Vodka, capitalism and Russia's "mortality crisis"

When communism ended in Russia, death rates shot up: but how much of that was actually due to economic turmoil?

Via Tim Worstall, a new NBER paper argues that the massive surge in deaths after the end of communism in Russia may have a simple, single cause: "the demise of the 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign."

There is no doubt that the period between 1990 and 1994 was one of extraordinary turbulence in Russia. The country experienced, in just four years, a rapid and wholesale transition from an almost entirely centralised economy to one of the freest markets in the world. The opportunism of the change was given as an archetypal example of the "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, in her book of the same name.

One of the key stats cited to prove the upheaval is the astonishing leap in mortality. As the authors of the paper, Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller (of Stanford university) write:

Crude death rates in Russia soared by 40% between 1990 and 1994, climbing from 11 to nearly 15.5 per thousand. By 2009 standards, the decline in male life expectancy at birth (by nearly 7 years, to 57.6) would tie Russian men with their counterparts in Bangladesh, falling short of male longevity in less-developed countries with troubled population health histories (Botswana, Haiti, North Korea, and Yemen, for example). The magnitude of this surge in deaths – coupled with the Soviet Union’s international prominence – has prompted observers to term this demographic catastrophe “the Russian Mortality Crisis.”

The immediate cause of the surge in deaths isn't economic transition, but a massive rise in alcohol consumption; the types of deaths that increased most were those related to alcoholism, like alcohol poisoning, violent deaths, heart attacks and strokes. Additionally, the deaths were concentrated amongst working age men.

What the authors argue is that, while alcoholism can of course be the result of societal factors, it also suggests that factors more directly related to drinking be examined. Their key prompt comes in the form of the following chart:


While the post 1990 spike is very real, the corresponding pre-1990 dip is under-explained by narratives which focus on economic upheaval. But it is potentially explained by the success, and then demise, of the USSR's "Measures to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism", which "ushered in the country’s most stringent anti-alcohol policies since its 1919- 1925 prohibition".

The actual measures are fascinating, especially in the context of today's debate around minimum pricing. They addressed both supply and demand, by:

  • Reducing production of alcohol;
  • Restricting alcohol sales on business days, raising the drinking age, and banning restaurants from selling spirits;
  • Raising prices by around a quarter, then a half;
  • Introducing new sanctions for alcohol related crimes;
  • (and on the demand side) subsidising substitute activities like parks and sports clubs;
  • Propoganda and a ban on glamorous depictions of drinking;
  • And improved treatment of alcoholism.

These measures had a huge success; although the official statistics probably overstate the effect, due to the difficulty of accounting for moonshine production, they show a drop in sales of 50 per cent. That led to a continued decrease in death rates:


Importantly, the authors argue that the measures would take a while to unwind once the program ended in 1988, explaining the lag in time between its end and the beginning of the mortality spike.

Not every extra death is explicable by this factor; but the authors estimate that 2.15 million people in the mortality crisis died, not as a result of the larger crisis, but due to these measures being repealed.

Drink responsibly, people.

Boris Yeltsin sips some Vodka. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.