Other countries’ histories are instructive too

President* Trump,

One of the things I most appreciate about Laura is that she’s an excellent curator – for the entirety of our now quite long relationship, she’s played me music she thinks I’ll like (most of which I do like), pointed me to books, movies, and articles that she knows I’ll find interesting and that aren’t so violent or mean-spirited that I’ll be able to tolerate them. Basically, she’s my popular culture diviner.

So this morning Laura suggested I read a NY Review of Books article by Masha Gessen entitled The Dying Russians and with the following lead sub-header:

“Between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5% — a rate unheard of in Europe since World War II.”

Here’s the link to the article in case you want to read it (and even if you don’t want to read it, you should anyway): https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-dying-russians?utm_source=pocket-newtab

The article is actually from 2014 as it turns out, but it popped into her Pocket Worthy feed this morning and because I think there are some instructive angles for us, I’m going to go ahead and give you an overview (it sure helped, though, to learn the original publication date since the sources otherwise seemed quite old).

Anyway, Gessen opens the article recalling how in the early 1990’s on return visits to Russia, they started having the repeated horrible experience of finding out that friends and acquaintances in their 30’s and 40’s had died sudden, often violent deaths. They described bizarre accidents, suffocations, strokes and cardiac arrests cropping up among largely young and early middle age people. They also describe two very different approaches that other people have undertaken to try and get to the bottom of what’s going on.

The first one Gessen describes was conducted by anthropologist Michelle Parsons of Emory and involved a series of long unstructured interviews in 2006 and 2007 with people living in Moscow. From these conversations she concluded that what was driving people’s malaise and despair (and early mortality) was a profound feeling of obsolescence, of no longer being needed. I find the idea pretty compelling, but Gessen ultimately isn’t convinced that Parsons completely nailed it.

They then walk us through Nicholas Eberstadt’s demographic research shwoing that Russia’s excessively high mortality rates and pretty astonishingly low birth rates (well under replacement levels) have been evident for many decades. He traces back to the early 1900’s and looks at especially devastating high mortality/low birthrate times for the USSR, most of which were during war time, and then looks at how after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia starts a long, steady, non-war time depopulation trend that persists at least through 2014 (when the article was published). There was a brief time when the trend was arrested during the Gorbachev era, but since Putin took over, things have been on a long, ugly slide. Gessen notes that countries that split from Russia when the USSR broke up (Ukraine and Belarus) don’t have these same issues.

Ultimately, Gessen concludes that so many Russians are dying so young because they’ve lost hope. They recognize they’re expendable pawns in a totalitarian regime that doesn’t care about their welfare in the least, trapped by a system that’s using them and their labor to line its oligarchs’ coffers.

And this is the sort of set up you aspire to, isn’t it? I don’t think you can convince me otherwise.

May we be safe from tyrants and would-be tyrants.
May we be willing to learn from other countries’ scary declines.
May we strongly resist our current despot-loving POTUS.
May we accept that we are not immune to such despair.

Tracy Simpson

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