Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Book Reviews

Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis by Michelle Parsons

Jeffrey Hass

The troubling dynamics of Russian life expectancy in the last decades of the twentieth century have long been a staple of critical analyses and undergraduate lectures on the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. What “modern” society could buck the trend toward longer life spans? The usual explanations invoked the poor quality and spotty provision of medical care, the stress of financial hardship, and unhealthy lifestyles. Drawing on ethnographic research, Michelle Parsons, a professor of anthropology at Emory University, adds a much-needed social dimension to these exegeses.

Parsons explains that the erosion of familiar contexts and relationships exacerbated the stresses and strains of post-socialist shocks and left Russians of the middle-aged generation feeling unneeded and out of place. In telling this story, she relates the stories and thoughts of an interesting group of subjects: thirty-eight residents of Moscow and surrounding areas, between the ages of fifty and eighty, members of the generation born in the years around and during World War II that helped rebuild the Soviet Union and propel it toward superpower status in the hope of achieving socialism’s “radiant future.” They saw quite a bit, were promised much, and ultimately received little. As one of Parsons’s subjects, “Professor Vladislav,” puts it, “Those people, you know, they had a beautiful identity, a social identity. They understood what it was to be Russians…. They were ready to answer, especially men, for the situation around them.” And after 1991? Another subject, “Vera,” remarks, “We are very upset that we are strangers in one country—strangers.”

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