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This year will mark yet another milestone in Russia’s steady post-1990s demographic recovery, with the population minus Crimea hitting 144.0 million as of January 1, 2015 [XLS link], relative to 143.7 million in the same period last year. (Excluding Crimea is, needless to say, done not out of political considerations, but to retain the appropriate base for comparison). Though figures for December will only be out in about two weeks’ time, the picture for January-November is positive; despite the continuing pressures of population ageing and the decline in the numbers of women in their childbearing age as the small 1990s cohort enters adulthood, both natality and mortality figures improved slightly relative to 2013. For the second consecutive year running in its post-Soviet history, Russia’s births will substantially supercede deaths. Below shows a summary from state statistics service Rosstat.

russia-demography-jan-nov-2008-2014

But will this happy state of affairs last?

Mark Adomanis and an email correspondent known as “Doug” suggest that the turnaround has come to an end. They are both serious and intelligent people who know a lot about both demographics and Russia, and I am in qualified agreement with most of the points they make. But they might be slightly too pessimistic. Although in the middle term a cessation and perhaps limited reversal of Russia’s demographic uptrend during the Putin years is virtually inevitable, there are a number of factors that will likely soften and considerably mitigate the end of Russia’s demographic uptrend.

Below I will list a summary of their main points and my comments on each one of them.

Fertility Trends

One, most obviously, the “empty cohorts” of the 1990s are now hitting peak reproductive age. So far, that’s been balanced out by a rise in TFR [AK: Total Fertility Rate, an age structure-independent measure of the birth rate] — there are fewer women aged 20-25, but Russian women overall are having more kids per woman. But it seems a bit premature to declare that this will continue to be the case. – Doug.

I always considered the idea that TFR would keep up with the falling numbers of women in their childbearing age to be extremely unlikely, as it would require the TFR to eventually rise above that seen in any other developed country bar Israel. Anybody reading through my demography archives will see this being emphasized repeatedly.

According to my simulations from 2008, if the TFR now remains constant at its current rate of 1.7 children per woman, the crude birth rate will fall below 10/1,000 women by 2025 – today it is at what will likely be a local maximum of ~13.3/1,000 – before bottoming out at around 9/1,000 in the early 2030s. Even if the TFR were to rise to 2.0 children per woman, equivalent to that of the most fertile Western countries like France and Ireland, the crude birth rate by 2025 will still be 11/1,000.

That said, natural population increase is a function of both birth rates and death rates, and there is very ample scope for further improvements in the latter. In the early 2000s, the death rate was at ~16/1,000 and average life expectancy was at just 65 years, mostly due not to any great defect of the healthcare system – after all, even many properly Third World nations achieve life expectancies in the mid- or high-70s – but to the region-wide alcoholism drinking, in the form of vodka binge drinking. Despite the continued pressure of an ageing population, a rise of the life expectancy to 71 years by 2014 was accompanied by a reduction in death rates to 13/1,000. If these trends continue and life expectancy continues rising, reaching 75 years by 2025 – by no means an unrealistic prospect, based on the prior experience of Finnish Karelia and the Baltic states in battling their own alcohol epidemics – then Russia’s birth rates and deaths rates should continue to more or less move in lockstep to each other.

The sign might be a plus or a minus, but contingent on the continuation of current trends – a TFR of around 1.7-1.8, and moderately fast improvements in life expectancy – the magnitude of natural population growth (or decline) will be very small.

Recession

Two, the impact of the recession. Recessions almost always depress fertility, and there’s no reason to expect this one to be different. You’d also expect the recession and the weak ruble to affect the immigration / emigration balance.Doug.

And:

As Russia’s economy was growing, wages were increasing, jobs were plentiful, and housing was, if not readily available, than a lot more available than it had been in the past. Russian workers might not have had it great in comparison to their Western peers, but they had it a lot better than at any other point in their history. The rather banal result of this, still rather modest, economic bounty was that people felt more comfortable starting and expanding families and that lots of “guest workers” form the rest of the former Soviet Union moved to Russia to find jobs.

However now that Russia’s economy is set for a nasty recession of indeterminate length, and now that real incomes are getting hit by a combination of currency weakness and inflation, it’s not terribly surprising that its population dynamics are starting to weaken. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen when a country suffers a sharp short-term economic reversal. Despite the Kremlin’s loud protestations of exceptionalism Russia is not, in fact, all that different: when you hammer the population’s standard of living they react accordingly.Mark Adomanis.

A comprehensive economic collapse followed up with austerity policies can definitely torpedo Russia’s demographic recovery. See the Latvian experience after 2008, or the complete shipwreck that is post-2010 Greece.

But I do believe there are a few reasons why this is overstated:

What’s important is not so much the depth of the economic collapse as the effect it has on social policies. Back in 2009, Russia’s GDP fell by an impressive 8%, but its demographics continued improving nonetheless. That is because the Russian state, flush with accumulated hydrocarbons revenue, could easily avoid implementing painful austerity policies. The consensus estimate for the coming Russian recession is a 4-5% fall in GDP, and there are no plans to cut social spending this time around either.

Having chosen currency devaluation over internal devaluation through austerity and wage cuts – unlike aforementioned Greece and Latvia, who have no influence over EU monetary policy – the Russians worst affected will be already well-off regular consumers of imported produce, whose fertility rates are the least affected by economic considerations. These types of recessions tend to be short but sharp. Surprising everyone, Russian industrial production actually increased by a solid 4.1% this December y/y, and there are several other encouraging leading indicators suggesting that this recession is likely to be pretty mild.

Because migration flows are so much more directly dependent on the economy – a Tajik working as a Gastarbeiter in Russia will now, effectively, earn twice less in the US dollar equivalent than a year ago – net immigration can reasonably be expected to decrease. There are signs this is already happening, as net immigration fell from 277,000 in January-November 2013 to 246,000 in the same period this year. On the other hand, and somewhat tragically, this decline will be substantially or completely covered by increasing immigration of war refugees, draft evaders, political dissenters, and the plain immiserated from Ukraine. Even as overall net immigration fell, it rose via-a-vis Ukraine from 36,000 last year to 78,000 this year, and frankly this is probably a huge underestimate (other sources state it’s close to a million). This is a huge loss for Ukraine, but a boon for Russia; after all, Ukrainian immigrants don’t raise the sorts of subpar human capital and integration issues that Central Asians and Caucasians do.

Vodka and Mortality

Three, cheaper vodka. Apparently vodka consumption dropped by more than 10% just between 2012 and 2013 — a very encouraging sign! But that’s likely to go into reverse this year, especially if the cut in price is accompanied by a relaxation of anti-alchohol campaigns and policies. Historically, the effects of changing access to alcohol have shown up pretty quickly in the numbers — you can pretty much spot the departure of Krushchev and the end of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaigns just by staring at mortality statistics. So I’d expect a visible shift. The open question will be the magnitude.Doug.

Just to be clear, I agree that the decision to cut vodka prices from this February is a bad one. Putin justifies it by the need to prevent people from drinking more surrogates, but the empirical evidence indicates that prices are closely linked to overall consumption, which is in turn linked to mortality. While higher prices will increase illicit (and more dangerous) production, only a small percentage of people, typically the truly dependent and lost causes, partake in it anyway.

That said, the 2010s are not the 1980s, and there are a number of differences between now and then that would imply that the effects of lowering vodka prices now will have fewer negative than back then.

Despite the immediate effectiveness of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign – life expectancy instantly jumped up by two years – it was very much imposed top down and worked in a blunt, authoritarian, and frequently plain idiotic manner (e.g. the destruction of Crimean vineyards, which had absolutely nothing to do with Russia’s alcohol epidemic, at least as it related to population health). Its effects faded away almost as soon as the campaign dissolved away in the chaos of the Soviet collapse.

In contrast, what occured in recent years was the introduction of many legal regulations which exist in the West – elementary things, like restrictions on advertising and banning vodka sales after 10pm and from kiosks – as well as a gradual change in tastes and mentality that have propeled a shifting preference for beer and wine over vodka. (This is good, since beer and wine isn’t near as bad for you as vodka). In 2014, vodka production in Russia fell by a further 22%. Deaths from alcohol poisoning today, while still much higher than in normal countries, are as of 2014 lower even than they were during the height of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign. There is also good evidence indicating that Russian demand for vodka is slowly but surely becoming largely delinked from its price, as is the case in any Western country.

The modest decrease in the vodka price planned for 2015 will surely do not good, but it is highly unlikely to reverse or even stop the powerful trends that have been leading the decline in vodka bingeing for the past decade.

 
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Sergey Zhuravlev is a Russian economist who runs a wonky but eminently readable and very useful, interesting blog and writes for Expert (author profile), which I may add is an excellent publication. You have met him previously on my blog as the inventor of a clever – if, in my opinion, flawed – argument that the 2011 Duma elections were marred by 5%-6% fraud, but were clean in Moscow; and if you read the Russia blogs, you may also have come across Mark Adomanis’ translation of one his articles about Russian regional inequality. Now I am presenting a translation of his Feb 13 article on what I called as the end of Russia’s demographic crisis: The Reversal of the Russian Cross. In my opinion, it has a few weaknesses; in particular, he is too cavalier about dismissing the “alcohol hypothesis” about post-Soviet Russia’s “supermortality”. But overall it is a brilliant and deeply informative survey of the origins of the Russian Cross – the crossover of the births and deaths graphs in 1992 – as well as of its recent reversal, to the extent that natural population decline is now almost stabilized and the overall population is able to grow due to net migrants.

The Reversal Of The Russian Cross

Last year our country’s population increased, for the first time in 20 years. Although positive growth in aggregate was only enabled by immigration from the Near Abroad, existing trends in rising fertility and falling mortality were maintained.

If we are to go by Rosstat’s figures, in the past year Russia’s population – for the first time in virtually the entire twenty years of Russia’s existence as a sovereign state – increased, exceeding 143 million people. The maximum population size was reached in 1992, at 148.56 millions, and has since decreased at a practically monotone rate. That said, it should be added that small population growth was previously observed in 1994 and 2009, and that the population fall in 2010 was, most likely, explained by cumulative errors over the period since the 2002 Census, and by the abnormal mortality during that summer’s heatwave [AK: There were c.56,000 excess deaths during the anomalous 2010 heatwave, which is basically equivalent to population decline of 48,300. Furthermore, the 2010 Census showed there to be 143.9 million Russians, which was one million higher than projections based on the 2002 Census; this implied that during the period, net immigration was underestimated by more than 100,000 per year. So its likely that even despite the heatwave, Russia's population still eked out an increase in 2010].

Caucasian Mountains only bested by Urals Mountains

The aggregate growth in our country’s permanent population was 165,000 for the past year [AK: This was a preliminary estimate that seems to have discounted December's migration stats; the final figure is population growth of 189,000]. Although overall positive growth is only enabled by migrants – net immigration is estimated at 296,000 for this year – the rate of natural population decrease continued to decline at a fast pace. Whereas in 2005 there were 828,000 more deaths than there were births, this past year it declined to 131,000.

Russia’s population is substantially affected by the effects of migration from the former Soviet Union. In the 22 years after 1990 – the year when ethnic problems in the former USSR exploded – some 7 million people have moved to Russia for permanent residency. This figure is in net terms, accounting for reverse flows from Russia, and discounting temporary labor migrants. Although net population outflow from Russia into countries of the Far Abroad constituted 80,000 annually throughout the 1990′s – in total, 1,050,000 Russians have officially moved into countries of the Far Abroad for permanent residency since 1990 – it has practically ceased from 2006 [AK: The Far Abroad is the world outside the former USSR, minus the Baltics and (recently) Georgia. Note also that Russia's "brain drain" came to a dripping halt at precisely the time when hacks in the Western media began to propagandize it].

Russia hosts the world’s second largest migrant population, after the US; it slightly exceeds Germany in this respect, and doubly so the next five largest migrant centers: Saudi Arabia, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, and France. A third of Russia’s migrant inflow from 1990 to 2010 from the former Soviet bloc accrued to Kazakhstan. But in the noughties Kazakhstan ceded leadership as a source of migrants to Uzbekistan, and after the Orange Revolution Ukraine caught up with them, and Kyrgyzstan after the Tulip Revolution [AK: Zhuravlev has a separate blog post noting that emigration waves typically accompany revolutions in the former Soviet space. I guess its something to look forwards to if the White Ribbon crowd seizes power.]

The only former Soviet republic with which Russia has had a negative migration balance these past 21 years – in which more people left than came in – is Belarus. That said, it should be noted that starting from 2005 the migration balance with Belarus too has turned positive, albeit it remains modest (net immigration from Belarus constitutes less than 8,000 people over the past six years). It is unclear why more people left for Belarus before this date; perhaps because the Russian provinces neighboring Belarus, such as Belarus, aren’t exactly the richest ones. Maybe it was tied to family reunification – parents returning to their children, or Belorussians returning to their homeland, for instance from Komsomol construction projects. Perhaps for this same reason Russia had a net outflow of migrants into Ukraine in the very early 1990′s.

As regards internal migration, the statistics do not reveal any special revelations that could refute or even complement intuition. There are three main destinations for internal migrants: The city of Moscow and Moscow oblast (in the past year the entire agglomeration absorbed 125,000 people, or three quarters of Russia’s population growth), and St.-Petersburg (33,000 migrants in the past year). There is also substantial migration into the Southern Federal District (in significant part from the neighboring North Caucasus) and into the Urals Federal District.

An important caveat is that in the two latter cases, population growth carries an exclusively point-like character. In the Urals Federal District, it is almost entirely concentrated around Tyumen oblast, the richest province in Russia today. Due to the high levels of social support in Tyumen oblast, fertility is also high: Young families get generous housing benefits, there are special programs for families with children. On its part the situation is similar for the Southern Federal District, which grows entirely thanks to Krasnodar krai, which is also understandable: Sochi.

It is clear that Russia’s demographic situation has improved in substantial part on account of the Northern Caucasus, where a strengthening baby boom started from about 2005. The other more or less demographically balanced Russian region, experiencing positive natural population growth, is the Urals Federal District thanks in turn to Tyumen. But contrary, perhaps, to popular belief, the Northern Caucasus isn’t the main source of migrants to the Central Federal District. In 2010, the most recent year for which internal migration data is available, only 16,000 people from the North Caucasus got permanent residence in the Center. This is but a drop in the ocean to the 19 million population of the Moscow region.

The biggest “donors” to the Moscow agglomeration are the Center itself and the Volga Federal District. These two regions, which constitute the primordial Russia as it developed in the 16th-17th centuries, experience not only the maximum natural population decrease in Russia but also the maximum mechanical loss of population, which in its turn is getting fairly intensively replaced by migrants from Central Asia (and in Siberia, apparently, from China [AK: Here I disagree with Zhuravlev. While there are significant numbers of Chinese labor migrants and shuttle traders in the Far East, very few of them choose to stay. This is not the case for Central Asians.])

Wartime Losses in Peacetime

Russia’s natural population decrease has declined as a result of a significant improvement in mortality, as well as a modest increase in fertility. The fall in mortality, just as its rise earlier in the 1990′s and early 2000′s, for the most part affected men, and substantially affected their expected life expectancy. From a remarkably low level for a civilized country of 58.9 years six years ago (the minimum was 57.4 years in 1994) it has now improved to 63.6 years. This is still far from a result to write home about, but at least it is now almost equal to the best Soviet-era indicators in the early 1960′s and late 1980′s. As for mortality among under 40′s, which has always been the scourge of Russian men, the current curves are even better than the Soviet ones (granted, the share of men living to 35-40 years is now higher mostly thanks to significantly lower infant and child mortality rates).

The phenomenon of “supermortality” from 1991 to 2009 – the 6.24 million excess deaths in the past 19 years, of which 3.2 million accrue to the 1990′s, that would not have occurred had age-specific mortality rates remained fixed at 1990 levels – has yet, in my opinion, to be endowed with a rational explanation [AK: This is the weakest point of Zhuravlev's essay. Yes, there is a rational and very convincing reason: Alcohol. There is a very close correlation between alcohol consumption and mortality since the late Soviet period, when an anti-alcohol campaign reduced consumption and improved life expectancy, to local peaks in consumption - and mortality - around 1994 and the early 2000's, to the past few years, when mortality reductions have occurred in lockstep with less boozing. There are similar correlations between alcohol consumption and mortality by geography, sex, and socio-economic sex; see the evidence here.]

Despite the hugeness of the number itself. It is equal to or even exceeds the “supermortality” caused by collectivization, is almost an order of magnitude greater than the number of victims of the Great Terror, and has the same order of magnitude as the rear losses of the USSR during the Great Patriotic War.

Falling living standards? This fit the maximum in 1994, but not the second local maximum in 2003, when normality was returning. And on the whole, while living standards fell during the transition period and reattained Soviet levels only in 2003-2005, the depth of the fall was nowhere near deep enough to explain this “supermortality” as during the war years with reasons such as malnutrition, poor sanitation, and the unbearable conditions of mobilized labor. The “supermortality” of the past twenty years carried some war front characteristics: Excess mortality among males from 25 to 44 years of age in percentage terms relative to Soviet norms was maximal, at 57%. As if Russia had a war.

To this day another very popular explanation is the “alcohol hypothesis.” Booze became more accessible, people got more free time on their hands, and parasitism was no longer a jailing offense. It is probable that more accessible spirits, and especially drugs – which were little known in the USSR – played their role. However, during the period, people didn’t start to buy fewer spirits; it remained at a constant 9-10 liters of ethanol per capita annually (the contribution of homemade moonshine is purely evaluative, often they add on about 10 liters of ethanol per capital, but who’s doing the counting?).

Be that as it may, the reduction in external (“non-natural”) causes of death in the past few years was very significant and was visibly faster than the reduction in mortality from all other causes. For instance, if aggregate mortality declined by 2.9% in 2011, for non-natural causes – homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning – it fell by 9%-17%. Albeit, mortality from traffic accidents did increase by 1.3%.

The causes for this reduction in “non-natural” mortality should probably not be sought for beyond rising living standards. Especially revealing in this context is a comparison between large megapolises, especially Moscow, with the rest of Russia. In the capital, the numbers of murders and suicides, not to even mention alcohol poisonings by counterfeit vodka, are many times lower – by up to five to ten times lower – than in the rest of the country.

In aggregate drunkenness, banditry, the increasing number of auto accidents, and the war in Chechnya explain much less than 100,000 of the annual number of abnormal deaths, which in some years have reached up to 600,000 in the past decade. Furthermore the rise in mortality also affected women, albeit to a lesser extent, for whom the chances of meeting one of the deaths described above are much less characteristic.

The melancholy arising from a career loss is surely an important factor, especially when it comes to people near the end of it. But then its unclear why mortality increases afflicted 25 year old youths; there are cases of suicide even among party and Komsomol activists of this age, even though they fit perfectly into the new capitalist economy.

The mere fact of the demise of the state of “Kuzmich” could hardly have caused such an overpowering depression, as to invoke the desire to end it lethally [AK: Кузьмичи refers to a person who grew up on Soviet kitsch and later became disillusioned by it, but was forced to continue living the lie to retain his power. This cynicism and obscurantism described the Soviet nomenklatura by the 1970's-80's.] To be honest, it was sooner the other way round: They had annoyed everyone by then. One final consideration: We may be dealing with a statistical artifact from Soviet times. It’s well known that to a Soviet economic statistics were just rubbish to a significant extent. Is it possible that similar techniques were applies to mortality statistics, even though its more difficult? [AK: I very much doubt it, not only because falsifying demographic stats is more difficult but because the picture they reveal is damning nonetheless: Stagnant life expectancy (an overall decline for men) and an infant mortality rate that actually, unique among industrialized countries in peacetime, that actually increased under the late Brezhnev period.]

Girls, Ask your Girl Friends

The shifts taking place in fertility were no less interesting. In the 1990′s, the quantity of children per woman younger than 25 years nearly halved. This decrease barely affected older women; however, because it was specifically “youth fertility” that was high in the USSR, the aggregate result was dramatic. The total fertility rate (TFR) – the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime – fell from 1.89 children in 1990 to 1.16 (!) in 1999, which is, of course, very far from level required to assure population replacement. Although the noughties observed an increasing TFR on account of more births among older women – in 2009, the TFR reached 1.54 children – the total “shortfall” of births from the reduction in “youth fertility” during the 1991 to 2009 period consisted of 11.292 people.

Up until 2007, the influence of these changes on the crude birth rate – the numbers of births per 1000 people – was slightly offset by the increase in the numbers of women in their childbearing age.

In the graph below, it is clear that in this indicator, adjusted for changes in age-specific mortality, was actually growing in the 1990′s and the first half of the 2000′s. This is not surprising, as fertility was mostly formulated on account of women born in 1975 or younger, when we had a repeat demographic spurt (an echo of the baby boom of the 1950′s). After 2007, the crude birth rate is starting to be affected by the echo of its own collapse in the 1990′s and by population aging. That is why the birth rate has remained almost flat since that year, despite the number of children per woman markedly increasing. This “echo effect” is going to influence fertility in the coming decade, since women from the small 1990′s cohort will be reaching child-bearing age.

It is difficult to say with certainty what caused this fertility shift towards women of greater age. In the Soviet period, a significant contributory factor to early childbearing was that it was figured as a condition for registration for the provision of housing. Apparently, postponed childbearing was enabled by growing income inequality (as a result of which, women began to take more care in choosing a mate, with economic factors playing a significant role in the process), new opportunities for international migration, or something else.

It’s clear that under the Soviet Union, the presence of kindergartens, schools, the Constitution’s guarantee – which was more or less followed in practice – of free housing constituted significant social supports, which enabled high fertility rates. One can also add that many Soviet cities – maybe, all of them – were developed like a “company town”, with social and housing infrastructures closely tied to the town-forming enterprise. When markets were introduced, and it became clear that nobody wanted so many tractors or so many tanks and the revenues of these enterprises dried up, all this infrastructure were left hanging in thin air. There was nothing left to finance the kindergartens and nurseries, no funds to build housing. And the destruction and uncertainty, of course, also influenced decisions on having children.

The economic stabilization of the 2000′s, and especially the new social support measures introduced in 2006-2007 – maternity capital, credit programs, etc. – launched a “delayed fertility” effect, a shift of births towards older women. In general fertility has matured, albeit one shouldn’t exclude the possibility that further concerted efforts to provide social support for families and children will return TFR back to Soviet levels. In any case, more than half of the movement back is already behind us.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Russia has a long and proud drinking culture; according to the chronicle of its founding, the main reason it chose Christianity over Islam was the latter’s prohibition of booze. Vodka has been distilled there since at least the 12th century. As of the time of writing, it is the world’s largest spirits market by volume – 2.4 billion liters in 2009, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), of which more than 80% accrues to domestic vodka brands. Whiskey’s share is only 0.5%; but it is growing at explosive rates, and whiskey now account for two thirds of all spirits imports. Indigenous distilleries are sprouting up and conditions appear favorable for this growth to continue.

In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus – a point illustrated by Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, one of Russia’s leading sommeliers and author of whiskey books, who got his first taste of Scotch by taking sips on the sly from the bottles his diplomat father brought home from abroad. This changed with the opening up of markets in the early 1990’s. Whiskey consumption has seen tremendous growth; the SWA says exports to Russia have risen from £5m to £31m in the past decade.

Though starting from a low base in comparison with the biggest Scotch markets, such as the US’ £499m, growth is expected to remain double-digit well into the future for three main reasons. First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes. Second, the growing segment of female drinkers favors spirits that can be sipped. Third, the government plans to quadruple the currently low excise duties on spirits by 2014, thus narrowing the cost differential between vodkas and whiskeys. All this implies growth for blends, which dominate the Russian whiskey market – for a time, Tuzmukhamedov was Dewar’s chief promoter in Russia – and very strong growth for single malts.

Reactions to inquiries about indigenous Russian producers was dismissive, their current presence being described as “fairly negligible.” There are some distilleries that have laid down their own malts, but are currently maturing and won’t be ready for years. One example is Viski Kizlyarskoe, a Daghestan-based brand that in 2008 laid down test run trials of all major types of whiskey – malt, grain, and blended – and is building a $7m distillery.

Praskoveysky distillery

Praskoveysky distillery

Another is the Praskoveysky distillery based in Stavropol, which has been producing wine and cognac since 1898. In 2008, it expanded into whiskey, starting up production in oak barrels on Irish technology. The factory manager, Boris Pakhunov, claims that it has a better nose than the Jameson that inspired his brand, and the honey tones are sharper.

The first samples from both are coming to market just now, and once in mass production prices are expected to range 300 to 400 rubles ($11-15) – an economy class alternative to vodka and the most popular imported brands in this category, such as White Horse or Famous Grouse.

Later, in May 2010, the Urzhum spirits distillery announced the launch of its own line, headed by “Officer’s Club.” Another increasingly popular approach is to just import whiskeys from abroad and bottle one’s own blends, as done by the Kaliningrad-based distiller Alliance 1892 in February of this year. It’s product, “Seven Yards”, went on sale this May, costing $18 per bottle.

So it’s a beginning of sorts, if not an overly impressive one thus far. Nonetheless, as whiskey’s following grows, this could change. According to Tuzmukhamedov, there are whiskey appreciation societies in the biggest cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg: “I’ve met ordinary guys who save their money to go on holiday to Islay – that’s not affectation, that’s appreciation of the drink.” He should know, as he runs Dewar’s new whiskey academy in Moscow, whose one month courses have become very popular with restaurateurs.

Whither now? Tuzmukhamedov is very skeptical that whiskey will ever displace vodka as Russia’s national drink, because vodka has the weight of tradition behind it and goes much better with the staples of the Russian diet. Though there is a lot of room for growth remaining, he expects it to eventually level off. Russian whiskeys are likely to become more prevalent on the Russian market, and some may even be exported. There is an antecedent for this in Baltika beer, which began brewing in 1990 on foreign techniques and can now be found in Western supermarkets.

That said, there is still a long way to go. According to Tamerlan Paragulgov, the director of an alcohol standards agency, many of the fledgling Russian whiskey makers still have fairly obsolete marketing standards; case in point, the Praskoveysky winery and cognac distillery is still run in a leisurely and paternalistic fashion as a Soviet-style enterprise. Another problem, according to Tuzmukhamedov, is that it is very hard for a small producer like Praskoveysky to establish itself in competition against the big names.

The experiments of today’s Russian whiskey producers may garner interest among whiskey circles in Russia, but they will have to get more serious about marketing and raising capital if their products are to break out into the wider market.

See more

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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One thing that strikes you, as you wander the shops of any Russian city, is the sheer cheapness of booze and cigs. As little as 3 years ago, one could buy a pint-sized bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes for just $1, while a 0.5l bottle of vodka cost as little as $3. Prices have since risen, but they remain very low in comparison to incomes.

This happy era was due to come to an end. The Finance Ministry planned to raise excise duties on ethanol products by a factor of 4.3 and by a factor of 15 on tobacco products, in a graduated way through to 2015. The result would have quadrupled the minimum price of lower-range vodkas (105 rules, to 410 rubles) and of the average cigarette pack (24 rubles, to 100 rubles). The practice of selling beer in large, plastic containers is to be forbidden from January 2013. Given that alcohol was found to cause 32% of aggregate mortality amongst middle-aged Russians in 2005, and the high prevalence of smoking among Russian men, these measures are surely long overdue. The plans will help Russia to consolidate the reductions in alcohol-related mortality of recent years.

The main driving force behind this seemed to be Finance Minister Kudrin, if for reasons that have little to do with public health (the taxes are estimated to bring in a further $11 billion in revenues, in addition to the $3 billion garnered through existing ones). Though these sums are very small relative to Russia’s total budget, they will nonetheless help to appreciably narrow the budget deficit. However, these ambitious plans may have received a setback following Putin’s criticism of the plans in late March; namely, that such rapid price rises would encourage more Russians to take to moonshine alternatives. The alcohol and tobacco lobbies also raised objections.

According to a Finance Ministry source who contacted Russian Reuters, the revised plans call for a smaller increase in excise tax on vodka, by a factor of 2.2 instead of the previous 4.3 by 2015. The result will be a mere doubling of lower-end vodka prices (105 rules, to 180 rubles); and, given rising incomes and substantial inflation, only a modest decrease in its relative affordability. Likewise, smokers are in for good news: the former quadrupling is now little more than a doubling by 2014. It is still unclear which plan will ultimately be favored. For instance, the pro-Communist Trud speculates that the revised plan will be adhered to until after the 2012 elections – after which there is a chance that the rate of excise tax increases will be stepped up.

The fear amongst Putin, lobbyists, most Russian regions, and about 50% of Russians as per a VCIOM poll, the main effect of rapid price rises is going to be negative, as many people will supposedly only switch to “dangerous and unregulated homebrews, as well as poisonous surrogates like eau de cologne, shoe polish and even jet fuel”, according to Mark Schrad of the NYT. The Gorbachev experience, in which alcohol laws were made stricter from 1985, is continuously cited as evidence.

I remain to be convinced. First, according to that same VCIOM poll, 30% of Russians say they will continue drinking the same alcohol and another 20% say they will drink less; only 15% say they will start drinking homebrews and 4% will look for bootlegged vodka.

Second, for all that maligned Soviet experience of restricting vodka, life expectancy increased from 67.7 years in 1984 to more than 69 years for the rest of its existence (peaking at 70.0 years in 1986-87); and only fell below the late Soviet-era low in 1993, when the state’s vodka monopoly was dissolved and the country was in the midst of a rapid socio-economic collapse. Now given the differences between the Soviet Union and modern Russia, namely that there are far more alternatives to hard spirits, e.g. beer and wine, increasing prices will probably be even more effective now.

Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign: now maligned, but more or less successful while it lasted.

Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign: now maligned, but more or less successful while it lasted.

So while I don’t usually agree with Boris Nemtsov, I can only support him in his condemnation of the regime for reducing the scope of vodka and tobacco excise tax increases.

EDIT 5/18/2011: Synopsis of final FinMin plans from Kommersant. The growth in excise taxes will be minimal until after the 2012 elections. From July 1st, 2012, they will start increasing at a faster rate, reaching 500 rubles per 0.5l of spirits (prev. 901 rubles) and 1040 rubles per 1000 cigarettes (prev. 874 rubles) – with the possibility of going higher if the action is coordinated with neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan. The result is that the typical price of a lower-range 0.5l vodka bottle will rise from 125 rubles now, to 175 rubles in H2 2012, 220 rubles in 2013, and 260 rubles in 2014. The minimal price of a pack of cigarettes will rise from 16 rubles now, to 22 rubles in 2012, 29 rubles in 2013, and up to 38 rubles rubles in 2014.

As expected, this is a substantially watered down version, under which the price of vodka and tobacco will remain well under Western norms through to 2015. Cynical electoral populism, and the influence of the alcohol and tobacco lobbies, are working to limit the potential public health gains that could have resulted from a more aggressive plan for raising excise taxes on spirits and tobacco.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In the first part of my series comparing Russia, Britain and the US, I am going to look at their levels of social freedoms. While political scientists go on about to what extent a country has “democracy” or “rule of law”, this ignores that these arcane concepts have practically zero relevance to the everyday lives of ordinary people. They are, however, much more concerned about issues such as their right to get a fair wage, travel to different countries, and smoke weed in peace. Who gets what ratings from Freedom House is a matter of indifference.

Employment & Social Welfare

Real wages for the majority of both American and British workers have stagnated since the 1970′s, while inequality has soared. The American Dream, with its promise of social mobility, has largely faded. In recent years, academic studies have shown that social mobility – as measured by your children’s chances of switching socio-economic classes – is now lower in the US than in practically all developed countries except Britain. This is a very worrying development, since social mobility has traditionally been an antidote to America’s high levels of inequality; without it, it begins to resemble the socially stratified and politically unstable Latin American countries.

That said, I believe the US remains by far the best deal for two kinds of people: the rich, and the entrepreneurial. Income taxes are low by UK (and European) standards, and property is far more secure than in Russia. Furthermore, as a rich, technologically advanced country covering half a continent with more than 300 million souls, the US offers unparalleled opportunities for all kinds of leisure activities and hobbies: flying planes; sailing; skiing; rock climbing; surfing; horse riding; gourmet dining; white water rafting; etc. Unskilled workers have less rights and more insecurity than in most of Europe, but for the upper middle class America is truly an oyster.

The US is an extremely attractive place for business development. The bureaucracy is minimal and registration of a Limited Liability Company (LLC) – the optimal structure for most S&M businesses, especially online-based ones – can be done over the Internet for about $200 (the best places for setting up an LLC are Nevada and Delaware, which are referred to as “onshore offshore” among some circles). The US consumer market is gargantuan, and for most categories of products, around five to ten times larger than the UK’s or Russia’s. The weirdest stuff, like bounce shoes, or medieval catapult replicas, or kombucha tea, finds its niche in the US.

Bureaucratic hurdles and a much smaller consumer market make the creation of small businesses more difficult in Russia. In fact, the country comes 123rd in the world in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, in comparison to the 4th position of the UK and the 5th position of the US. The best opportunities in Russia now tend to be in the state sector. In contrast to the impoverished 1990′s, state coffers are now flush with money and salaries for managers in state companies, academia, the bureaucracy, etc., are increasing fast. Though relative to developed countries, salaries remain low – about $700 per month, or $1000 in Moscow, is typical – their impact is multiplied by cheaper staples (e.g. potatoes, meat, etc. cost 1.5-2x less than in the US or the UK), very cheap utilities (gas, water, electricity) and cheap transport. Since the mid-2000′s, Russia’s “brain drain” to the West (primarily Germany, the US, and Israel) has abated, while economic migrants have poured in at an accelerating rate.

Most "everyday" products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Most “everyday” products in Russia are cheaper than in the West.

Russian consumers are now relatively well-off by global standards. The GDP per capita, taking into account international price differences, is estimated at $19,000 by the World Bank for 2009. This compares to about $36,000 in the UK and $46,000 in the USA. Obviously Russia still has a lot of catching up to do, but it is no longer a struggling, collapsed superpower where the poor struggle to even feed themselves, as in the 1990′s, but an upper-middle income country not that far from Portugal ($25,000), Korea ($27,000), or even Italy ($32,000). The material accouterments of development, such as cell phones and Internet access, are now widely in evidence.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

Got this done by a street artist in Moscow for 300 rubles ($10) back in 2003. Nowadays, such deals are much harder to find.

One consequence of high oil prices and economic growth has been a rise in prices relative to international levels. Back in the early 2000′s, it was possible to do cool stuff for a pittance, e.g. $25 for an hour of flying time. Now they are little different from prices in the US, and you’re better off doing your “geoarbitrage” – exploiting differences in international prices to have the most fun for the least money – in places like Argentina or China.

Though state sector jobs have usually been comfortable in both the UK and the US, their prospects have dimmed considerably due to their fiscal crises. Britain has decided to radically trim down the share of public workers in the labor force, but it’s unlikely that the private sector will be able to reabsorb most of them (thus, I expect many years of heightened unemployment, falling house prices, and depressed consumer activity). The budget cuts in the US are more symbolic, but some states are cutting down ferociously; thus, while federal employees are largely secure for now, the prospects of workers in local government are more uncertain.

One thing that all three countries have in common is that few of their citizens save any of their money. In fact, given Anglo-Saxon habits of treating their houses as a piggy bank, net household debt is on the order of 100% of GDP and quite a lot of Americans and Brits are now underwater. This figure is much lower in Russia, but only because its private lending sector is far less developed than in the West; credit-based purchases were just beginning to take off in 2007-2008, until the economic crisis short-circuited them.

Labor Rights

Americans are by far the most overworked (c.2000 hours / year). Holidays are few and far between, bosses are very powerful. (Combined with easy access to guns, this creates a few “going postal” incidents every year, in which angry employees gun down their bosses and coworkers). Testing employees for drugs is commonplace, which would be considered pretty absurd by most of Europe. Russians and British also work a lot (c.1700 hours / year), though not as much as Americans. (By comparison, central Europeans are real slackers, clocking in just c.1300-1500 hours / year). The workplace atmosphere in the UK and Russia tends to be more relaxed and easygoing than in the US. A Russian company of 10 people usually has 30 office birthday parties a year.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

One of the foundations of the British welfare state.

In the private sector, dismissals are quick and easy in all three countries. Unions are very weak; the prospect of them grinding the country to a halt, as regularly happens in France, is unthinkable. Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and rely for health insurance on their employer. Unemployment benefits are small and run out after 26 weeks; credit cards may fill the gap in the meantime. Russian labor laws are likewise ungenerous, and benefits are meager to the extent that most unemployed persons don’t even bother registering . In the UK, one could get very modest unemployment benefits (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) for a year before the state forces you into a make-work job; however, IIRC, this has recently been shortened to 3 months.

The Homeless

There are far more beggars on the streets of US cities, though they are very noticeable in Russia and the UK too. The reason for the big rates of US homelessness is partly to do with the unstable nature of economic life, especially the dangerous dependence on debt for education, medical procedures, etc; another reason is that by law, it is much more difficult to institutionalize the mentally ill in the US (this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the procedure can be abused by unscrupulous family members).

Most of Russia’s homeless have become so through alcohol or drug addiction (though some became homeless because they were ethnically cleansed from parts of the former USSR in the anarchic 1990′s; others lost their homes to “black realtors”, the bands of thugs who use violence and trickery to steal housing; finally, many didn’t get just compensation for having their old apartments knocked down to make way for more elite developments).

The same major causes – drug addiction and alcoholism – appear to have been at play in the US too, at least until 2008, but since then the homelessness has exploded; in Berkeley, where I now live, I’d estimate their numbers have doubled or tripled. Their social composition also changed. Before 2008, probably 75%+ were African-American males; now, there are a lot of whites and women, too. I think this development is largely linked to the flood of foreclosures sweeping the US in the wake of the housing bubble collapse (foreclosure fraud has also become disturbingly prevalent). The economic situation in Britain is pretty similar to that in the US, so I wouldn’t be surprised if homelessness there has also increased in the past few years.

Prisons

The US and Russia, in this order, are global leaders in incarceration rates. Russian prisons are the toughest, as they involve forces labor, brutal criminal hierarchies, and rampant diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. However, sentences are much shorter than in the US. The typical sentence for murder is 6 to 15 years, while only terrorists and serial killers get life sentences. Many Russian prisons are located in Siberia, where the main obstacles to escape aren’t guards or walls, but the remote, inhospitable location. The system’s most famous prisoner is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man until 2003 when he was arrested for tax evasion. About 0.58% of the Russian population is imprisoned.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco; the most famous US prison, held Al Capone, now a tourist attraction.

Even relatively minor felonies in the US can get you very long jail sentences. For instance, California’s “three strikes law” means that someone convicted of three felonies (e.g. burglaries, car thefts) may well never see freedom again. God help you if end up in a supermax. Prisoners are organized around race-based gangs (white Aryans, Hispaniacs, blacks), which maintain hierarchies and war with each other.

There is forced labor in US prisons. Many prisons are privately owned, and thus have an incentive to band together and lobby for harsher sentences; critics even point to the emergence of a “prison-industrial complex“. The prison population has quintupled in the past 30 years, so that now 0.75% of the US population is behind bars.

Though British prisons are no song either, at least by Scandinavian standards, they are far preferable to both Russian and American ones. The rate of imprisonment has risen in the past decade and overtaken most European countries, but at 0.15% of the population, the situation is still a lot better than in Russia or the US.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

You want to stay out of a US supermax.

Why is this? Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to view crime not as an inevitable phenomenon borne of adverse socio-economic conditions (e.g. inequality, community breakdown), but as individual transgressions by bad men and women. This religious-tinted perspective, based on clear conceptions of what is good and what is evil, perhaps, also explains the relative harshness of US punishments. You have a higher chance of dying in a Russian prison, but you’ll stay much longer in a US one.

After extensive use in the Soviet period, Russia implemented a moratorium on the death penalty from the mid-1990′s. Though 65% of Russians supported capital punishment in 2005 (down from 79% in 2002), it’s not coming back any time soon due to its agreements with the Council of Europe. The death penalty was abolished in the UK in the 1960′s, and likewise its reintroduction is extremely unlikely (despite a slight majority of the British population being in favor).

The US had a moratorium from 1967 to 1977, but the death penalty is applicable in most states outside the North-East nowadays. While there is opposition to the death penalty in liberal pockets of the US, by and large it enjoys a lot of popular support, and is unlikely to make an exit any time soon. One recent improvement is that underage offenders can no longer be executed. Most executions are by lethal injections, and each one attracts a mass of anti-death penalty activists.

Freedom & Regulations

The TSA has courted controversy with its "naked body" scanners.

The TSA has courted controversy with its “naked body” scanners.

There is a lot of rhetoric in the US on freedom as an unalienable right. But things aren’t that straightforward. Many security-for-freedom compromises have been made under the rubric of the “war on terror”, and at least for practicing Muslims, or for those passing through an American port of entry, the Homeland now differs little from an authoritarian regime.

Speaking of airports… American ones have prying, time-consuming and ineffective anti-terrorist measures (some find them humiliating, I find them annoying). They can demand your fingerprints, and take away your notebook and other electronic belongings, without explanation. Russian and UK airports aren’t pleasant either in this respect, but somewhat better than American ones.

But in most cases, the US still far better on the free speech thing than our other two alternatives. Britain’s libel laws are (in)famous for being exploited by corporations and rich individuals all over the world for silencing those who publish unsavory or incriminating information on them; frequently, the threat of exorbitant legal fees is enough to force removal of the material. They can also obtain gag orders to prevent publication of such documents in the first place. The mere act of owning literature like the Anarchist Cookbook or “justifying” terrorism gives you a small chance of landing a hefty jail sentence.

In Russia, libel lawsuits have emerged as one of the most powerful defenses of corrupt politicians against valid criticism. It is the worst country of the three for “leakers”, whistleblowers and investigative journalists. Before you can air the elite’s dirty laundry you must get some kind of political cover, as Navalny almost certainly did when exposing corruption in state pipeline operator Transneft. But if a lowly police officer tries to expose his superiors’ corruption, the likelier outcome is that he’d be fired, and may even go to prison for “corruption” himself.

The situation in the US is far better. It has been widely criticized for its extralegal campaign against Wikileaks, but in a way, the very fact that the Department of Justice is finding it so hard to charge Julian Assange with anything is a testament to the robustness of its institutional safeguards.

On the positive side, Russia's police have excellent fashion sense.

On the positive side, Russia’s police have excellent fashion sense.

The police in big Russian cities, especially in the Metros, are omnipresent and provoke a sense of foreboding rather than security. They have the right to stop you at will and demand to see your documents (i.e. an internal passport); if you don’t have them, and a bribe doesn’t suffice, then it’s off to the police station to confirm your identity. But in practice, as long as you don’t have Central Asian or Caucasian features (i.e. a potential illegal alien or terrorist) or a young Slavic man (i.e. a potential draft evader) then you’re very unlikely to get stopped. (By the way, the recent immigration bill in Arizona effectively gives its police the same powers as those “enjoyed” by their Russian counterparts).

Most Russians dislike their police, which is unsurprising given their penchant for corruption and brutality. Americans and especially Britons regard their police much more positively, mostly seeing them as honest upholders of the laws. (Of course, certain groups such as African-Americans in the US, don’t share these views).

Russia has an onerous system of registration. To access social services, you have to be officially registered as living in the area of their provision. This shows up in your internal passport. There is no such system in the UK or the US.

That said, in one very real sense, Russians are far freer than Westerners. That is in the laxness of regulations or their non-enforcement. One advantage of life being more chaotic and improvised is that Russians don’t have to worry nearly as much as Americans or Britons about offending some local ordnance, getting a parking ticket, etc.

Gun Rights

The freedom to get armed and dangerous is one of America’s most cherished rights, to the extent that some states like Texas even allow concealed carry onto campuses. The most liberal firearms policy is supported by most of the US population, with the sole exception of some urban liberals.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

Me at a California shooting range. Probably 2006.

You can go buy a gun after a quick background check (and you don’t even have to undergo that if you talk to the right people at one of the many gun fairs going on year round). Hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols (the Glock 17 is my favorite; costs about $400), semi-automatics (like the cool FS2000, costs about $3,300) are all good for the taking. There is a ban on the manufacture for civilian use of fully-automatics after 1986, resulting in soaring prices due to competition for the remaining stocks; an AR-15 of this type will cost around $15,000-20,000.

Citizens have the right of “concealed carry” in most of the conservative states; recently, Texas even allowed students to carry them onto campus. Except for a few limp-wristed liberals in degenerate areas such as the Bay Area, the vast majority of the American public supports gun rights.

As mentioned above, private gun ownership is very restricted in the UK. The main exceptions are low-capacity shotguns; single-shot rifles (e.g. bolt-action); low-caliber semi-automatics; and air guns. All kinds of handguns and fullbore semi-automatics are banned. This stance is supported by the vast majority of the population. There are rifle ranges where enthusiasts can practice rifle shooting (I did it at my school for free, though it was atypical in its close relations with the military), but ordinary Britons are far less into guns than Americans.

Russian laws are in between the two Anglo-Saxon countries. Acquiring licenses for shotguns and hunting rifles is easy. Getting one for a pistol is far harder; from what I heard, one common ploy is to register yourself as an employee of a security company (the authorities rarely bother checking up on it). Most Russians concerned with self-defense just get an air pistol instead. IIRC, its possible to get a license for a fullbore semi-automatic, but it requires a good reason and 5 years of possessing a license for other guns without incident. In practice, there are a lot of unregistered guns floating around in Russia, especially in the unstable North Caucasus region.

Many Brits and Russians smugly criticize the Americans for the “recklessness” of their gun laws, arguing that it leads to higher crime, etc. But they aren’t borne out by the facts. The homicide rate in Russia is 15/100,000; granted, it’s down from 30+/100,000 in the 1990′s and early 2000′s, but it’s still more than twice as high as in the US. The reason for this has nothing to do with guns. The average Russian murder, statistically speaking, is from stabbings or blows during a drunken argument between two middle-aged guys at an apartment. So these Russian critics are pretty hypocritical.

Britain is far safer, with a homicide rate of about 1.5/100,000 compared to America’s 6/100,000; perhaps a better argument for gun control? But then again, gun ownership in the US is concentrated in affluent suburbia, which are just as safe if not safer than their British equivalents. The rates of petty crimes such as burglaries and car thefts are certainly far lower. Homicide rates only truly go out of control in the inner city areas of places like Washington DC or Atlanta, rising to as high as 70/100,000; but these are caused not by (legally registered) guns, but by turf wars between drug gangs using unregistered guns. Due to the “war on drugs”, prices are high and so as profits, and people will kill for money no matter what. The solution to this problem is drugs legalization, not gun criminalization.

Alcohol Rights

The equivalent sacrosanct liberty in Russia is the right to be drunk. Gorbachev’s attempts at partial prohibition were unpopular and may have even contributed to disillusionment with the Soviet system. In public, on park benches or underneath them, or trundling in for the work day, nowhere will you see as many drunk people as on the streets of any Russian city.

The legal drinking age is eighteen, but I’ve never seen anyone being checked, including visibly underage buyers. It’s common to see people milling around beer stalls in public parks or tourist attractions, including teenagers. Beer is considered more as a soft drink than an alcoholic beverage.

In contrast, I’m always asked for an ID when shopping for booze in the US (unless I wear my camo pants and black wife-beater, in which case they ask no questions). This isn’t to say that there aren’t any shops or bars willing to sell alcohol to people under 21, but generally speaking they’re either in isolated rural areas or you have to really look for them. The situation is easier in the UK, because the legal age is 18; furthermore, even 16-17 year olds don’t face unsurmountable problems in getting served. The going rate for fake ID’s seems to be about $200 in both countries (there are cheaper alternatives but they tend to be unreliable).

Travel Rights (Passports)

If you like to travel, the UK passport is the best there is. Thanks to its “special relationship” with the US, and links to the British Commonwealth and the EU, a British national can visit some 166 countries without a visa. The US passport is almost as good with 159 visa free countries (though Cuba is banned outright unless you have an approved reason for it). The Russian passport is far behind with just 95 countries. Good for traveling through Central Asia and the Middle East, you’ll need a visa to visit the developed world bar Israel.

Good for getting out of town.

Good for getting out of town.

Though many Britons complain about the difficulties of getting a Russian visa, they pale besides the troubles Russians experience with visiting the UK. They have to fill in multiple forms with confidential financial and personal information, and can be – and frequently are, after the Litvinenko Affair – refused entry for no discernible reason.

Russia operates on the principle of “visa free travel must be reciprocal between states”, which IMO is a respectable stance; hence, if the British (or Europeans, Americans) want to visit Russia without hassle, they should pressure their own governments to simplify or remove visa procedures for Russians.

You might not get what you want from them, but British Embassies are by far the most pleasant of the lot. Russian ones are staffed by rude people and rather anarchic; there was something close to a riot the last time I was in the SF Russian Consulate. American embassies are protected by intimidating layers of armed men, and their staff tend to be the most arrogant of the lot.

ASBO’s

Are an anti-freedom specific to the UK? The ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) is a restraint order that allows for your activities – even if they’re legal – to be restricted by court order on the “balance of evidence” (i.e. not even proof of guilt). They can be imposed based on anonymous denunciations. Violating their terms can result in a prison term. Usually used against troublesome teenagers.

Gambling Rights

Now that's what I call dedication to the cause!

Now that’s what I call dedication to the cause!

Gambling is without doubt the most liberalized in the US. The main centers of the gambling industry are in Las Vegas, Atlanta City, and Reno. The latter is particularly suitable for North Californians, especially if they also like skiing (Tahoe is just an hour’s drive away from Reno). The glitzy mega-casinos of Las Vegas used to be the global gambling mecca, but in the recent years it has been decisively overtaken by Macao.

Any one of dozens of casinos in Vegas dwarf the biggest casino in Britain, where they are much more restricted (recently there were plans to allow the construction of a few “super-casinos” in the UK, but IIRC they’ve fallen through).

All casinos in Russia were banned in 2009, except in four remote regions without any existing facilities; idiotically, poker was amongst the “gambling” games banned, and as such Russian players typically go to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or further abroad to Europe. As such, most remaining casinos in Russia are necessarily underground operations, that pay for police and/or political protection (the Prosecutor General’s son was implicated in a casino racketeering scandal a week ago). Being more risk-averse and less capitalistic than Americans, the conservative stance of the UK and Russia on gambling is broadly supported by the population.

EDIT 4/16/2011: The era of permissive US attitudes towards gambling may be waning, in the wake of the shutdown of the three largest online poker sites and arrest warrants for their CEO’s. Formally, what they were doing has been (arguably) illegal since 2006, but for whatever reason the Feds have only decided to move now. Online poker remains legal in the UK, (even) Russia, China, and most of Europe.

Violence & Nudity Rights

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

Grand Theft Auto, a quintessential American video game.

It’s cliché that American culture is violent, while Europeans are oversexed. I find this generally accurate. A German once told me about a video game in which some enemy characters were topless green fairies. When it came out in the stores, the Americans censored out the nipples; the Germans censored out the blood splatter. Nudity is far more prevalent on TV in Europe, even prime time, which would be unthinkable in the US with its more puritanical instincts. On the other hand, many aspects of American culture invoke the righteousness of controlled violence: Western shootouts; the Second Amendment; Grand Theft Auto; the entire zombie genre; grindhouse flicks (e.g.Texas Chainsaw Massacre); etc.

The UK has the worst – or the best – of both worlds. Violent imagery is not condoned as in the America and its gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the world (suffice to say that their Olympics pistol shooting team has to practice in France). And the general attitude towards nudity is still best exemplified by “No sex please, we’re British.” The placidness of British life is interrupted in sudden jolts by Friday night binges, in which they try to make up for days of rain-filled monotony with paroxysms of drunken licentiousness that is the stuff of legends throughout civilized Europe.

Female toplessness, let alone full nudity for men or women, is illegal in public for all three countries (if you want more liberality, then Germany, Scandinavia and Canada is where it’s at). On the other hand, it is not uncommon for young Russian women to wear see-through vests during summer. Their American counterparts like to wear opaque tights, while British girls have a penchant for short skirts.

The Americans and British favor swimming shorts for men and two-piece bikinis for women on the beach. Topless or clothing-free areas are atypical. Nowadays, Russia is drawing closer to the European mainstream in which female toplessness is more prevalent on the beaches. Russian men tend to wear swimming briefs, which are decidedly uncool in Britain and the US. Thongs have become popular in all three countries, but most remain too shy for string bikinis at the beach.

TV & Video Games

Russians are all round extremists. Back in the 1990′s, even prime-time TV was filled with images of the most blood-drenched inanity – what the eXile referred to as “death porn” – as well as real, hardcore pornography. Some sense of sobriety has since been restored to the TV stations and such scenes are now limited to late hours as in normal countries. The old atmosphere continues to reign on the Internet. It’s common to see photos of partial nudity on the more tabloid newspapers, which is unheard of on American ones and rare on British papers (to the extent that “Page 3″ is known by everyone to refer to The Sun‘s photos of topless models on, erm, the third page).

Not in Britain, please.

Not in Britain, please.

The British have by far the strictest ratings system for video games, with some like Manhunt 2 being banned outright. Almost nothing is banned in the US thanks to the First Amendment, though the age classifications system is pretty authoritarian. If there exists a video games classification agency in Russia, no one I know has ever heard of it; besides, it would be totally redundant since all video games are pirated there anyway.

One positive thing to say about Britain is that it has by far the most tolerable advertising on TV. It is shorter and not as in-your-face buy-my-product in style. The length of commercials makes watching TV in the US or Russia rather excruciating. One telling thing I’ve noticed is that about 25% of commercials in the US and Russia reflect their respective healthcare crises of obesity and alcoholism: high-carbohydrate, high-saturated fat foods in the US; beer in Russia. When watching Russian TV, you can tell when it strikes 10pm without consulting a clock, as the commercials become infested with beer promotions. One day about seven years ago I was watching a documentary on Russia TV that bewailed the nation’s economic and social crises and the government’s indifference – yes, contrary to what the Western media says, Russian TV does criticize the government – and one segment ended with some demographer citing the numbers of alcoholics in the country as evidence of social decline. This was immediately followed by a commercial for Baltika beer, as if determined to prove him right!

Abortion Rights

All three countries have abortion rights. The US since Roe vs. Wade in the 1970′s; the UK also since that period; Russia since Stalin’s death (and during 1920-1936). In the UK, a woman can get an abortion up until 26 weeks. IIRC, there are similar laws in the US; though conservative states put up a great deal of bureaucratic obstacles to women getting abortion. Some abortion doctors were even assassinated by religious fundamentalists.

In Russia, abortion is legal on request to 12 weeks, and for social reasons to 22 weeks. The country has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest abortion rates. There were 2-2.5 abortions for every live birth in the post-Stalinist USSR, where it was used as a major component of birth control; though this indicator began to fall consistently from 1993, it was not until 2007 that live births exceeded abortions.

Driving Rights

In the UK, you can take a driving test at the age of 17. They are far more rigorous than in Russia or the US. Many people fail multiple times. In the US, it depends by state: IIRC, the California driving age is 16, and it’s as low as 14 in some of the more rural states inland.

Russians can take driving tests from the age of 18, IIRC. They seem to be about as hard as US tests, but the passing criteria can be lowered depending on the size of your bribe to the instructor.

In all three countries, there is a written (computerized) and a driving component to the test. The written material is hardest in the UK, and one section actually involves watching videos and making split second decisions on what to do in dangerous situations. The written tests in all three countries involve answering fairly simple multiple-choice questions from a booklet that you study beforehand.

As a rule of thumb, it is legal to drink one pint of beer, or a glass of wine, but NOT two, when driving in Britain and the US. It is very unusual to see drunk people behind the wheel in both countries. There are a lot of drunkards on Russian roads, however the problem has decreased markedly since the mid-2000′s when a no tolerance policy towards driving and drinking was introduced (having the slightest traces of alcohol in your body leads to a suspension of your license).

You drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK, but on the right hand side in Russia and the US.

Drugs Rights

The cool states are colored green.

The cool states are colored green.

The US has a reputation for maintaining a hard line against marijuana, but the situation is more nuanced in practice. In someplace like Tennessee, you could go to jail for mere possession. In Berkeley, California, you can light up a joint at any public park. Policing marijuana possession here was put on the very lowest priority, below jaywalking, so obviously no-one cares. You can extend weed coverage to the rest of the California by telling the doctor that you “suffer” from some kind of “disease”, e.g. “migraine headaches” that can only be “alleviated” by smoking marijuana. The doctor will give you the medical certificate for a small fee and you can go hit the bong.

Drugs off all kinds are far easier to acquire in the US than in the UK according to, erm, acquaintances. I don’t know about the situation in Russia.

Piracy rights

In theory, Russia has copyright law; in practice, 90% of software in Russia is pirated and the chances off getting in trouble for it are virtually non-existent. Fire sharing is all prevalent. In the US it is an extremely serious offense, about on par with rape, thanks to the political power of the record companies. But fortunately for its tens of millions of illegal file downloaders, the individual’s chances of being detected and prosecuted are very low. Piracy is illegal and prosecuted in Britain, though the rare convictions that happen don’t tend to result in absurdly huge fines like in the US.

Conscription

Both the US and Britain have professional armies. The last time the US had conscription was during the Vietnam War, and though it is extremely unlikely to be used again, men have to register with the Selective Service System upon turning 18 in case of a future mobilization. They can theoretically be called up until the age of 25. Britons had a system of National Service from World War 2 until the early 1960′s.

Conscription remains a major institution in Russian life. The bulk of its military is made up of conscripts, though the numbers of contract soldiers are rising. Conscription is slated to last until at least 2020. In the recent past, the length of service has recently been shortened from two years to one year. This was accompanied by a narrowing down of deferments, and greater efforts to crack down on draft evasion. There are biannual drafts in the spring and autumn.

In a typical scenario, the future conscript receives a letter from the local Military Commissariat (voenkomat) upon turning eighteen, informing him of his obligation to appear at their office. Unless one has a valid deferment (e.g. a place in a university) or resides overseas, failing to do so is a fairly serious offence. Then he has to go for a medical checkup with military doctors to ascertain suitability for service; they will, of course, try to prove that he’s healthy and fit to serve. This is followed by travel to the marshaling ground, where he is assigned and transported to his unit in another corner of the Russian Federation. Alternate service lasts longer and is very unprestigious, involving dirty work like cleaning sewers, so few opt for it.

Many wealthy and well-connected families can find ways for their sons to evade conscription or to get assigned to elite units where there’s little hazing. The most common method is to get a “white ticket”, certifying an illness that makes one unsuitable for service. Sometimes the illness is real, but more often it is imagined and paid for; the going rate amongst doctors for signing the appropriate papers is $2,000-$5,000. However, this “white ticket” (its real color is red) often results in future job discrimination; furthermore, it is unreliable because the Military Commissariat may insist on its own medical tests if they have suspicions about the existence of the illness (the correct response is to deny them this request in writing; legally, they cannot force those medical tests on someone).

Therefore, other methods of draft evasion are preferable, e.g., a direct bribe to the officers of the Military Commissariat. Not everyone can afford this; even a few years ago, the typical payment was around $5,000-10,000 (the amount depends on the Military Commissariat: some are cheaper, some are expensive, others actually don’t accept bribes). Since then, there has been a fall in the numbers of eligible conscripts (due to the collapse in birth rates during the 1990′s), a halving of the length of service, and an increasingly serious anti-corruption campaign. This means that a rising proportion of each year’s male cohort has to be called up to maintain the Armed Forces at one million soldiers. As a result, successful draft evasions have fallen, while typical bribe sizes have soared well above $10,000.

Though training and conditions of service are better than in the cash-strapped years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are still very substandard and extensively criticized by human rights groups. In particular, hazing – called dedovschina (lit. “rule of the grandfathers”, i.e. of soldiers nearing the end of their service) – is prevalent in many units and directly results in the deaths of a few dozen soldiers every year. (In total, about 200-300 commit suicide in total out of the one million-strong armed forces; some would have done so anyway, but others are surely caused by hazing).

It was hoped that the reduction in length of service would reduce incidents of hazing, because it would (by definition) eliminate the “grandfathers”, but it actually may have had the opposite effect. When administered through the grandfathers, the system had a certain framework of rules and traditions to it; today, the hierarchy is no longer set by length of service, but by the rule of the jungle. With no tradition of a strong NCO corps, checking this chaos will be a major challenge in the coming years.

All that said, I stress that far from everyone regards the Armed Forces with fear and loathing. Of those I know who served in the Russian Army, most describe it as an exercise in pointlessness and boredom; what bullying they experienced happened to other people in other units. A few even look back in fondness. According to opinion polls, Russians are evenly split on whether to continue conscription. Some say it helps build character and discipline; others regard the Army as a dangerous prison, or at best a waste of time.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The two dunces.

The two dunces.

During the past two years, Russian “dissident” liberals Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov have produced a frankly maniacal quantity of so-called “Independent Expert Reports” (there are now seven of them) that purport to debunk the “persistent myths imposed by official [Kremlin] propaganda”. The authors say that their latest exegesis, melodramatically entitled “Putin. The Results. 10 Years” and at 48 pages one of their shorter works, will have a print run of one million copies and will be distributed throughout Russia’s regions. This latest iteration of Nemtsov’s anti-Putin screed differs little in substance from the first, which was pilloried by Sean Guillory in Nemtsov’s White Paper: Bombshell or Dud?

Though Sean castigated the “dynamic duo” for their middle-class chauvinism, neoliberal elitism and poverty of proposed solutions, even he was far too kind in granting them the benefit of the doubt on their “litany of statistics, examples, and facts” showing that Russia had been brought to the brink of collapse by Putin (of course Russia was pushed well past that brink under Yeltsin, when Nemtsov reached his political apogee; but I digress). Now I hadn’t previously read any of Nemtsov and Co.’s earlier scribblings, but their introduction to this latest report raised my suspicions. Apparently, one myth peddled by Kremlin propagandists is that under Putin, Russians began to “give birth more and die less”. Of course, anyone with the slightest familiarity with Russian demography knows this is either a howler or a mendacious lie. If these guys can’t be relied on to get simple facts right, facts which can be looked up on the Internet within seconds, what basis is there to trust them on anything else they have to say? So I decided to sneak a peek at Nemtsov’s chapter on Russia’s demography… and discovered a truly epic mountain of red herrings, statistical manipulation and outright lies worthy of a Brezhnev-era Goskomstat apparatchik.

Nemtsov’s Bomb Defused

The chapter in question is entitled “A Dying Country”… not only is it a kitschy trope, but one that is no longer really valid as Russia saw positive population growth in 2009. But whatever. The choice of title fades into irrelevance in comparison with what comes next.

1. According to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris, one of the main tenets of the “Putinist mythology” concerns Russia’s recent demographic progress, in stark contrast to the “1990′s national extinction”. The authors then invite us to look at the “facts”, which apparently look something like the graph below.

[My translation of Nemtsov's graph (the "Yeltsin" and "Putin" insertions were my own, but otherwise it is unchanged). Click to enlarge.]

Where to start? First, the giant elephant in the room that our democracy crusaders “forgot” to mention was that immigration into the Russian Federation was far higher in the 1990′s than it was during the Putin period. From 1992-1999, Russia received a one-off 3.6mn influx of net migrants, the vast majority of them ethnic Russians repatriating from the other former Soviet republics. During the 2000-2009 period, Russia received just 1.5mn net migrants. This single factor of declining net immigration would account for almost two thirds, or 2.1mn out of 3.4mn, of the “extra” population decline under Putin.

Second, drawing any conclusions just from a straightforward calculation of Russia’s average yearly population decline under Yeltsin and Putin is an exercise in complete absurdity, given that Yeltsin’s early years were influenced by the (relatively) low Soviet mortality rates and high fertility rates, while Putin’s were influenced by the (relatively) high mortality rates and “lowest-low” fertility rates of the Yeltsin legacy. A more nuanced analysis would:

  • Identify defining trends instead of using blanket averages: a transition to fullblown “hyper-mortality” by 1994, a series of peaks and dips under a Yeltsin and early Putin administration that couldn’t care less for the nation’s demography, and concrete improvements after 2005 when the state began to take these issues seriously.
  • Take into account Russia’s aging population (which places upwards pressure on mortality rates over time), and hence use a statistic that is independent of the population age structure: life expectancy, which at 69 years in 2009 was higher than at any time during the Yeltsin period, when it fell from 68 years in 1992 to 65 years by 2000.

Third, note that the vertical axis Nemtsov uses stretches from just 140mn to 150mn people, giving the impression (to the passing eye) that Russia’s population completely collapsed under Putin and most likely continues to retreat into oblivion (whereas a year by year graph would show population decline flattening out during the past 2 years). This is of course done on purpose to elicit a negative emotional reaction.

2. The next paragraph discusses “hyper-mortality” – the fact that Russia’s mortality rates are abnormally high for an industrialized country at peace. This is a major problem I have written about at length, though since it has been metastasizing since as far back as the mid-1960′s what it has to do with Putin must remain a mystery. Yet even here Nemtsov can’t refrain from “embellishing” an already depressing picture. He does this by citing Russia’s mortality and fertility statistics from the CIA, whose demographic stats on Russia paint a bleaker picture than those produced by Rosstat, the Russian statistical agency.

Let me explain. As a rule, only national statistics services have the manpower and regulatory resources to compile comprehensive demographic (economic, etc) statistics on their own countries. The stats you see from international institutions like the World Health Organization are mostly drawn and aggregated from them. Same goes for the CIA on demography, except that since it rarely brings its figures into “sync” with updated ones produced by the national statistics agencies, most of its demographic data is the result of inhouse projections of what the demographic situation might be given a set of increasingly obsolete past assumptions instead of current measures. Hence, whereas Nemtsov claims that Russia has a birth rate of 11/1000 and a death rate of 15/1000 based on July 2009 CIA figures, the real numbers for that year were a birth rate of 12.4/1000 and a death rate of 14.2/1000. Ultimately, this is a fairly minor point, but it does illustrate how Nemtsov is very selective about the data he uses (he has no problems with citing Rosstat on numerous other occasions).

3. The authors begin showing their reactionary colors when they come to dissing Russia’s rising natality. Granted, not quite as in your face as in their first Report, but the ass is still showing. This section is worth translating in full.

Excessively rapid fertility growth in a non-affluent country, especially amongst the lumpenized segment of the population (which are receiving pro-natality stimuli thanks to Putinist measures such as “maternal capital”[20]), could lead to negative consequences: a reduction in the standard of living, poor caretaking of the newborn, and high rates of illness amongst them.

In April 2008, the Health Minister Tatyana Golikova was forced to admit that this [fertility] increase was accompanied by an increase in infant mortality in 48 regions of the country.

[20] For “maternal capital” of 250,000 rubles [AK: today equivalent to $8,000], based on average housing costs it would have only been possible to buy 4-5 square meters of living space.

They’re really getting desperate, firing at every possible angle in the hope of hitting Putin, aren’t they?

First, forget the negative long-term consequences of the continuation of “lowest-low” fertility (seen up until 2006, hovering at 1.3 children per woman). Is Nemtsov really disconnected and foolish enough to believe that Russians will rally to his holier than thou middle-class chauvinism? Especially considering that most Russians have paternalistic views of government, believing that it should help the poorest members of society? Considering that many Russians complain that they want two children but can only afford one?

Second, the authors transparently try to give the (false) impression that Russia’s recent fertility spurt was accompanied by rising infant mortality through very selective quoting of Golikova. Was that really the case? Not at all. Data on infant deaths per 1,000 live births: in 1990 – 17.4; 2000 – 15.3; 2006 – 10.2; 2007 – 9.4; 2008 – 8.5; 2009 – 8.2; 2010 – still falling

4. Then we come to a rather banal history of Russia’s hypermortality with a generous serving of anti-Putin spin. I’ve translated a typical segment below and filled in what Nemtsov wants you to think on reading it.

The rise in Russia’s mortality began way back with Brezhnev, during the 1970′s [AK: actually from the mid-1960's but whatever], and continued up until the mid-1990′s [AK: hence Yeltsin and the reformers can't be blamed for any of this... according to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris]. In 1995, however, Russia’s mortality began to fall and in 1998 retreated below 2 million deaths per year [AK: 1) by "below 2 million deaths", he means 1.99 million deaths - not kidding!, 2) the inconvenient truth that death rates began to soar again in 1999 during the last year of the Yeltsin Presidency - in the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis, which was enabled by the incessant stealing within Yeltsin's inner circle (and happening to coincide with Nemtsov being Deputy Prime Minister!) - naturally goes unsaid].

But under Putin, the tendency towards a rise in mortality rates acquired a new strength, and reached a new peak of 2.37mn deaths in 2003 [AK: this at a time when Putin was still surrounded by Yeltsin's "Family" cronies and occupied with consolidating a half-disintegrated state]. Lowering deaths back below 2 million still hasn’t been achieved [AK: but this is harder now that it was in 1998, since the Russian population in 2009 is now considerably older than it was back then!].

Look, if you really want to, it is just as easy to spin this the other way. Here’s an alternate narrative. The USSR was a healthy nation. Soviet mortality rates strongly increased under Gorbachev, thanks to the anti-alcohol campaign and the birthmark on his bald head (year: 1989, LE: 70 years). Then Yeltsin and his cabal of traitors undermined and collapsed the Soviet Union, resulting in a massive fall in life expectancy (year: 2003, LE: 65 years). However, heroic Putin rescued long-suffering Holy Rus’ from the Judeo-Dollar yoke in 2003 by attacking Khodorkovsky. Now everything is getting better because Putin kicks ass (year: 2010, LE: 70 years).

[Russia's life expectancy - closely tied *not* to politicians, "shock therapy", etc, but to alcohol affordability and consumption rates. In fact, perhaps one of the main healthcare achievements of the Putin era is that the correlation between (relatively) cheaper booze and higher mortality rates may have broken. Source: Rosstat data.]

Does the above sound kind of ridiculous? Not really any more so than Nemtsov’s narrative. His screed is the mirror image of what a fawning Kremlin sycophant would write.

5. Nemtsov proclaims in gloomy tones that Russia has a very high number of deaths from external causes, murders, suicides, alcohol poisoning, etc, the aim presumably being to present Putin as a bad ruler based on the ills of his kingdom. But what he doesn’t mention is that in recent years Russia’s mortality from “vices” (alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicide) has fallen back down to late Soviet levels and is now well below the peaks around 1994 and 2002-3.

[The drop in deaths from alcohol poisoning is probably the most encouraging indicator, because excessive alcohol consumption accounts for around a third of all Russian deaths (in the broad sense) and drives trends in homicides, accidents and suicides (in particular). Source: Rosstat.]

6. Nemtsov goes on to make another startling claim (to anyone remotely familiar with the situation on the ground).

Low quality healthcare remains a big problem [AK: certainly], and Putin didn’t manage to do anything about this during ten prosperous years [AK: wtf?]… Russia spends just 5.3% of its GDP on healthcare, like Morocco or Ecuador, in contrast to 9-11% in many countries of Western Europe.

Many, many people would disagree with him. E.g. the guys at The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

A vigorous anti-alcohol campaign, new road safety measures, and a programme of health awareness workshops for teenagers are among the positive signs 6 months after the Kremlin introduced a new 12-year health-care blueprint which identified the “formation of health as a priority in the social and spiritual values of Russian society” as a key task.

Even Nemtsov’s fellow liberal reformer Yegor Gaidar (as translated by Mark Adomanis):

In 2009, despite the economic crisis, expenditures on healthcare from the Federal budget grew 25% in nominal terms from 231.4 billion rubles to 289.5 billion rubles. Expenditures from the budgets of the subjects of the Russian Federation remained practically at the previous level: 518.7 billion rubles against 520.1 billion in 2008. Taking into account investments to obligatory medical insurance of the working population, state financing of healthcare grew in 2009 by 5.6% (2.9% in real terms) having reached 1.06 trillion rubles. This differentiates the situation in 2009 from the crisis in 1998* when state expenditures on healthcare and spending by the population on medicines and medical services all declined.

At the beginning of 2009 the government made a decision to continue the realization of the national project “Health” until 2012. The project’s financing still comes out of funds of the federal budget as well as off-budget funds: the Federal fund of obligatory medical insurance and the Fund of social insurance. Despite the economic crisis and the significant reduction in government income, expenditures on the national project not only weren’t subject to reduction, but grew by 20.2% in comparison with 2008. This attests to the real priority of this project in the government’s budget policy.

*But Kathryn Stoner-Weiss told me that Yeltsin defended Russians’ welfare better than Putin!!

7. Then a big sprinkling of statistics and anecdotes about trends in consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, and smoking. For once in this chapter I think Nemtsov makes a valid point about the Russian government’s overly cosy relations with the alcohol and cigarette lobbies, which have prevented or delayed the passage of needed legislation. Nonetheless, even here Nemtsov’s point is (politically) wrecked by the class hatred that he just can’t keep bottled in. Sean’s summary of Nemtsov’s position still applies:

The poor “drink more” and the wealthy live the “high life.” In contrast, the middle class is the archetype of healthy and productive living. “Moderate use of alcohol and a healthy lifestyle in general,” they write, “is the way of the middle class.”

Now there might well be research showing that this is the case, as Nemtsov claims. (He doesn’t provide a link or citation). But it certainly isn’t the kind of language that is going to get anything more than 5% of Russians fired up with puritanical bourgeois fervor.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s comparison of Russia’s 30,000 annual drug-related deaths to its (lower) losses during ten years of war in Afghanistan will surely be viewed as offensive and asinine by most Russians. There is a fundamental difference between the two in that people (by and large) make the choice to become drug addicts, whereas Soviet conscripts had little to no choice about being sent to the graveyard of empires. Incidentally, one of the reasons for the increased flow of heroin into Russia in recent years that Nemtsov decries so much is the US inability or unwillingness to control the growth of opium production in Afghanistan**… (But don’t forget that in the Russian liberal universe America is always right and if it isn’t then suck on it).

8. Nemtsov miscomprehends the French Paradox, saying that the reason the French lead long lives despite a high alcohol consumption rate is because they drink fine wines. (The real paradox has to do with their low rates of heart disease and high rates of saturated fats consumption)*. However, he is correct in his (one-line) suggestion, a rather obvious one, that incomes have to improve if Russians are to afford more expensive drinks.

His suggestion for cutting smoking rates? “It is necessary to implement the successful experience of the US and Western European countries that was accumulated over decades”. You don’t say, Sherlock?! While it is valid to say that Russia’s progress on this front has been on the slow side, it is not fair to imply, like Nemtsov does, that nothing is being done.

9. Now Nemtsov talks about depopulation and labor force decline without trying to distinguish between them.

Population decline has a long-term character. In the last few years and in the near future Russia will lose one million people of working age annually due to the high mortality rates and natural population aging. The loss of one million workers is equivalent to a fall in GDP of 1.5%, and a loss of revenues to the budget, which will lead to problems with paying for pensions and as a result to social stresses. Therefore, chronic depopulation threatens economic development and puts into question the future territorial integrity of the country.

First, Russia’s population has already returned to growth (or more accurately “stabilization”) in 2009, thanks to rising fertility and life expectancy. Second, declines in the working population are now inevitable, but Nemtsov curiously neglects to mention that this was made inevitable by the fertility collapse of the early 1990′s during the Yeltsin period! Nonetheless, he need not worry too much. According to the Rosstat medium scenario, the labor force will fall from 62% of the total population now… to a truly apocalyptic rather unremarkable 55% by 2030.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s mixing of depopulation and labor force decline is particularly disingenuous because each counteracts the other. If Russia’s population falls, this means it will have failed to raise its life expectancy or fertility rate, and hence its labor force will be higher as a percentage of the population. Paradoxically, if Russia sustainably stabilizes its population by improving people’s health and getting them to have more children, its labor force will shrink much faster as a share of the population for the very reason that this population will have more children and pensioners! (To illustrate this, the labor force in 2030 is at 57% of the population in Rosstat’s low scenario and at 54% in its high scenario).

10. Finally Nemtsov talks the talk about migration.

Instead of [pursuing an effective immigration policy], in 2002 the Putin regime passed repressive [AK: sic!] immigration legislation, which increased illegal immigration while reducing the flow of law-abiding and hard-working citizens into the country. In the 1990′s near 8 million Russophones arrived into Russia from the post-Soviet republics [AK: just to clarify, this is *not* net immigration; during the period, many Russians also left Russia]. With Putin’s arrival this process came to an abrupt halt.

The sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants became the main cause of the plummeting Russian population during the Putin years relative to the 1990′s.

Look, while I’m not a huge fan of said 2002 law, calling it “repressive” is well beyond the pale – especially for any politician the least concerned about his popularity! It is also interesting to note that Nemtsov puts this section on immigration at the end of the demography chapter, well away the graphs showing population decline under Yeltsin and Putin. One can only assume that Russians wouldn’t be so moved by Russia’s almost-stable population under Yeltsin had they known that it was only being sustained by an unsustainable inflow of ethnic Russians repatriating from the Near Abroad!

[Would an honest observer interpret the above graph as a "sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants" under Putin? Source: from Rosstat. Click to enlarge.]

Which brings us to a much bigger misrepresentation by Nemtsov. He essentially claims that thanks to Putin’s mismanagement of migration policy (the 2002 law is cited), ethnic Russian immigration came to a halt. Yet as we can see from the graph above, Russia received by far the biggest numbers of migrants during the early to mid-1990′s. By 2000, most ethnic Russians who would ever immigrate back to Russia from the Near Abroad had already done so. This process was always due to come an end, regardless of who was President, and had already mostly petered out by the late 1990′s. (The new uptick in immigration from 2006 mostly consists of Central Asian, Caucasian, and Ukrainian Gastarbeiter drawn to Russia’s rising affluence).

Conclusions

This chapter “A Dying Country” constituted about 20% of Nemtsov’s paper by word count, so it is a valid gauge by which to judge the rest of it. Now demography is a pretty easy subject, especially when it comes to checking up on straightforward factual claims. For this post I didn’t need much else other than Rosstat, Wikipedia, and my sick googling skills. ;) In contrast, making accurate statements on the economy, an entity that can be measured and interpreted in any number of ways, is much harder. And assessing levels of corruption is an order of magnitude harder still, since it relates to the quantity of that economy that people take so many pains to hide away from view. So if one finds so much blatant ignorance or deceit in a big chunk of work dealing with demography – practically on every paragraph – chances are the overall opus isn’t worth anyone’s time.

The pattern of simplification and misrepresentation appears to be repeated throughout the entire paper. For instance, take Nemtsov’s graph of the structure of Russian exports in the chapter on the economy, which shows the share of hydrocarbons exports soaring from 44.9% in 1999 to 69.6% in 2009, while hi-tech exports fell from 10.9% to 4.9% during the same period. But only a hack like Nemtsov would say that this proves that Russia under Putin became more resource dependent “than ever before in its history”. For a start consider that the price of oil rose from $16.56 in 1999 to $91.48 in 2008! If there is a sixfold increase in oil prices over a decade, then its share of total exports was practically bound to increase too, barring Russia blowing up all its pipelines! (Besides, that would be “energy imperialism”). But even all this neglects a more fundamental fact: while Russian exports remain dominated by resources because they constitute its comparative advantage, Russia’s domestic economy has, in real terms, become substantially more productive, more services-centered and less extraction-heavy since the late 1990′s (in relative terms).

Now a defender of this Report may accuse me of missing its entire point – isn’t Nemtsov politicking against equally nefarious Kremlin propaganda? Isn’t it perfectly normal and acceptable for politicians to play fast and loose with the facts? While this may normally be an argument, this is not the case here. First, Nemtsov and Milov portray themselves as paragons of accountability and integrity (as opposed to the kleptocratic Kremlin regime) – if they want to demand their bed they have to lie in it too. Second, these ass-clowns entitle their work an “Independent Expert Report” for crying out loud! I am approaching Nemtsov’s writings on his own terms – as an analytical work. It is on its own analytical merit that it either stands or falls under the weight of its lies and contradictions.

But what about its impact as a political statement? Nemtsov’s only natural constituency, as evidenced by his classist rhetoric, is “the urban, semi-intellectual, semi-politically engaged class” who now make up around 25% of the Russian population. A not inconsiderable potential base, true, but they more than most in Russian society owe their allegiance to Putin; it was under his system that they made – or made off with – their wealth. No amount of one-sided paens to the glory Yeltsin years delivered by Nemtsov is going to change that. And although Nemtsov does make some faux populist overtures, they are hardly going to win him any supporters from amongst the lumpen-proletariat whom he wants to breed out into extinction! (Assuming they even bother reading the 12,000 words of what is really a very dull paper). No, the Gospel of Vlad and Boris is only going to be treated as such by the 50,000 odd signers of the Putin Must Go petition, at least in Russia. As for abroad…

In an interesting twist to the story – and ironically what made me aware of Nemtsov’s report in the first place – Russian police confiscated 100,000 of the one million copies of the Report and sent them to the MVD’s “extremism” department for analysis. Coming as it does on the eve of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where “Medvedev is set to hobnob with businessmen from around the world”, Nemtsov and Milov could not have hoped for a better source of publicity. Tinpot dictatorship here we come! Once again, the idiotic zeal of Russian officialdom elicits outraged editorials in the Western (and Russian) press, snickers from the suave and sophisticated, and delivers further confirmation of Russia’s impending slide into totalitarianism to the typical Westerner.

Not to mention endless frustration for people like myself. I am even coming to think that the deaf Russian state might just deserve its blind liberals.

* Though I do agree with Nemtsov that getting Russians to switch from samogon to vodka to wine or beer is a good strategy as far as these things go. Me from two years back: ;)

Convert wine production into a strategic industry and massively fund its expansion. Try to remake Russia into a wine-drinking nation. Aim to turn vodka into an exclusively export industry.

** That said, I’m very skeptical about the (self-interested?) arguments, or alarmism, of Russia’s anti-narcotics department. To test if this is a major, rapidly-spreading drug epidemic, it is logical to look at death rates for the most-affected demographic groups. Say, 20-25 year old males, among whom death rates are low and mostly due to external causes and poisonings.

Take the death rate for 25 year old males in Russia, a demographic group that would be one of the most exposed to drug abuse (Nemtsov cites the average age of death of Russia’s druggies as being 28). In 2000, i.e. before the Afghanistan campaign, it was 0.0060, and it stayed above 0.0050 until 2007 when it fell to 0.0047, and in 2008 fell further to 0.0041. These improvements, one would think, would have been exceedingly unlikely had there been a big jump in Russian heroin consumption.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I’ve been accused of being a “Russophile cockroach”, an “amoral Putin lackey”, and overall bad guy. Guilty as charged! Yes, I do like Russia and don’t have much good to say about the Western media’s coverage of it. Yes, I don’t give much of damn for the moralistic posturing that any vapid idiot Kremlinologist can easily excel in. And yes, I do have a positive opinion of Vladimir Putin (as do 75%+ of Russians). Now granted, part of this probably has something to do with the huge amounts of money his FSB minions kindly slip under my door for glorifying their Tsarist godfather on the Internet in my spare time. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that I set my alarm clock to VVP’s speeches, drink prodigal amounts of Putinka for breakfast, and bow before his icon at the Altar of Neo-Stalinism in my basement before logging onto my workstation to fulfill my job description as ein strammer Putin-soldat. In reality, my positive view of Putin is moderate and hedged.

Don’t believe my word as “the dishonest, progangadizing (very, very) little maggot” that I really am? Below I present five major shortcomings of the Putin Presidency.

What Putin did wrong

1. Waiting until 2006, or too little too late.

Since 2006, Russia embarked on a range of policies designed to check its demographic decline, reduce poverty, and recover its status as a Great Power. The main examples would be the National Priority Projects; a revamped industrial policy; health promotion; pro-natality, AIDS containment and anti-alcohol measures; military modernization; and incubation of hi-tech industries such as nanotechnology. Many of these are already bearing fruit – quite literally on the demographic front, where the total fertility rate rose to 1.56 children per woman by 2009, from 1.1-1.3 before 2006. In conjunction with falling mortality rates, this resulted in Russia experiencing its first year of population growth in 2009 since 1994. But why did Putin take so long to start addressing all these issues?

Though there are several possible explanations, I think the most accurate is that at the time Putin was simply too preoccupied with stabilizing the Russian shell of the collapsed Soviet empire. Each functioning state rests on its monopolization of legitimate violence, of tax collection, and of the issuing of money. All three monopolies were under grave threat by the late 1990′s. Homicide rates were sky-high, organized crime infiltrated state structures, and Chechen bandits raided Russia proper. The state was too weak to collect taxes from the oligarchs, producing chronic budget deficits that culminated in the 1998 default. Inflation raged unchecked, most transactions were in dollars or in kind, and many analysts were starting to describe Russia as a failed state. Therefore it cannot be surprising that Putin in his first term devoted most of his attention towards containing and mitigating these mortal threats to the Russian state. The invasion of Chechnya, the political subjugation of the oligarchs, the strengthening of the “power vertical” – all these were intended to restore some modicum of state control over the Russian Federation.

Yet as the political struggle went on at the top, the “real Russia” remained largely stagnant. With the inflow of ethnic Russians from the Near Abroad largely exhausted, demographic decline accelerated in the 2000-2005 period. In contrast to the broad-based growth after 2005/2006, in the early Putin years manufacturing remained depressed, while more than a third of economic growth accrued to the recovery in oil extraction. Little new infrastructure was built. The rate of military procurement dropped even below the miserly levels of the Yeltsin era. Thanks to the Putin government’s myopic negligence or administrative inability, Russia’s manifold, deepgrained socio-economic problems only began to be seriously addressed within the past few years.

Strike 1 – Contrary to most fans and critics alike, Putin didn’t do too much. He did too little, and too late. Under the first few years of his watch, Russia lost historical time just as it did under Yeltsin. On many socio-economic indicators, the RF in 2010 has only caught up to what the RSFSR achieved back in 1990.

2. Red tape and corruption, or the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy.

Corruption remains “public enemy number one”, according to President Medvedev. This can be confirmed by any number of horrific anecdotes: the absurdly inflated Moscow housing market, bureaucrats owning property worth hundreds of their yearly salaries, entrepreneurs losing their businesses to well-connected thugs. Apart from a few cosmetic house-cleaning campaigns under the Putin President, the state’s efforts to control this scourge have been decidedly lack-luster, and Russia continues to be perceived as one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.

[Sources: Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index"; Transparency International's "Global Corruption Barometer", answers to the question, "In the past 12 months, have you or anyone in your household paid a bribe in any form?" (% saying "yes"); World Bank's "Worldwide Governance Indicators" (Control of Corruption), country percentile].

This corruption is directly related to the arbitrary power of Russia’s bureaucracy, and the labyrinth of regulations that “justify” its existence. Love them or hate them – and yes, most Russians hate them – bureaucrats are indispensable for running a modern state. However, in Russia bureacrats are neither accountable unlike in most developed nations nor held under close scrutiny unlike in the USSR or today’s China. Furthermore, their numbers are well in excess of necessity. In contrast to a few post-Soviet nations like Estonia and Georgia which fired many of their bureaucrats, the Russian bureaucracy grew rapidly under Putin.

[Source: Rosstat].

The extractions of rent-seeking bureaucrats stunt the development of small and medium businesses. Furthermore, corruption indirectly kills people (e.g. grocery pharmaceuticals are expensive and unreliable) and fosters a destructive social mentality in which anything and everything is considered exchangeable for money and the privileged and connected can act with impunity.

As the man at the top of the pyramid, Putin was responsible for perpetuating this system during his Presidency. Sensational rumors of foreign villas and multi-billion dollar offshore accounts to the contrary, there is no evidence that Putin is personally corrupt*. However, controlling corruption within one’s circle and further down is extremely hard; no Russian ruler, except the most steely and despotic, has ever managed to rein in his bureaucrats. Now you could go down the neo-Stalinist route, but executing corrupt bureaucrats is now politically incorrect in most places outside China. Perhaps Putin should have simply axed this Gordian knot, like Saakashvili in Georgia**? That might have worked, – no regulation, no bureaucrat, no problem. But something stayed his hand. Maybe he feared chaos, since the bureaucracy is one the forces gluing a nation together. Maybe they were considered necessary to reconsolidate the state and rebuild the power vertical. I don’t know.

Maybe Putin shouldn’t have suppressed Russia’s civil society and media outlets if he was serious about checking corruption? But this is a false narrative. It is not the federal government or Putin, but unreformed institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the FSB, the Prosecutor-General, etc, that pose the greatest hazards to Russia’s nascent civil society. It is not VVP who runs around killing and harassing journalists, but the “stationary bandits” in government and/or business taking advantage of Russia’s culture of impunity. The ultimate proof of the pudding is Ukraine – despite its pluralistic politics and journalistic freedoms after the Orange Revolution, corruption there remains at least as bad as in semi-authoritarian Russia***. No matter the personal integrity or ability of Russia’s (or Ukraine’s leaders), the entire post-Soviet state system remains unacceptably opaque and unaccountable.

Strike 2 – Putin could have mitigated Russia’s corruption and culture of impunity by: 1) stripping away the reams of red tape that create opportunities for rent-seeking, 2) decimating the ranks of the bloated bureaucracy, traffic police, etc, or 3) increasing the penalties for, or the “costs” of, corruption. In reality, there was some improvement in 1) and 3), and massive backtracking on 2). It is only under Medvedev that government and citizenry are beginning to show signs of taking corruption more seriously.

3. Inequality, or oiligarchs & their little adults.

Russians are not Americans. Though most accept the capitalist system, a majority of Russians believe the state has a duty to narrow down inequality between rich and poor and assure everyone a decent standard of living. Opinion polls indicate that around 63% of Russians are essentially “statists”, while only 25% are economic “liberals” and an insignificant 4% are small-government libertarians. Thouh there has been impressive progress on lifting all boats in the past decade – poverty rates were slashed, consumer goods became much more affordable – the Putin regime also presided over an era of slowly rising inequality****. This does not sit well with many Russians, especially the elderly who put great stock in egalitarian values.

[Source: Rosstat].

It is no great exaggeration to say that Russia’s government is by the rich and for the rich. Though perhaps at first necessary as the most reliable way for a broken state to combat tax evasion, the 13% flat tax on incomes now perpetuates inequalities. A much bigger burden falls on productive companies in the form of (highly regressive) social security contributions, which are set to rise from 26% to 34% of the first 400,000 rubles of income this year to help correct the budget deficit. However, Putin had no problems with reducing taxes for oil companies, so that they could either extract and sell off Russia’s oil the faster, or pocket the extra change.

Worst of all are the effects on social cohesion. All Russian oligarchs earned their wealth through their connections with the state – there is not a single Sergei Brin or Bill Gates amongst them. The inheritance tax was abolished in 2006, and now more than a hundred Russian children, or “little adults“, are set to acquire billions without earning a single ruble. Sure, these “new Russians” get to experience the shallow thrills of conspicuous consumption, and take power in their sleazy connections with state structures to run over ordinary Russians with impunity (sometimes literally). The price Russia pays for tolerating these historyless elites is a perpetual bankruptcy of social capital, the cooperative spirit that welds a nation together. Amongst other things, this dearth of social capital manifests itself in society’s tolerance for petty corruption. After all, why should a simple traffic policeman, doctor, or other low-paid state worker refrain from taking bribes, when oligarchs make off with billions in cahoots with the state?

There has been no effort to check or reverse the growth of inequality under either Putin or Medvedev. Even as the Fair Russia opposition party calls for progressive taxation and a luxury tax, Roman Abramovich is indulging himself to his biggest yacht so far, armed with a missile defense system and laser shield.

Strike 3 – Putin presided over an increase in inequality, made all the more unholy by money’s marriage with socio-political privilege. Though neither the trend towards nor the magnitude of inequality is exceptional by global standards, it clashes with Russian popular sentiments and undermines social capital.

4. Economic mismanagement, or stationary bandits who don’t know or care about limits to growth.

First, the “Muscovite” rent-granting political economy over which Putin presided is both economically inefficient and socially unjust. Take the Russian oil industry, in which politically subservient oiligarchs are given free rein to manage their own companies. This combines the worst of both private and state ownership. Lacking security over their assets, the oiligarchs are loath to plow too much of their own money into maximizing long-term oil extraction and revenue. Far better to maximize short-term extraction by overexploiting their oil fields, pleasing the Tsar with generous rent payments, and to make off once these fields go into premature decline. In the meantime, astronomical profits are diverted into a few oiligarch hands instead of going to the Russian state. Now granted, Putin’s “purgatory”, run by clans of “stationary bandits”, might be an improvement over Yeltsin’s “hell” of asset-stripping “roving bandits”… but they are all still bandits nonetheless.

Yet when all is said and done, it is not entirely clear that Putin could have realistically done better on any of these issues. He inherited the “Muscovite system” from Yeltsin and can be credited with actually making it workable, in the sense that the oligarchs were forced into paying their taxes and Russia’s chronic budget deficits were finally eradicated. Reversing privatization and trying to create a Russian version of Statoil, the efficient state-owned Norwegian energy company, was entirely unrealistic given the institutional rot of the Russian state. The other extreme, a full-scale liberalization of the oil sector, would have probably been counter-productive because of that same weakness of the Russian state. For proof, look no further than how Khodorkovsky used YUKOS’ resource wealth to mount a direct political challenge to the Kremlin… would the Russian people really have been well served if their state had been hijacked by the Menatep bandits?

Second, even accounting for its being a cold, landlocked country with a lot of heavy industry, Russia remains very energy inefficient. There are serious uncertainties over its ability to meet future domestic and European gas demand, and its oil production will soon peak and go into decline. However, by world standards, Russia is supremely well-endowed with energy resources. Thus, it makes manifest sense to use the earnings from foreign hydrocarbons sales to aggressively implement energy efficiency measures and build a green energy infrastructure. The World Bank estimates that investing 320bn $ into energy efficiency could save Russian consumers 80bn $ and generate more than 100bn $ in extra export revenues annually. Putin prefers to go the much more expensive route of greatly expanding generating capacity, e.g. by building many nuclear power plants, while less glamorous but cheaper options like insulating housing, upgrading utilities, or reducing natural gas flaring are neglected. So yes, Russia’s policies on energy are short-termist and “cornucopian”, – but the very same could be said for almost any country one cares to name. Only a bare handful of nations, like Sweden or Germany, have made serious commitments to sustainable development (and none acknowledge the concept of Limits to Growth).

Third, the main reason Russia experienced such a deep recession during the 2009 global financial crisis was because its banks and corporations had become dependent on infusions of Western credit. Once this system throttled up in late 2008, emerging markets were the first to be cut off. Unfortunately, Russia under Putin’s watch had failed to develop the deep indigenous credit systems that enabled countries like Brazil or China to weather the storm in good shape, and it saw a massive GDP decline of 7.9% in 2009. But it’s not exactly clear how Russia could have prepared better. The main reason Russia’s financial system was starved of capital was because instead of reinvesting the proceeds from hydrocarbon sales into the economy, the government bought up foreign currency reserves in order to prevent an excessive ruble strengthening from short-circuiting the revival of Russia’s manufacturing base. Ironically, by trying to reduce its resource dependency, Russia actually increased its exposure to the Western financial system, whose weaknesses only became obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Nonetheless, despite the severity of the GDP drop in 2009, the Russian economy is now showing signs of mounting a vigorous recovery.

Finally, Putin should be given big props for protecting Kudrin – the main architect of Russia’s macroeconomic stability – from the attacks of the spendthrifts and siloviki in his circle. This did nothing to benefit him politically, but as a result Russia today is “one of the world’s most fiscally secure nations”, according to Liam Halligan, chief economist with Prosperity Capital Management.

Strike 4 – under Putin, Russia remained economically unproductive, socially unjust, energy inefficient, and acquired a dependence on Western credit. These problems are deep and are unlikely to go away without intelligent intervention by the state.

5. White elephants, or Siberian bridges to nowhere.

The Russian state has always liked “white elephant” solutions to complicated problems. Putin continued in this proud tradition. Perhaps the best example of this were Russia’s wild-eyed plans to construct six aircraft carriers during the giddy heights of its pre-crisis boom. Let’s look at the problems with this scheme:

  1. The global hegemony of the United States rests on the power projection capabilities of its 11 aircraft carrier battle groups. Russia is a regional land power whose strategic interests do not extend far beyond its Near Abroad.
  2. Russia’s economic base is seven times smaller than America’s.
  3. Even the “structurally militarized” USSR never had much success with aircraft carriers. Russia’s military-industrial complex is now almost an order of magnitude smaller and no longer has access to the big drydocks in Ukraine.
  4. Russia can’t even build a decent helicopter carrier, and eventually took the rational decision to order Mistrals from France.
  5. The days of the aircraft carrier may well be numbered due to the development of cheap carrier-killing weapons systems.

This particular white elephant never was to be. But far too many are real enough, such as the bridge to nowhere near Vladivostok that will connect the Russian mainland to a small island populated by a few thousand residents, projected to cost more than 1bn $ and intended as a showpiece for the 2012 APEC summit. Meanwhile, the roads from the Urals to Vladivostok remain little more than dirt tracks.

Now admittedly, white elephants are minor nuisances relative to the first four problems. Their attractions are hardly unique to Russia, and it could even be argued that some, like the Sochi Olympics, are a net positive thanks to their impact on national morale. Nonetheless, I still think improving Russia’s energy efficiency or networking its clunky armed forces is somewhat more important than erecting suspension bridges in Siberia or dreaming about multiple carrier battle groups patrolling the Russian Arctic.

Strike 5 – Putin is sometimes too influenced by the traditions of Soviet gigantism to consider humbler, more cost-effective ways of solving problems.

What Putin did right

But what about that KGB spy’s ruthless suppression of freedom and democracy? False narrative. The majority of Russians approve of Putin and his system – as of 2008, some 75% of Russians felt that they either had “enough” or even “too much” freedom. Today’s Russians feel much happier and freer than in either the late Soviet Union or Yeltsin’s Russia.

But hasn’t Putin suppressed the free media and brainwashed Russians into worshipping him? Yet if that were the case, one would presumably expect most Putinistas to be old, sour-mouthed Stalinists, whereas in fact support for Putin (and disillusionment with the West) is highest amongst young, university-educated Muscovite men – the very segment of the Russian population that is most exposed to the West through the Internet and foreign travel! (Of course, to the Western chauvinist, this must mean that the Russian people are ignorant, nationalist sheeple… since nothing can be allowed to challenge their faith, there is little point in talking to them).

What about Putin’s hatred of the West? Again, false narrative. Putin the KGB operative is inseparable from the Putin who served under Sobchak, the liberal mayor of St.-Petersburg in the 1990′s, or the Putin who favored the “civiliki” clan (Surkov, Medvedev, “patriotic liberals”) over the FSB-connected “siloviki” in his choice of successor. But why then does Putin antagonize America by maintaining relations with freedom-haters like Ahmadinejad and Chavez? Newsflash! This is Realpolitik, practiced by all sane and sovereign nations. Bending over backwards to advance Washington’s national security interests is not part of Putin’s job description. Not can it reasonably be expected, due to US support for states hostile to Russia (e.g. Georgia) in its Near Abroad.

One of Putin’s greatest strengths is that he recognizes the immense harm Russia suffered from single-minded past pursuits of abstract ideals, and rejects mindless idolization of the West as surely as he rejects the old Marxist-Leninist dogmas. He is a national figure of post-ideological reconciliation, a leader who sees no paradox in defending the Soviet Union against politicized attempts to equate it with Nazi Germany while honoring Russians like the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or the White general Anton Denikin.

Zhou Enlai may have been exaggerating when he said the impact of the French Revolution was “too early to tell”, but nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that we must wait at least a few decades before we have any hope of objectively determining Putin’s legacy. Based on the criticisms I’ve made in this post, some analysts would rush to dismiss Putin as an incompetent idiot or malicious enemy of the Russian people. After all, it doesn’t take much to pronounce judgment from the comforts of one’s armchair… Yet none of us have been in Putin’s boots. We didn’t experience his early struggles with the oligarchs, the contraints and frustrations he faced trying to rule Russia through an unwieldy and corrupt bureaucracy, the pyramid of cards he has to build and maintain to balance the warring Kremlin clans. I can do no better than quote a great speech by Theodore Roosevelt to illustrate this point:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Putin’s critics, knowing neither victory nor defeat, are nothing more than the dust at the feet of that great man who continues struggling, striving, and spending himself as Russia’s humble servant.

* To the best of my knowledge, all these allegations of Putin’s 40bn $ of personal wealth originate from Stanislav Belkovsky, a professional purveyor of kompromat and creature of Sechin’s silovik clan.

** Georgia’s success at controlling corruption shouldn’t be exaggerated. In recent years, the Saakashvili regime acquired the habit of pressuring independent businesses to provide “voluntary contributions” in return for not bankrupting them under corruption prosecutions.

*** Russia’s corruption should be viewed in perspective. Is it a serious problem that reinforces privelege and blights the lives of many people? Certainly. Apocalyptic? Not at all. First, Russia is not excessively corrupt by the standards of most middle-income countries, and there is evidence that “everyday” corruption (as opposed to business corruption) fell under Putin’s watch. See here, here, and here. Second, corruption does not seriously affect Russia’s growth potential. Italy was systematically corrupt in the 1970′s-80′s (and still is), as exposed in the short-lived mani pulite investigatations of the early 1990′s. But that did not stop Italy from overtaking Britain’s GDP back in 1987 in the so-called “Il Sorpasso”. Likewise, Russia’s myriad strengths – the strong education system, energy wealth, and macroeconomic stability – means that its systematic corruption is unlikely to constitute an insurmountable barrier against its convergence to Western levels of development.

**** Russia’s levels of inequality shouldn’t be exaggerated, however. The Gini index of income inequality has been stable at around 40 since the early 1990′s, and is only high by European standards. (The US and China are at 45, most Latin American countries exceed 50).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
The method, art and philosophy of drinking lots and lots of vodka.
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The ability of Russians to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol before getting knocked out is legendary in the West*. It is a subject at once of grudging respect for the hardy Russian soul and airy condemnation of their shallow barbarism. Actually, there is nothing particularly supernatural or mysterious about it, nor is it a result of genetic resilience to the embrace of the green serpent acquired over generations. It is a simple procedure that anyone can learn, albeit mastering it is more of an art. With the ongoing Christmas and New Year festivities, as your drinking guru I feel it is my duty to inform you of how to drink lots of spirits and enjoy it.

The traditional party begins with a meal in the evening and lasts well into the night. If you are a healthy, non-East Asian adult male, you can expect to consume around about 500-750ml of 40% vodka (that is, the equivalent of 2-3 13% wine bottles, or 4-6 litres of beer) during a typical “zapoi”. Adjust upwards if you have exceptional alcohol tolerance, adjust down if you are a woman (smaller body mass, higher percentage of fat), a pure-blood East Asian (many of them lack the gene that breaks down alcohol) or have health problems, particularly heart or liver related. Or if you’re a child…unlike the French, Russians are generally strict on this. At best you’ll get a glass of low-alcohol apple cider before being sent to bed sometime around 10pm. Now 500-750ml of vodka sounds like a really big amount, inducing a certain sense of fear and loathing in the average Westerner. But spread over several hours and consumed according to a certain procedure, you should overpower this beast with no problems.

The key principle is to fill your belly up with foods that slow down the transfusion of alcohol into the bloodstream. This should prevent the dangerous spikes in alcohol levels that knock out the uninitiated, albeit it does mean that you’ll remain drunk as late as next midday. This means that you should eat lots of fatty, starchy and salty stuff. A typical (hopefully) set-up for a zapoi will include some of the following: fried potatoes and onions; salads like Olivier, vinaigrette or potato salad with their heavy mayonnaise or oil-based dressings; cucumber, cabbage and other pickles; cheeses, sausages and hams; oily fish like sprats, herring or sardines, preferably pickled or oil-preserved. Perhaps the ultimate “zakuska” (something you “bite over”) is salo, salted pork fat. Personally I’ve always found it rather disgusting and refrained from eating it, regardless of my state of inebriation. It is important to eat a zakuska immediately after downing a shot so as to soak up the vodka and release it into the blood steadily rather than suddenly.

There is a large body of etiquette surrounding traditional Russian vodka drinking. The most important is that of the toast. When it’s your turn, pour everyone their “fifty grams”, think up of some noble ideal to drink to (world peace, the generosity and other many good qualities of the host, victory!, etc – creativity is encouraged) and announce it in as theatrical a manner as you can manage without overdoing it. When you’re sufficiently buzzed, judging how much you’re pouring by eye becomes hard – it’s much more effective to count out the appropriate measure in your head. This applies especially when you have to fill heterogeneous glasses. Everybody drinks at the same time – downing shots by yourself is disreputable, since that is associated with alcoholics. Follow it up with a zakuska, as mentioned above.

If you start feeling unwell or if you’re a drinking noobie, bow out of a few rounds by covering your glass when the bottles is coming round. By drinking with enthusiasm and honor at the start, you’ve shown your respect for the host and the other guests; getting stone-dead drunk is disrespectful. Folk tradition involves blowing out through your noise, downing the shot and breathing in with your first over your nose – nobody really does that anymore and I fail to see the need for it. Following the above advice, you should power through the appetizers and small talk, the main course with its weightier discussions and the desert with cakes and tea with lemon. You will have drunk a very respectable amount of vodka, but should remain at nothing more than a pleasant buzz.

Don’t make any of the mistakes stupid Westerners make (the further west they are from Russia, the stupider they tend to be). Eat before and while drinking. Don’t eat anything very spicy. Do not drink anything carbonated – that just accelerates the rate at which alcohol gets into the blood. Although purists strongly recommend against mixing, I am agnostic on it. Some people’s bodies seem to react badly when vodka and beer, or whiskey and wine, etc, mix; otherwise, if your body is OK with that, what matters is the level of alcohol intake per unit time independent of the beverage. As long as you keep a close eye on it things should stay under control. Especially in the late hours, when people become very drunk vodka can become like water and what I’d call a “race to oblivion” ensues; try very hard to avoid this temptation.

Damage control. Most importantly, drink lots and lots of water before going to bed. I know it requires discipline, but you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches up the road. Take a few multivitamin pills if you don’t want to feel like a poisoned zombie next morning. Water and vitamin pills fight the dehydration and leaching of vitamins brought on by alcohol poisoning (however well you drink, the fact remains that consuming a vodka bottle in one night will poison you).

Wake up with the Sun, drink a can of beer and take a walk – cool air and dawn light has wonderful recuperative qualities. Even better, do some physical work. If you feel sick, then it’s better to be sick – pushing a finger down towards the back of the throat over the toilet does the trick. It’s unpleasant but you’ll feel a lot better afterwards. Unless you had the misfortune to be drinking bad moonshine, or medical spirit diluted with water and lemon juice (you never know what the crowd will insist upon when the conventional vodka runs dry!), then chances are you’ll still be somewhat drunk until around midday, but the hang-over should be mild and you’ll be pretty much OK by the afternoon.

The above generally assumes the party is a conventional, more or less respectable one. Of course, some are held just for the purpose of getting really drunk. This typically occurs when a smallish group of people, usually men, want to bond. In this case the zapoi can be continuous and may last as long as several days. Can’t really recommend much here, since I’ve never been in an extreme zapoi (and don’t intend to any time soon). For obvious reasons this should be done very infrequently unless you want to die of liver cirrhosis at fifty.

A drunk will never lie or do things he or she does not really want to do. As such, vodka is the enemy of hypocrisy. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, Russians know that they live in the matrix; Westerners point to them and laugh, unable to understand that they are laughing at a mirror. For Western civilization is systematized hypocrisy; this is not to condemn, but to explain – its self-belief and affirmation of itself as universal is probably its greatest strength, with hypocrisy an unavoidable consequence.

In contrast, Russian life is remarkable free of hypocrisy – it is either very open (even the old folk sayings tell – beware those who don’t drink, they’re untrustworthy), or very hypocritical (called Sovietism); but since the latter is so transparently hypocritical, it is easily negated. While Soviet citizens may have professed to believing in the party, the open reality was that the true object of belief was vodka. That is equivalent to belief in nothing and everything, in absolute relativism, in other words, the level beyond systematized hypocrisy, which inevitably leads to oblivion. And this Russian belief in nihilism, is every bit as universal in its own way as Western systematized hypocrisy, yet both are forms of spiritual suicide; their union will be the cardinal event of this century, in which one will die and one will live, but both will be.

Which leads to the next observation about the vodka binge – it is like a dream. What is clear and lucid and sublime in the Zone, blurs to incomprehensible psychobabble upon awakening. It reminds one of the Borgesian parable about how reality is a grim prison, while dreams can give us an image of freedom. When Dante was old, lonely and dying, God came to him in a dream and told him of the secret purpose of his life; “Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.” One has to live the dream to know it. Vodka is nothing more or less than a mirror into the soul. A mirror might be an illusory, sinful thing; but is all the more irresistible for that.

Therefore, I consider getting drunk to be a most spiritually uplifting activity (although as with most things, its the quality, not the quantity that counts). When you are in this Zen-like state, you may experience life-changing revelations and it is amazing how even a normally dull or stupid person is capable of making the most acute philosophical and psychological observations. It is interesting to speculate that in some form or another much of the world’s stock of epiphanies and doctrines may have first been expounded in a humble peasant izba or workers’ commune, rather than in the hallowed halls of academia of the bourgeois world…

And this brings us to the last point I want to make about Zen and the Art of Vodka Drinking… Should you ever become an alcoholic, talk like I do above. Intellectual drunks are funny, everybody likes them and you’ll get no shortage of small change from admiring strangers to fund your habit.

I do not remember whether or not I was drunk when I wrote this post.

* I use the “West” and “Westerners” and “Russia”, etc, as a civilizational generality in the tradition of Spengler and Huntington and Co., rather than the panoply of individuals and nations (or “imagined communities”) that come in whole or in part under those labels. Actually, saying so is a tautology, since the problem of defining the “West” is well-known, ancient and still unresolved, as is the subproblem of whether Russia is a part of it. Still, pointing out the obvious is sometimes necessary to avoid having to later justify myself before irate cyber warriors.

Legal disclaimer: The author cannot verify the truth or falsity of the above information – use it at your own risk. The author does not necessarily endorse what he wrote about drinking alcoholic beverages and may or may not have done the things aforementioned.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As we covered in the previous instalment, Demographics I: The Russian Cross Reversed?, fertility rates are not abnormally low by European standards and are likely to rise further in the future. The same cannot be said of mortality rates – a ‘quiet crisis‘ that has been a ‘catastrophe of historic proportions’.

Take life expectancy. As of 2007, the average age of death in Russia was 65.9 years. This is way below First World levels (United States – 78.0; EU – 78.7; Japan – 82.0) and even many developing country standards (Mexico – 75.6; China – 72.9; Egypt – 71.6; India – 68.6). Note: this figure was actually 67.7 years in 2007 (the CIA relies on its own projections to estimate demographic data), but the general point stands.

Even compared to other post-Soviet countries, Russia’s mortality stats are far from impressive – as you can see from the graphs in that link, total life expectancy, male life expectancy and death rates for both sexes all hovered near the worst levels. Nor is so-called healthy life expectancy anything to write home about (in 2002, it stood at 53 years and 64 years for men and women respectively, compared with 55/64 for Ukraine, 63/68 in Poland and 67/71 in the US).

Russia’s infant mortality rate, at 10.8 / 1000 people in 2008, is respectable compared to countries of roughly similar income levels (Mexico – 19.0; Latvia – 9.0; Poland – 6.9) and far better than most developing countries. Nor is Russia’s female life expectancy all that bad compared with the typical Asian or Latin American country. The same cannot be said of male life expectancy. According to CIA estimates, in 2008 it stands at a meagre 59.2 years – the US (75.3), Poland (71.4), India (66.9), Ukraine (62.2) and even Bangladesh (63.2) score higher, while Russia’s neighbors in this area are the likes of Madagascar (60.6) and Ghana (58.7). The main reason is amazingly high mortality rates for middle-aged Russian men, which by Rosstat calculations are somewhat higher today than they were in 1897.

Age specific mortality rates / 1000
Left: men; right: women.

As you can see from the graph above, by far the biggest change between 1897 and 2005 occured in a massive reduction in infant mortality, from 233 / 1000 to just 12.5, as well as in children and teens. This was in large part due to basic and fairly cheap to implement advances in vaccinations and basic obstetrics (the latter of which has practically eliminated maternal mortality as a major cause of death amongst women). Female mortality has improved all around, although not to the same extent as in European countries. Yet male mortality has remained stagnant, comparable to old Tsarist and modern African levels.

This is best illustrated by a measure called “Probability of dying (per 1 000 population) between 15 and 60 years”. For Russian women in 2005, this was 17% – not much worse than, say, Egypt. Yet almost half of Russian men, at 47%, died before reaching retirement age. This compared with 9% in Japan, 14% in Finland and the US, 16% in China, 21% in Poland, 28-33% in the Baltic countries and 40% in the Ukraine. In fact, it was worse than in many African countries, e.g. Ghana (36%) and Ethiopia (41%). The only states to have the dubious distinction of beating Russia in this sphere were those with mass AIDS epidemics, like South Africa (60%) and Botswana (76%).

Eberstadt’s Russia: Too Sick to Matter? is as relevant to mortality today as when it was written in 1999. To quote it in extenso:

For every subsidiary age group from 15 to 65, death rates for Russian men today are frighteningly high. Youth may be the prime of life — but Russian men in their late teens and early 20s currently suffer higher death rates than American men 20 years their senior.13 For their part, Russian men in their 40s and 50s are dying at a pace that may never have been witnessed during peacetime in a society distinguished by urbanization and mass education. Death rates for men in their late 40s and early 50s, for example, are over three times higher today in Russia than in Mexico. To approximate the current mortality schedule for Russian middle-aged men, one has to look to India — the India, that is, of the early 1970s, rather than the much healthier India that we know today.14

It is beyond doubt that Russia’s healthcare system has improved in the last one hundred years, and despite its flaws, it is light-years ahead of countries like Ethipia or India, as measured by infant mortality rates, health spending per capita or immunization rates. So how come mortality, especially amongst middle-aged men, is so astoundingly high? To answer the question, it is instructive to look at the historical trends.

Russia life expectancy 1890-2000
Note how overall improvements in life expectancy for men were exclusively
due to the removal of childhood illnesses as a major cause of death.

In 1897, life expectancy in the Russian Empire was extremely low (31 years for males, 33 for females), lagging behind Western Europe and the US by around 15 years. The 1920′s and the period from 1945 to 1965 saw the introduction of mass elementary healthcare, raising life expectancy to 64 years for men and 72 years for women. Since then, the latter has stagnated while the latter went into slow but steady decline, in constrast to First World nations where life expectancy continued rising (see graphs below).

Life expectancy in Russia and other countries 1950-2000
Note how Russia trailed Japan up until 1965.

From the first graph on my Demographics I post, we can see that from the mid-1960′s mortality in Russia embarked on its merciless upwards trajectory (thus reflecting life expectancy trends). Notice how despite the dips (late 1980′s, late 1990′s, 2007?) and troughs (early 1990′s, early 2000′s), it follows a remarkably straight line. Rapid improvements, in which Russia followed Japan’s trajectory, stalled in the mid 1960′s and have been in stagnation ever since. (The Soviet Slavic and Baltic states followed a similar pattern, e.g. see stats and discussion on Ukrainian historical mortality here).

As of 2006, the vast majority of Russians died from cardio-vascular diseases (CVD’s) and injuries/violence. Some 8.6 / 1000 Russians passed away due to CVD’s, which is more than the America’s entire death rate (8.3 / 1000). In contrast, 2.8 / 1000 of Americans died from CVD’s. Russia’s deaths from external causes (DEC’s) were 2.0 / 1000, about four times higher than in the US. Of these, 23 / 100,000 were from alcohol poisoning, 30 / 100,000 from suicide and 20 / 100,000 from murder. On the other hand, cancers did not kill a significantly higher amount of people than in the West, while deaths from infectitious diseases are quantitavely insignificant. So it is clear than any solution of the mortality crisis will have to focus on reducing deaths from CVD’s and injuries / violence.

Historically, it can be seen below that deaths from diseases of the circulatory system have almost doubled since 1970. Forty years ago about an equal percentage of people died from circulatory diseases in both Russia and Europe (although even then, we should point out that this was not a good indicator, since Russians were substantially younger than Europeans then); today, they are separated by a factor of 4, as can be seen in the graph below. Deaths from injuries / violence have followed roughly similar trends.

1970-80 linear projection is mine by Rosstat data

Finally, life expectancy and mortality rates vary by geographical region and socio-economic factors. Siberia, the Far East and the North fare worse in relation to the Volga and the South – in particular, regions like Daghestan and Ingushetia with burgeoning populations of young Muslims were completely immune to the soaring post-1965 mortality rates in Russia proper. In Russia proper, the poor report worse health than the rich (see p.68) and rising mortality has mostly affected those who are poorly-educated (‘The well-documented mortality increases seen in Russia after 1990 have predominantly affected less-educated men and women, whereas the mortality of persons with university education has improved, resulting in a sharp increase in educational-level mortality differentials’).

Having outlined the situation, we can now ask ourselves several questions.

Why have Russia’s mortality rates, especially amongst less well-educated ethnic Russian men, soared since 1965 in such stark contrast to trends in the First World?

Веселие Руси есть пити [The joy of Russia is to drink]. – attr. Vladimir the Great, 988 AD, upon rejecting Islam as Russia’s future religion.

At its core, the mortality crisis is an alcohol crisis. Russia has had a long and rich relationship with alcohol from the times of Kievan Rus. From the earliest days excessive drinking was remarked upon in foreign travellers’ accounts. Ownership or regulation of vodka production has been a major source of state revenue since Ivan IV created a chain of taverns in all major cities through to the USSR, when in the 1970′s receipts from alcohol constituted a third of government revenue. Furthermore, Russian drinking is characterized by the zapoi, long binge sessions involving hard spirits. Nonetheless, until the country became industrialized, excessive regular drinking was circumscribed both by limited incomes (in the 17th century, a keg (12 liters) of bread wine was estimated to cost as much as one and a half or two cows) as well as traditionalist mores and folk wisdom.

Perhaps it was the beginning of the breakdown in social morale that had become endemic by the 1980′s. Perhaps it was linked to a tipping point in the level of development (half of Russians were living in cities by the 1950′s). Perhaps it was the after-effects of Red Army soldiers who had been given daily 100ml vodka rations during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), became alcoholics and started dying in ever increasing numbers 20 years later. In any case, mortality rates began to increase dramatically since 1965, reaching epidemic proportions by the 1980′s. To quote Alcohol in Russia by Martin McKee in extenso:

Potentially more reliable figures have been generated outside the USSR by, for example, surveys of emigrants, especially to Israel, although these are problematic as there is evidence that Soviet Jews drank rather less than their Slavic neighbours. Nonetheless, one of the most rigorous studies, although again likely to be an underestimate because it did not include that large volume of alcohol now known to be stolen each year, suggests that consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979 to 15.2 litres per person (Treml, 1975). This figure is higher than that recorded for any OECD country (France was highest at 12.7 litres in 1990, although most other countries were in the range 5–9 litres), where data are largely derived from validated surveys of consumption (World Drink Trends, 1992). Also note that Russians tend to binge on hard spirits, while the French consume red wine in frequent moderate doses. Of course, this figure relates to the entire USSR and, for religious and other reasons, there are marked regional variations so levels in the Russian heartland are likely to have been much higher. Other studies of emigré families suggested that alcohol consumption accounted for 15–20% of disposable household incomes. Studies by dissidents and others supported the impression that alcohol consumption was increasing at alarming levels, suggesting, for example, that alcohol accounted for 15% of total retail trade (Krasikov, 1981).

Under Gorbachev, official statistics on a wide variety of topics slowly reappeared, although it was still not possible to undertake or publish research on topics such as alcoholism and social breakdown (Korolenko et al., 1994). The available data included figures on official production of absolute alcohol equivalent which was reported to have increased from 2.2 litres per capita in 1940 to 7.2 in 1985, a rather greater increase than had been assumed in the earlier estimates by Western observers.

However, the level of consumption is only one part of the picture. It is also important to know whether the frequency of drinking and the social context within which it takes place are different from those in other countries. Here, the information is even more fragmentary. Various reports suggest that, by the 1980s, the age at which people began to drink had fallen, that increasing numbers of women and children were heavy drinkers, and in some cities the average consumption among working adults was a bottle of vodka each day (White, 1996).

This pattern is reflected in the extensive evidence, reviewed by White (1996), from newspapers and from local surveys that alcohol consumption was becoming a major social problem. This included reports from a chemical plant that 3.5% of the workforce were confirmed alcoholics, 2.2% showed early signs of addiction, and a further 18.8% were alcohol ‘abusers’, with only 1.4% abstainers. Between 75% and 90% of absences from work were attributed to alcohol. It was suggested that loss of productivity associated with alcohol was the main reason for the failure to achieve the Soviet Union’s 5-year plan in the early 1980s, with estimates that the loss of productiv-ity due to alcohol was up to 20%. There were many letters to newspapers complaining of a lack of government action to tackle excessive consumption.

Refer to the male life expectancy chart above. Notice the slight uptick around 1982, and the much larger improvement from 1985-89? It is not a coincidence. In 1982 ‘action was initiated under Andropov and Chernenko under the general heading of reducing anti-social behaviour’, and three years later a wide range of specific action against alcohol abuse was undertaken – the banning of drinking at workplaces, banning sales before 2pm and in trains and restricting sales to off-licenses and over 21′s. Vodka production was cut and alcohol was banned at official functions (interestingly enough, today, there is noise but no action). Alas, initial successes were undermined by black market moonshine (read: more dangerous) production, while the new climate of perestroika decreased the risks of minor lawbreaking. The project was abandoned in 1988. From 1990 to 1994, the price of alcohol in relation to food fell by a factor of more than 3.
Predictably enough, alcohol consumption soared. Life expectancy plummeted.

Alcohol consumption estimates in litres per year
Look at the mortality trends of the first graph here and notice the remarkable
correlation between alcohol consumption and mortality rates.

Furthermore, we noted in this post that mortality rates were 1) geographically not uniform (lowest in the South and Volga) and were worst amongst 2) less well-educated 3) men. Guess what?

Nine per cent of men and 35% of women reported not drinking alcohol at all. Only 10% of men and 2% of women reported drinking several times per week, but 31% of men and 3% of women would drink at least 25 cl of vodka at one go at least once a month, and 3) 11% of men and 1% of women would drink at least 50 cl of vodka in one session at least once per month. There were large geographical differences, 1) with lowest rates of heavy drinking in the Volga and Caucasus regions and highest in the Urals….Unemployment was strongly associated with heavy drinking.

According to a NOBUS survey in 2003 (see pg.68), more than 50% amongst the poorest quintile of Russians consumed hard alcohol daily, compared with little more than 10% of the richest quintile. Since the poor tend to be less well educated, that’s 2) met.

Since 2002, alcohol consumption has remained extremely high. In 2006, it was an ‘estimated 15.2 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year for over-15s’ (no difference from 2002). Another study found that 44% of male deaths and 20% of female deaths can be attributed to alcohol in those aged 25 to 54, including 72% of homicides, 42% of suicides and 23% of CVD’s – in total, 32% of aggregate mortality, compared with 1-4% in all sampled West European countries. Even in Finland, well known as a nation of hard drinkers, the figure was just 4%.

On the other hand, there have been some positive developments, especially since 2005. The mortality rate fell from 16.1 / 1000 to 14.7 / 1000 by 2007. Death rates from CVD’s fell from 9.1%% to 8.3%% and death from external caused tumbled from 2.2 / 1000 to 1.8 / 1000. Perhaps most crucially, deaths from alcohol poisonings halved, while homicides fell by 30%.

What could have accounted for this? Recent times have seen a rise in national morale, documented here. Burgeoning economic growth has seen real incomes nearly triple in the last eight years and the poverty rate halved. The population, or at least its more connected members, has become more exposed to information on healthy lifestyles. During Putin’s second term, there have been more social investments, like the National Priority Projects (one of which is health), and this trend looks set to intensify under Medvedev. Finally, as we’ve noticed here, younger people are turning to beer – ‘beer consumption has risen from 20 litres per person a year to nearly 80 litres’. Considering that total alcohol consumption under Putin has remained about constant, this means that vodka’s 70% share of Russia’s alcohol consumption in 2001 must have fallen since.

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that alcohol is by far the biggest contributor to Russia’s mortality crisis. On the other hand, Russia, and more particularly working Russian men, pursue lifestyles that are practically optimized for ending them. In 2004, 61% of Russian men (and 15% of women) smoked – one of the highest rates in the world and little changed from Soviet times. (Mass smoking began during and immediately after the Second World War, while mortality began to rise 20 years later). Men smoked an average of 16 cigarettes per day. The Russian diet is ‘characterized by a diet high in animal fat and salt, and low in fruits and vegetables’ and many Russians suffer from high blood pressure and excessive blood cholesterol levels. Most Russians lead a sedentary lifestyle – ‘from 2000 to 2002, 73-81% of surveyed men and 73-86% of women aged 25-64 reported having low-levels of physical activity (CINDI 2004)’. Finally, the healthcare system suffers from a legacy of underfunding (real public health expenditure only overtook late Soviet figures in 2007) and inefficiency.

The general population is aware of the problems. Putin is not too impressed either, as he made clear in his state of the nation address in 2005.

I am deeply convinced that the success of our policy in all spheres of life is closely linked to the solution of our most acute demographic problems. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that the life expectancy of Russian women is nearly 10 years and of men nearly 16 years shorter than in Western Europe. Many of the current mortality factors can be remedied, and without particular expense. In Russia nearly 100 people a day die in road accidents. The reasons are well known. And we should implement a whole range of measures to overcome this dreadful situation.

I would like to dwell on another subject which is difficult for our society – the consequences of alcoholism and drug addiction. Every year in Russia, about 40,000 people die from alcohol poisoning alone, caused first of all by alcohol substitutes. Mainly they are young men, breadwinners. However, this problem cannot be resolved through prohibition. Our work must result in the young generation recognizing the need for a healthy lifestyle and physical exercise. Each young person
must realize that a healthy lifestyle means success, his or her personal success.

Which is why the state has set itself the task of stopping negative natural population growth by 2011 and raising life expectancy to 75 by 2020. The billion dollar question is: will they succeed?

How and to what extent can Russia solve its mortality crisis?

The pessimistic demographers are skeptical of Russia’s ability to solve the mortality crisis any time soon. For instance, according to Eberstadt, achieving rapid improvements in mortality from CVD’s is unrealistic:

With heart disease, in a real sense, today’s “bills” cover “debts” accumulated over long periods in the past. For this reason, trends in deaths from heart disease in any country can never turn on a dime. Even with sensible, well-funded medical policies and wholesale popular embrace of a more “heart-healthy” lifestyle — none of which conditions obtain in today’s Russia — the control and reduction of CVD death rates tends to be a relatively gradual affair.

Furthermore, Russia suffers from ‘negative mometum’ in mortality. Working age life expectancy has been decreasing for forty years straight. In a sense, young Russians today are much ‘older’ than their peers of the same age a generation ago. Two assumptions are made. Firstly, as today’s young people are less healthy than their equivalents forty years back (who are now dying at already very high rates), this implies that when they reach their forties, fifties and sixties, their mortality will be even higher. Secondly, the population continues to get older, as the post-war boomers reach pension age. This creates the conditions for a demographic double wammy that, everything else remaining equal, will further depress life expectancy and massively inflate mortality levels even further. An example of these simplistic trend extrapolation can be seen in this model, according to which male life expectancy will fall to as low as 49 years by 2050. This is what we’d call a Stagnation scenario.

If this ‘debt model’ of national health is correct, and if societal attitudes remain stuck in the past, then Russia should indeed reconcile itself to continuing increases in the death rate and accelerating population decline. Fortunately, there is evidence that the first of the above assumptions is flawed.

Generational mortality for men 1981-2006
Indicates mortality levels for each age group for a given year. Lowest line
correspondsto the 40-44 age group, second lowest to the 45-49 age group in 2006, etc.
Colors track out a particular generation’s demographic history,
e.g. pink is the generation who were 60-64 years old as of 2006.

Take a look the above graph. Firstly, notice how mortality amongst all age groups rise and fall with each other. This implies that that in Russia, the factors leading to high mortality affect all age groups about equally. (If it hadn’t – if for example heavy drinking had only been increasing in the younger generations – then the lines above would have overlapped, or at least gotten closer together, as the younger generations started dying more relatively to the older). This puts into question Eberstadt’s whole ticking time-bomb thesis.

But more importantly, notice how mortality amongst all age groups declined from 2001 to 2006. Let us also note that this period came before the health National Priority Project. Nor did alcohol consumption decline, as we noted (although young people started drinking more beer – but we’re talking about middle-aged people here, and the fall in mortality amongst those in their sixties was if anything greater than in other age groups). There was a small drop in cigarette smoking rates, but benefits from that come with at least a few years’ lag. Yet a tipping point seems to have come at around 2005. Remember the 47% male “probability of dying” rates from 15-60 years in 2005? Well, according to Rosstat, in 2006 they fell to 43%, and fell further in 2007 (judging from the fact male life expectancy increased from 58.9 in 2005 to 60.4 in 2006 and 61.5 in 2007).

There is, however, a factor which explains flunctuations in Russia’s life expectancy much better than any other theory. That is the ratio of alcohol to food prices, as shown below. Notice how all price spikes and dips were associated with troughts and crests in life expectancy, especially pronounced amongst men.

Alcohol / food price ratios and life expectancy

Which takes us to the next part of the discussion. What is the government doing to promote healthy lifestyles, and what should it do?

For that, it is sufficient to look at a typical issue of the bi-weekly Russian demographic journal Demoscope Russia section – plans to raise pensions from 30-35% to 60-65% of wages, general increase in welfare, raising the alcohol-buying age to 21 and banning alcohol and tobacco adverts on transport. Increasing numbers of patients are getting access to hi-tech medical care. Even La Russophobe noticed these efforts, which must mean Russia is doing something right. In other words, all the things done in the West since the 1970′s and which the USSR tried to do in the 1980′s but gave up on.

In 1990, “probability of dying” rates for Russian and Estonian men were similar (32% and 30%, respectively), and both soared by 1995 (47% and 40%, respectively). In the next ten years, however, Estonia’s figure plummeted to 28%, while Russia in 2005 remained at 47%, falling only slightly in the interval. As we’ve noted, however, by 2007 this figure was probably already below 40%. Contrary to Eberstadt’s protestations to the contrary, rapid improvements in mortality stats are possible, and at no great expense if the ‘population-based and high-risk prevention strategies’ recommended here are pursued. The example of Karelia in Finland is illustrative:

The North Karelia Project in Finland shows that major changes in mortality from NCDs can be achieved through dietary changes, increased physical activity, and reduced smoking, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure. Coronary heart disease(CHD) in adults aged 65 years and less fell by about 73 percent between 1970 and 1995. In a recent 10-year period, mortality from coronary heart disease declined by about 8 percent a year. Mortality from lung cancer declined more than 70 percent, mostly due to consistent declines in the proportion of men who smoked (from 52 percent in 1972 to 31 percent in 1997). Data on the risk factors from ischemic heart disease and mortality in Finland suggest that the changes in the main coronary risk factors (serum cholesterol concentration, blood pressure, and smoking) can explain most of the decline in mortality from that disease.

As a result of targeting important high-risk factors for NCDs, all causes of mortality in North Karelia declined by about 45 percent during 1970–95. In the 1980s, these favorable changes began to develop all over Finland, improving life expectancy by 7 years for men and 6 for women. The largest decline in age-specific mortality was reaped by the 35- to 44-year-olds: men in this age group saw an 87 percent decline in mortality from CHD between 1971 and 1995. Men 35–64 saw age-adjusted mortality rates decline from about 700 per 100,000 populationin 1971 to about 110 per 100,000 in 2001. This rate for all of Finland among men in the same age group was about 470 per 100,000 and fell 75 percent. These improvements in life expectancy are correlated with significant declines in the amount of saturated fats consumed, coming mainly from milk products and fatty meat (saturated fatconsumption dropped from about 50 gr/day in 1972 to about 15 gr/day in 1992) and significant reductions in blood cholesterol levels (from about 7mmol/L in 1972 to about 5.6 mmol/L in 1997).

…Data from North Karelia reveal that results from preventionefforts may appear in years rather thandecade—improvements occur some 2-7 years after the elimination of the exposure to a risk factor, and that they are beneficial even for people in older age groups.

This suggests that if the trends explained above continue and people continue jumping up income classes, health improvements are sustainable. There’s a handy chart below showing the effects of decreasing different types of mortality on life expectancy.

Even if the only Improvements were a 40% drop in deaths from circulatory diseases and external causes, average life expectancy in Russia would rise to a respectable 72 years (in line with what happened in Estonia, where life expectancy grew from 67.8 years in 1995 to 73.0 years in 2005). On the one hand, Karelia was just one region; on the other, today’s medical technology is much more advanced than even a decade ago. As such, I think the idea of raising life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 is fulfillable, and that is not even taking into account the emerging technologies of life extension – which should be zealously pursued for both its financial (acturial escape velocity) and more tangible everyday benefits (like being able to live as long as you want).

Talking of which, we now move on to the fun bit – the Transformation scenario. This is an event or series of events which would induce a demographic paradigm shift. In the previous post, we’ve identified the artificial womb as a revolutionary concept for supply-side demographics, which will make the ‘birth rate’ independent of sociological factors. What would be revolutionary for the demographic depreciation rate (death rates)? Continuous and exponential growth in life expectancy. How could that be achieved?

Well, to an extent that is the case already.

Life Expectancy in England & Wales, both sexes, 1541-1998
Life expectancy at birth of male landowners in England between 1200 and 1450 AD,
so not strictly comparable with later, more detailed stats.

As you can see, from a historical perspective life expectancy before the Industrial Revolution was essentially stagnant. There were macro-trends associated with pressure on the earth’s carrying capacity, which drove down life expectancy in the 1200′s and 1550-1750, as well as sudden dips due to chaotic factors (the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, fluctuations from 1500-1800 due to random climate changes impacting on food production), but on the whole it stayed flat. However, around 1750, there was a turning point, coinciding in time with the Agricultural Revolution. The 19th century saw considerable improvement, while in the 20th century it shot upwards.

Granted, the 1900-1960 growth spurt was mainly due to massive reductions in infant mortality rather than adult longevity increases per se. On the other hand, the former stopped playing a substantial role by 1960, and improvements in life expectancy occured mainly through the lowering of adult mortality rates. Since then, the sum of Western lifestyle and healthcare changes decreased adult mortality and pushed life expectancy up. (In the USSR, as we’ve noticed, healthcare remained stagnant and lifestyles worsened, so life expectancy sloped down).

However, now Russia has rejoined the mainstream of world development and as we’ve pointed out here and here, rapid economic convergence with the First World is likely. In the latter, life expectancy has been rising by around 0.3% per annum since 1970. Serious interest and research is already under way, such as the Methuselah Mouse Prize and Aubrey de Grey’s work on strategies for engineered negligible senescence (SENS).

The seven sisters that Dr de Grey wishes to slaughter with SENS are cell loss, apoptosis-resistance (the tendency of cells to refuse to die when they are supposed to), gene mutations in the cell nucleus, gene mutations in the mitochondria (the cell’s power-packs), the accumulation of junk inside cells, the accumulation of junk outside cells and the accumulation of inappropriate chemical links in the material that supports cells.

For more information, read the above Economist article, the wiki entry and a related collection of articles. Unfortunately, however, these technologies are not going to be making a truly revolutionary impact demographically any sooner than in about three decades (10 years to perfect them in animal experiments; another 10 to conduct the necessary human experiments; the final 10 to bring them into mass usage).

Nonetheless, the potential already exists today to radically prolong life expectancy.

Improvements in lowering rates of mortality attributable to alcohol to decent levels will reduce them by maybe 25%. Lowering tobacco usage to normal Western levels of 20-25% and environmental measures could reduce it by another 10%, while better healthcare could account for another 20%. This would lower Russia’s mortality rate from 14.7 / 100,000 to 8.9 / 100,000, which is comparable to the US (a country whose median age is about the same as Russia’s).

The Myth of Economic Collapse due to Ageing Population

According to a Stagnation (extrapolation of today’s fertility and age-specific mortality trends, which sees Russia’s population falling by 12% to 2025), the proportion of population aged 65+ will increase from 12% to 18% – but the latter figure is actually equal to Estonia’s percentage today, whose main problems today are purely macroeconomic (big CA deficit) rather than entitlements. The World Bank’s 15th Russian Economy Report itself admits this:

But growing older does not have to mean growing slower. Aging is not a stop sign for growth – if Russia enacts policy reforms that sustain productivity growth. Changes in labor markets are not immutably determined by demographic legacies. Productivity improvements are the core predictor of growth, so measures to improve labor productivity would swamp any “quantity” effects of a smaller labor force. In fact, in recent years, growth decomposition exercises show that in Russia labor productivity growth has been the single greatest contributor to increases in per capita income.

Considering that the gap between (high) human capital and (low) GDP per capita is so great in Russia, productivity growth should continue to be buoyant for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, considering that in the future older Russians will be both healthier and more educated, an ageing workforce could be counteracted by increased labor participation of the older cohorts in the economy.

Is Russia facing an AIDS Catastrophe?

According to Eberstadt’s ‘Intermediate Epidemic’ scenario in The Future of AIDS, there will be a cumulative total of 13mn AIDS cases in Russia by 2025, 9mn would have died and life expectancy will be down to just 63 years. Other media have also homed in on the apocalyptic dimensions of Russia’s AIDS crisis.

According to government figures, the number of new cases peaked in 2001 at 87,000, but has since stabilized at around 40,000-50,000 per year from 2003 on. As of 2007, there were 402,000 cumulative AIDS cases. However, although Russia’s AIDS epidemic was at first concentrated amongst injecting drug users (IDU’s), ‘HIV-infection is starting to spread more intensively heterosexually’. The share of women diagnosed with HIV every year increased from 20% in 2001, to 38% in 2004 and 44% in 2006. However, other assessments of the share of Russia’s HIV prevalence are usually about three times higher than official figures. HIV prevalence among pregnant women in Russia was 0.3% in 2004 and 0.4% in 2005 and 2006.

But there are good points too. Since 2006, the federal government has started spending huge amounts on the problem. Syphilis and hepatitis B have fallen sharply from their respective 1997 and 1999 peaks. The incidence of tuberculosis peaked in 2001 at around 95 / 100,000, although the fall hasn’t been as dramatic (82 / 100,000 in 2007). According to official sources, AIDS monitoring coverage in Russia consists of 20% of the population, including all the high-risk groups, so perhaps official figures aren’t such big underestimates after all.

The reality is that I simply don’t know enough about this to make a judgement either way, but then again, it is not even known why AIDS exploded in sub-Saharan Africa but remained contained everywhere else. If readers can point to more concrete information on this topic (AIDS in Russia) it would be much appreciated.

Now for Demographics III – Face of the Future

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.