Raul Rebane: Vodka, Russia, mortality and us

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Factors in birthrate in Russia include the war, alcoholism, coronavirus and emigration, which is why Russia will no longer be able to put together massive armies in the future as it just won't have the men, Raul Rebane finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

We will be talking about demographics in Russia and the lessons it holds for us today. Luckily, several lengthy analyses have recently been published by Russia's perhaps most productive demographer Aleksei Rashka, and much of the data comes from him. A part of their experience hides a lesson also for Estonia.

I would start with the mortality rate of men. While Gorbachev's war on alcoholism has been thoroughly ridiculed over the years, perhaps it has been done unduly. Graphs clearly show that mortality rates dropped in the following years, especially among men, by around quarter of a million people a year. Therefore, around a million men in Russia owe Gorbachev thanks for a longer life. His successor Yeltsin was hardly a paragon of sobriety, which meant that this success quickly dissipated. Russia's extremely low life expectancy for men still started growing in the 2000s and has now reached 66 years, while it is 73.6 in Estonia.

Raksha gives as the main reason for alcohol-related deaths among men the so-called Nordic type of alcohol consumption, which sees one consume a lot of strong alcohol over a short period of time. The Nordics have made considerable efforts to get rid of it, starting from high prices to cutting the number of alcohol stores, and have largely won the fight. Switching from vodka to beer or other lighter beverages immediately translated into reduced mortality in Russia. But the transition has stopped for the moment, which is associated with Russia's extremely strong vodka lobby.

Alcohol culture is discussed less frequently than the price of vodka in Estonia. What was for me one of the most embarrassing performances of re-independent Estonia took place on February 24, 2018 that marked the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia. Quite a few people decided to drive to Latvia in a convoy to protest the high price of alcohol in Estonia. They sure found a day for it!

But looking at the numbers, one quickly comes to the realization that vodka is very cheap today. Especially compared to salaries. During Soviet times, the average salary was around 120 rubles, while vodka cost four rubles, meaning that one could afford 30 bottles for a month's wages. The average salary now is around €1,500, while a bottle of vodka can be sourced for €8 or less. It seems to be a golden age for vodka enthusiasts who can buy 150 bottles of the strong drink for the average salary for five bottles a day.

Russian men's alcohol consumption and low life expectancy has resulted in a political phenomenon that was also discussed at this year's Lennart Meri Conference. Single women over the age of 65 outnumber respective men by over seven million. They are referred to as "Putin's heavenly brides." Many are fiercely patriotic Russians, demanding the destruction of Ukraine and firmly backing Putin. Their anger against everyone else and efforts to eulogize the superiority of Russia have become an art form on social media. Most live very modest lives because of their small pension, while it does nothing to stop them singing Putin's praises.

Ukraine war deaths, looked at by region, paint a picture of a grizzly system. Sent to the slaughter are mostly minorities and representatives of less fortunate regions, with Buryatia, Tuva, Altai and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug topping the list. Casualties are also clearly higher around major military bases, with the Pskov Oblast just over the border from Estonia also near the top. Problems in northwestern Russia, in Arkhangelsk, Vologda, Karelia etc. can also be seen this year. The contracting timber industry has resulted in lower living standard, with men running to war to escape poverty. Moscow is almost untouched by war deaths, meaning that its perception of the war is very different, as something that doesn't really concern us. The trend is quite clearly visible on social media. Casualties of 60,000 or more seem like a colossal figure viewed from Estonia. But considering Russia's sheer size, one gets the feeling these numbers are felt differently there as most people still have no personal contact with losses.

Aleksei Raksha also offers a figure for Russia's coronavirus deaths, which is quite far from official statistics at 1,150,000. Smoking is another great killer in Russia, claiming around 300,000 lives annually. While smoking is on the decline among men – used to be 60 percent and is now closer to 40 percent – it remains very high. In Estonia, the relative importance of male smokers is just 25 percent.

Covid, emigration, war and many men being off to fight it has led to serious concerns for the future in Russia. Lower birthrate has led to various measures to try and stimulate having children. According to Raksha, oblasts have taken different measures, while just two have worked. One is the second child benefit and the other the former mortgage benefit of 450,000 rubles. All other measures, including the first child benefit, have not had any effect in Russia. While the circumstances admittedly differ, perhaps it would benefit it us to study their experience.

In summary. Major demographic processes, especially lower birthrate, are similar in Russia to those in Europe. However, next to them are many other factors, like the war, vodka, smoking, coronavirus and emigration, which have left Russia with a very tense demographic situation. Russia will no longer be able to put together massive armies in the future as it just won't have the men.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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