A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors (II)

I’ve now read roughly two-thirds of the book so I figured I might as well post another post about the book, even though I’m not actually particularly impressed with the stuff I’ve read since the last post. My current goodreads rating is now much closer to two stars than three. Topics which I’ve read about since the last post include: The Geopolitical Position of Russia in the World (chapter 9); Demographics and Population Distribution (chapter 10); Cities and Villages (chapter 11); Social issues – Health, Wealth, Poverty, and Crime (chapter 12); Cultures and Languages (chapter 13); Religion, Diet, and Dress (chapter 14); Education, Arts, Sciences, and Sports (chapter 15); Tourism (chapter 16); Oil, Gas, and Other Energy Sources (chapter 17, the first in Part IV, about economics); and Heavy Industry and the Military Complex (chapter 18).

The author applies a data-centered approach most of the time, and I love that! …which makes it harder for me to be critical of the stuff than it otherwise might have been. However critical I must be, and some chapters are much better than others. In one specific chapter he includes numbers which anyone with two brain-cells can tell are complete bullshit, without adding many critical remarks – according to the crime per capita estimates provided in that chapter, Russia’s crime/capita numbers are less than one-fourth of those of the UK. Yeah.. On a related note, an implicit assumption often rearing its ugly head in the text is that the economic data provided towards the end of the Soviet Era accurately reflected economic conditions. Stuff like that – numbers and the problem of how to interpret them and when in particular to be cautious – cause a few problems along the way. Even (semi-?)valid numbers and estimates are not always put into the proper context, so for example 2002 numbers and 2009 numbers (or numbers from the early 90es and numbers from the 2000s) are given in consecutive paragraphs without attention to the problem that these numbers may not be comparable. I’m not sure the author knows what a standard deviation is, so I am not sure this is the kind of person you want writing a book with a lot of data. He’s far from always uncritical, this must be said, but there’s still a trust issue here for me to deal with in that I often don’t think he’s nearly as skeptical and precise as he ought to be; he draws conclusions not fully supported by the data he uses to support the conclusions in question more than a few times. It should be mentioned that at least in part the trust problem arises due to the scope of the book; as can be inferred from the topics listed above nobody can claim to be an expert on all of this stuff, so you need to take some things on faith. But the problem is surely aggravated by some of the more ‘soft’, not-too-data centered chapters, where he’s just in my view way too uncritical of Soviet material (/propaganda) and seem to try to make Soviet life out to be better than you’d conclude that it had been if you were to just judge by the numbers he provides himself and not ignoring obvious less-than-flattering interpretations. Here’s an example of the kind of stuff I find problematic:

“By and large, the [health] care was decent. A Soviet worker who came down with flu, for example, just needed to dial the local clinic’s phone in the morning and stay in bed; the physician on call would come and visit the worker at home, usually later that same day. Physicians were accustomed to spending about half of their workday making house calls.”

My first thought: F..¤#$£ inefficient as hell, and probably hellishly expensive! Here’s a related observation:

“The Soviet Union also had one of the longest average hospital stays in the world, because home care was viewed as inherently inferior, while hospital beds were free. A typical hospitalization would last for 2–3 weeks, and frequently over a month.”

Given this kind of information, it really should be no surprise that:

“By the end of the Soviet period, the U.S.S.R. had the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world”.

But here’s the thing – the word ‘inefficient’ isn’t mentioned once in that chapter. The lots of doctors/capita is interpreted as a great thing, not a serious problem indicating severe inefficiencies in health care delivery. The same chapter started out with some pure gold which really set the pace for the rest of that chapter:

“The Soviet Union had what was arguably one of the best health care systems in the world. Surprised? If you have seen Michael Moore’s film Sicko, you may not be: Moore depicts Cuba as an example of a socialist state with a free, universal health care system that has produced impressive results. This is something many Americans and even some Europeans have a hard time imagining.”

(Naturally) I was very close to stopping reading altogether there – ‘arguably’ indeed. He’s talking about a country where the life expectancy was below 70 years (in 1990), far from the top 10 percent of the world (but ‘within the best third’, which is the only observation regarding the relative performance he includes..). Instead of stopping reading there I decided instead to adjust my expectations downwards and to just start paying a lot more attention to the raw data (and where it was coming from) and a lot less attention to the author’s observations and interpretations of said data. I think this was a good decision. I don’t think the author always understands what he’s talking about although I’m sure he does sometimes. What I’m also sure of is that his standards of evidence are different from mine.

Another illustrative quote and some related observations from chapter 12 below:

“The health care system went through a major restructuring on short notice [in the 90s], with support from the state abruptly declining to a fraction of its former amount due to rising inflation rates and to unwillingness or inability to pay more.”

In light of the data above it probably wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that said ‘unwillingness’ was presumably at least a little related to the fact that the system which was set up was inefficient and provided far from impressive health outcomes. Of course there were other reasons as well, relating to political economy stuff and so on. But he never comes close to even saying this. Even weirder, he talks about “fewer doctors” being one explanation for the worsened health outcomes during the post-Soviet period on the very same page that he provides data making it very clear that the number of doctors was not the problem. Judging from the data he provides himself on that page, the raw number of physicians in Russia was pretty much identical in 1990 and 2000 (though it was a little lower in 1995), and it was notably higher than both years in 2005 (and so the number of physicians/1000 people was if anything higher in 2000 than in 1990 judging from that data, as the nation underwent a significant population decline during the period – something he documents himself in the book and talks about in some detail).

Obvious conclusions from the data are not always drawn, and questionable conclusions from the same data sometimes seem to be. But there’s a lot of data and there’s a lot of good stuff as well, and so I felt I should add some data from the chapters mentioned above below. The book is a mixed bag at this point. I’m learning a lot, but I feel like I have to be a lot more cautious about trusting the information provided than I usually need to be when I’m reading a book. I have never felt any need to worry about the author lying to me about how kidneys work while reading McPhee et al, or about the author using very questionable data to draw conclusions without pointing out that there’s some uncertainty here. Blinnikov isn’t uncritical, but compared to some of the publications I have made a habit of reading at this point reading this book occasionally feels a bit like reading an elephant’s account of his brother’s trip to the porcelain shop – this stuff seems too close to politics for comfort, and the author isn’t as careful and unbiased in his coverage as I’d have liked. Anway, quotes below (my bold):

Since 1992 […] Russia has been steadily losing people to the tune of 500,000 or so per year, and this has become a firmly established phenomenon. […] the average Russian man is expected to live only 61 years, and the average Russian woman 74. The reasons for this discrepancy are complex, but the factor most commonly cited is the high rate of alcoholism among Russian men […] only about 100,000 legal migrants come to Russia each year, while about 500,000 people are lost per year due to the fertility–mortality imbalance. […] About 16% of the Russian population has completed a college education (vs. 28% in the United States) […] Only three-quarters of all households in Russia have running water, while only 71% have flush toilets. […] 82% of urban dwellers have central heat provided by a power plant, while 50% of rural dwellers depend on wood-burning brick ovens or on coal boilers.” […]

“sanitary norms set in 1922 dictated the size of the minimal livable space at 9 m2 […] per person. This remained unchanged over the entire Soviet period and without respect to local needs […] As illustrated in Bater (1996), the actual space available toward the end of the U.S.S.R. ranged from 13 m2 in Estonia to 7 m2 in Turkmenistan, with 10 m2 being the national average. […] On average, one person has 19 m2 in which to live [today]. […]

The level of urbanization rose through the 20th century: In 1900 almost 80% of the Russian Empire consisted of peasants; in 1950 the U.S.S.R. had an urbanization level of 52%; in 1970 it was 62%; and since 1990 Russia’s level has been 74%. […] Even by 2005, only 7% of the total agricultural output in Russia was produced on private farms. The kolkhozy were restructured into joint-stock cooperative ventures, but their management practices remained essentially unchanged. Although the workers collectively own each enterprise now, the head manager typically has the controlling vote, and the enterprise continues to be inefficient. In 2005, the output of the Russian agricultural sector was 40% less than in 1990; the sown acreage had decreased at least 30%; and the number of cattle had decreased by 46%. Russia today imports a little less than half of the food it needs to feed its own population—one of the highest rates of foreign-food dependency in the world” [at least he commented upon the inefficiency here, otherwise I would have. I’ll add here that it’s likely that the 1990 numbers can’t be trusted, so although this is not the impression you get from reading the book the extent to which this is a ‘true decline’ is probably still to some extent an open question.]

“there were 31,800 murders and attempted murders in Russia in 2000, versus only 22,200 in 2007. The majority of contract killings were perpetrated by the mob against prominent businessmen and journalists in the mid-1990s (Volkov, 1999); such attacks are now rare. Most domestic homicides happen between spouses and involve alcohol.” […]

“Russia had over 1 million prisoners in 1995, and about 872,000 10 years later. Seven percent of the inmates in 2005 were women, and about 17% were repeat offenders.” […]

“The Transparency International organization’s global Corruption Perception Index for 2007 ranked Russia very much near the bottom, in 143rd place out of 179 countries—right above Togo” […]

in Russia about 80% of people have been baptized in the Orthodox faith, but only 44% profess belief in a God, and merely 12% attend church on a monthly basis.” […] 22% are agnostics who are not sure whether there is a God, and about 22% call themselves atheists. By comparison, in the United States about 75% of people consider themselves Christians, and about 40% attend a religious ceremony at least once a month.” […] About 25% [of Russians] embrace a vague syncretic worldview that recognizes the existence of spirits, karma, and reincarnation, and affirms divination, talismans, tarot, and yoga as legitimate practices, while simultaneously professing adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church (which vehemently condemns all of these things).” […]

“many universities are located in Moscow and St. Petersburg: In 2000, 171 (19%) were found in Moscow and 77 (8%) in St. Petersburg, with a total of 914 colleges and universities, public and private, in the entire country.” […]

In the late 1970s, over 150 full-length movies were made in the U.S.S.R. per year. Russian film production practically ceased in 1992–1996 due to lack of funding, with merely 20–30 produced per year; it began again in the mid-1990s with Hollywood-wannabe gangster flicks sponsored by shady businessmen. […] By comparison, Hollywood produced over 400 movies in 1996. […] About 120 new movies come out every year in Russia now […] The number of modern multiplex cinemas in Russia went up from 8 in 1995 to 185 in 2001″ […]

In real terms (after adjustment for inflation), the salary of a PhD-level senior researcher decreased by a factor of 10 between 1989 and 1999, whereas many other professions supported by state budgets did not see a comparable decline. Thus, if in the late Soviet period a Moscow city bus driver had a salary slightly lower than that of a physics professor, by the end of the Yeltsin period the bus driver was making five to seven times more than the professor. The result, predictably, was a drastic reduction in the number of scientists. […]

By the end of the Soviet period, about 30 million people per year took advantage of resorts and sanatoria in the Russian Federation alone, not counting the other republics. Most were domestic tourists. The number of organized tourists in Russia abruptly plunged to a mere 8 million per year following the economic collapse of 1991, however. […] In 2008 36.5 million Russians crossed the nation’s borders; 11 million of these crossings were for tourist trips, and 2 million business trips. […] Russia sends five times as many tourists abroad as it receives.” […]

“The U.S.S.R. was the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world by the early 1980s, surpassing the United States and Saudi Arabia with production from the giant fields in western Siberia […] [Russia] remains the world leader in natural gas production and is currently second in petroleum production […] The share of [the energy] sector went up from only 12% of the total gross domestic product (GDP) in 1991 to 31% in 2002. […] The distribution of energy production in Russia is very uneven. The oil and gas fields in western Siberia produce 69% of all the petroleum and 91% of all the natural gas […] In 2007, 4 companies in the top 20 in Russia were engaged in metal production, heavy machinery production, or other heavy manufacturing” […]

“Perhaps the heaviest legacy […] of the Soviet economy was its military–industrial complex, called in Russian the […] VPK. Its presence was pervasive: Entire cities were built around steel mills, aluminum smelters, tank manufacturers, chemical factories, or nuclear weapons facilities. Over 50% of the country’s industrial output in the 1980s was generated by this sector. […] According
to some estimates, in the late Soviet period about one-quarter of all industrial workers in the country (5 million people) were employed by the VPK, including almost 1 million researchers at over 2,000 institutes and factories, and the sector accounted for almost 20% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Hundreds of research labs, institutes, and factories were scattered over a few dozen small and medium-sized cities that did not appear on any maps […] They were largely declassified, renamed, and finally put on maps by 2000. Most remain closed to casual visitors, however, and even Russia’s residents (let alone foreigners) require special permits to enter.”

November 20, 2013 - Posted by | books, data, demographics, Geography, Geology, Russia

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