Mortality Crisis in Post-Soviet Russia

A review of Death and Freedom in Post-Soviet Russia: An Ethnography of a Mortality Crisis, by Michelle Parsons.

Michelle Parsons’ dissertation takes an ethnographic approach to unpacking a problem more frequently examined by demographers and epidemiologists: the spike in mortality rates for middle-aged Russians, especially men, during the first half of the 1990s. Instead of a statistical population-level methodology, Parsons uses life history interviews to draw out folk explanations for the social despondency, rampant alcoholism, and early deaths that characterized the immediate post-Soviet period. Parsons argues for a historically contextualized understanding of the generation who had already reached middle age when the Soviet Union collapsed, and her account is centered around what Russians themselves say about childhood in the postwar period, about adult working life, and about the transition period of the early 1990s. Contrary to Western popular discourse, which imagined that democracy and capitalism “freed” Russian citizens following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Parsons shows that for Muscovites who were middle- and working-class adults, those years were actually experienced as reducing individual freedom and agency, as Russian semantic concepts of freedom or personal agency require social structures or confines within which or against which to act. Put another way, Parsons argues for attending to culturally relative notions of freedom and agency, which, she holds, help us to grasp from an insider’s perspective the psychosocial devastation that resulted in high mortality rates in 1990s Russia. Parsons works to match the language of epidemiology with colloquial domains, e.g. psychosocial stress and the Russian notion of dusha, or soul, and social capital with interpersonal usefulness or neededness, as in the Russian concept of nuzhnye liudi.

Chapter 1 is an introduction that situates the reader with regard both to the background of the mortality crisis and to the ethnographic methodology of Parsons’ dissertation research. Chapter 2 is a review of the epidemiological and demographic literature on the mortality crisis in Russia, acquainting the reader with the statistics and positioning the argument of the dissertation within an intellectual conversation. In Chapter 3, Parsons discusses the circumstances of her fieldwork, the kinds of interviews and participant observation undertaken and the ethical concerns raised by engaging on a personal level with Muscovite research subjects as a foreign ethnographer. In Chapter 4, she continues her description of her own experience of fieldwork as an American, using the concept of “paradox” to unpack the difficulties of acclimating herself to and integrating herself into a Russian way of doing things. These first-person observations are developed further in terms of spatial awareness of the city in Chapter 5, in which Parsons weaves her own experience of Moscow with excerpts from interviews in which informants discussed changes in the spatial arrangements of the city in relation to accompanying social changes. In Chapters 6 through 8, Parsons presents the core of her life history data, breaking the personal stories of her informants into three periods – War, Work, and Shock – which are roughly chronological and correspond to particular phases of her informants’ life course (childhood, adulthood, crisis). In Chapter 9, Parsons ties this life history data back to her initial claims about how mortality is linked to psychosocial factors that Russians talk about in terms of the soul, freedom, and neededness. She elaborates these contributions to an anthropology of Russian notions of freedom in Chapter 10 and closes the dissertation with a modest and reflective conclusion.

As an intellectual endeavor and scholarly contribution, Parsons’s dissertation is located at the intersection of ethnography/oral history of the former Soviet Union/contemporary Russia and medical anthropology. Parsons joins a rich field of ethnographers who have documented the subjective experiences of Russians surviving the uncertainties and strange flux of the first fifteen years following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, beginning with Katherine Verdery (What was Socialism and What Comes Next? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Caroline Humphrey (The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002) and including, more recently, people like Tova Höjdestrand, who has worked on homelessness, and Melissa Caldwell and her work on social support networks. Additionally, Parsons situates her work as an ethnographic response to calls from epidemiologists for primary source research that contextualizes inconclusive demographic data regarding the role of alcoholism in the mortality crisis. This move places Parsons’ work alongside that of many ethnographers tracking the intersection of health and politics in the post-Soviet world, such as Michele Rivkin-Fish’s on fertility and the demographic crisis, Eugene Raikhel’s on treatments for alcoholism and Galina Linquist’s on Russian practices and beliefs regarding magic and healing.

This work offers a unique contribution to anthropology in its unabashed critique of Western bias in theories of structure and agency, which, Parsons argues, are skewed toward a liberal individualist understanding of agency that posits structure as always limiting (pp. 196-202). By skillfully weaving ethnographic evidence from life history interviews with writings of Russian cultural theorists, most notably Svetlana Boym (Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), Parsons shows how Russian subjects conceptualize social embeddedness – not only in interpersonal networks, but also in identity and subject positions reinforced and (re)produced by the state and political economy – as integral to self-actualization. She makes an important contribution to social science of contemporary Russia by elaborating existing observations about the concept of (ne)nuzhnye liudi ([un]needed people), a common refrain in conversations about socially marginalized or oppressed groups in Russia, by mapping this semantic concept over ideas of social capital as described in Western social science and popular discourse (pp. 176-188). She also works to describe how the space of the city is intertwined with subjects’ understandings of self. Readers are reminded that even while epidemiology frequently seeks a social or psychosocial root for the mortality epidemic in Russia, in fact, global politics and neoliberal ideology, which drove the push for implementing economic shock therapy to jumpstart the Russian transition to democracy, are actually the causes of the spiritual (dushevnyi) or psychosocial distress that both her informants and epidemiologists describe as the mainspring of the mortality crisis (p. 170).

Parsons additionally offers a lyrical and descriptive retelling of the personal histories of the Russian citizens whom she interviewed, arranging the stories into thematic or chronological segments that will be of interest to social historians as well as anthropologists. These careful reproductions of postwar Soviet and post-Soviet history told on the individual experiential level will make Parsons’ ethnography accessible to undergraduates as well as to readers who are not area studies specialists. Her painstaking placement of her work both within the epidemiological literature of the mortality crisis and in relation to insiders’ cultural perspectives on Russian life result in a dissertation – and already soon-forthcoming book – that will appeal to readers with a background in epidemiology but not Russia, and at the same time explain epidemiological concerns to Russianists.

Cassandra Hartblay
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Primary Sources

Thirty-eight structured interviews with Muscovites or residents of Moscow Oblast’, aged 50-80 in 2006
Informal interviews with the same cohort
Participant observation over ten months of fieldwork in Moscow, including during the co-organization and attendance of a conference entitled “Developing Effective Alcohol Policy for Russia: World Experience and Russian Realities” (2007)

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2011. 242 pp. Primary Advisor: Peter J. Brown.

Image: Number of Deaths of Males in Russia, 1960-2005, thousands. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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