The Russian mortality crisis of the 1990s was mainly due to the shock economic reforms that led to mass, especially labour dislocations, much greater personal and family economic insecurity and sharp increases in inequalities.
During 1987-1994, the Russian mortality rate increased by more than half, from 1.0% to 1.6%, as life expectancy fell from 70 to 64 years! Economic output fell by almost half during 1989-1998 as wealth and income inequalities as well as crime, murder and suicide rates soared. The steep upsurge in mortality and sudden fall in life expectancy in Russia in the early 1990s were the highest ever registered anywhere in recorded human history in the absence of catastrophes, such as wars, plague or famine. The shock economic reforms in the former Soviet economies after 1991 precipitated this unprecedented increase in mortality, shortening life expectancy, especially among middle-aged males.
The major explanation popular in the West, as it absolves the West of responsibility, attributes the mortality spike to increased alcohol consumption in the late 1980s and early 1990s after Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholism campaign.
The simultaneous increase in the total death rate, deaths due to external causes, and alcohol consumption were thus all driven by another factor, namely stress. Stress factors due to the economic ‘shock therapy’ following the demise of the Soviet Union are associated with the rise in unemployment, labour mobility, migration, divorce, wealth, and income inequalities.A stress index incorporating these variables turns out to be a surprisingly good predictor of changes in life expectancy in post-communist economies, especially in the Russian Federation. The evidence shows that many men in their 40s and 50s – who had lost their jobs or had to move to another job and/or another region, or experienced increases in inequalities in their country/region, or had divorced their wives – were more likely to die prematurely in the 1990s.