Can Russia Modernize? A sociologist’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 17 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective system of informal governance. In the first part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’,  Katharina Bluhm assesses the book and its arguments from a sociologist‘s perspective.

Alena Ledeneva is the author of several books all of which centre on informal economic and governance practices in Russia. Her three monographs Russia’s Economy of Favours (1998), How Russia Really Works (2006), and Can Russia Modernise? (2013), can be read as a trilogy. In Russia’s Economy of Favours the centre of attention was the everyday exchange systems of normal people, while in How Russia Really Works Ledeneva’s focus shifts towards business and the asset stripping that takes place through complex inter-firm relationships. Her newest book explores Russia’s power networks and systems of informal governance or sistema.

The 2006 and 2013 books share one particularly important question: Can Russia modernize? In How Russia Really Works Ledeneva asks how Russia’s unwritten rules can be changed, or whether in fact they can. Her answer is laced with scepticism. She points to the fact that over the past decade, actors have fought bitterly over the rules of the game: for example the support for shock-therapy of Western aid programmes and advisers aimed at the rapid installation of a new market economy, or the foreign investors who have tried to introduce Western business practices being studied in Russian business schools today. Small entrepreneurs have called for more transparency in the way business is done.

Russia is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, and Putin once called for a ‘dictatorship of law’ and – at least according to some observers – Medvedev really was interested in changing the rules of the game, but just did not get very far in his efforts. Ledeneva concludes that in order to overcome the informal rules it is ‘simply not enough to transform the formal rules and the way they are enforced. (more…)

Did the end of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign cause Russia’s mortality crisis?

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2013

Russia experienced an extreme spike in death rates in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann and Grant Miller  write that while this has typically been explained using political and economic arguments, the real cause of Russia’s mortality crisis may have been the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced a 40 per cent surge in deaths between 1990 and 1994. As a consequence, life expectancy for men declined by 6.6 years from 64.2 to 57.6 years. The magnitude of this surge in deaths – coupled with the Soviet Union’s international prominence – has prompted observers to term this demographic catastrophe the ‘Russian Mortality Crisis.’

What caused this dramatic increase in mortality? Many people attribute the Russian mortality crisis to political and economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to restructuring and reforms during the 1990s. We develop an alternative explanation for the observed pattern: the demise of the reputedly successful 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign.

The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign was unprecedented in scale and scope – and it operated through both supply and demand-side channels, simultaneously raising the effective price of drinking and subsidising substitutes for alcohol consumption. At the height of the campaign, official alcohol sales had fallen by as much as two-thirds (Russians responded by increasing home-production of alcohol called samogon – although our estimates suggest not by nearly enough to offset the reduction in state supply). In practice the campaign lasted beyond its official end – restarting state alcohol production required time, and elevated alcohol prices lingered.

Figure 1 illustrates our basic logic. Age-adjusted Russian death rates had been increasing linearly between 1960 and 1984, plummeted abruptly with the start of the campaign in 1985, remained below the campaign trend throughout the latter 1980s, rose again rapidly during the early 1990s to a temporary peak in 1994, and then largely reverted back to Russia’s long-run trend.

Figure 1: Age-adjusted death rates in Russia (1960-2005)


NoteData available from The Human Mortality Project. Pre-campaign linear trend estimated using ordinary least squares regression of mortality per 1,000 population on pre-campaign year.