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Melinda C. Mills & & Charles Rahal (2019): A scientometric review of genome-wide association studies

This scientometric review of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) from 2005 to 2018 (3639 studies; 3508 traits) reveals extraordinary increases in sample sizes, rates of discovery and traits studied. A longitudinal examination shows fluctuating ancestral diversity, still predominantly European Ancestry (88% in 2017) with 72% of discoveries from participants recruited from three countries (US, UK, Iceland). US agencies, primarily NIH, fund 85% and women are less often senior authors. We generate a unique GWAS H-Index and reveal a tight social network of prominent authors and frequently used data sets. We conclude with 10 evidence-based policy recommendations for scientists, research bodies, funders, and editors.

There are many more GWAS being carried out over the years, with much larger sample sizes:

Japan’s prominence is perhaps surprising.

• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, GWAS, Science 
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In his September 1, 2017 speech to incoming Russian schoolchildren, Putin made waves by proclaiming that whoever becomes the leader in AI will become “ruler of the world.” This provoked a variety of reactions, from Elon Musk commenting on his belief that competition for AI superiority will be the likeliest cause of World War III to discussions of the geopolitical aspects of the “control problem” at the more esoteric rationalist venues like /r/slatestarcodex. Many of the reactions were skeptical, citing Russia’s traditional weaknesses at commercializing its inventions. Nonetheless, Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, who can hardly be called a Russia optimist, cautioned that Musk’s concerns be taken seriously, citing a range of civilian and military AI applications being developed in Russia.

But here’s another story that happened to unfold on the same day. Back in 2015, Sergey Chemezov, the head of Rostekh state technology corporation – one of Putin’s KGB chums from their time in 1980s East Germany – proudly presented the Russian President with one of his company’s latest “innovatory” offerings: A thin, double-screen, YotaPad-based tablet which was “of entirely Russian make”, meant to be used as an electronic textbook in schools. But they were actually made in Taiwan, and when the devices were distributed to some Russian schoolchildren at the start of the school year, it emerged that they took three minutes to start up, only worked with a stylus, and weighed 1.5 kilograms. According to an investigation by the online journal Znak, the device in question was actually a slightly rebranded version of the American device enTourage eDGe, an outdated and unsuccessful product from 2009 that could be bought wholesale for $20 apiece as of 2015 (you can still get it for $30 on Ebay today). Meanwhile, the official cost of the 8,000 tablets in the trial electronic textbook program was 24o million rubles, which translates to around $500 apiece. This isn’t even very impressive innovation so far as siphoning away taxpayer money into private pockets is concerned, to say nothing of technology.

So which of these stories best reflects the real state of Russian science and technology?

The one in which a technologically adept elite are seriously driving the development of things like strong AI and pondering on its world-historical consequences – or the one in which a clique of kleptocrats pay lip service to innovation while skimming off even the modest resources they bother investing into science and technology?

As per usual, I believe that the best guide aren’t anecdotes, which are the singular of “statistics,” but numbers, numbers, and more numbers in international comparison, as I did in 2006 with respect to China’s scientific/technological convergence with the United States in terms of indicators like published scientific articles published, the prevalence of industrial robots, and the number of supercomputers. I will repeat the same exercise, but with Russia.

Scientific Articles

The SJR maintains a database of scientific publications by country and subject for the past 20 years.


The Soviet Union in 1986 produced around 7.6% of the world’s scientific articles, which was a quarter of the American rate and comparable to other leading industrialized countries like the UK, Japan, West Germany, and France. In the wake of the brain drain and financial collapse in the wake of the USSR’s dissolution, this figure plummeted to below 3% by the mid-1990s and below 2% by the mid-2000s, in a drop made all the more remarkable by the absence of a “publish or perish” scientific culture in the erstwhile USSR. It was only in 2014 that Russia’s relative standing began to recover.

However, with 73,000 articles published in 2016, Russia remains far below the United States (602,000) and China (471,000), as well the bigger European countries like the UK (183,000), Germany (166,000), and France (113,000). As the 13th most scientifically productive country in the world, it is wedged in between South Korea and Brazil. This is true across the board. For instance, even in the sphere where Russia does best, in the Soviet mainstay of “Physics and Astronomy”, it is still only fourth in the world with 23,000 articles, well behind both China (79,000) and the United States (59,000).

Moreover, even the very modest overall figures conceal a yawning gap in some of the most recent and prospective spheres of modern science. Before worrying about the dangers of AI “eating us” – let alone fantasizing about “sharing this know-how with the entire world” – it would have perhaps served Putin better to first concern himself with the question of why Russia only published 552 papers in the field of AI in 2016, relative to 11,800 in China and 6,700 in the US. Another important sphere that is seeing blistering progress are the genomic sciences, some of whose applications – for instance, human germline engineering for higher IQ – will be world-transforming. Could Russia lead the world in producing “[genetically] spellchecked supermen“? With 690 published papers on Genetics to America’s 13,600 and China’s 9,600, 386 in Biotechnology to China’s 7,100 and America’s 6,400, and 350 in Bioengineering to China’s 6,600 and America’s 4,900, this question answers itself.

The state of affairs in the social sciences is even worse. While Russia’s two (sic) published articles in Women’s Studies in 2016 are nothing to worry about – sooner the converse – that’s about where the happy news ends. Not only do the social sciences suffer from all the other weaknesses of Russian science, but the Soviet legacy there is, if anything, negative value added.

For instance, one sphere that I am personally highly familiar with, psychometrics – the science of measuring mental capacities and processes – was declared a “bourgeois pseudoscience” in 1936, with research in it banned up until the 1970s (though they, unlike the geneticists, seem to have at least largely escaped Stalin’s murderous gaze). Consequently, pretty much all of it had to be re-imported wholesale from the West. While there are now some very good people working on psychometrics in Russia, they have to do it on ageing computers in a creaking building, and financed almost exclusively by European grants.

Far from atypical, this is a steady pattern in the social sciences. To take another example, consider Sinology. Many of the USSR’s leading Orientalists were executed in the late 1930s on spying charges (trumped up ones, I hope it goes without saying). Today, as China expert Alexander Gabuev explained in a couple of articles in Kommersant several years ago, which I summarized in a recent article for The Unz Review (The State of Russian Sinology: Past Chequered, Present Dismal, Future Uncertain), the field of China Studies in Russia is a minnow relative both to China Studies in the West, and to Russia Studies in China. And why should it be otherwise? As of when Gabuev wrote his overviews, the average salary of a docent at the prestigious Moscow State University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies was around $500. Consequently, there is a near total lack of expertise in the country that Kremlin talking points describe as Russia’s “strategic partner.” Though one can cite any number of amazing anecdotes from Gabuev’s articles, I will limit myself to just one. During the Russian-Chinese military exercises “Maritime Cooperation 2012,” the Chinese had nearly 200 young officers with a solid knowledge of Russian at hand to provide linguistic support; the Russians could only muster three translators, and presumably, the Russian GRU intelligence service’s sole China analyst wasn’t one of them. Consequently, not only is the Russian military’s degree of China expertise incomparably lower than America’s, but it is also likely far lower than the PLA’s understanding of the Russian military.

One observes a catastrophic lack of understanding of China across the entirety of the Russian ideological spectrum, not least as regards the extent to which their own country is falling behind.

Scientific Articles: Adjusted for Quality

But if Russia’s raw research output is nothing to write home about, it diminishes to near irrelevance when adjusted for quality.

Here’s one important thing you should know about our world if it were a Civilization playthrough: The Anglo-Saxons have won the Cultural Victory. The majority of cultural output in the world happens in the English language, and this rises to at least 95% so far as science and technology are concerned. The Germans were competitive earlier in the century, before the Nazis (and American demographics) ruined everything, and the Soviet Union maintained a technical mini-civilization partly secluded from the global mainstream, but since its collapse, the Anglo system has become the only game in town.

Most of the really important scientific research gets published in a handful of high-impact factor journals. If there is a proxy for modern day scientific productivity adjusted for quality, and without the generational lag problems that you encounter with the Nobel Prizes, then it is the number of articles an institution or country manages to publish in those elite journals, which are proxied by the Nature Index.

# Country Physics Chem Life Total
1 USA 4307 4567 6674 15157
2 China 1970 4025 795 6380
3 Germany 1411 1372 940 3593
4 UK 965 947 1126 3039
5 Japan 879 1116 581 2538
6 France 755 542 468 1811
7 Canada 315 421 483 1229
8 Switzerland 400 345 319 1019
9 South Korea 462 542 141 990
10 Spain 373 442 190 980
11 Italy 503 234 171 909
12 Australia 243 268 280 835
13 India 300 408 81 804
14 Netherlands 275 234 245 744
15 Sweden 152 140 181 452
16 Israel 175 132 162 442
17 Singapore 150 232 80 404
18 Russia 252 98 27 377
19 Belgium 123 114 112 336
20 Taiwan 134 157 57 332
21 Denmark 108 79 111 299
22 Austria 110 82 105 285
23 Brazil 144 34 57 246
24 Poland 114 74 18 204
25 Finland 70 42 52 160

Source: Nature Index, WFC 2016

The US absolutely dominates high-quality research, producing about a third of the world’s total, even though China has gained considerably ground, going from 9% of the global total in WFC 2012 to 14% as of today.


Despite modest improvements since 2012, Russia remains a complete minnow, accounting for less than 1% of elite global scientific research. It is worth noting that it lags China not only absolutely, but in per capita terms as well. In total, Russia produces as much elite level science as does Singapore, Belgium… and the University of Cambridge.

It is hard to imagine any plausible adjustment which would cardinally improve its position. Although it is possible that Russia’s scientific potential is somewhat underestimated by linguistic insularity and its incomplete integration with the global science scene, this is unlikely to be a major factor; since Russia is not actually a world scientific leader in any sphere but a few rather narrow areas of metallurgy and nuclear physics, much of the conversations that take place in exclusively Russian language journals will be outdated and useless. It is also likely that a significantly larger chunk of Russian scientific research relates to military applications than in most other countries, and is effectively “black.” That said, even we assume – very generously – that this underestimation is on the order of 50%, that would still mean that 146 million Russians produce fewer Science Points than the 8 million citizens of Switzerland. Even in Physics, its area of greatest relative strength, Russia barely manages to match Australia; as for the Life Sciences, it is nestled in between Czechia and Argentina.

This analysis is backed up by the performance of individual Russian institutions and scientists.


The most productive (and elite) Russian university, Moscow State University, is in 254th place on the Nature Index, alongside the likes of Oregon State University and the University of Liverpool; fine institutions though they might well be, they do not have a reputation as academic powerhouses. Although Russians tend to complain about the low positions of their universities on international rankings – and I will admit to having once espoused such beliefs myself – it is worth noting that since Moscow State University is 93rd on the latest ARWU Shanghai Ranking and 194th on the THES ranking, it would seem that if anything, the rankings overstate Russia’s performance.

There are a grand total of three Russia-based researchers in Clarivate Analytics’ database of highly cited researchers (of whom only one, Sergey V. Morozov, has his primary affiliation there; the other two primarily work in Spain and the United States). Amazingly, this means that there are as many Russian highly cited researchers in just one American university, U.C. Berkeley – Alexey Filippenko, Igor Grigoriev, Natalia Ivanova – as there are in the whole of Russia! In fairness, Russia’s BRICs rivals Brazil and India don’t do substantially better. However, China has long left its colleagues behind; there are almost 200 highly cited researchers who have their primary affiliation in the Heavenly Kingdom, who are producing 20% of the world’s high-impact academic publications as of 2016.

R&D/Academic Personnel

Russia spends a relatively low but far from catastrophic 1.1% of its GDP on R&D, which is similar to the Mediterranean and Visegrad countries. It also used to have one of the highest concentrations of researchers in the world, with almost 8/1,000 workers employed in R&D, which was higher than the equivalent figures in all the major OECD countries except Japan. Since then, this figure has declined to 6/1,000 even as the average OECD figures went up, so here Russia, too, now keeps company with the Mediterranean and Visegrad. Even so, this was hardly a disaster – the USSR overproduced “researchers” in the same way as it overproduced “doctors” and “engineers”, many of whom would have been mere nurses or technicians in the West. So the thinning out of a good fraction of those fake “researchers” should in theory have been a good thing, assuming that the system was purging itself of dead wood. But the reality was sooner the other way round. Due to the utter lack of prospects in Russian academia, the most talented either continued to emigrate West (with the bulk of that outflow occuring in the 1990s), or went into the private sector.

Many explanations have been proposed as to why Russian science has been in an unending death spiral. Some of the more ideological works cite factors such as the lack of democracy and human rights, and its estrangement from the West – as if Yeltsin’s Russia was a fount of innovation (or democracy, for that matter), while the scientific explosion in modern day China is a mirage (not to mention countless historical counterexamples, e.g. the most scientifically dynamic country in the world prior to World War I was authoritarian Wilhelmine Germany). In Becky Ferreira’s recent profile of Russian science for VICE, one researcher is quoted as saying the following: “If people really only went to countries which do not invade other countries and respect human rights, then they would stick to countries like Andorra or Bhutan… Maybe it sounds a bit cynical, but in my observation, most people in science are driven by opportunities. Regardless of whether such an attitude is moral or not, it is clear that science should be free of any politics.

No, the real reasons are much more banal: Money, or rather the lack thereof.

According to an exhaustive study of global academic salaries published in 2012, the average Russian academic received 2-4x less money than his equivalents in Visegrad, the Baltics, and even Kazakhstan, and an order of magnitude less than in the developed world.


Source: Paying the Professoriate by Philip G. Altbach et al. (2012).

Here is what the authors have to say about the practical consequences of this breadcrumbs-based approach to scientific funding:

In Russia, young faculty earn approximately 70 percent of the average wage in the workforce; professors’ salaries often fall 10 percent below the average wage of others in the workforce who have completed higher education. In most countries, a middle-class income generally depends on additional employment, either within the same institution, at another academic institution, or in nonacademic employment. All of this added pressure decreases the attractiveness of the academic career and will further deter the “best and brightest” from choosing academe.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the astounding prevalence of corruption in Russian academia. According to a Slate article by Leon Neyfakh, the Russian plagiarism detection project Dissernet has found improper borrowing in around 4% of all the dissertations defended in Russia. This doesn’t include plagiarism-free ghostwritten work: Ararat Osipian, a specialist in academic corruption, estimates that around a quarter of all dissertations written in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union were purchased.

There have also been private complaints of “ethnic capture” of certain Russian academic departments, primarily by Caucasians. To the best of my knowledge, this is an unquantified phenomenon (though it would not surprise me if this was true, since such a pattern has been confirmed in Italy, where as you go south – which is more corrupt – the incidence of identical surnames within university departments increases, indicating rising nepotism). However, consider the case of the Ingush. They produced six times fewer scientists per capita than Russians during the less corrupt Soviet period; today, their homeland is the highest unemployment, most subsidized region in Russia. And yet they somehow manage to have the highest concentration of postgrads per capita in all of Russia, around 50% more than in second-place Moscow. I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions.

As if the poverty level wages were not enough, the corruption and cronyism also cannot help but discourage the more talented and conscientious from academic careers.

R&D Equipment

The age when enthusiasts could jerry-rig their own scientific equipment are long gone. You need powerful supercomputers to simulate protein folding, climate change, and the integrity of your nuclear arsenal. You need high throughput sequencers to do serious experimental work in genetics.

But money isn’t any more forthcoming here than it is for salaries.


Twice a year, the Top 500 website compiles a list of the world’s five hundred most powerful supercomputers. Since 2010, China has exploded out of the margins to overtake the United States – as of November 2017, it had 202 top supercomputers to America’s 143, and that included the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, which runs on entirely Chinese processors.


Table: Country Share of Top 500 supercomputers in November 2017

Russia’s performance is… rather underwhelming – its measly 0.6% global share of the world’s top 500 supercomputers is equivalent to Switzerland, and lower than that of Sweden, Ireland, and Saudi Arabia.


Nor are the trends encouraging. While there was an uptick in Russia’s numbers of top 500 supercomputers to around 2% of the world total around 2010-2011, those figures have been dwindling ever since.

High Throughput sequencers

James Hadfield maintains a reasonably up to date map of the world’s high throughput DNA sequencers. The current version of the map isn’t easily readable, but here is a screenshot from 2013.


This is a very typical picture: A modest cluster in Moscow, while the rest of North Eurasia is a scientific desert.


Russia’s performance in patent applications isn’t too bad by global standards – comparable in per capita terms to the UK and France, much higher than in the BRICS minus China (and it’s not exactly a secret that many East Asian patents are of a spurious nature).

Patent applications (2015)
China 968,252
United States 288,335
Japan 258,839
Korea, Rep. 167,275
Germany 47,384
Russian Federation 29,269
United Kingdom 14,867
France 14,306
India 12,579
Turkey 5,352
Poland 4,676
Brazil 4,641

But you can’t realize ideas without money, and despite growing by leaps and bounds in the past decade, the Russian venture capital industry remains tiny from a global perspective.


In 2016, VC funding in Russia (€295 million) was at the level of Ireland (€367 million) and Finland (€324 million) in absolute terms, though a bit above sluggish and overly bureaucratic Italy (€162 million).

And this is relative to Europe, a continent that grossly underperforms relative to its wealth and demographics. According to another source, the old continent had just $14.4 billion worth of VC activity in 2015, relative to $72.3 billion in the United States, $49.2 billion in China, and $8.0 billion in India.

In per capita terms, this means that VC funding in Russia it is at just around 5% of the Chinese level and 1% of the American level.

This expresses itself across the entire range of the hi-tech sphere, but we will just focus on one of the most important and “hip” applications.

Artificial Intelligence Startups

Let’s go back to artificial intelligence, the brains behind the coming wave of automation. How does Russia stack up?


It accounts for 13 of Europe’s estimated 409 AI startups as of mid-2017…


… or just 0.7% of the world’s 1951 total.

The US enjoys near total dominance in this sphere – with more than a thousand AI startups, it accounts for more than half of the world total. China is assuredly moving into second place position, hurtling past Japan and the major European countries.

Meanwhile, Russia is once again in the company of countries like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, who have less than 10% of its population.


According to a just released report by CB Insights, in 2017 China leapfrogged past the US to dominate global equity funding to AI startups. They are fast becoming the only two relevant countries in this sphere, with countries that are not China or the US accounting for a mere 13% of the global total.


For all the lunacies of the Soviet economic system, their planners did at least appreciate the importance of robotics and their role in enhancing productivity in manufacturing.


Source: International Federation of Robotics – World Robotics 2005

At the time of its collapse, the USSR had an operational stock of around 60,000 multipurpose industrial robots. In practice, this is a very inflated figure – a large percentage were simple, even hand-operated tools that would not have been counted as industrial robots anywhere in the capitalist world. Still, the Soviet level of industrial robotization in the 1980s was at least broadly comparable to the developed world, and several orders of magnitude higher than in a China just emerging out of its Maoist slumber.

Until the early 2000s, the publicly available databases generally didn’t even include the numbers of industrial robots in Chinese factories, so small and insignificant were their quantities. But from the late 2000s, the robotization of Chinese industry began to explode. As of 2016, it accounted for about 30% of the world industrial robots market, overtook Japan to become the country with the world’s largest operational stock of multipurpose industrial robots, and leveled with the United Kingdom in robot density.

Conversely, it has since become hard to even find any specific data for Russia… According to the World Robotics 2013 – Industrial Robots report, Russia had an operational stock of around 1,771 multipurpose industrial robots as of 2012.


Source: World Robotics 2013 – Industrial Robots


Source: World Robotics 2013 – Industrial Robots (2011 data)

Russia’s (total!) figures are slightly higher than in Slovenia, but lower than in Slovakia. In per capita terms, the rate of robotization per worker in Russia in Russia hovers between that of India and Iran, and is far behind middle-income industrial countries like Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico, to say nothing of a China fast gallivanting its way up to the levels of its super-automated East Asian peers.


Source: International Federation of Robotics – Feb 2018 press release on robot density (2016 data)

The state of affairs today isn’t any better. A 2016 report from the Russian robotics association NAURR presents two different datasets about the rate of introduction of new robots onto the Russian market in recent years.


Sales of robots in Russia, 2005-2014
Graph: World Robotics 2015


Sales of robots in Russia, 2011-2014
Source: FANUC

Although they diverge somewhat in their assessments, the underlying picture is clear – only around 500 industrial robots are introduced into Russian industry per year as of 2014, accounting for a dismal 0.25% of the global total. This is about thrice less even than Brazil’s 1,300, and two orders of magnitude lower than in China, where 57,000 were sold in the same year. It is likewise highly unlikely that Russia saw any improvements since 2014, considering that this was when it fell into a two year recession.

According to the NAURR report, the top five countries for scientific publications about robotics are the United States, followed by China, Japan, Germany, and South Korea. While figures for Russia aren’t given, it is probably safe to say that it is about as irrelevant here as it is in AI.

Machine Tools

It would also be worthwhile to briefly survey the machine tool industry – a sector of special interest not only because of this its inherent technological sophistication, but also because of its strategic importance as the only part of the industrial economy that actually reproduces itself and makes everything else possible.


Source: Gardener Research – World Machine Tool Survey 2016

As you might expect, the lists of countries that dominate industrial robots and machine tools production – Japan, Korea, the Germanic lands, Italy, and increasingly, China – are highly similar. Russia is not an exception, accounting for just 0.6% of world machine tool production.

As with elite level science and robots, China has left Russia in the dust not only in absolute, but even per capita, terms.


Global share of machine tool production 1913-1995 (Brown – USA; Black – Germany; Green – Britain; Red – Russia; Purple – Japan; Yellow – China)
Source: genby

The Russian Federation also massively lags even the late USSR. As an autarkic military-industrial empire, the USSR understood the necessity of being able to make the machines that make all the other machines, bequeathing the Russian Federation with 2.8 million machine tools in 1992 upon its dissolution. Since then, that machine tool stock has inexorably depreciated, and as of 2013 constituted just 760,000 pieces, with the average age almost doubling from 12 years to 21 years.


Since the end of the USSR, it has become clear that a chasm has opened up in in terms of scientific and technological output between Russia and the developed West.

This video juxtaposing the lumbering Robot Fyodor versus the agile Atlas built by Boston Dynamics seems like a good metaphor for what is perhaps the single biggest failure of Putinism in the past 18 years.

In comparison, any successes or failures in the Middle Eastern military adventures that pundits and commenters obsess over are basically irrelevant.

This is not to say that things are unremittingly bleak and getting worse.

The government has a strategic goal to get five of its universities into the global top 100 by 2020, to which end it has lavished significantly greater funding on its 21 most prospective universities. Consequently, academic salaries have greatly improved since 2013, at least in the elite institutions. They still don’t compare to the caviar feasts served up to Western professors, but at least they now constitute solid hunks of bread instead of the measly crumbs that were served up before.

There’s no very obvious reasons why Russia can’t succeed more at science. The average IQ relative to British norms is around 97, which might fall significantly short of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon (native!) averages, but isn’t really out of place relative to Mediterranean or East-Central European standards. Moreover, there are signs that Russia continues to enjoy a Flynn Effect, and besides, surely any minor disadvantage with respect to raw IQs is cancelled out by Russia’s traditionally very strong performance in international programming and mathematics contests.

Meanwhile, as regards industry, it is worth pointing out that Russia does consume around 2.7% of the world’s machine tools – it is, after all, the world’s eighth (or so) manufacturing power, not the gas station masquerading as a country of John McCain’s imagination. Infrastructure – roads, rail, airports – has genuinely gotten much better in the past decade, and with post-Soviet inflation finally tamed, Russia looks set for fairly vigorous growth.

But the problems holding Russia back are severe, and possibly intractable.

There remain strong financial and ultimately institutional barriers to unlocking Russia’s scientific potential. Putin and his clique seem to prefer lavishing resources on expensive status-signalling sporting events and white elephants as opposed to serious science and supercomputers. The former burnishes his prestige amongst simple people and provides endless opportunities to siphon away money to his Ozero chums – the latest lunatic project is to built a bridge for $10 billion to Sakhalin and its 500,000 people (a contract won by Arkady Rotenberg – who else?), which is about what the federal government spends on the Ministry of Education in a year – while the latter will only cause political trouble.

Ending corruption within academia would likewise seem a quixotic endeavor. While one can say much more on this topic, consider that PhD’s are no less a status symbol for the Russian elites than Mercedes cars and English boarding schools for their children. High-flyers found to have plagiarized their doctoral dissertations include no less than one in every nine members of the State Duma, and for that matter, Vladimir Putin himself. Waiting for these people to solve the problem of academic fraud is about as realistic as expecting them to solve corruption, or training foxes to guard hen houses. Nor is it possible to imagine a serious response to ethnic nepotism in academia in the land of Article 282, where you can be prosecuted just for arguing that the Caucasian republics should get fewer federal subsidies.

Finally, the absurdly low levels of robotization in industry raise serious questions about Russia’s political economy and its economic future. Why are Russian businesses loth to make serious moves towards automation in industry, even though Russia is, despite everything, a reasonably high IQ and well educated country? Is it because these require big capital investments that they are not willing to risk because of what they perceive as Russia’s environment of legal nihilism? It is correlated with Russian elites being the most apatride of any major civilization?

The importance of finding good answers and good solutions to these questions will only increase in the coming years and decades, as industry moves towards greater and greater automation. It seems likely that the countries that will be most successful at this will also be those who are succeeding at robotization today. Will Russia fall into a low-income trap where low wages preclude automation, and low automation preclude greater productivity and wages? At any rate, it doesn’t seem to be the case that anyone in Russia is seriously thinking about this, at least beyond empty electoral slogans – even as Putin runs for his fourth and hopefully final term, his promise to create 25 million hi-tech jobs during the 2012 Presidential elections has been conveniently forgotten.

Now this is not to say that the problem is with the Putin regime and that its removal will improve things. The pro-Western liberal elites are at least as rapacious as the kremlins, no less authoritarian in spirit, and far less patriotic to boot. Although this post was primarily about Russia, feel free to go back through the hyperlinks and study the case of the Ukraine, where liberal “lustrators” have repeatedly won; it is almost Sub-Saharan Africa so far as advanced science, native hi-tech (as opposed to offshored work), and any sort of capital-intensive manufacturing that wasn’t bequeathed to it by the USSR is concerned. Even the Visegrad and Baltic nations don’t have much to write home about. While most of them – especially, Czechia, Estonia, and Poland – do substantially better than Russia on most of these metrics, they still hugely lag the developed West and have been left behind in the dust by the Chinese juggernaut.

I don’t propose any great over-arching solution to these problems. “More money for RAN, less money for the Rotenbergs” might be a nice slogan, but as they say, the devil is in the details.

However, a solid start would be to look at the statistics and acknowledge that a very big problem exists, which, unresolved, will continue to degrade Russia’s economic, industrial, and eventually military competitiveness.

• Category: Economics, Science • Tags: Automation, Corruption, Russia, Science, Technology 
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Is now ready for the period 1 January 2017 – 31 December 2017.

The Weighted Fraction Count (WFC) of the Nature Index is is probably the single best proxy for quality-adjusted scientific output in the world today. You can read about the methodology here.

The first publicly accessible Nature Index dates to 2013, and covers the year 2012. In just the past five years, China has gone from having 25% of America’s elite science output to close to 50%.

. Country/territory AC FC WFC
1 United States of America (USA) 25537 17764.24 15791.8
2 China 11136 7870.2 7449.71
3 Germany 9092 4423.53 3785.08
4 United Kingdom (UK) 8146 3747.49 3087.55
5 Japan 4761 2962.21 2679.12
6 France 5345 2330.97 1890.01
7 Canada 3032 1390.92 1236.33
8 Switzerland 3053 1209.41 1080.48
9 South Korea 1985 1092.6 1000.22
10 Spain 3134 1220.04 950.11
11 India 1701 1085.43 935.44
12 Italy 3373 1335.3 923.17
13 Australia 2660 1056.63 833.15
14 Netherlands 2692 943.84 751.98
15 Israel 1202 564.51 484.92
16 Singapore 896 481.74 480.44
17 Sweden 1702 558.94 466.83
18 Russia 1514 497.54 389.54
19 Taiwan 1007 384.24 343.02
20 Belgium 1202 402.86 331.58
21 Austria 1049 355.42 318.08
22 Denmark 1081 316.7 272.51
23 Brazil 1086 341.38 253.22
24 Poland 1088 301.26 211.71
25 Norway 622 183.88 166.96
26 Czech Republic 688 203.8 164.23
27 Finland 708 197.14 160.23
28 Chile 1085 234.94 109.69
29 Portugal 573 128.74 109.11
30 New Zealand 400 118.06 107.87
31 Saudi Arabia 382 104.65 102.23
32 Ireland 484 117.38 101.84
33 Argentina 436 161.01 101.38
34 Iran 282 119.49 90.63
35 Mexico 584 157.72 86.93
36 Hungary 437 98.76 72.01
37 South Africa 588 127.25 71.95
38 Greece 433 86.5 64.35
39 Turkey 346 77.06 57.61
40 Pakistan 179 41.37 37.28
41 Slovenia 198 39.16 36.86
42 Thailand 224 35.98 32.28
43 Iceland 119 27.82 26.6
44 Estonia 167 32.2 24.49
45 Ukraine 309 38.61 23.96
46 Croatia 213 30.46 22.62
47 Romania 229 21.88 19.81
48 Luxembourg 56 14.97 14.97
49 Slovakia 157 26.09 14.95
50 Colombia 253 18.86 13.91
51 United Arab Emirates 110 21.06 12.63
52 Lithuania 118 15.18 11.73
53 Egypt 162 12.64 10.4
54 Serbia 190 16.35 8.91
55 Panama 40 8.64 8.64
56 Armenia 186 11.73 8.41
57 Vietnam 65 10.89 8.27
58 Bulgaria 158 13.22 8.03
59 Kazakhstan 31 9.14 7.71
60 Qatar 89 7.55 7.5
61 Malaysia 139 7.96 6.73
62 Belarus 152 6.48 6.42
63 Indonesia 52 6.51 6.41
64 Uruguay 17 6.03 6.03
65 Lebanon 23 6.57 5.97
66 Ecuador 99 5.99 5.68
67 Cyprus 98 6.02 5.15
68 Malta 20 6.06 4.79
69 Peru 45 4.9 4.54
70 Kenya 17 4.51 4.51
71 Georgia 177 8.54 3.37
72 Tunisia 23 5.03 3.07
73 Latvia 59 3.9 2.91
74 Morocco 88 2.93 2.84
75 Moldova 11 2.79 2.79
76 Oman 11 2.76 2.76
77 Algeria 17 3.23 2.36
78 Philippines 35 2.14 2.14
79 Costa Rica 14 4.09 1.95
80 Benin 7 1.57 1.57
81 Mongolia 12 1.52 1.52
82 Azerbaijan 80 1.63 1.51
83 Mali 9 1.45 1.45
84 Sri Lanka 53 1.36 1.36
85 North Korea 2 1.3 1.3
86 Madagascar 7 1.3 1.3
87 Venezuela 17 2.5 1.24
88 Congo 6 1.11 1.11
89 Nepal 7 1.22 1.1
90 Jordan 9 1.25 1.09
91 Uganda 9 1.76 1.09
92 Iraq 19 1.11 1.05
93 Tanzania 9 1.03 1.03
94 Bosnia and Herzegovina 7 1.12 1.02
95 Nigeria 16 2.44 1.02
96 Ethiopia 14 1.31 1
97 Macedonia 6 1.07 0.93
98 Brunei 5 0.9 0.9
99 Cuba 21 1.1 0.83
100 Bangladesh 10 0.81 0.81
101 Namibia 16 0.91 0.72
102 Monaco 13 0.7 0.7
103 Uzbekistan 8 0.89 0.68
104 Seychelles 3 0.67 0.67
105 Papua New Guinea 4 0.58 0.58
106 Botswana 7 0.63 0.57
107 Tajikistan 3 1.16 0.56
108 Kuwait 7 0.76 0.56
109 Malawi 3 0.55 0.55
110 Angola 4 0.55 0.55
111 Ivory Coast 5 0.53 0.53
112 Cameroon 9 0.65 0.51
113 Niger 4 0.5 0.5
114 Libya 3 0.47 0.47
115 Senegal 3 0.97 0.44
116 Jamaica 5 0.43 0.43
117 Sierra Leone 3 0.41 0.41
118 Guatemala 4 0.45 0.36
119 Sudan 3 0.56 0.36
120 Syria 1 0.33 0.33
121 Gabon 7 0.33 0.33
122 Burkina Faso 6 0.57 0.32
123 Bahamas 3 0.32 0.32
124 Fiji 2 0.28 0.28
125 Cambodia 2 0.27 0.27
126 Ghana 4 0.27 0.27
127 Vatican City State (Holy See) 27 0.96 0.25
128 Faroe Islands 1 0.25 0.25
129 Albania 2 0.24 0.24
130 Greenland 2 0.22 0.22
131 Maldives 1 0.22 0.22
132 East Timor 1 0.2 0.2
133 Rwanda 3 0.6 0.2
134 Palestinian territories 31 0.19 0.19
135 Trinidad and Tobago 2 0.19 0.19
136 Nicaragua 1 0.17 0.17
137 Bolivia 2 0.17 0.17
138 Bahrain 1 0.13 0.13
139 Cape Verde 1 0.13 0.13
140 Swaziland 1 0.13 0.13
141 Saint Kitts and Nevis 1 0.11 0.11
142 Liechtenstein 2 0.07 0.07
143 Paraguay 2 0.07 0.07
144 Honduras 2 0.07 0.07
145 Solomon Islands 1 0.06 0.06
146 Samoa 1 0.06 0.06
147 Gambia 1 0.06 0.06
148 Mozambique 2 0.25 0.05
149 Zambia 1 0.05 0.05
150 Grenada 1 0.05 0.05
151 Central African Republic 1 0.05 0.05
152 Montenegro 3 0.04 0.04
153 Liberia 1 0.04 0.04
154 Myanmar 1 0.04 0.04
155 Suriname 1 0.03 0.03
156 Kyrgyzstan 1 0.03 0.03
157 French Polynesia 2 0.16 0.03
158 Guinea 1 0.03 0.03
159 Laos 1 0.03 0.03
160 Zimbabwe 1 0.02 0.02
161 Guinea-Bissau 1 0.01 0.01


• Category: Science • Tags: Science 
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Commenter Polish Perspective draws attention to a startling new statistic:

Total spending on R&D in China (as a percentage of GDP) more than doubled from 0.9% in 2000 to 2.1% in 2016… China’s share of high-impact academic publications (the top 0.1% of papers in Scopus, which rates by citations) has grown, from less than 1% in 1997 to about 20% in 2016.

In my 2016 longread, I pointed out that China was converging with America on a broad range of hi-tech economy indicators.

Now yes, Chinese papers have a reputation for shoddiness, being worse on average than Western ones, but absolute values do matter, and quality is rapidly improving anyway.

Incidentally, this is confirmed by China’s performance on Nature’s WFC index, where it rose from 24% of the US level in 2013 to 40% in 2016, and 46% as of just the Oct 2016-Sep 2017 period.

Clearly it is well on the road to becoming a global innovation power, in addition to its already extant strengths in basic manufacturing.

Note that this will not be evident in Nobel Prize statistics until the middle of the century, since they now have a 20-30 year lag time (the Japanese, for instance, only started winning substantial numbers of them from around 2000).

The most interesting question is whether China will converge to Japan/Korea’s level of per capita elite scientific output, or go on to hurtle past them to the Anglo/Germanic level.

If the former, it will still end up the world’s premier scientific power, with around 50% higher Science Point production than the US.

If the latter, its scientific dominance will be commensurate to its demographic preponderance, and as complete as its economic (and probable military) dominance.

Incidentally, Russia is a complete failure on these metrics – it is considerably less productive than a high-functioning small country like Switzerland. I have a 4,000 word post on that ready to go in due course.

• Category: Science • Tags: China, Science 
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Here I will try to categorize all the major Russia-watching schools along two axes: 1) a Russophobe – Russophile axis and 2) a values spectrum on attitudes towards the West as a universal mental matrix. Along these lines I created the image map below which attempts to graphically deconstruct the belief systems many prominent Russia-watchers today subscribe to. I mostly limited myself to those with a presence on the Anglophone blogosphere, though I’ve added in some nationalities and ideological groupings to clarify the terrain and fringe elements to demarcate the boundaries.

Jeff Nyquist ( A Step at a Time (David McDuff) Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble) Thomas P.M. Barnett Gordon Hahn (Russia: Other Points of View) The Ivanov Report (Eugene Ivanov) Dale Herspring Moscow Tory (Carl Thomson) Mike Averko Andrew Wilson (Virtual Politics) Vilhelm Konnander Mark Ames (eXile) Mat Rodina (Stanislav Mishin) Kirill Pankratov Russian Blog (Konstantin) Russia in the Media (Fedia Kriukov) Truth and Beauty (Eric Kraus) Nicolai Petro Vlad Sobell Eduard Limonov Siberian Light (Andy Young) La Russophobe (Kim Zigfield) Edward Lucas Streetwise Professor (Craig Pirrong) Robert Amsterdam Russia Blog (Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur) Sublime Oblivion (Anatoly Karlin The Russian Government (Dmitri Medvedev & Vladimir Putin) Peter Lavelle The Spirit of Terrorism (Jean Baudrillard) The End of History (Francis Fukuyama) Sean's Russia Blog (Sean Guillory)

Introduction: A Very Brief History of Russia-Watching

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:
In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.
So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.
Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.
A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:
At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?
And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:
Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.
And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930’s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).
Russia and Ideologues: Past Debates on Russophobia

Anyone familiar with Western commentary on Russia will know that much of it is bifurcated into two camps, the so-called “Russophiles” and “Russophobes”. Both range the whole gamut of opinion from classical liberalism to nationalist arch-conservatism, and tend to invoke Orientalist interpretations of Russian culture to make their points. This dichotomy has a millennial heritage, going back as far, perhaps, as the medieval period when Western Christendom first acquired a primal aversion to the dark, chaotic steppes to the east; yet an aversion tempered by seductive legends such as that of Prester John, who ruled a perfect Christian kingdom in a place beyond the darkness of Tatary.

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.

Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.

A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:

At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?

And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:

Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.

And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930’s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).

So if there’s one thing history proves, understanding Russia requires a wide array of different approaches and a certain ideological flexibility. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case because Russia is a palimpsest, a place of all things to all people due to its own extremes and contradictions. This is what we are going to explore now…

Categorizing the Russia Debate

Both Russophobes and Russophiles have a somewhat obsessive love-hate relationship with Russia, the main difference being that the “Russophobe” does everything she can to condemn the country (and those who defend it) from within her own specific frames of reference, frequently through the prism of an idealized West; while the “Russophile” does everything she can to understand Russia on its own terms. And since understanding is forgiveness, this inevitably leads to a Romantic infatuation with the country (this is where seduction begins).

Refer to the grid at the top of this post. The vertical axis attempts to gauge the Russia-watcher’s attitudes to the West and its values. Though they may admit to minor blemishes, those who are “pro-West” are firm believers in the absolute superiority of Western civilization as symbolized in the Idea of the West (rule of law, sanctity of contract, free markets, classical liberalism, etc). In contrast “cynics” tend to focus on its rather unnatural (”Faustian”, to use the Spenglerian term) characteristics, systemic hypocrisies and tend to believe in the possibility – and indeed desirability – of economic modernization, social progress and democratization without Westernization.

Viewed from within this conceptual framework of a belief matrix, several major groups or schools begin to emerge.

Centrists & Marxists. These folks tend to be placid, considerate and consciously strive for objectivity in their judgments. Leading lights of this school include Andy Young (Siberian Light), Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog), the folks at the eXile (though they lean towards cynicism), Geoffrey Hosking and Anatol Lieven.

Siberian Light is the centrist par excellence amongst bloggers. Though he personally has a rather dim view of the Putin administration, Andy mostly focuses on aggregation and allows readers to make up their own minds.

Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog) aims to explore Russia through the “dialectic between universal and particular”, without trying to resolve, but rather accepting, the inherent contradictions born of such an exercise – this acceptance is the reason he tilts towards the “Russophile” end of the horizontal axis (albeit this is moderated by his semi-unconscious Western biases). He criticizes the Orientalism which he believes are clouding both the Russophile and Russophobe perspective, though as I assert in this work a Russophile cannot be an Orientalist by definition. As can be expected from a liberal Californian social sciences academic, not to mention his language, Sean directs his analysis through a Marxist and more broadly a dialectical prism. For reasons I will explain below, the dialectical approach is the epitome of Reason, which is located at the center of the vertical axis

On a less refined level, Sean’s approach could be described as both realistic and cynical. This attitude is broadly shared by some former eXile writers like Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.

The Western Russophobes. These are people with a strong belief in the validity of the Idea of the West and its near flawless exercise in the “Western world”. Their perceptions of Russia’s “Otherness” from Western ideals lead to regret and sadness for the apparent plight of the Russian people (often with scant regard for the Russians’ subjective perceptions of their own situation). Examples of such moderate Western Russophobes include Robert Amsterdam, Vilhelm Konnander, Steven Rosefielde, Andrew Wilson and most of the folks at RFERL.

The more extreme elements see the struggle in Manichean, quasi-religious terms. Russia’s ostensible denial of the Idea of the West is amoral, if not heretical – and so are the defenders of Putin’s “bloody regime”, who are either innocent dupes (”useful idiots”) or unrepentant heretics with whom there can be no compromise. Here’s a telling quote from Streetwise Professor’s (Craig Pirrong) seminal essay On Russophobia:

…It is this fundamental philosophical and moral divide between the classical liberal views I espouse, and the anti-liberal views of the Putinists, that explains my intense antipathy for the current Russian government and state, and which is the wellspring of my trenchant criticism. It is not a divide that can be bridged [my emphasis], as these are antithetical conceptions of the roles of the individual and the state…

Yet the cake here goes to Ed Lucas, who explicitly compares modern-day Russia to Mordor (the archetypal evil empire of epic fantasy) and its defenders to the evil henchmen of the Dark Lord himself.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer)… Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be [email protected] (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

So despite their representation of themselves as paragons of upstanding morality and reason, the bankruptcy of their arguments soon shows them up for the reality-disconnected ideologues many of them actually are. Other folks in this category include Paul Goble and David McDuff.

However, the ultimate in this category is the bombastic, manipulative La Russophobe, who abuses “her” anonymity to “expose” (read: smear) innocent individuals voicing disagreement with her extremist views in the vilest and most low-life manner. She represents the voice of Russia’s liberasts, a very small but loud segment of the Russian population which hates its own country and uses Bolshevik-reminiscent rhetoric against its enemies, real and imagined. Beyond them lie folks like Jeff Nyquist and the “Final Phase” conspiracy theorists, who believe that the Soviet Union never collapsed, continues to plot for the global triumph of Communism and recommend a pre-emptive American thermonuclear strike / holocaust on Russia. These extremist elements, lying on a spectrum from SWP to the Final Phase theorists, demonstrate that paradoxically the greater the strength of your belief in the West – the more your thoughts and actions forsake its rationalistic ideals.

The Western Russophiles. People like Thomas P.M. Barnett, Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur (Russia Blog), Eugene Ivanov, Gordon Hahn, Dale Herspring and Mike Averko (I think) believe that the civilizational commonalities between the West and Russia are strong, Russia is (more-or-less) converging to Western norms of economic and political behavior under the present regime and intense US-Russian co-operation is both rational and desirable. Such commonalities include: the war against terror, the struggle against radical Islam, common goals in economic development and democratic governance (they acknowledge a separate Russian path to democracy independent of “the West”, noting that there are many forms on national democracy), and Christian identity (so it is not surprising to see Russia Blog funded by the creationist Discovery Institute; before criticizing this, some Russophobes should pause to note that such beliefs are shared by more than half of “real Americans”, and I say this as an atheist!). Carl Thomson (Moscow Tory) is the British representative of this set, a member of the UK’s Conservative Party (!) who largely rejects the Russophobia of his own party.

Barnett believes that Russia and the West have a common interest in advancing globalization so as to combat instability and extremism in the destitute “Gap” nations running across the Central Americas and vast swathes of the African and Eurasian Islamic belt. Charles Ganske and Eugene Ivanov are patriotic Republicans who lament what they perceive as the manipulation of Reagan’s legacy to advance an anti-Russian agenda. Many of these people tend to be very much part of the conventional, respectable American “establishment” in politics, business, religion and academia.

The main Western Russophobe argument against their brothers and sisters on the other end of the spectrum is that their position is untenable, riddled with contradictions. But this is based on their own belief that the “real” Russia and the “real” West are incompatible (a divide that cannot be bridged). The Western Russophiles do not believe this belief is valid, so their position is internally consistent and hence can only be discredited (or confirmed!) by objective developments in Russia itself, or rather by how these developments are perceived and interpreted in Western texts.

A more valid objection to the Western Russophile worldview is that they have a rather warped perspective on the “real Russia”, with a tendency to gloss over its defects (that is, defects from the Western perspective, because things like the abuse of administrative resources or the post-totalitarian (Vlad Sobell) nature of unreformed elements of its security, judicial and bureaucratic apparatuses do not much concern Slavophiles, Eurasianists and even most ordinary Russians). This is because they are Westerners catering to Western expectations of what Russia should be and serve a fundamentally political role in that their main task is to persuade Western politicians to go against the (Russophobic) Western consensus and seek rapprochement, understanding and co-operation with Russia.

The Skeptical Russophiles. I believe this characterizes the majority of Russia’s people today. They are proud of their nation in all its bittersweet glories and traumatic infamies and are deeply skeptical about the West’s poisoned chalice of absolutist political thinking (whether it is the neocon vision of US-directed democracy exports or the neoliberal dogma of free markets). They tend to see Russia as significantly separate from the West. Their recognition that Westernization is no universal panacea makes them skeptical towards democracy-freedom rhetoric and the overall desirability of pursuing some mythical “convergence” to the West. The fatal flaw of this approach, as alleged by the Western Russophobes, is that it is amoral and irrational (given that it stands in direct opposition to their belief in the Idea of the West). When the skeptical Russophiles screech about “double standards”, “Western hypocrisy” or “Orientalism”, the Russophobes chant “whataboutism”, “moral equivalence” and “tiresome pomo-ism” in retort.

Analysts who think along these lines include Peter Lavelle and the folks at Russia Today(its slogan “any story can be another story altogether” brilliantly illustrates their postmodern interpretation of truth, echoing former Economist journalist Gideon Lichfield who in one of his less cynical moments said, “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them,” in relation to Russia coverage), most prominent Russian politicians (including Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev), Nicolai Petro, Vlad Sobell, Eric Kraus, Fedia Kriukov (Russia in the Media), “Konstantin” (Russian Blog), Kirill Pankratov and yours truly, Anatoly Karlin.

A common Russophobe claim is that this position is inherently paradoxical (if you are skeptical, why only towards the West and not towards Russia?); this contradiction is resolved through re-definition of the terms – changing the Western-imposed definition of a “Russophile” as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, to a simple acceptance of it for what it is. Unlike the case for rational Western civilization,resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission (and furthermore, attempts to do so on the parts of its elites usually led to tragic results).

This naturally results in an organic Russophilia tinged with skepticism towards the West on the part of the Russian people. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev managed to sum this up in just four eternal lines:

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить. | You can only believe in Russia.

Yet unadulterated belief is a luxury that cannot extend to those Russians forced to have dealings with Westerners on Western terms and the foreign Romantic intellectuals who empathize with the “real Russia”. This forces them into a sophisticated and Western-derived defense in the information war (much as Russians and other civilizations that wanted to preserve their sovereignty from the West were forced into adopting the West’s machine civilization and modern weapons to survive real wars). They are slaves to the West so that “real Russians” can live free.

This phenomenon is illustrated by my reply to Streetwise Professor’s aforementioned On Russophobia article with Deconstructing Russophobia, where I noted that a) his essentializing of Russia as anti-thetical to liberalism falls under the rubric of Orientalism, b) in support, there were numerous despotisms in Western history and in any case different Western states saw markedly different patterns of historical development, some more statist that others and c) “there many instances of democratic / liberal tendencies organically appearing in Russian history, from the Veche of medieval Novgorod to Putin’s consolidation of liberal democracy in the last 8 years”. Bearing in mind the centrality of belief to SWP’s position, I subjected it the following postmodernist assault:

And that’s really the difference between Russophobes and Russophiles. Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own ugly reflections.

My basic assumption in making this argument (shared by many) is that the Idea of the West is based on the historical progress of Reason (or the Mechanism of natural science), a progress that advanced far enough as to rationalize itself – and consequently divine its own eschatology, starting from Hegel, the inventor of the modern dialectical theory. (This represents a profound break not only from the ancient myths and esoteric theo-philosophies which saw the world undergoing eternal cycles of progress and retreat, but also the Roman salvation cults and Chriatinity, which despite positing a linear time and an eschatology treated it as revealed knowledge, rather than building it up from reason).

Yet paradoxically, the Idea of the West (in its dialectical, universal sense) is ultimately a belief system itself, not based on rationalism as it would have you believe (even the axioms of mathematics are an object of belief, let alone something as artificial and unnatural as modern liberal democracy); and any belief system can be discredited by a) pointing out its inconsistencies in real life (this is the basis of the essentialist and Orientalist critiques) and b) exposing its contradictions – namely, by weilding the weapon of postmodernism, the West’s most fatal invention.

Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom. Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “priveleged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well.

Who wrote this? Francis Fukuyama, our Age’s prophet of the end of the history – and its unwitting nemesis.

(In his book, Fukuyama utilizes Hegel’s dialectics – that most Western of inventions – in an attempt to “prove” that liberal democracy is the final culmination of a linear history, not the withering away of the state and Communism as asserted by the Marxists. Yet this one paragraph, which I believe to be the most significant by far, contradicts his entire message; and from then on he becomes much less convincing).

The Western Russophobes characterize such attitudes as petulant, childish and nonconstructive (not to say Orwellian and totalitarian). And they are… because they are based on explicit denial of the West, and as such – they are caused by the West. Nazism, Stalinism, radical Islamism… these are hybrids of Western and traditional modes of thought, defined by a reaction to the West. For the defining essence of the West is that it is self-denying and self-refuting, unlike Russia (and traditional societies in general), which is self-affirming! This is the West’s greatest weakness… and its greatest triumph.

Two consequences follow. First, the Russophiles who are also firm believers in the West are viewed as misguided by the more extreme skeptical Russophiles (like Russian nationalists). However, they are useful tactical allies in the real struggle, which is between skeptical Russophilia and the Western Russophobe crusaders (the First Enemy).

Second, when Russia’s truest defenders (the skeptical Russophiles) use the weapons of the West against the West, this results in spiritual contamination which spreads throughout the entirety of Russian civilization, a contamination that skeptical Russophiles must constantly struggle against. For if they don’t, Russians end up deserting their unconditional faith in Russia and replace it with its simulacra – radical, self-refuting ideologies like extreme Slavophilia and Eurasianism, born of Western intellectual degeneracy and seduced by Western technics yet nostalgic for an imagined past of blood, soil and struggle to replace the gray disillusionment and sleazy decadence of the modern West.

These Russian nationalists don’t attack the West because they hate it, but because they love it too much. As such they are heretics and traitors to Russia, for in their absolute opposition to the West they ensure its spiritual triumph through suicide (paradoxical as the concept may sound to Westerners who have not delved too deeply into the spiritual foundations of their own belief system).

The Region of Disillusionment. These are the lonely souls cursed with an absolute love for truth. An excellent example would be Milan Kundera, who dislikes all kitsches, all totalitarianisms. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. And no one knows this better than politicians. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch… In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Yet all societies need kitsch, a single dominant kitsch, in order to function; as such,these holy fools are spiritually rejected from all human societies. Yet this should not unduly bother them, for as Kundera insists: Einmal ist Keinmal – what is lived once might as well not have been lived at all, with all the moral and spiritual consequences that follow (”In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”). Internalization of this concept is the road to spiritual freedom. This state of sublime oblivion is every believer’s unconscious dream of redemption.

The lack of belief that characterizes the Region of Disillusionment makes it profoundly unstable. The tortured souls caught up in there cannot resist the Romantic seduction of Russia’s Great March to the right, the iron rationalism of the West below or the radical nihilism (the belief in non-belief) of the top-left. They can either leave this hell (spiritual freedom) of their own volition, or be ripped apart by centrifugal forces and descend into madness, which is just another form of spiritual freedom and sublime oblivion.

There are no major Russia commentators in this quadrant. There are few absolute cynics, and even fewer people care to listen to their blasphemies.

EDIT: On reflection, I think the eXile fits the bill perfectly. They are irreverent court jesters talking truth to Russian, Western and any other power (see Ames’ review of Virtual Politics). Of course, almost no official figures ever cared to praise or even acknowledge them, even though some may have secretly admired them.

Extremists. Extremism of any kind is a profoundly unstable state. Not tied to any specific ideology, it is primarily a pattern of thought, moreover one now frequently reinforced by the phenomenon of Internet enclave extremism:

[O]n many issues, most of us are really not sure what we think. Our lack of certainty inclines us toward the middle. Outside of enclaves, moderation is the usual path. Now imagine that people find themselves in enclaves in which they exclusively hear from others who think as they do. As a result, their confidence typically grows, and they become more extreme in their beliefs. Corroboration, in short, reduces tentativeness, and an increase in confidence produces extremism. Enclave extremism is particularly likely to occur on the Internet because people can so easily find niches of like-minded types — and discover that their own tentative view is shared by others… There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong, simply because they have not been sufficiently exposed to counterarguments. They may even think of their fellow citizens as opponents or adversaries in some kind of “war.”

Anyone particular come to mind in the Russia debate? La Russophobe? Ed Lucas? The folks at InoForum? Russia’s liberasts? Myself? (I don’t think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have put myself up for consideration – but I’m interested in what my readers would say on this matter).

Ideological extremism is a fundamentally Western phenomenon, for it is something rationalized and artificial (whereas traditional societies are organic and conservative). I won’t dwell much on the intellectual foundations of various kinds of extremism (I’ve done that in great detail above), but I will mention one feature specific to all of them:they are unstable, with a tendency to flip to opposite extremes.

This is because of the artificial, one-sided manner in which extremists build up their beliefs. Though their belief systems are hard and uncompromising, they are also consequently brittle; given enough insults, they break down into a chaotic state (usually in the Region of Disillusionment). After a depressive, contemplative period, a new belief system takes form, which is frequently the polar opposite of their previous belief system. See for example David Horowitz, who metamorphosed from youthful limp-wristed liberal Marxism to bombastic ultra-conservatism. After several shocks, extremists tend to sink into the Region of Disillusionment, where some of them manage to find an indifferent happiness.

Hence the reason why it is actually Russians who have been exposed to the West make by far the best Russophobes (e.g. Kasparov, Latynina, Illarionov, etc), whereas virulent Russian nationalism typically arises after profound disillusionment with the West (e.g. Russia after the 1990’s smuta).

Russians. Russians have traditionally been accepting towards Russia in all its faults and glories. This is a default steady state that is only disrupted by severe socio-political breakdown. Their encounter with the West ushered in profound shocks, including the formation of the Russian intelligentsia – a civilizational defense mechanism to protect its spiritual sovereignty. They are in a profound predicament, however, since they are an inorganic cosmopolitan element, apart from the real Russia. Their assimilation of Western thought patterns in tandem with their retention of older Russian identities creates a profound internal conflict which further alienates them from the real Russia: either they desert to the West and become Western Russophobes, like the Bolsheviks and today’s liberasts; or they become spiritual cynics in the Region of Disillusionment, rejected by all except an inner God; or they flee into the comforting recesses of an imagined past, like the extreme Slavophiles or Eurasianists (their only disagreement with each other is on what the imagined past was like).

Most just about manage to remain in the spiritually unsettling void of skeptical Russophilia (this includes the Putin circle), fighting against both totalitarian temptations and Western Russophobe encroachments on two fronts. Since today more and more Russians are becoming Westernized in thought but simultaneously ever more disillusioned with the West, the consequences for the future may be dire.

Pray that Russia continues its insane struggle. For only suicide – universal suicide, can break the loop of the struggle. Much like Samson bringing down the Temple, a glorious nuclear conflagration will sweep the Faustian West with its machines and intellect and hypocrisy into the vortex of sublime oblivion, freeing it from the overlong, tyrannous daylight of the unnatural state and once again ushering in the primeval mysticism of the dark forests, where blood and instinct can once again reign dominant over the biosphere. As they should, according to the true dissident.

Foreigners. Amongst Western Europeans, Germans are probably the most disillusioned with the West, especially in its depopulating, depressed eastern regions. It is a spiritually bifurcated and psychologically tortured nation: though it played a major role in manufacturing the Faustian world of machines and the intellect, it is safe to say that a nation which produced the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger possesses a profoundly mystical soul. Given that the imposition of liberal democracy onto its soil was artificial rather than organic, and its deep spiritual affinity with the Russian soul in its worldview, the re-emergence of the Reich is likely. Many Muslims also view Russia positively (with the exception of Wahhabi extremists), unlike the West which they regard as arrogant (pretensions of universality), disruptive (of age-old traditions) and spiritually degenerate.

Peoples like the British, French, Poles and the Americans retain a large degree of belief in the West – the Poles and Americans to a greater extent, the British to a lesser (they are partly disillusioned, perhaps to a greater extent than the others, by the effects (ostensibly rational) neoliberal democracy has had on their nations – social breakdown, deindustrialization and paradoxically, a metastasized state with universal surveillance and databases, political spin, burgeoning bureaucracy and ever expanding welfare rolls to support the demoralized victims of market fundamentalism). Ultimately, throughout history the Idea of the West was sustained by economic growth; whenever it faltered, as in the 1930’s, the hyenas pounced and the temptations of simulated belief and of struggle reasserted themselves. Quoting Spengler in The Decline of the West:

…..The future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our presents ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents. With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism, a general phase of evolution, which occupies at least two centuries and can be shown to exist in all Cultures…..

…..The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and scepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money. But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them…..

With the coming of energetic and environmental limits to growth, mass cynicism is inevitable. Cynics, including skeptical Russophiles, will have an easier time everywhere. Let us hope they do not dare storm the heights and attempt to reinvent the past, using all the powers of the modern Megalopolis (cybernetics, WMD’s, virtual politics, relativism, etc) at their disposal – to destroy the Megalopolis.

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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

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EDIT: Check out the updated Top 50 Russophobe Myths.

According to this blog’s philosophy, every thesis needs an antithesis. Hence I present the Top 10 Russophobe Myths, in opposition to La Russophobe’s Top 10 Russophile Myths. (As well as to celebrate our 2000th visit).


MYTH: The barbarous state of Muscovy arose in the sixteenth century when Ivan the Terrible climbed out of the trees.

REALITY: The more than 1000-year old civilization of Kievan Rus’ was literate, affluent, governed by a legal code that abhorred cruel and unusual punishments (including the death penalty) and accorded women property and inheritance rights.


MYTH: Russians are a pack of uncultured illiterates.

REALITY: Russia leads the world in literacy, level of tertiary attainment and the quality of its mathematicians and programmers. It possesses a world-class literary, musical and artistic heritage and to claim otherwise is in fact to admit oneself ignorant and uncultured.


MYTH: Russia has fallen to Tsarist levels of inequality and is plagued by endemic, African-level corruption. Both of these have become much worse under Putin.

REALITY: Russia’s level of income inequality and of corruption is average by world standards. Under Putin, they have registered a slight deterioration and slight improvement, respectively.


MYTH: Russia is an aggressive state which is hated by its neighbors.

REALITY: Unlike some superpowers, the Russia Federation has yet to invade another country. Most of its neighbors view Russia favorably and a majority of Ukrainians would be happy to join it.


MYTH: Russians are sexists and xenophobic racists who hate the West.

REALITY: Russian women live longer and are better educated than men, enjoy full abortion rights and participate extensively in the economy. Few Russians are predisposed against the US and there are far fewer anti-Semitic incidents in Russia than in France, Germany and the UK.


MYTH: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns.

The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. The Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war.


MYTH: Russia’s economy is one big oil bubble.

REALITY: The extractive industries contribute a negligible amount to Russia’s real GDP growth. Today’s excellent macroeconomic situation combined with its impressive human capital stand Russia in good stead for convergence to First World living standards by 2020-30.


MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs. Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.

REALITY: In the last eight years, poverty rates have more than halved and wages have risen by a factor of 2.6, fuelling an on-going consumption boom. The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.


MYTH: Putin has abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.

REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.


MYTH: Russia is Mordor.

REALITY: Scratch a Russophobe, and you find a talentless fantasy writer. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but there aren’t billions of orcs beneath the Ural Mountains preparing the final phase of their assault on the West. Not as far as I know, anyway.

I’ll be adding more myths as I think of them…

MYTH: Chechnya’s heroic freedom fighters deserve their indepedence.

REALITY: When they had de facto independence, the Chechens created a criminalized, Wahhabi state, practiced ethnic cleansing against local Russians and launched armed raids against border regions.


MYTH: All Soviet space programs were developed by German prisoners of war, who are still kept in labour camps in Siberia.

REALITY: Sorry, but wrong country. All German leading hi-tech professionals, including rocket scientists, surrendered to Americans and many worked on their space program.

Comments and Sources
10. Read the Kievan Rus’ wiki and consult its sources for confirmation and more information. Just to pre-empt any confrontations, I am aware that some Ukrainian nationalists consider the history of Rus’ to be exclusively theirs, dating the emergence of the Russian state to the late medieval expansion of Muscovy. This is a ridiculous viewpoint. Firstly, Kievan Rus’ also covered modern-day Belarus and most of European Russia west of the Volga. Secondly, even Muscovy can trace its ancestry from the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’, which was nearly as old as Kiev or Novgorod.
9. Russia has universal literacy (see World Bank). Statistics on the percentage of the population with tertiary education from the OECD. In PIRLS 2006 (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), Russia came first in the world on the average combined reading literacy score. In mathematics, 17% of all Fields Medal winners (and 36% since the RF came into existence) have been Russian/Soviet nationals (see Wikipedia). Programming prowess is indicated by articles such as these (The next Silicon Valley: Siberia) and reflected in things like Maths Olympiad and programming competition results.
8. Russia’s income Gini coefficient (a standard measure of income inequality) of around 41.3 as of 2007 is high only by the standards of socialist European countries. It is lower than in the US, China and the vast majority of developing countries. It has remained almost completely constant from 1994-2003, and by projection, to 2007 (see HDR05 RF: Rusia in 2015, p.33). Only 17% of Russians paid a bribe to obtain a service in 2007 (see Transparency International’s GCB) – putting them into the same quintile as Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic, i.e. slap bang in the middle of world corruption rather than at the end. Even according to the World Bank (control of corruption 16.5 in 2000; 24.3 in 2006) and Transparency International (CPI of 2.1 in 2000; 2.3 in 2007), transparency has slightly improved under Putin. I have already discussed issues of inequality and corruption (in particular the problem with CPI) here and here. To quote A Normal Country (Andrei Shleifer & Daniel Treisman, Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 2004) in extenso:
Yet what about sources less dependent on the perception of outsiders? In the summer of 1999, the World Bank and the EBRD conducted a survey of business managers in 22 postcommunist countries. Respondents were asked to estimate the share of annual revenues that “firms like theirs” typically devoted to unofficial payments to public officials “in order to get things done.” Such payments might be made, the questionnaire added, to facilitate connection to public utilities, to obtain licenses or permits, to improve relations with tax collectors, or in relation to customs or imports. Respondents were also asked to what extent the sale of parliamentary laws, presidential decrees, or court decisions had directly affected their businesses, in the hope of measuring the extent to which policymakers were co-opted by business.
On both the “burden of bribery” and “state capture” dimensions, Russia ranked right in the middle of its postcommunist peers. On average, Russian firms reportedly paid 2.8 percent of revenues on bribes, less than in Ukraine and Uzbekistan, and far less than in Azerbaijan (5.7 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (5.3 percent). The percentage who said it was “sometimes,” “frequently,” “mostly,” or “always” necessary for their firms to make extra, unofficial payments to public officials in order to influence the content of new laws, decrees, or regulations was also about average: 9 percent, compared to 24 percent in Azerbaijan, 14 percent in Latvia and Lithuania, and 2 percent in Belarus and Uzbekistan. In both cases, Russian responses were very close to what one would predict given Russia’s relative level of economic development.
How does corruption in Russia affect individuals? The UN conducts a cross-national survey of crime victims. Between 1996 and 2000, it asked urban residents in a number of countries the following question: “In some countries, there is a problem of corruption among government or public officials. During [the last year] has any government official, for instance a customs officer, a police officer or inspector in your country asked you, or expected you, to pay a bribe for his service?” The percentage of positive responses in Russia was about average for the developing and middle-income countries surveyed. Some 17 percent of Russians said they had been asked for or had been expected to pay bribes in the preceding year, fewer than in Argentina, Brazil, Lithuania, or Romania. Again, Russia’s relative position was almost exactly what one would expect given its per capita income.

7. 81% of Ukrainians, 78% of Bulgars, 59% of Slovaks and 54% of Chinese view Russia favorably (in each country, that’s more than those who view the US in a positive light). These opinion polls are from the 47-nation PEW survey Global Unease with Major Powers. (Ok, admittedly the same cannot be said for Poles and the Czechs). Some 54% of Ukrainians are positive about joining the Union of Russia and Belarus, while only 24% are negative (see this poll). More Ukrainians would prefer to join the Union of Russian & Belarus (43%) than the European Union (30%) (see Levada poll here).

6. For abortion laws, see Wikipedia. For other stats, see the WEF Gender Gap Index 2007 Russia section, according to which women are better educated, healthier and constitute 38% of decision-makers and 64% of professional workers. (Admittedly, the political subsection isn’t as good, though it should be noted that since the last Duma elections, the percentage of women in parliament has increased from 10% to 14% and two women have entered the Russian Cabinet). Only 8% of Russians view Americans very negatively (an attitude not shared by most people in Latin America and the Middle East). In 2006, a typical year, there were 136 violent anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, 97 in France, 74 in Canada, 38 in Germany and 34 in the Ukraine, compared to just 30 in Russia (according to the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism).
5. Rüdiger Overmans. Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1 estimates that from the Polish campaign to the end of 1944, 75-80% of all German armed forces personnel died or went missing in action on the Eastern Front up to the end of 1944. According to Krivosheev’s research, throughout the war, the vast majority of German divisions were concentrated against the Soviet Union – in 1942, for instance, there were 240 fighting in the East and 15 in North Africa, in 1943 there were 257 in the East and up to 26 in Italy and even in 1944 there were more than 200 in the East compared to just 50 understrength and sub-par divisions in the West. From June 1941 to June 1944, 507 German (and 607 German and Allied) divisions and 77,000 fighters were destroyed in the East, compared to 176 divisions and 23,000 fighters in the West. The two pivotal battles, Stalingrad and El Alamein, differed in scale by a factor of about ten.
According to meticulous post-Soviet archival work (G. I. Krivosheev. Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses. Greenhill 1997 ISBN 1-85367-280-7), casualties were as follows:
Number of Soldiers – the total number of people who passed through the armed forces of the following combatant countries during the course of World War Two.
USSR – 34,476,700, Germany – 21,107,000.
Irrevocable Losses – the number of people serving in armed forces of following countries who were killed in military action, went MIA, became POWs and died of non-combat causes.
USSR – 11,285,057, Germany – 6,231,700, (Germany + occupied territories) – 6,923,700,
(Germany + occupied territories + Axis Allies) – 8,649,500
Ratio (USSR + Germany) – 1,8:1, Ratio (USSR + (Germany + Allies)) – 1,3:1
Military Dead – the number of people who were KIA, died of non-combat causes, died as POWs or went MIA (and thus presumed dead). Germany according to Overmans’ figures.
USSR – 8,668,400 (of whom Russians – 6,750,000), Germany – 5,318,000.
The problem is that during the Cold War, historiography in the West was dominated by the memoirs of Tippelskirch, who wrote in the 1950’s with constant Soviet/German forces ratios of 7:1 and losses ratio of 10:1. This has been carried over into the 1990’s (as with popular historians like Anthony Beevor), although it should be noted that more professional people like Richard Overy are aware of the new research. Note also that cumulatively 28% and 57% of all Soviet losses were incurred in 1941 and 1942 (source), whereas for the Germans the balance was roughly the opposite.
The idea that there were two soldiers for every rifle in the Red Army, as in the film Enemy at the Gates (a truly awful film which moved the Russian veterans’ association to demand of the Duma that it be banned in Russia), is a complete figment of the Russophobic Western imagination. From 1939 to 1945, the USSR outproduced Germany in aircraft (by a factor of 1.3), tanks (1.7), machine guns (2.2), artillery (3.2) and mortars (5.5), so in fact if anything the Red Army was better equipped than the Wehrmacht (sources – Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, Pimlico 2006, ISBN 1845950658; Chris Chant, Small Arms, Silverdale Books 2003, ISBN 1-85605-790-9).
Another particularly insidious myth is that Russia would have been better off surrendering to the Nazis, espoused by our dead friend La Russophobe, since apparently Stalin killed more people than Hitler. All that one needs to do to disprove this vile idea is consider the fact that 26.6mn Soviet citizens died in the Great Patriotic War, the vast majority of them civilians under German occupation and the whole Generalplan Ost.
The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. – Adolf Hitler, March 1941.
4. In 2007, Russia’s economy grew by 8.1%, driven by construction (16.4%), retail (12.0%), finance (10.4%) and manufacturing (7.9%) and weighted down by the extractive industries (a meager 0.3%) (source). This pattern has held since 2005, and even in the 2000-2004 period only a third of growth was due to increasing hydrocarbons production. Consult the economics part of this post for further information. Russia has a healthy current account surplus, 0.5tn $ in foreign currency reserves and as of now the budget is calculated to break even at 65$ / barrel oil. Continuing increases in oil prices mask volume growth in non-hydrocarbons exports. For why I am bullish on continuing high growth in the future, refer to my previous posts here and here. Note that Goldman Sachs thinks that Russia is the only member of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, China, India) with the potential to reach Western levels of GDP per capita in the foreseeable future.
3. According to Rosstat, in the last eight years, poverty rates have more than halved (from 30% to 14%). In real terms during 2000-2007, pensions have grown by a factor of 2.3 and wages by a factor of 2.6, reaching 643$ as of February 2008 (while the Gini index has remained roughly steady, as we’ve already covered). A consumption boom has seen cell phone and Internet penetration by 2008 exceed 100% and reach 28%, respectively. From 2000-2007 per thousand people, the birth rate has increased from 8.7 to 11.3, while the death rate has fallen from 15.3 to 14.7 – thus, natural population growth has increased from -0.66% to -0.34%. Similarly, infant mortality has tumbled from 15.3/1000 to 10.2/1000. (In fact, increased migration meant the total population fall in 2007 was just -0.17%, i.e., not substantially different from Japan, Germany or just about any central-east European nation). During the same period, mortality from alcohol poisonings, suicide and murder has fallen by 40%, 25% and 40%, respectively. However, all of this misses the point that in economics what matters isn’t the population or its growth rate per se, but the dynamics of the working age population as a percentage of the whole population – in this respect, Russia’s projected decline is no more severe than that in the the G7 or China (see this post and pg.8 of this Goldman Sachs report).
2. The notion that Putin has strangled Russia’s nascent democracy is an exclusively Western one. 64% of Russians think Putin has had a positive influence on democracy and human rights, while only 3% think it was ‘very negative’ (see recent BBC World Service poll and fedia’s excellent commentary on it). For more information, please consult this blog’s stated position on HR in Russia and my appearance on Al-Jazeera. The data on journalists is taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ database and fedia’s audit of it. Finally, on the topic of the election, no election watch-dog has been able to point out anything other than vacuous allegations that I’m aware of. For instance, on the topic of the 2008 Presidential elections, please consult my blog post on it (including the Western media’s shameless manipulation of the response to the Moscow protests) and the response of independent Russian election monitor GOLOS (here):

GOLOS Association observed that the Election Day was held in a relatively quiet atmosphere in contrast to the State Duma election day. Such large-scale violations observed then as campaigning next to polling stations, transporting of voters, intimidation of voters and others were practically non-existent. Polling stations were better prepared and the voting process was better organized. At the majority of polling stations voters’ lists were properly bound, there were fewer representatives of administration at inside polling stations. In general the process of opening of the polling stations went well without any major incidents.

1. This last myth is a bit tongue in cheek, although on the topic of Mordor I’ve actually managed to find a Russophobe who makes the comparison explicitly.
But as time since 1991 passed and the two countries drifted in their development further and further away from each other, the city was increasingly attached to Estonia because of the dark presence of its evil twin, Russian Ivangorod (right).
Crossing the river bridge into Ivangorod makes those numbers quickly grow in flesh and obtain form in miriad of differences, which set Russia apart from Europe, starting with sickening public toilets and ending with the hopelessness in the people’s eyes.This is why looking again at the crude limestone fortress almost invisible at night with only the howling of wild beasts giving away the presence of life on the other side of the vast body of water I can’t help it but recollect the following verse:
…to bring them
all and in darkness bind…
in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.
I have a feeling that this attitude could be just one of several things uniting myself and many decent Narva inhabitants. And this feeling is good.
And so the Annals of smug, self-satisfied Western Hypocrisy go on, world and time without end, imagining Russians to be Mongols with tanks and ICBMs (for the most extreme example, check out these religious nutjobs who go on about the “Final Phase“). Too bad Russia prevented the West from becoming better acquainted with the Golden Horde by being in the way.
11. Go here for our take on the Chechen question.
12. See Brother Karamazov’s comment on 31st March, 2:14PM. Also has another myth.
Note also that it was a Russian (Tsiolkovsky) who developed the theoretical and philosophical basis for space exploration.
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.