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
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.