Review of Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded:  The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

“I saw nothing barbarous about these people.  On the contrary their forms have something elegant and gentle which one does not find anywhere else….The character of this people is that they fear neither fatigue nor physical suffering; there is both patience and activity in this nation, gaiety and melancholy.  One sees the most striking contrasts united in them and this presages great things, for ordinarily it is only superior beings who possess opposing qualities; masses are, for the most part, gray.”

-Madame de Stael on her trip to Russia in 1812 (1)

 “Even for her people, Russia refuses to submit.  This is how she charms and this is how she frustrates.  She is never completely known and always retains her ability to surprise, in both pleasant and unpleasant ways.” (Parsons, p. 7)

Though I have read several books over the past year on Russia that have been tremendously informative, ethnographer Michelle Parsons’ Dying Unneeded has achieved something special.  Special in that it provides the reader with an empathetic window into Russian triumphs and struggles post-WWII, especially during the “shock therapy” period of the 1990s.

The book is deeply sad at times, but the reader does not walk away simply feeling sorry for Russians, something this proud people likely wouldn’t want.  In addition to the sadness, one also comes away with a glimpse of what gives the Russian people their character and resilience as well as their mystique.

Geography and history in the form of a harsh climate and constant invasions from all directions have created a people with great stamina and endurance.

It’s no surprise then that Russia has been a source of great literature.  In terms of historical experience and culture, it has all the necessary ingredients for great storytelling:  tragedy, struggle, paradox and a sense of the absurd (i.e. humor).  And most Russians, as cited in the interviews and surveys used for Parsons’ book, seem to be keenly aware of this.

The sense of the absurd involves getting things done within Russia’s still cumbersome bureaucracy and the use of connections, which outsiders often perceive as “corruption” but in actuality has a more complex cultural history.  A harsh bureaucracy to maintain order along with tribute paying and exploitation of connections goes back to the state system imposed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

As one of Parson’s Russian acquaintances stated:  “It is impossible for you Westerners to understand our lives…trying to understand us rationally.  Russian reality is based on absurdisms – economic, social, even scientific.  All our life is based on absurdity, impossibility.  Russian daily life is simply absurd and preposterous. “  (Parsons, p. 7)

Space, Order & Freedom in the Soviet Union & Post-Soviet Russia

The theme of paradox – which seems to underscore most people’s observations of Russia and its people, regardless of the time period – was reflected most in this book by the author’s elaboration of the historical and cultural relationship between space and order and its implications for social connection.

“Older Muscovites were often nostalgic for Soviet order because it ordered social connections.  People’s positions vis-à-vis the Soviet state influenced what people could give to other people – the ways they could be soulful and needed.  Work was the principle means by which Soviet citizens were ordered by the state.  At work, Russians had personal connections and access to resources and services. Someone in the Soviet bureaucracy could arrange permission to build a dacha.  A friendly butcher could set aside a good cut of meat.  A test proctor could help a student pass an entrance examination.  Collectively, people often circumvented the state, but they depended on the state to do that.  Order here refers to both the order of the state and the order of social relations because they are mutually constitutive.” (Parsons, p. 12)

Furthermore, the push back required to circumvent both the material and non-material limits of the state in order to get various needs met – utilizing those essential social connections – produced a sense of freedom.

“The paradox of space and order – the unbound and bound quality of social relations in Soviet society – resolves into the even higher-order concept of freedom.  For these elderly Muscovites, freedom was not always compromised by the Soviet state.  In some cases the constraint of the Soviet state heightened a sense of freedom.  As people using their connections, collectively pushed against the limits of the state, and as those limits bent back or gave way, they experienced a sense of freedom.”  (Parsons, p. 12)

It should be noted that this phenomena of pushing back against the system in small and various ways did not work under the brutality of the Stalin regime and it refers to Soviet life generally after Stalin’s death when the system relaxed in some ways.  Parsons goes on later to explain how the breakdown of this space-order-freedom framework in the 1990s led to social alienation as people seemed to drift off onto their own.  This alienation was exacerbated by the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.

“The people we talked with were eloquent storytellers when asked about their lives and how things had changed in the early 1990s.  They were intent on answering the question, ‘What makes life worth living?’  And what made life worth living was a sense of being needed.” (p. 9)

Some Westerners eschew the idea that Russians have a distinct outlook that is more interested in a sense of meaning and other non-material pursuits – a soulfulness – as alluded to in an earlier quote about social connections and being needed.  Contrary to these naysayers, there does seem to be some merit to this cultural difference, but as with any group of humans it is hardly simple.  As evidenced by surveys Parsons cites, there is a deep cultural interest in a meaningful life and what that means in terms of their social relationships and the consequences of having those relationships torn asunder via the various upheavals of the 20th century, particularly the dissolution of Soviet society in the 1990s.  That dissolution produced a trauma that translated into millions of premature deaths, especially among Russian men who died from accelerated alcoholism, heart attacks, suicides and homicides.  Women were also affected by the mortality crisis but on a smaller scale as well as in a qualitatively different way.

“Men’s sense of neededness centered on being able to adequately provide – a possibility that narrowed substantially in the early 1990s.  Women’s sense of neededness was more diffuse and included, importantly, being able to hold their families together in times of hardship.  In this sense, the early 1990s meant that women were sometimes quite desperately needed.  They were undoubtedly burdened by this responsibility, but they may have also been preserved by it.”  (p. 11)

This is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s observation in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that his experience in Nazi concentration camps showed him that those who were able to survive in the horrendous physical and psychological conditions were not necessarily the most physically hardy or stubborn, but those who were able to provide something to their fellow prisoners – comfort, an extra piece of bread or just a dark sense of humor – and who were able to find some larger meaning in suffering, both their own and those around them.

Recent research in social psychology reveals the difference between a meaningful life and a happy one – the difference, in large part, being that meaning derives from what you are able to give and happiness from what you are able to receive.   (2)

It can be argued that without struggle, there is no opportunity for meaning.   This is not to celebrate or be tolerant of systems of gratuitous suffering, but to recognize that the complementary relationship between a sense of meaning and happiness requires both some degree of struggle as well as interdependence among people.

This is also not to suggest that Russians’ strong interest in a meaningful life, as reflected in their impressive tradition in the arts, philosophy and literature, means they are austere, ascetic or masochistic.   As Suzanne Massie, an academic expert on Russian history and culture, once noted with respect to the French conclusion that Russians “love to suffer”:

“Russians do not “love” to suffer, but through their history they have often had to suffer and to endure.  Their experience has bred in them a serene knowledge that there is a limit to what human beings can understand or change, and an acceptance of everything that life has to offer of both joy and tragedy.”   (1)

Among people they know and trust, Russians reportedly tend to be warm and effusive.  They also know how to enjoy the finer things when they have access to them as was demonstrated during the Czarist period when lavish dress and architecture abounded.  Even peasant attire and everyday items had elaborate and decorative designs as pre-Soviet Russian artisans and craftspeople were numerous and renowned.

Russian Social Connections and Social Morality

Along with the importance of a sense of meaning in life there is an interest in the separate but related issue of morality.  From the time of Kiev Rus in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir chose the Orthodox religion, which has seen a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, the Russians have put their own unique stamp on Christianity.  As Massie described in her 1980 book on Pre-Soviet Russia, Land of the Firebird:

“[A] calm acceptance of fate and the sympathy for human suffering are perhaps the greatest strengths of the Russian people and the most basic expression of Russian Christianity.”  (1)

Though the church was repressed during the Soviet era, morality as reflected in the value of social connections remained.   As Parsons writes:

“Social connections in Russia remain a way of living a moral life amid circumstances widely regarded as immoral…Russian social connections allow individuals to access a moral space beyond the self and beyond the mundane.  When middle-aged Muscovites lament a loss of sociality [from the Soviet period], they are commenting on a perceived loss of morality.” (Parsons, p. 18)

Parsons describes why one older Russian friend had refused to go into a trendy café in modern day capitalist Moscow, feeling out of place:

“Instead of a space where people’s interactions were framed by the political economy of socialism, the space’s interactions were framed by the political economy of capitalism.  In this way social inequality was written into a space in a way that clearly read social exclusion to older Muscovites, many of whom had never seen such lavish cafes with their trendy clientele and expensive coffee during most of their lifetimes.  These spaces were ‘no longer for everyone but for a certain type of people.’” (Parsons, p. 30)

One interviewee from Moscow, a music teacher, lamented the difference between Soviet times and the current times:  “We had no illusions.  But the human aspect of that time….Everything is sold now.  Before we would have been ashamed.”  (Parsons, p. 39)

Indeed, Moscow is wealthier, more bustling and diverse and also suffers from more inequality than any other part of Russia.  As epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their pioneering work on inequality, The Spirit Level, the more social inequality (as reflected in income) there is within a society, the more social problems will flourish, including increased crime, health problems, mental illness, substance abuse and distrust.  Post-Soviet Russia has been no exception.

It is interesting to note throughout the book that none of the interviewees mention political democracy as a factor either way in discussing the good or bad of Soviet life versus post-Soviet life.  It is social security in the form of access to essential goods and the quality of social relationships (or lack thereof) that are most often mentioned.

Similarly, these are the factors that have a strong significant impact on mortality as Wilkinson and Pickett show with their metadata in The Spirit Level.    According to a November 2014 poll conducted by the Levada Center, 61% of Russians favored living in a society that strove for social equality rather than a society that strove for higher individual success.  (3)

This is not to say that political democracy has no appeal at all or that democracies can’t incorporate various mechanisms to decrease the inequalities inherent in capitalist market systems, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, but perhaps our assumptions about the prioritization of political democracy over social equality are confused.  Given the fact that humans are the most social creatures on the planet, it is logical that they are extremely sensitive to perceived social inequities.

  1. Massie, Suzanne. Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  Hearttree Press.