Death and Freedom in Post-Soviet Russia: An Ethnography of a Mortality Crisis Público

Parsons, Michelle Anne (2011)

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Death and Freedom in Post-Soviet Russia: An Ethnography of a Mortality Crisis
By Michelle Anne Parsons

In the early 1990s Russia experienced the most rapid decline of life expectancy in
modern history. In a five year period male life expectancy dropped by six years; female
life expectancy dropped by three years. Surprisingly, the most severe increases in
mortality took place among the middle-aged in Moscow. Drawing on 13 months of
fieldwork in the capital city, this dissertation brings ethnography to bear on a topic that
has, until recently, been the province of epidemiology and sociology.
Economic "shock therapy" and the collapse of Soviet industry undermined social
relations. Middle-aged Muscovites express this as being "unneeded" ( ne nuzhny), or
having nothing to offer others. Being "unneeded" was a form of disempowerment.
Western literature identifies a lack of social capital as a risk factor for poor health and
mortality during and after the transition, but lack of social capital is seen as a Soviet
legacy rather than a legacy of neoliberal economic reforms. Alcohol consumption is
treated as a means of escape when it was often a tragic attempt to reconnect with others.
At the same time, alcohol-related deaths, along with violent and accidental deaths, were a
consequence of a lack of social limits. Russian men push against social limits; when these
limits were lacking this sometimes proved deadly.
Russians' paradoxical desire for space and order opens a window on Soviet social
relations. The "generation of victors," born around the Great Patriotic War (WWII) were
enculturated into ethics of collective sacrifice and socially-useful work. These ethics
informed social practices organized through work and social position vis-à-vis the state.
In Moscow, work was the nexus of state order and space. Within the constraints of order,
Muscovites found space ( prostor), a concept related to spiritual expanse, spontaneous
emotion, and freedom ( svoboda).
In Russian culture, the individual experience of freedom ( svoboda) is possible
through constraint. The demise of certain social constraints therefore hindered freedom,
especially among middle-aged Muscovites, even at the very moment the West celebrated
its triumph.

Death and Freedom in Post-Soviet Russia: An Ethnography of a Mortality Crisis

Michelle Anne Parsons
B.A., Stanford University, 1995
M.S., Harvard University, 2000
Advisor: Peter J. Brown, Ph.D.
A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the
James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies of Emory University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in Anthropology

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction 1 Chapter 2. Mortality 8 Chapter 3. Methods 27 Chapter 4. Paradox 36 Chapter 5. Moscow 44 Chapter 6: War 53 Chapter 7. Work 66 Chapter 8. Shock 83 Chapter 9. Death of Society 98 Chapter 10. Freedom 107 Chapter 11. Conclusion 115 References 121

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