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Real Problems

I often think one of the problems we have in America is that people have a tendency to overstate the basic problematicness of the various problems we face. If you want to see real problems, look at Russia:

There are so many odd and horrible ways to die in Russia that it's almost no surprise that the average Russian man isn't expected to see his 59th birthday. Men in Bangladesh live longer.

"Normally only during wartime do we see the kind of decreases in men's longevity that we've seen recently in Russia," said Vladimir I. Simanenkov, the head of the department of internal diseases at the St. Petersburg Medical Academy and a senior official with the city's Public Health Committee.

And it goes on and on like that. Depressing. And of course there are other countries with very serious problems (Haiti, for example, is not merely poor, but totally screwed such that almost nobody thinks it can really be turned around), too, though since I've been to Russia I tend to pay more attention there.

February 11, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

"And of course there are other countries with very serious problems ... too, though since I've been to Russia I tend to pay more attention there."

Not to mention the fact that Russia has 10,000 nuclear warheads...

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 11:21:00 AM

Was in St. Petersburg, Moscow and just outside of Moscow this past August, mostly wonderful people.

Posted by: Ugh | Feb 11, 2005 11:22:13 AM

Unemployment, accelerating poverty among pensioners, widespread depression, alcohol, and a very long winter will do that...

It'd be interesting to know what part of the age curve is getting hit hardest: young Russians dying in Chechnya; middle-aged Russians dying between 40-65 from alcohol, smoking, violence, and related 'social ailments'; or elderly Russians dying early from poverty-related factors.

Posted by: Silent E | Feb 11, 2005 11:54:29 AM

Is this a "Eat your broccoli cause the starving kids in Bangladesh don't have any broccoli" post?

Or does this note on Russia tie into the Crooked Timber thread about free market Hayekian economists inevitably killing poor people?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2005 11:57:20 AM

The crooked timber post wasn't saying it's inevitable. I would say like 90% chance.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Feb 11, 2005 12:10:42 PM

Was it worse under the Soviet Union? That's not rhetorical. Anyone know? At least they had jobs then.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 11, 2005 12:16:56 PM

So you're saying we're whiners? :)

Posted by: Deborah White | Feb 11, 2005 12:18:28 PM

Problematicity is the preferred usage.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Feb 11, 2005 12:28:02 PM

All I can say is, never get into a drinking contest with a Russian, especially when the drink is vodka. Take it from me.

Posted by: grytpype | Feb 11, 2005 12:35:59 PM

"I often think one of the problems we have in America is that people have a tendency to overstate the basic problematicness of the various problems we face. If you want to see real problems, look at Russia."
I agree. For example, I can think of this one blogger who is in the habit of saying that the US under President Bush is undergoing "Putinization". How ridiculous is that?

Posted by: DF | Feb 11, 2005 1:07:15 PM

True. And if you have access to a flush toilet you are rich.

Posted by: creepy dude | Feb 11, 2005 1:11:48 PM


There was a terrific and depressing article in the New Yorker in the last year (last six months?) about Russia's mortality problems, and the coming demographic problems the country will face. The population is going to shrink in a big way, which will have all sorts of repercussions. Well worth reading if you're interested in the subject.

Posted by: Tyrone Slothrop | Feb 11, 2005 1:31:36 PM

"Was it worse under the Soviet Union? That's not rhetorical. Anyone know? At least they had jobs then."

There's not a universal answer.

Baltics - much better now.
Belarus - about the same, arguably a little worse.

Russia - Clearly much better in big cities, not so clear in the countryside. Industrial pollution has improved significantly as many dirty industries had to shut down, or reduce production.
Ukraine - same as Russia.
Kazakhstan - same as Russia.
Rest of Central Asia - worse, in some case (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) arguably much worse.

Posted by: Vanya | Feb 11, 2005 2:16:33 PM

Russia - Clearly much better in big cities

Clearly much better? I don't think it's anywhere near clearly.

A recent study showed that prostitution is high on the list of "professions" that modern Russian schoolgirls dream of pursuing. With no other options for survival, women increasingly resort to prostitution. Nadia, a Siberian woman was divorced, and with no other economic opportunities resorted to prostitution. She said it was humiliating, but she didn’t have a choice. (Helen Womack, "Street life - I’m a prostitute. I have no choice so I lose no self respect," The Independent, 7 July 1998)

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 11, 2005 2:37:51 PM

Prostitution was hardly unknown in the USSR, even if officially denied. In fact the scarcity of consumer goods in relation to official prices made barter the primary means of acquisition of luxury items during the Brezhnev years, and the trading of sexual favors for goods or other opportunities, I would argue, was far more prevalent in the USSR than in Western countries. Economic opportunities are now much better for educated Russian women in big cities, but, as that article points out, worse in rural and smaller cities.

Posted by: Vanya | Feb 11, 2005 3:14:00 PM

Trading of sexual favors for goods or other opportunities is nothing like prostitution, not even close as a practical matter, although you could, of course, take a Marxist line and equate these two phenomena conceptually. But if that's the standard, then you should be also talking about bourgeois marriage being essentially prostitution as well.

Anyway, I can't imagine schoolgirls, not even one single schoolgirl in Brezhnev years dreaming of becoming a prostitute, that seems absolutely impossible. They would be dreaming of becoming doctors, teachers or something like that.

There is a significant segment of the population even in big cities that is clealy worse off. I am not saying it's all worse in absolute terms, it's just that some are better and others are worse.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 11, 2005 4:05:56 PM

"Anyway, I can't imagine schoolgirls, not even one single schoolgirl in Brezhnev years dreaming of becoming a prostitute, that seems absolutely impossible. They would be dreaming of becoming doctors, teachers or something like that. "

Many of them dreamed of marrying foreigners and leaving. I don't see the difference between getting paid by a stranger to have sex for a pair of shoes, or getting paid by a stranger to have sex for $50. Neither equates to bourgeois marriage. Prostitution as a profession may have been rare under Brezhnev, but there were many "part-time" prostitutes.

If you're looking for a literary antidote to cure your idealism I would suggest "Russian Beauty" by Yerofeyev, "Burn" by Aksyonov, or any early work of Limonov.

Posted by: Vanya | Feb 11, 2005 4:20:48 PM

"Anyway, I can't imagine schoolgirls, not even one single schoolgirl in Brezhnev years dreaming of becoming a prostitute, that seems absolutely impossible. They would be dreaming of becoming doctors, teachers or something like that. "

IIRC, one of the quickest ways to get a Moscow apartment in the Brezhnev-era USSR was to er, give the comrade General Secretary special physical relief.

Posted by: Urinated State of America | Feb 11, 2005 4:47:38 PM

I don't believe 'sex for a pair of shoes' was happening during the Brezhnev years, never heard of it. Don't you really see a difference between marrying a foreigner or even having, say, a few affluent lovers - and working for a pimp servicing 20-30 men every night? Come on. Read some of the Mark Ames' stuff here. It's real bad, not even close to the pre-1990 years.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 11, 2005 4:56:47 PM

Matt,

If you are interested, Murray Feshbach at Georgetown has spent most of his life dealing with health/medical issues in Russia.

Here's a link that summarizes an upcoming presentation he'll be giving in Washington:

http://www.regionalanalysis.org/briefings/upcomings/en/2005/02/A120318F-5F20-4BFC-B7C7-E814878A3ECD.ASP

Posted by: eponymous | Feb 11, 2005 5:08:25 PM

Here is how it compares with Soviet period.
Life expectancy Russia 1990: 63.8 years men, 74.7 years women
Life expectancy Russia 2004: 59.9 years men, 73.3 years women.
A random article found on the web says that the main factors were increase in heart disease (around 33% of decline in life expectancy) and death from injury (including car/workplace accidents, homicides, suicides, also around 33%).

Posted by: Adrian | Feb 11, 2005 5:08:33 PM

France had 0% GDP growth last quarter - if that happened in the US, people would go nuts!

German unemployment soared to a new post-World War II high in January.

Zimbabwe has lost 30% of GDP per year over the last five years.

Ethiopia is reporting they still need food aid this year to keep people from starving, despite a bumper harvest.

Posted by: Mr. Econotarian | Feb 11, 2005 5:40:36 PM

a trip to the ussr in the 80s was what set me on the path to a life of sovietology. sadly, there was no way to pursue that goal, what with the ussr's collapse during my second year of college. sigh.

but hey, this

"I often think one of the problems we have in America is that people have a tendency to overstate the basic problematicness of the various problems we face. If you want to see real problems, look at Russia."

reminds me of a basic point i like to make with people when they are bitching about the high price of laptops or mochaccinos or crazy stuff like that: in the midst of one of the more problematic economic periods in my lifetime, the energy crisis of the early seventies, you saw americans waiting in long, long lines for ... gasoline. gasoline for their huge 70s cars which got about 5 to 8 miles per gallon. in the ussr (and its neighbors), meanwhile, people were waiting in long, long lines for ... bread, milk, shoes, paper, meat, scissors, etc., etc.

basic soviet-era line-standing etiquette? you see a line, you find the end, you ask the last person if he is last, you get in line behind him, and THEN you ask what you are waiting for. imo, that pretty much says it all.

Posted by: ajw93 | Feb 11, 2005 10:49:32 PM

"France had 0% GDP growth last quarter - if that happened in the US, people would go nuts!"

Uh, the US has had plenty of periods in the recent past when GDP growth was negative (shrinking)-- all those nasty recessions in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's. A certain percentage of the population probably found a reason to go nuts, but most dealt just fine IIRC.

"German unemployment soared to a new post-World War II high in January."

People raise this issue a lot, but doesn't Germany (along with other EU countries) use a fundamentally different method to calculate unemployment than the US? That is, don't they consider not only those actively seeking work, but those who've just given up after a while? There was some major economist a few months back (Paul Samuelson??) who was saying that US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures chronically underestimate true US unemployment since they only consider people actively seeking jobs, leaving out entirely those who've thrown up their hands. If this is true (and I don't know if it is), then the gap between US and European unemployment may be greatly exaggerated based on a cursory look at the numbers themselves; if we were to apply the European methodology, our unemployed levels would be pretty similar to European countries.

Posted by: Wes | Feb 12, 2005 6:00:51 AM

Grytpype wrote:

"All I can say is, never get into a drinking contest with a Russian, especially when the drink is vodka. Take it from me."

Heh, that's certainly true. I knew a fair number of Russian grad students back when I was in college, and I swear those guys must've had a specially ramped-up version of the alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes that our lives uses to process ethanol. They could have probably gulped down lighter fluid and walked out of the bar smiling.

Posted by: Wes Ulm | Feb 12, 2005 6:03:29 AM

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