Russia than divides us. A stable and growing Russia is more of a U.S. (and European) national interest than a resurgent Soviet one. We’re leaning towards creating the latter (and all the lost opportunities that it entails) because we don’t know how to envisage the former."
* I was going to link another article there but I can't find it; maybe I'm just misremembering the above. The crux was an argument that Ukraine is strategically weak and broke, and no prize for either the EU or NATO, and that the more important strategic relationship we need to tend is the one we have with Moscow -- which in the face of the Ukraine crisis has been rapidly deteriorating.

Anyway, someone harboring outdated Yeltsin-era delusions about the decline of Russia, or stereotyping Putin's actions as that of an irrational ("madman"), impenetrably crafty, or unpredictable leader, are basically perpetuating a state of affairs that stems from lousy Western reporting on Russia -- as described in Starobin's National Interest piece. It's myopia and it leads to poor decision-making.
posted by dhartung at 2:02 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

What you read was a six page litany about how Western media love to repeat the claim that Russia is morbid, scary, and dying.

Life expectancy *did* decline, and the population is declining. On the other hand, Japan, Korea, and most European companies are experiencing contracting populations because of the demographic shift. Russia is experiencing the demographic shift, plus increasing mortality amongst the adult male cohort (ie, lifespan is typically skewed by high infant mortality which brings overall longevity rates down, but not in the case of Russia).
posted by Nevin at 5:39 PM on September 3, 2014

Russian Aggression is a Predictable Result of Bad Western Policy

Yeah, sure, and American Aggression in Iraq is a Predictable Result of Bad French Policy. Don't fall into the trap of infantilizing Russia - they're a grown-up world power who decided on their own to destroy Ukraine.

A more accurate reading is that Putin has far less soft power than he thought he did before Euromaidan, and that even with the development that came with petrodollars, Europe still vastly outstrips Russia in what it can offer cultural and trade partners. The difference in standards of living between the former Soviet clients who aligned with the West and those who stayed in the Russian sphere of influence is stark. The only way to overcome that is by keeping wayward clients in line at gun-point - they're pointing it at Kazakhstan most recently - which is going to be a self-defeating policy in the long haul.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:50 AM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

krokodil tears.
posted by clavdivs at 10:14 AM on September 4, 2014

Slap*Happy, I'm not here to argue with you, but I don't think that's a fair reading of the post (vs. of the headline only), which is all about how Western strategists are ignoring the mature realpolitik which is driving Moscow's decisions, if you ask me. I'm sure that the author would be pleased to engage with your points. In the end, I posted the blog because its mission is to avoid groupthink and there's a lot of that in the media concerning Russia right now -- scratch ten WotR contributors and you'll find ten different angles on Russia/Ukraine/NATO, most of them skeptical of the choices made thus far. They are advising (aspirationally, anyway) the foreign policy elites Washington, Berlin, London, and Brussels, so they come at this from a foundation of the range of actions available to Western governments.
posted by dhartung at 4:00 PM on September 4, 2014

Hm. I can't help noticing that Adomanis' rebuttal depends on figures from Rosstat. I sympathize -- they're the only game in town, in many ways -- but not everyone would regard them as, um, objective.

Put it this way -- in the 1980s, when I was looking closely at this topic, the only way you could get the official population of Moscow to work out was if you used a density higher than Tokyo. In many ways, Russian demographers have had just as much incentive to inflate their figures as Russian industrial apparatchiki had to inflate their factory output numbers.

Or, here's something to consider: Have you ever heard of the Soviet civilian honor of Mother Heroine? What does it imply about the underlying demographic pressures that the Soviets were willing to go to the expense of having women potentially drop out of the labor pool and retire in their 40s if they reproduced enthusiastically? What does it imply about today's Russia that this was brought back in 2008, as the Order of Parental Glory?
posted by aurelian at 9:36 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

On Sept 8, Masha Gessen posted a reply to Mark Adomanis's critique of her NYRB article, calling him "Putin’s useful idiot."
Adomanis responds.
posted by Auden at 6:20 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

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