Friday, May 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Stress from Post-Communist Transition Pushed Life Expectancy Down

Paul Goble

Baku, May 17 – Most analysts have pointed to falling incomes, increasing consumption of alcohol and collapsing health care to explain the unprecedented decline in life expectancy in Russia in the 1990s, but the primary explanation for this trend, a Moscow economist says, is the enormous stress the post-communist transition imposed on the population.
Indeed, Vladimir Popov, a professor at the Russian School of Economics, argues in a careful statistical analysis published this week, none of the factors usually invoked explains what has occurred while the stress people felt as a result of the collapse of the authoritarian system explains not only the decline in life expectancy but also each of the other factors.
And he suggests in a provocative analysis that the best analogy to what Russians and most other post-Soviet peoples went through in the 1990s was the experience of black Americans in the United States in the first decades after they were freed from slavery in the American Civil War (
Mortality rates among black Americans increased between 1865 and 1880, Popov notes, largely because in the words of investigators of that period, the freed slaves initially had difficulty in adapting to “the shock of freedom,” one that required them to assume responsibility for many aspects of their lives that they had not had to deal with earlier.
And that analogy holds in yet another way for Russians, Popov argues. After 1880, life expectancies among black Americans stabilized and then began to increase as the freed slaves overcame this “shock.” In just the same way, Russians since 2002 have begun to overcome the stresses of the 1990s, and their life expectancy has begun to rise as well.
Between 1989 and 1994, Popov begins, mortality rates in the Russian Federation shot up from 10 per 1000 residents a year to 16 per 1000 and they have remained in the 14-16 per 1000 range ever since, a rise that drove down life expectancies for the population of that country from 70 to 64.
There have been many cases when populations have undergone such a large and rapid increase in mortality as a result of wars, epidemics, and natural disasters, but “a growth of 60 percent in the course of five years during a period of peace and without natural catastrophes has never been observed anywhere,” he notes.
There are, however, several historical analogies to this, Popov continues. Life expectancies fell during the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic periods as a result of a shift diet and change in the way of life; and they fell again in England in the 16 and 17th centuries as a result of changes in each of these two categories.
But “far closer” analogies are to be found in the increase in mortality among black Americans after 1865 and in South Africa where life expectancy declined from 63 to 45 years after the end of apartheid. In the latter case, Popov says, the main cause was HIV/AIDS, but “the shock of democracy and the growth of [income] inequality” were also involved.
Those who have investigated the Russian case have offered many explanations for the decline of life expectancies there, but none– not the decline in income, increased alcohol consumption, or the collapse of the public health system and not the so-called “echo” from Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign -- can account for what took place, he argues.
“On the other hand,” he says, “there is a statistical confirmation of another hypothesis: the jump in mortality was connected with the growth of stresses [on the population] that were involved in the transition [from the Soviet system] to a market economy,” a theory offered a decade ago but one that data available now confirm.
Popov shows that the other changes in Russian life usually invoked to explain rising mortality and falling life expectancy fail to account for the variance observed. And he argues that stress explains not only these two trends but many of the other negative phenomena as well. His analysis of alcohol consumption as a symptom rather than a cause is particularly thorough.
Among the objective measures for stress, he argues, are the new insecurity among workers, growing migration, and increasing income differentiation, all things associated with a market economy that Russians like other peoples who have undergone this transition have had to get used to but that initially have extremely negative effects on their lives.
These factors, Popov says, explain “almost 90 percent of the regional variations in the reduction of life expectancy [in Russia] for the period 1990 to 2003,” far more than do all the others combined, a claim that is likely to be challenged by other researchers and by the defenders of the market economy but one that everyone involved is going to have to take seriously.

There were five other reports about demographic developments in the Russian Federation released last week, all of which also merit attention:
First, the Russian statistical agency reported that there are now 20 million Russians living in poverty and that the nature of the economy there gives them relatively little chance of breaking out of their status (
Second, rising incomes are not producing the changes many in Moscow and the West have expected, with surveys showing that middle income Russians still behave more like proletarians than like a middle class (
Third, urbanization is hollowing out the country and adding to all the other demographic problems of Russia’s largest cities ( and
Fourth, Russians in poorer areas of the country are more likely to have to pay for medical care than are those in richer areas, a pattern not unfamiliar in other countries but one that exacerbates class differences (
And fifth, yet another study argues in the contrarian tradition that the withering away of the Russian population is good for the country and not the problem that most people in the Russian government and the West believe (

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