Historical roots of alcohol mortality in Russia

Alexander Libman,
Professor of Russian and East European Politics,
Free University of Berlin,

Vladimir Kozlov,
Associate Professor,
National Research University Higher School of Economics,

Excessive consumption of alcohol has been perceived as a plague for the Russian society for decades. Some eagerly presented is as an intrinsic feature of Russian culture, and a barrier for economic development of the country. Yet external circumstances, like the price of alcohol and the governmental policies, play an important role in this respect as well. The Gorbachev’s “dry law” of the 1980s, while not entirely successful (and ruinous for public finances of the USSR), seems to have reduced mortality from alcohol consumption. In the 1990s, easy access to alcohol was an important trigger for the deep mortality crisis in Russia, the “Russian Cross”. Most recently, Russia experienced both a decline of the overall alcohol consumption and of the hazardous drinking. According to the World Health Organization data, between 2003 and 2016, consumption of alcohol in Russia decreased by 43%. In many Russian regions, beer superseded vodka as the most frequently consumed alcoholic beverage. It can to some extent be explained by the restrictive measures of the Russian government but could also reflect the overall change of the lifestyle modern Russia experiences and the growing wealth of Russians until mid-second decade of the 2000s. Vadim Radaev, Yana Roshchina and Daria Salnikova (Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2020) show that these are in particular young cohorts born after 1990, which demonstrate higher abstinence rates.

The question remains, however: how much path-dependence is there in the alcohol consumption (and mortality) in Russia, and at which point of time do hazardous drinking habits emerge and become robust? One way of answering this question is to look at the spatial correlation between alcohol mortality across a long historical period. The data on deaths from alcohol for individual regions of the (then) Russian Empire are available since late nineteenth century. While the way alcohol-induced mortality was recorded in the 1880s and today differs (due to the advancements of medical profession), and there was a substantial change in the territorial division of Russia over the century, it is still possible to match the historical and the contemporary alcohol mortality rates and to trace whether they are correlated. Indeed, in our article published in 2019 in Alcohol and Alcoholism, we show that the spatial patterns of alcohol-induced mortality for the male population in the 1880s and in 2010s strongly resemble each other. The effect cannot be explained by the economic characteristics of the regions, their geographic location, crime rates or ethnic composition. From this point of view, the history seems to cast a long shadow upon the alcohol mortality in Russia.

The end of the nineteenth century is not only the period when data for alcohol mortality become available, but also an important point in time in the formation of hazardous drinking practices. At this moment of time, Russia enters a period of industrialization, with skyrocketing urban population. Many peasants either move to the cities or engage in otkhodnichestvo – seasonal labor migration. Outside of their traditional social structure and control of the rural institutions, (mostly) young man seem to form a fruitful ground for the development of hazardous drinking – similar patterns were observed in many modern countries around the globe, where industrialization went hand in hand with increasing alcohol consumption and deviant behavior. The correlation between historical and modern alcohol mortality suggests that behaviors and practices, which form at this moment of time, when the society is in turmoil, are particularly robust.

Does it mean that any hope of improving the alcohol mortality in Russia is futile? The experience of the last years shows that governmental measures, if they are implemented with sufficient persistence, and cultural change can reduce mortality from alcohol. However, even in this case, while the overall level of alcohol consumption and alcohol mortality could decrease, the “problematic” regions would still stand out as performing worse than other territories of Russia. Furthermore, both cultural change and governmental policies in Russia, which contributed to the reduction of hazardous drinking in the 2010s, are to some extent conditional on economic prosperity. In the periods of economic decline, both the societal change comes to a halt and the government finds it more difficult to implement consistent anti-alcohol measures (because of lack of control over its bureaucracy and because it becomes more dependent on fiscal revenue from alcohol sales). The ongoing economic stagnation in Russia since 2013-2014 should make the task of reducing hazardous drinking habits more difficult (although substantial differences exist between individual regions of Russia in this respect).

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