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Come Saturday Morning: Perestroika and Austerity

Russian yearly death rate per 1000 people, 1960 to 2011. From the World Bank.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was puzzled at why ordinary Russians and other citizens of what was then the Soviet Union would be so angry at Mikhail Gorbachev and his push for “perestroika”. Didn’t they like the freedom and openness he had brought to their society? Why would they want to cling to the old ways of the Soviet Union?

It turned out that the ordinary Russians had good reason to hate perestroika: It was killing them. Literally.

As a 1996 report showed, Soviet Union and Russian Federation life expectancy, after peaking in 1986, started dropping precipitously as perestroika trashed the Soviet safety net and in turn the Soviet economy:

The social and economic crises that gripped Russia in the early 1990s are reflected in increased mortality and declining life expectancy, especially among able-bodied males. Contributing to Russia’s long-term population decline is a projected mortality rate increase from 11.3 per 1,000 population in 1985 to 15.9 per 1,000 in 2005. Russia’s mortality rate reached its lowest level, 10.4 per 1,000 population, in 1986 (for which a state anti-alcohol campaign received substantial credit); then the figure rose steadily in the ensuing decade. The largest jump was from 12.2 to 14.6 per 1,000 between 1992 and 1993; after having reached 15.7 per 1,000 in 1995, the rate was projected to remain virtually flat over the next decade.

According to 1994 statistics, the life expectancy for Russian males had reached 57.3 years and for females 71.1 years. These are the lowest figures and the largest disparity by sex for any country reporting to the World Health Organization, and they are a sharp decline from the 1987 levels of 64.9 years for males and 74.6 years for females. In 1990 the Russian Republic ranked only seventh in this statistic among the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union. The lag in the average life expectancy of males was attributed to alcohol and tobacco abuse; to unsafe conditions at work, on the road, and in the home; and to declining heath care.

Mortality rates are especially high for able-bodied males in rural areas. Served poorly by the health care system and lacking basic sanitary facilities and conveniences, many farming communities have been transformed into enclaves for the elderly, the indigent, and the sick. Moreover, indigenous nationalities such as the Evenks and the Nenets have suffered catastrophic declines in life expectancy and high rates of sickness and death that have prompted speculation that some of those groups may become extinct. Geographically, the lowest average life expectancy in Russia is in the Siberian Republic of Tyva, and the highest figures are in the Caucasus Republic of Dagestan and in the Volga region. In the first half of the 1990s, the imbalance between the birth and death rates was especially acute in major cities. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the number of deaths in 1992 was almost double the number of births.

Since 1987 mortality from accidents, injuries, and poisonings has risen significantly, from 101 to 228 per 100,000 population. Contributing to that figure are an estimated 8,000 fatal workplace accidents per year, largely the result of aging equipment, the proliferation of risky jobs in the unofficial “shadow economy,” and the deterioration of work discipline. For the period between 1990 and 1994, the suicide rate rose by 57 percent to a total of nearly 62,000, putting Russia in third place among eighty-four developed countries. The stress of the transition period is one explanation for this rising statistic. The homicide rate rose by more than 50 percent in the same period (see Crime, ch. 10). In 1994 Russia’s 35,000 motor vehicle deaths nearly equaled the 40,000 in the United States, although Russia has less than 1 percent as many automobiles. Deteriorating roads and declining police discipline are the main causes of that fatality statistic.

This is something that to this day is still played down in the US, when it’s discussed at all. The World Bank may produce charts that show the grim truth, such as this chart tracking death rates in Russia from 1960 to 2011 (see also the top of this post), but this is not the sort of thing that the cheerleaders for capitalism want you to see on the evening news or as a lead item on your browser’s home page. (If you look at the chart, a bigger version of which is found here, you’ll notice that to this day, death rates in Russia are still far higher than they were at any time during the last three decades of the USSR, from 1960 to 1991.)

The bottom line is that the “bureaucracy-fighting reforms” of perestroika were just an attempt to retrofit a neoliberal austerity scheme into the ailing framework of the USSR — an attempt that ended up bringing down the USSR and creating a power vacuum that would be filled by a fully neoliberal régime that, after a brief period of relative freedom and openness, soon adopted the worst security-state excesses of the old Soviet Union and used them to defend the new class of zillionaires that sprang up from the carcass of the old nation.

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