The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Down and Out in Russia

Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Michelle Parsons

Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

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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Jeffrey Hass, a professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, is the author of, among other books, Power, Culture, and Economic Change in Russia 1988−2008: To the Undiscovered Country of Post-Socialism.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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