A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BRIEF NOTE] May Yeltsin rest in peace

The recent death of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin has prompted a new round of assessment of his legacy. Of particular note is the great suffering associated with his governance of Russia, including the immiseration of the population and an upsurge in premature mortality, both associated with the transition from Soviet Communism to, well, something else. Indeed, as angel80 points out, public health in Russia suffered hugely, male life expectancies suffering decline not only relative to developed countries but absolute decline.

The life of an average Russian in 2004 was 15-17 years less than that of an average Swiss or Japanese. This is similar to the difference between white and aboriginal Australians – in other words it is a huge gap. While the average life expectancy of a Japanese person has increased by 9 years since the early 1970s, the average Russian life is 4.5 years shorter! Even worse, while the average life expectancy of Japanese men and women is 78 and 85 respectively (7 years difference) the figures for Russians are 59 and 72 – a 13 year difference! Life expectancy for Russian men is on a par with that for Burma, Turkmenistan and Yemen. Among the countries where males can expect to live longer than Russian men are Bangladesh (62.5 years), Indonesia (65.3), Brazil (67), Vietnam (68.8), Sri Lanka (71.7).

While the association between Yeltsin’s presidency and this new wave of premature mortality does exist, I’m not sure it was evitable. Leaving aside the possible overstatement of life expectancies before the mid-1960s, male life expectancies had been under pressure from the mid-1960s on, largely owing to injuries as opposed to actual illness. This pattern seems to have been common to all eastern European populations–ethnic German immigrants in Germany from the Soviet Union even suffered this–but came to be less pronounced in populations which enjoyed more effective and responsive services, being more pronounced among Estonian Russophones than among ethnic Estonians in Estonia, more pronounced in Estonia than in Finland, more pronounced in Finland than in Sweden.

To the extent that this pattern has been weakened, it has been as a result of improved public health services and standards of living, and those have been produced by responsive and democratic governments. In the case of Russia, where the status quo had created this problem of premature mortality and other issues, what else could be done but to try to engineer Russia’s transformation into a viable and pluralistic polity? Yeltsin didn’t manage to achieve Russia’s normalization, but in his defense, he didn’t have good advice–taking, as a model for change, a Poland that had already experienced a decade’s economic decline and possessed a stronger civil society, was a bad idea, as was the failure to prevent the looting of Russia’s industries by an emergent oligarchy. I don’t think that Yeltsin specifically can be blamed for this, especially given the continuing failure of the more mature Russian political system to address these factors. Creating a Russian polity capable of addressing these human development concerns may have been too big a task for anyone.

What Yeltsin did do quite well was manage the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union and avoiding the spread of wars of succession from parts of the southern fringe to the whole of the former Warsaw Pact and beyond: There was no Russo-Ukrainian War of 1992 fought over the Crimea, the Baltic States’ independence was recognized early on, the mistake of Chechnya wasn’t repeated in Tatarstan and Karelia and Dagestan, and there never was a military junta subjecting the world to nuclear blackmail. The last time that a Russian empire fell apart, millions of people died in a zone of continual warfare that lasted a half-dozen years and stretched from Czechoslovakia to Vladivostok. Whatever else Yeltsin didn’t do, he at least managed the impressive task of creating a remarkably durable zone of peace covering the same area. For that great achievement, if nothing else, his memory should be honoured.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2007 at 8:44 pm

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