How absolutely fascinating

Political and economic transition is often blamed for Russia’s 40% surge in deaths between 1990 and 1994. Highlighting that increases in mortality occurred primarily among alcohol-related causes and among working-age men (the heaviest drinkers), this paper investigates an alternative explanation: the demise of the 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign. Using archival sources to build a new oblast-year data set spanning 1978-2000, we find a variety of evidence suggesting that the campaign’s end explains a large share of the mortality crisis – implying that Russia’s transition to capitalism and democracy was not as lethal as commonly suggested.

T\’was the booze what did it.

23 thoughts on “How absolutely fascinating”

  1. But booze doesn’t pour itself down anyone’s throat. What made people drink so much?

    I think it wasn’t capitalism, either; more like it was the collapse of dreams and greatness of an empire.

  2. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to split the two effects. The collapse of the old system is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to drive massive spikes in drinking (booze being cheap and reassuring), irrespective of the impact of specific nannying campaigns.

  3. “T’was the booze what did it.”

    To be immediately jumped on by authoritarians and changed to ‘T’was the lack of state wot did it”.

  4. The idea that it was free market policies, as opposed to the collapse of an unsustainable society whereby doing next to fuck all had few negative effects on ones personal well being, which lead to the increased mortality in the former USSR was always bollocks, dreamed up by lefties looking for an excuse to bash capitalism and/or justify their wrongheaded support for the Soviet Union over the previous three or more decades.

    Russia was always going to struggle to wean itself off communism, in the same way that there is no easy route to wean an addict of heroin. An entire generation of Russian men grew up with the assumption that there was no point in working and drinking was far more fun; when the requirement came for them to work for a living and take some responsibility, a huge number of them failed abysmally and couldn’t cope (my father in law, whom I never met, being one of them). The women, on the other hand, got off their arses and did some work, shouldering the household responsibilities whilst the men drank themselves to death.

    This was what caused the deaths, not free market policies. The attempted Gorbachev controls might have had some contribution, but I suspect it was minor compared to the upheaval brought about by the collapse of the system under which they lived.

    The lesson from here is not to allow people to live under an unsustainable system whereby they are required to do fuck all and still live relaively comfortably if that system is unsustainable. Only a moron would blame the system that came afterwards, in the same manner as blaming the cold turkey as being the root cause of an former addict’s depression.

    The free market policies prescribed to Russia were well intended, but hopelessly unrealistic for one reason: the Russians were manifestly too greedy and cuntish towards one another to implement them properly. It is not the fault of the advisers that Russia was treated as a normal country instead of an African-style shithole, and that the Russians themselves took to killing each other instead of cooperating. Even if they had seen it coming, they would have had little alternative than to say what needed to be done and hope the Russians were capable of doing it. Indeed, this is pretty much where we are now, with Russia limping along, way below its potential, because they keep fucking up simple concepts like contracts and the rule of law.

    So no, what caused the deaths in Russia was idiot Russians imposing a stupid system on themselves, and then finding their own system collapsed leaving them with no choice but to follow a better one, the blueprint for which was handed to them on a platter: but utterly failing to do even that.

    And yes, there is a modern day lesson here being ignored right before our eyes. How long before we hear stories of systems which follow the collapse of unsustainable welfare programmers “causing” excessive deaths? Within a decade, I’ll bet.

  5. …..in the same manner as blaming the cold turkey as being the root cause of an former addict’s depression….

    Much as Mr Osbourne may not be the best chancellor we have ever had, I get the same thought every time some idiot on the left bashes his policies. He is simply trying to deal with a planet sized lump of shit left by Mr Brown.

    Could he do better? Undoubtedly. Is there an easy answer? No.

  6. I remember working with some Russians in Germany in 1991. Great guys. Some things stick in my mind: first, they drank vodka from 0.5 litre ring-pull cans and said the Russian word for teetotal was “beer drinker” on the grounds that ‘beer isn’t a proper drink, it is for children and women’… but best of all was a joke they told me, viz:
    “How do you tell if a Russian is an optimist, pessimist, or realist?
    The optimist is learning German, the pessimist is learning Chinese and the realist is buying a Kalashnikov”

    Never a truer word spoken, if you ask me.

  7. “The types of deaths that increased most during the transition were related to alcohol, either directly (alcohol poisonings and violent deaths) or indirectly (heart attacks and strokes)”

    That must have been two manic years between 88-90 to cause indirect the deaths. I’ve been drinking like a fish for years so I can’t imagine how much you’d have to drink to get chronic illness from a two year binge

  8. It takes about fifteen years serious drinking to get cirrhosis of the liver when its scarred beyond recovery but binging leading to acute pancreatitis doesn’t take long, and a single binge can kill through incoordination leading to accidents, a torn oesophagus from throwing up or hypothermia if you pass out in the cold.

  9. How much confidence can we have in any of the data collected during the soviet era, given their famously imaginative reportage of grain harvests and tractor production figures?

  10. Tim Newman nails it. Communism fucks up morality as well as society.

    Russia holds all the records for abortion as birth control, lowest natality, highest heroin & alcohol addiction, worst (and most incompetent, probably) gangsters, most expensive bank charges, etc.

    Putin at least recognises the problem and has just urged his compatriots to “fuck for Putin” and have three children each. More likely he’ll have to do it personally. First fuck the country, then fuck the counts…

  11. So Much for Subtlety

    bloke in france – “Tim Newman nails it. Communism fucks up morality as well as society.”

    But the problem is the rest of the West, and especially the English speaking world, is not far behind. When the State sidelines men and deprives them of the chance to be a decent husband and a father, of course they are going to drink instead. We are just not as far down that path as Russians are – but African Americans are. We won’t be far behind them.

  12. The free market policies prescribed to Russia were well intended, but hopelessly unrealistic for one reason

    Hmm. The Westerners charged with implementing those politics also made out like bandits (as, obviously, did the Communist elite). The suggestion that they were well-intentioned implies naivete bordering on the criminally irresponsible among western governments and institutions, which is by no means impossible, but I don’t think can be taken as read.

  13. John B,

    Yes, they made out like bandits same as everyone does when going into an undeveloped area, and without doubt some of them knew full well they were shafting the people as they did so.

    But your charge of western governments and institutions being almost criminally negligent is only valid with hindsight, and therefore not valid at all. Who thought in 1989 that Russians would behave more like Africans than Europeans or Asians? Most of Asia began to adopt similar western practices around the same time, and although imperfect, they did not shaft one another to the degree the Russians did.

    Even with hindsight, what do you think should have been done differently? I’ve thought about it, and I’m stumped. Sure, you could apply the grand theories of “helping the Russians develop strong institutions”, but that has failed in Africa and would fail in Russia. Even if the west had tried to manage the transformation more slowly by retaining some Soviet institutions, it would have made no difference. The Russians fucked it up because they are Russians, and at the time, as now, the person with the biggest muscles or most guns wins, every time.

    It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of those westerners who made out like bandits also died like bandits in the process. It was, after all, bandit country. Anyone who thought otherwise didn’t get very far.

  14. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “The Russians fucked it up because they are Russians, and at the time, as now, the person with the biggest muscles or most guns wins, every time.”

    I am not sure that is fair. I think it is better to say the Russians f*cked it up because they had so much more Communism than anyone else. Eastern Europe only had Communism from 1945. China from 1949. Vietnam from the mid-1950s in the North and the mid-1970s in the South. The Russians got 70 odd years of it. Long enough for the older generation that remembered a world of moral values from before the Revolution to have died out.

    The proof would be Mongolia. How well are they going? They have had Communism since 1925. Not well as far as I know.

    Give Britain another generation and we will be the same.

  15. SMFS,

    That is true, but one of the things which I find most strange – especially when it comes from Russians themselves – is the notion that Russia living under idiotic communism was somehow not of their own doing. When you speak to a Russian, they speak of the USSR as if it was imposed by some outside force. This was the case for many countries for sure, but not the Russians: they set up a department tasked with exporting it, FFS!

    During all this time, the western world (dumbfuck lefties excepted) was desperately trying to persuade them that communism was a shit idea and they should drop it. The Russians refused to listen and pursued this idiotic course of action until it collapsed around their ears.

    So yes, the Russians suffered more because they’d lived under communism more. But whose fault was that?

    Perhaps relatedly, it is a national trait of Russians to take no responsibility for anything bad which happens within their country, blaming it outside forces or mysterious insiders bent on depriving Russia of its rightful place in the world. Russians, collectively, are their own worst enemy.

  16. Tim: you make good points. And it’s worth noting that Russia was fucked long before communism; there is a reasonable argument that the entire shebang (which, as I’m sure you’re aware, was only supposed to be tried in an industrialised society with civic norms in place, not a feudal tyranny) was utterly ruined and discredited forever by first being attempted in Russia. A bit like trying to pilot my new solar power station in Inverness…

  17. So Much for Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “When you speak to a Russian, they speak of the USSR as if it was imposed by some outside force. This was the case for many countries for sure, but not the Russians: they set up a department tasked with exporting it, FFS!”

    Well they do have a point. Lenin was paid by the Germans. Imported, as Solzhenitsyn said, like a disease. Non-Russians were conspicuously prominent in the leadership of the Communist Party – a line which easy veers into anti-semitism, but is kind of true. The Soviets did try to export it. But they were hardly exporting Russian culture, but Soviet culture. The Russians were not innocent of the whole mess, but they were also the first victims of Communism.

    “During all this time, the western world (dumbfuck lefties excepted) was desperately trying to persuade them that communism was a shit idea and they should drop it. The Russians refused to listen and pursued this idiotic course of action until it collapsed around their ears.”

    Look at all the trouble the Soviets went to to make sure the Russians could not drop it. There has rarely been a case where any government has so clearly made it obvious that they loathed and mistrusted their own people who could not be trusted with something as basic as knowledge of the non-Communist world for fear they would abandon Marxism.

    At the same time Westerners were not trying to tell the Soviets to abandon it. The one place that Communism was popular was in the West – they won large percentages of the votes in places like Italy and France – especially among the educated. Stalin was and is popular on university campuses in a way that Adam Smith is not. It wasn’t the lefties that were a minority, it was the anti-Communists – and they are still hated and despised for being anti-Communist by all right thinking people.

    “So yes, the Russians suffered more because they’d lived under communism more. But whose fault was that?”

    A good point. But the USSR started out with a largely non-Russian leadership. A leadership whose ancestors moved to the USSR from Western Europe (or were Georgian). They moved to a Russian leadership soon thereafter. Under which leaders did the Russians suffer more? The largely non-Russian Lenin or the entirely Russian Brezhnev? Notice that once a genuine Russian peasant got any power at all, Yeltsin destroyed the system.

    “Perhaps relatedly, it is a national trait of Russians to take no responsibility for anything bad which happens within their country, blaming it outside forces or mysterious insiders bent on depriving Russia of its rightful place in the world. Russians, collectively, are their own worst enemy.”

    I agree with both. Although I don’t think it is just the Russians who never take responsibility. Talk to an Arab or an African. Or anyone from India for that matter.

    But in Communism they kind of have a point. They had a government that took power by force, aided by Western Europeans. That was run by people usually of a Western European background. That hatred and loathed Russians and especially Russian peasants with a passion. That tried to destroy everything traditional about Russia. And threw away Russian lives like they were empty beer bottles. Not even that. Sure some Russians collaborated with this government and they should be blamed for that. But many more resisted it.

  18. They had a government that took power by force, aided by Western Europeans. That was run by people usually of a Western European background. That hatred and loathed Russians and especially Russian peasants with a passion.

    Are you on all of the hard drugs? Western Europeans intervened to support the white Russians, *against* the Bolsheviks. Trotsky was born in present-day Ukraine; Lenin in present-day Russia; and Stalin in present-day Georgia.

    Everyone of any significance in the USSR government, throughout its history, was from Russia or one of the republics; nobody was Western European. Unless ‘Western European’ is a weird new euphemism for ‘Jewish’, I suppose.

    Russians are utterly to blame for the USSR. They did it without significant help from outside (it’s clear from the post-collapse archives that the various ‘useful idiots’ in the west were far more the latter than the former).

  19. So Much For Subtlety

    john b – “Are you on all of the hard drugs?”

    No more than usual.

    “Western Europeans intervened to support the white Russians, *against* the Bolsheviks.”

    Some Western Europeans did. Britain for instance. But Germany provided most of the money and support for the Communists in the early days. The Germans sent Lenin to Russia in a sealed train after all. The Germans look pretty Western to me.

    “Everyone of any significance in the USSR government, throughout its history, was from Russia or one of the republics; nobody was Western European. Unless ‘Western European’ is a weird new euphemism for ‘Jewish’, I suppose.”

    Well it is the euphemism I would prefer to avoid. But I did not say they were from Western Europe. I said they came from a Western European background. So yes, Trotsky and pretty much everyone else was Jewish – that is, German speaking. Lenin was partly Swedish, partly Jewish, partly Kalmyk – not very Western with that last bit – but not very Russian.

    “Russians are utterly to blame for the USSR.”

    A government they did not vote for nor support in large numbers. A government that had to fence them in. A government that so feared what would happen if they learned the truth, they kept the Russians in ignorance and isolation as long as they could. Yes, Russians took part in the Soviet government, but they are hardly to blame collectively.

    “They did it without significant help from outside (it’s clear from the post-collapse archives that the various ‘useful idiots’ in the west were far more the latter than the former).”

    The Soviet regime would never have been established without outside help from Germany. It probably would not have lasted without help from Western Trade Unions – who struck to prevent Western Armies intervening. It had no ideology of its own except what Westerners taught them. Hell, the entire leadership of the Communist Party would have been in jail if it wasn’t for Western Europe providing them with safe haven and sanctuary. Including London.

  20. John b @ 16: yes, Russia was fucked up before communism, and the more I read Russian history the more I think the state of Russia today is less to do with the legacy of communism than the legacy of Russia itself.

  21. SMFS @ 17:

    I see your point, but I think you overdo the foreign influence. For sure, Lenin and his pals were influenced by western ideas and individuals, but Lenin was as Russian as they come (regardless of his mixed ethnicity). I mentioned the dumbfuck lefties in my earlier post to cover those in the west who supported the USSR, but they struggled to get outside support in significant numbers and indeed it was only the election of the first Labour government in the UK which saw Britain recognize them at all.

    I’m also not convinced by the Germans being responsible for much. The real battles for power took place during the civil war, and there was no shortage of Russians fighting on the red side and relatively few outsiders. Although notably, the reds relied on Latvian riflemen to save them on more than one occasion.

    Obviously there is the whole Georgian thing to consider, and the number of non-Russians in Stalin’s entourage. But there were enough Russians in there, and probably the second most influential for a decade or more was Molotov, Russian through and through (despite his Jewish wife). And the first Russian party leader – Khruschev (he was Russian, just grew up in and associated himself with Ukraine) was also born a peasant (although he became something of a yuppie prior to the revolution by being a handy engineer in the Donbas mines).

    I wouldn’t say that ethnic Russians are 100% to blame for the formation and maintenance of the USSR, but they shoulder most of it. Somebody needed to dig the graves, erect the barbed wire, pull the triggers, drive the trains, file the reports, bundle people off to the Lubyanka, etc. and these were mostly Russian. The fact that key members of the founding group and later the ruling groups were not ethnic Russians (but still very much part of the Russian empire) ensures they are not entirely responsible, but it still the Russians who have to carry the can.

    I’m running out of time here – going to visit the KGB museum in Tallinn as it happens – but I am under no illusions that the USSR survived because the average Russian was willing to fuck overruns fellow man perhaps more readily than others. I don’t know, but without a doubt it required the willful cooperation of not thousands, but millions and millions of Russians in fucking over their own. In my experience, they do this to a greater degree than western Europeans, and are more akin to Africans. A subject for another time, perhaps?

  22. they came from a Western European background

    It’s true that the Jews of Eastern Europe migrated there as a result of persecution in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. But this is a bit like describing an English family with a Norman surname as coming from a French background.

    Trotsky and pretty much everyone else was Jewish – that is, German speaking.

    The language of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe is Yiddish. Which is a Germanic language – like English – but not German.

    Trotsky himself reported speaking Russian and Ukrainian as a child at home. Presumably he would have spoken Yiddish too.

    Lenin’s father was Kalmyk – nothing to do with Western Europe. Lenin’s first language was Russian. His maternal grandfather was a Jew who had converted to Christianity.

    Stalin was Georgian. He spoke Georgian natively, and Russian.

    the entirely Russian Brezhnev

    Brezhnev spoke Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent.

  23. So Much For Subtlety

    PaulB – “It’s true that the Jews of Eastern Europe migrated there as a result of persecution in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. But this is a bit like describing an English family with a Norman surname as coming from a French background.”

    Well if they continued to be ethnically distinct from the English and spoke a French dialect at home, I would be inclined to say they came from a French background. Notice a lot of Jews did not move to Russia. Russia moved to them. As Russia expanded Westward they took in a lot of Polish territory with large Jewish communities.

    “The language of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe is Yiddish. Which is a Germanic language – like English – but not German.”

    Germanic then. Except it is not like English. It is like Swabian.

    “Lenin’s father was Kalmyk – nothing to do with Western Europe. Lenin’s first language was Russian. His maternal grandfather was a Jew who had converted to Christianity.”

    Lenin’s paternal grandfather did a pretty good job of looking like a Russian to me – Nikolai Vassilievich Ulyanov. His paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk – Anna Alexeevna Smirnova. But if you want to argue that neither of them was Russian, that just means none of Lenin’s family was Russian by descent.

    Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova (born Maria Alexandrovna Blank; Russian: ????? ????????????? ????????; 6 March [O.S. 22 February] 1835 — 25 July [O.S. 12 July] 1916)[1] was the mother of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary leader and founder of the Soviet Union.
    Ulyanova was one of six children born in Saint Petersburg. Her father was Alexandr Blank (born Israel Blank), a well-to-do physician who was a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity. Her mother, Anna Ivanovna Groschopf, was the daughter of a German father, Johann Groschopf, and a Swedish mother, Anna Östedt.[1]

    “Brezhnev spoke Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent.”

    Hardly the point is it? He was born there but he was Russian.

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