Russia is in the midst of a demographic crisis. Life expectancy for men is falling precipitately and is now below the level it reached under Stalin. Andrew Cowley examines the reasonsby Andrew Cowley / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
The rumours about President Boris Yeltsin’s health, or lack of it, which seep out of the Kremlin and keep Russia’s political classes chattering, miss a bigger point. By the standards of his countrymen, Yeltsin is an old man. At 64, he has lived six years beyond the average life expectancy for Russian men. Most Russian males alive today will be lucky if they live long enough to receive a pension.
Between 1987 and 1994, the number of live births recorded in Russia halved, while the number of deaths soared. In 1993, 322,000 more Russians died than in 1992. That is an increase greater than the total American losses during the Second World War.
There is no obvious parallel for this in the modern world in time of either war or peace. In France during the First World War, life expectancy did not change. Nor did it in Japan, until the final year of the Second World War.
“The only country to have suffered a more serious setback in life expectancy was Pol Pot’s Cambodia,” wrote Nick Eberstadt, a demographer based at Harvard University, in a study published at the end of the 1980s, when Russian male life expectancy was still above 60. Eberstadt traces the slide back to pre-industrial standards of health to the years of stagnation.
At the turn of the century, the average Russian could expect to live about 30 years. By the time Stalin came to power, this had increased to 44 years. Despite the purges and the war, life expectancy had risen to 62 by the time of Stalin’s death. By the late 1950s Soviet life expectancy had reached 69-higher than in the US, which had begun the century with a 17-year lead on Russia.
The reasonable conclusion must have seemed that Marxist-Leninism, as a form of social organisation which improved the lot of the majority, worked. And then it stopped working.
From 1974 onwards, Soviet statistical yearbooks began to omit even the most basic data on mortality and health. At the time it was widely assumed that the guardians of the system were embarrassed by the third world conditions of life in the central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. But now it seems likely that they were trying to conceal more worrying trends in the Slav heartland, where life expectancy peaked in the mid-1970s and then began to fall towards the end of that decade.