RE: 2015-#171-Johnson’s Russia List/Demography

Stylized EEG Image Showing Heartbeat Pulse

Subject: RE: 2015-#171-Johnson’s Russia List/Demography
Date: Tue, 1 Sep 2015
From: Josh Wilson <>

In response to 29. Moscow Times: Why Is Russia’s Growth in Life Expectancy Slowing? From 2015-#171-Johnson’s Russia List. Response originally posted here:

The main thing to point out is that these aren’t really “objective numbers.” The period of comparison between Russia’s performance on life expectancy and everyone else’s is 1990-2013. However, the article gives no indication (save perhaps for the small, passing mention of the “demographic pit” of the 1990s) that the year chosen to begin comparison was the year that the collapse of the USSR began. This led, of course, the complete collapse of the economy, government, and borders that the Russian people had lived with for decades before. As should be obvious, this led to economic hardship as well as related population declines and increased mortality.

If one moves the period of comparison to 2000-2013, after Russia’s  economy stated to recover, one can see that Russian life expectancy grew from about 65 to 71 years, a growth of more than nine percent (World Bank data) or more than twice the growth experienced by the US (76 to 79 – or an increase of about 4 percent). My point here is that you can make numbers dance just about anyway you want – the real significance is only visible if you understand the context. Russia’s extreme growth post 2000 was largely fueled by the fact that it started from such a low position. Things like governmental and economic collapses and recoveries (which were not experienced by most western countries in the period of comparison) are kind of important context.

So, far from being “mysterious,” as the article claims, we can see that life expectancy actually largely follows the Russian economy. There was stagnation from 1960 until about the time of the fall of the USSR (in both the economy and life expectancy). When the USSR collapsed, so did life expectancy. When the Russian economy recovered, so did life expectancy. We don’t have to reach for extreme explanations like people stealing cable from rail tracks and causing accidents to explain these things. Generally, people tend to live longer when they live better under a better economy.

The current economic slowdown is likely to have an effect on the growth of Russian life expectancy. Current changes (mostly in de-funding) to the Russian healthcare system may well have an impact as well. The situation for Russia is not phenomenally rosy, but Russia is also likely not going to die any time soon.

Demographically, the “demographic pit” of the 1990s is going have a negative effect on population numbers. But this doesn’t mean an infinite spiral of decay as the article seems to imply (any more than a post-war baby boom implies an infinite spiral of growth). That’s just not how populations work – and decreased births actually has no repercussions on life expectancy, of course.

In summary, if you ignore elephants in the room like societal collapse that obviously affect your analytical comparison, it’s pretty hard to take your comparison seriously.

Josh Wilson
Assistant Director
The School of Russian and Asian Studies
Editor in Chief
Vestnik, The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies