Life and death under Russian capitalism

Issue 

Men in Contemporary Russia: The Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change?

by Rebecca Kay

Ashgate, 2006

236 pages, $121.50

Life in the Stalinist Soviet Union was never pleasant but is there any evidence that capitalism is better? Rebecca Kay's careful sociological survey of men in post-Soviet Russia shows that seen both objectively and subjectively capitalism has brought an assault on civilisation there.

In the mid-1980s male life expectancy in the USSR was 63.8 years. By 2000 it was down to 59. Research shows that the increased mortality rates are due primarily to deaths in the young to middle-aged population. Female life expectancy is also shorter by two years.

Cardiovascular diseases are the biggest killers, especially of middle-aged men, and are associated with over-working. Accidents and poisoning claim up to 400,000 men per year, and 100,000 commit suicide or are murdered.

Of the men who die in the 20-55 age group, two-thirds are drunk at the time of death.

Drunkenness also contributes to the fact that 30-40% of all serious violent crime now takes place within the family. Each year around 14,000 Russian women die at the hands of their partners (compared to total Soviet fatalities of 17,000 in the 10 years of the Afghan war).

Kay traces the origins of Russian male/female relations back to the Domostroi, a handbook on family life that the Orthodox Church endorsed in the sixteenth century. "The husband should punish his wife", says the Domostroi. "Beat her when you are alone together; then forgive her and remonstrate with her."

The Bolsheviks famously set out to eradicate such attitudes, though Stalin deliberately tried to turn back the clock. Despite this, gender relations in the Soviet Union achieved great advances.

Kay records that beginning in the 1960s, the bureaucracy used educational theorists at the USSR Academy of Sciences' Institute of Pedagogical Sciences to propagate a very conservative line on the "natural" roles of men and women. "We have an obligation to bring up our sons to be real men and our daughters to be real women", one of them declared.

Soviet media of the period discussed such problems of social life as the unseemly behaviour of women in wearing trousers, smoking and drinking. "What was important was that restating the existence of such problems frequently enough allowed the Soviet government to make what was effectively a complete U-turn in its policy on gender, whilst still continuing to pay lip service to notions of equality", Kay states.

Little wonder that, when capitalism was reintroduced in 1991, reactionary ideas flourished. Both men and women have lost out in the process.

Women have been pushed out of many jobs and have less access to setting up their own businesses. But men are forced into gruelling overwork that shortens their lives.

Many men work two or more jobs, frantically trying to support their family. "You just have to work", one of Kay's interviewees said. "I work as hard as I can and I try to find more." The violent illegality of Russian capitalism tends to exclude women and build a male mystique around it.

Young Russian men have to navigate their way through the danger of two years' compulsory military service. Soviet pride in the army still remains, but conscription-aged youth have to calculate that, given men's shorter life spans, surrendering two years is a big sacrifice.

Worse than that, the internal life of the Russian army is dominated by psychopaths who inflict dedovshchina (bullying) on recruits. Too often the dedy is fatal.

Based as it is on extensive interviews, Kay's book brings many of these contradictory pressures to life. The strength of this work is the candour of the men who spoke so freely to her.

Reflected through the book is the fact that it is capitalism that is inflicting dedy in Russia, whipping men beyond human endurance at work and encouraging vodka-soaked escapism. These working-class men, suffering horribly as they try to maintain their dignity in the middle of their harsh reality, are truly heroes of post-Soviet Russia.