Russia’s disappearing men have ‘short, brutal’ lives

He is nameless and his grave gets no visitors, but corpse number 2 108 in Perepechinskoye cemetery outside Moscow has a message for the world: men in Russia are dying too easily.

The man, commemorated on a tiny metal plaque only by his ID number, sex, and date of burial, is one of 17 500 unidentified bodies discovered in Moscow over the past five years, often after lying whole winters in the snowdrifts where they died.

About two-thirds are male and they all end up in Perepechinskoye in the shadow of a silver birch forest, down the road from a giant municipal rubbish tip.

“They are mostly drunks and poor immigrant workers from ex-Soviet countries who were killed in the winter weather,” said Sergei, a cemetery official who would not give his last name, as grave-diggers shovelled frozen earth.

The approximately 3 000 unidentified bodies buried here each year are also the tip of a wider and potentially disastrous tendency in Russia.

In a study earlier this month, the World Bank said Russian men have “short, brutal lives” due to heart disease, alcoholism and traffic accidents and that the country faces an “alarming population decline”.

Just 143-million people live in the world’s biggest country, down at least six million from 1992 and falling every day, in large part because average male life expectancy is only 58 years — 16 years less than in western Europe.

At the same time, fertility rates have plummeted from two to 1,3 children per woman since the collapse of the Soviet Union and last year there were more abortions than births. Their life expectancy is 72 — better than for men, but still low by Western standards.

Throw in an HIV/Aids pandemic and a mortality rate for traffic accidents almost double that in big Western countries and the statistics portray a country heading toward disaster.

Explanations for men’s short lifespans include the stress of existence for many in the wake of the Soviet collapse, an inefficient, poorly equipped health service, and above all a centuries-old love affair with heavy drinking.

Alexander Nemtsov, a leading researcher with the health ministry, says that alcohol is linked to 30% of all deaths in Russia. Alcohol poisoning alone kills about 40 000 people a year, he says, compared with a few hundred in the United States.

“Vodka is our national misfortune,” Viktor, an ambulance driver at Moscow’s First City hospital, said on a recent Friday evening as a steady trickle of men with bloodied faces stumbled into the emergency ward.

When the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to keep Russians from the bottle in the 1980s by restricting alcohol production, they turned to “homemade spirits, aftershave, solvents and perfumes”, Viktor said. “I have a lot of friends who had OK jobs, then lost everything through drink. They drank everything they earned.”

Nursing a beer bottle in sub-zero temperatures outside the Prospekt Mir metro station, graphic artist Sergei Ivanov (33) said that the stress of having to adapt to capitalism was the real killer.

“In Soviet days, you got paid and you knew that tomorrow you’d get the same amount of money. Now you are forced to run around and have no idea whether you’ll be fired the next day.”

Sociologist Alexei Levinson at the Levada pollsters says that disrespect for human life has penetrated male society, encouraging ever more destructive behaviour — mostly among the poor and uneducated, but also “among generals and many others”.

“The male population … sees a very low value in human life, including its own. You could say there is a culture of not looking after your own health, your life or security. It’s a soldier’s mentality, like in war.”

With each early death, Russia approaches the day when it will have trouble finding men to protect its mammoth borders and workers to pay the elderly’s pensions, the World Bank warns.

“Our forecast is that by 2050 Russia’s population could fall by a third to about 100-million people,” said Anatoly Vishnevsky, head of the Centre of Demography and Human Ecology.

“To recover, the birthrate would have to jump very much higher — to three children per family at least — and that just doesn’t happen quickly.”

On his organisation’s website is a chilling feature: constantly updating birth and death figures. Every 21 seconds, a new birth is recorded; every 14, another death. — AFP

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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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