Michelle Parsons, an American ethnographer, first went to Russia in 1993 and 1995. She returned in 2006-2007 when she did the research for Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis, drawing on her earlier experiences. It is in many ways a sad story, describing what happens to people when their raison d’etre for living is taken from them. From a Western perspective, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the USSR was a sign of hope; what President Reagan had described as “an evil empire” had finally imploded after 70 years. Eastern Europe countries were now free of the Soviet yoke – and so were the Russian people.
Or were they? Parsons focuses on the lives of middle-aged and elderly Muscovites in the age range 55-75, born before or during the Second World War (known in Russia as “the great patriotic war”) and who had grown up under state socialism where, after Stalin’s death, they had participated in the slow material progress of their country. Social security was guaranteed; full employment, paid holidays and pensions, free education and healthcare, somewhere to live and the promise of better living accommodation in the future.
This world was swept away almost overnight, leaving a whole generation entirely disoriented. Too old to retrain for new jobs, their savings worthless, people who had defined themselves and found their self-respect in work, now felt they had nothing to offer and nothing left to look forward to. As Parsons explains, the worst years for ordinary Russians were 1990-1994 (the USSR was dissolved in 1991). In those four years total life expectancy fell more than 5 years and male life expectancy fell to 58 years. Even as late as 2011, Russian women were living on average 12 years longer than men. These figures reflected the mortality crisis of the country. Heart attacks, homicides, suicides and, in particular alcohol-dependent deaths became common.
Parsons’ book tries to understand the perceptions and experiences of this age group, raising the wider question, what makes life worth living? What she heard again and again from listening to their stories was the lament that they were no longer needed. Work had not only provided the status it normally gives people; in Russia under the Soviet system it had defined a person – especially as under the command economy people shared common privations, engaged in a satisfying barter system and helped one other. When the Soviet system failed them, the whole framework of meaningful social connections also fell apart.
There was also chaos in the country, or as she describes it, “collapse, upheaval, disorder, decay, wildness and thievery.” A new breed of oligarchs plundered the newly privatised industries while working men and women were robbed of their savings, their work and their hopes. Parsons, a Russian speaker, compiled 38 interviews in all, talking to 23 women and 15 men, helped by two Russian friends. Questions ranged over childhood, schooling, family life, work and current circumstances. The author discovered the paradox of former Soviet life: her interviewees felt nostalgia for its order and security alongside the recognition that its many restrictions required constant thwarting. Yet the need to thwart and get round the system had given purpose to their lives.
Parson makes the point, sometimes forgotten in the West, that Russia suffered enormously during the war; 27 million people died and it was common for wartime children to grow up without one or other parent. That younger generation had grown up under the shadow of their parents’ huge sacrifices to build a socialist society. Communism had promised them progressive betterment of their lives. As late as 2006, interviewees asked Parsons, “What did our parents fight for?” Viktor, a retired teacher, spoke for his generation when he told her that their sacrifices were in vain. A generation of victors after the war had now become a generation of losers. Indeed, the age group interviewed experienced the early 1990s as a return to wartime conditions: food, housing and life itself were again in jeopardy. One elderly lady, Lyudmilla, spoke of her anger against oligarchs like Roman Abramovitch: “I can’t save for my funeral. I work every day even until I’m 70 years old. And he’s 30. He already has billions.”
Everyone interviewed, professionals and factory workers, was struggling on tiny pensions and doing what extra menial work they could. Sometimes, Parsons was told, workers weren’t paid for months on end, or paid in vodka, which hastened mortality. “Drinking people go early” one man, whose brother, once a respected engineer, drank himself to death, told her. Women survived better than men; keeping their families together gave them a sense of purpose that their menfolk lacked. They had always struggled to feed and clothe their children and now helped to do the same for their grandchildren.
Parsons concludes this sober narrative with the sentence, “Freedom needs constraint in the form of social order and social responsibility to make it meaningful, powerful and safe.” A generation of Russians learnt the bitter lesson of unbridled freedom: not the stability of Western-style democracy but the lawlessness that ensued when Communism ended.
Parsons includes bibliographical references of almost 20 pages. Within the text she constantly quotes from these sources to support her argument. They make the book unnecessarily heavy-going and often repetitive, as if she can’t quite decide whether she is writing an academic thesis or a heartfelt personal account. Interestingly, no-one she spoke to mentioned religious faith as something that sustained them during times of stress or suffering.
The author’s sense of the “Russian soul”, to which she fleetingly refers, seems to be compounded of elements of patriotism and shared sacrifice rather than something more specifically spiritual. Nonetheless, her book is a reminder of an overlooked segment of Russian society and, more generally, the importance of feeling “needed” to make life worth living.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.