Staunton, June 27 – Life expectancy is a demographic category that is most comparable across countries, and Russia now ranks 129th in the world in that regard, behind not just Europe but former Soviet republics and Soviet bloc countries, a pattern that reflects the fact that Russians have lost a sense of direction and are behaving accordingly, Emil Pain says.
In an article in Russkaya planeta this week, Pain, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and a leading specialist on ethnicity, says life expectancy figures “characterize very precisely the actual conditions of an individual and culture in one society or another”.
In 2013, life expectancy from birth in Russia is 59.1 for men and 73 for women, far behind the figures in Europe. But even more striking are life expectancy figures at age 50. A 50-year-old Russian man can expect to live 21 fewer years than a Swede can, 19 years fewer than an American, and 15 years fewer than a Pole.
These differences reflect, Pain says, extraordinarily high death rates among adult male Russians, and those in turn reflect high rates of alcohol consumption and within that of vodka rather than beer and wine. That in turn reflects both how a society sees itself and what the population and the government are prepared or not prepared to do.
The Swedish case is especially instructive for Russia, the Moscow scholar says. Swedes turned to vodka when Sweden became an empire and consumed even more of it when Sweden lost its empire. Then, a combination of religious, civic, and worker movement promoted sobriety and demanded that the state impose severe restrictions on vodka.
In short, he says, Sweden was able to begin “overcoming this national disease from below,” by the action of civil society. And then the state largely completed the task by a series of laws that made it more difficult and expensive for Swedes to use vodka as opposed to other forms of alcohol.
There were three sectoral reasons why Sweden has been successful in ways Russia has not. Sweden has a social state that serves the population, a national one that defines itself in terms of the individual and his right, and a legal state “capable of regulating life with the help of laws. Russia lacks all of those.
Pain entitles the last section of his article “Why do people in Poland live longer than they do in Russia?” Poland and Russia share a vodka culture and even fight over who invented the drink. But unlike in Russia, over the last two decades, Poland has adopted the Swedish approach. Vodka consumption has fallen, and life expectancy has increased.
The same thing has been true in the Czech Republic and other former Soviet bloc states, again except for Russia. They are cutting alcohol consumption and also spending more on public health. With regard to the latter, Russia spends half of what Serbia does in percentage terms and now ranks 106th in the world, “just after Togo, the Congo and Belize.”
That doesn’t mean that pensioners in these countries have a life of luxury, Pain continues. A Polish retiree gets about 40 percent of his former salary, but in Russia, he receives only 27 percent.
“In Russia, much is said about the welfare of the people, but little is done,” Pain says. “In this regard, as in many others, contemporary Russia recalls the Soviet Union of Brezhnev’s times…In the USSR, the very first reaction to the beginning of an increase in mortality was to stop publishing any exact statistics about mortality.” So too it is again now.
Russians no longer compare themselves with people in the West because the West is viewed as hostile. But all the talk about “’a special path’ for Russia” does not provide any “definite direction” for action. As a result, Russians have lost their orientation and their hope and faith about the future.
He quotes the observation of Valery Fedorov, the head of VTsIOM, that this “lack of faith” is “the Achilles’ heel” of Russia.” If that is not addressed, not only will vodka consumption continue to limit the life expectancy of Russians, but the prospects for the nation will be limited as well.