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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Russian roulette

In the light of worldwide mortality improvements in developed countries, and concerns regarding the funding of pensions, it is interesting to note a sharply different trend in Russia. This trend is replicated (albeit to a lesser extent) in other ex-socialist countries of eastern Europe.
Over the last 20 years the life expectancy figures in Russia have shown enormous variations, which must be unprecedented in a developed nation except perhaps in times of war. The authors are confident that the figures are based on reliable underlying statistics. The purpose of this article is to examine the underlying social causes of this exceptional instability.

Rise and fall
In 1981 life expectancy for males was 61.5. It increased to 65 by 1987, then fell dramatically to below 58 in 1994, before recovering to around 61 in 1997. The figures for females showed a similar pattern but with much reduced differences.
A look at figures over a longer period shows that after World War II mortality improved steadily until 1964. This was in line with the improvement elsewhere in the world, as medicine improved. By 1964 Russian life expectancy was comparable to that of other developed nations. However, from 1964 longevity entered a period of steady decline before going through the enormous changes set out above. The period of decline follows a clear trend line marked in figure 1.
At the same time, the difference between life expectancy of males and females showed a greater difference than in any other country. A ranking of the differences between male and female expectations of life in various countries in 1995 is shown in table 1 across.

Alcohol poisoning
A look at the social history of the time clearly demonstrates a link to alcohol. In 198183 the price of alcohol was raised significantly (whether this was to combat the ills of alcoholism or purely a revenue-raising measure in a country with increasing financial difficulties is open to debate). It can be seen that this was followed by a small improvement in life expectancy. In 1985 the then president Gorbachev embarked upon an anti-alcohol campaign involving a wholesale closure of vodka factories. The chart shows the huge improvement in life expectancy which then resulted. Incidentally, this campaign is a major factor in the almost universal unpopularity of Gorbachev in Russia today.
However, following the change to a market economy in 1991, the supply situation rapidly recovered, leading to a simultaneous increase in mortality rates and a reversion of life expectancy to the previous trend.
A more detailed examination of mortality rates in various age bands shows that there has been a secular improvement in mortality in infancy and during childhood, and also for the retirement ages. The dramatic changes to life expectancy came essentially from changes in mortality for those of the working ages.
For these ages the change has been spectacular. As an example, figure 2 across shows population mortality rates for males aged 35 to 40 over this period. It can be seen that the per 1,000 rate fell from around eight in 1980 to a little over four in 1987, before increasing again to almost 11 by 1994.
There have been a number of academic papers analysing the causes of death which have led to the changes. These show that death arising mainly from heart and circulatory diseases (especially heart attacks) and from violent causes (accidents, suicides, murders, etc). All of these are causes readily linked to high alcohol consumption.
A high consumption of alcohol has been a feature of Russian social life for centuries. So alcohol, although it may be the means of the demonstrated increases in mortality, cannot explain the improvements up to 1964 and the clear trend, shown in figure 2, of a worsening until the late 1990s, albeit interrupted by the two periods of improvement mentioned. Nor does it explain a recent improvement.

Social analysis
The true reason may lie with the social and, perhaps more relevantly, economic situation. The period from 1964 when Brezhnev was president has been labelled the ‘stagnation years’. It was a period of economic stagnation or even decline. Whereas up to then Russia was catching up with the west economically, from then on an increasing gap opened up both between Russia and the west and, perhaps more importantly, between the Russia portrayed by official statistics and statements, and reality. That was most apparent in the lack of availability of consumer goods of all kinds. This led to the antithesis of a feel-good factor or a national neurosis causing this worsening mortality situation, especially among males.
An explanation for both the deterioration in mortality rates and the large gender difference is the inherent conflict between the behaviour expected of males and the demands placed upon them in a totalitarian society. This conflict was exacerbated by a deteriorating economic situation.
In Russia the feminist movement has as yet had little impact. The Russian male is expected to demonstrate strong masculine characteristics, such as strength, independence, ambition, and being the family provider. Females are largely confined to a caring and submissive role (notwithstanding that in reality the wife often plays a strong role in managing the family and especially its finances). However, in the USSR the authorities discouraged independence, initiative, and similar masculine traits. Russian women were always more welcome to Soviet authority, their more passive role being completely at harmony with the Russian regime.
There existed a severe contradiction between the requirements of their role and the restricted scope available to Russian males. This was a major reason for their dissatisfaction with life and work, which in turn led to excessive stress. From this came an increase in drunkenness, violence, and suicide, especially among those of working age.

Economic factors
During the periods of economic decline the worsening economic situation had a much greater impact on men, who see their function as providing for the family, and a lesser impact on women, who could still devote their lives in a psychologically rewarding way to looking after and bringing up their children. Thus the negative effect of declining production was greater on male mortality than female and, for males, compounded the stress situation.
There were two periods in recent Russian history when the active male attributes were more welcome. These were the years of post-war reconstruction and the period of perestroika (198587) when Gorbachev attempted to reform the communist system from within (a period which coincided with the anti-alcohol campaign mentioned above).
The change to a market economy, although producing enormous hardship for many, has nevertheless given people more control over their own lives and futures. It may well be this that has now turned around the negative trend. If so, this is an encouraging sign that perhaps the reforms in Russia are beginning at last to produce positive results.