Russia’s “Bill of Health” and the Sochi Olympic Smokescreen

Oct 14, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in February 2014]

Much of the mainstream Russian media, as well as many Russian and Western bloggers, contend that the coverage of the Sochi Olympics outside of Russia has focused too much on attendant political issues: corruption, the cost of the Games, the Circassian issue, and so on. Such voices call on us to set aside political debates and to enjoy the sport spectacle that the Olympics is supposed to be. However, Olympic Games are rarely if ever completely immune to politics, and the Sochi Olympics is no exception. In many ways, Russia’s decision to host a Winter Olympics in Sochi, the only subtropical resort in a country two thirds of whose territory is covered by the permafrost, is a political one.* Only politics can explain the choice of a city where the infrastructure for winter sports was inadequate and extremely difficult to create, where the environmental impacts would be huge, and where the post-Olympic use of the facilities would be minimal, as discussed in Yulia Latynina’s article (in Russian) in the online Ezhednjevnyj Zhurnal. According to Latynina, “The northern country Russia hosts a Winter Olympics in subtropics because Putin likes Sochi” (translation mine). But I think more was involved than Putin’s personal preference: Sochi Olympics is a political statement about Russia’s role in the Caucasus, as discussed in an article by Elizabeth Dunn that appeared in Savage Minds.

If one is a true Russian patriot, we believe, one should support genuine social and economic development in the country, not national prestige symbols. Putin’s supporters, however, seem to want to sweep the country’s problems and the potential geopolitical implications of the Olympics under the carpet and present the Games merely as a celebration of “mens sana in corpore sano”, a festival of beauty and health. As beauty is a subjective notion, the rest of this post will focus on the health of the Russian nation, asking whether an Olympic celebration of “beauty and health” is actually appropriate.

Olympics_MarsRoverMuch has been written about the outrageous cost of the Sochi Olympics, $51 billion, which is roughly 20 times the cost of sending a rover to Mars. These costs are much higher than the originally projected estimates; much has been said about the “wastage” due to corruption, racketeering schemes, and so on. But I agree with Latynina that the main problem is not how much money was spent or how badly misspent it was, but that Russia has other areas where investments would pay off much better for the Russians themselves in the long run. Latynina writes (translation mine):


Olympics_estimates_costs“Russia, with its “killed” infrastructure, destitute schools and broke hospitals, invests money into the pointless and ostentatious “big sport”. The government forces big business to build sports infrastructure, but does not encourage it to sponsor science and education. It is hard to imagine, in my view, a more destructive behavior.”




Much can be said about the condition of Russia’s roads; the state of its hospitals, schools, and research institutions; the low level of its investment into the education system (illustrated on the cartogram on the left); and the poverty of its rural areas just outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Let’s focus, however, on Russia’s “bill of health” and let the figures speak for themselves.

To begin, life expectancy figures in Russia are dismal. According to the 2013 data from World Health Organization, Russia ranks 124th out of 193 countries in overall life expectancy, with an average age of death of 70 years. According to a Newsweek/The Daily Beast survey of 165 countries, Russia is a mediocre place for women: while women are highly educated, their participation in politics and the economy is very limited and women’s health figures are poor. Similarly, the survey from Save the Children charity, which examined maternal health, children’s well-being, and women’s educational, economic, and political status, placed Russia into the 2nd tier and judged the situation for mothers as worsening. But it is even worse being a man in Russia: male life expectancy is merely 64 years, the same as in Cambodia and Ghana. An average Russian man’s life is 12 years shorter than that of his statistical female compatriot, the biggest gap of any country. (The life expectancy for the residents of the capital Moscow is somewhat better.)

Russians joke that “those who don’t smoke and don’t drink will die healthy”, a proverb typically used to justify smoking and drinking. But there is a grain of truth to the joke: statistically, Russians smoke and drink heavily and many die of “preventable environmental causes” rather than from “old age diseases”, as we shall see in detail below.**


As will be discussed in more detail in my forthcoming post, Russia has one of the world’s highest smoking rates. Smoking is also one of the major contributing factors behind the country’s dismally low male life expectancy, as Russia suffers from high tobacco-related male mortality (see the second map on the left).













Alcohol_consumption_GC_mapThe situation with alcohol consumption is hardly much better, with figures in the highest category, as can be seen from my map on the left. While residents of several Western European countries—particularly, Ireland and France—also consume significant amounts of alcohol, there is a sharp contrast between Western and Eastern European countries (the latter includes Russia) in the rates of alcohol-attributable deaths. While it is true that the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths are found in countries that heavily consume distilled spirits (as is true in Russia, whose drink of choice is vodka), the type of drink alone does not explain the lethality of alcohol consumption. According to the WHO report, it is not only alcohol_deaths_mapwhat and how much people drink, but also how they drink that matters, as reflected in the organization’s “Patterns of Drinking Score (PDS). The PDS is “based on an array of drinking attributes, which are weighted differentially in order to provide the PDS on a scale from 1 to 5”; the attributes include the usual quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion; festive drinking; proportion of drinking events, when drinkers get drunk; proportion of drinkers, who drink daily or nearly daily; drinking with meals and drinking in public places. Russia’s PDS is among the highest in the world, similar to the figures for Ukraine, Kazakhstan,PDS_WHO_map and Mexico. As can be seen from a comparison of the last set of maps on the left, gender differences in Russian drinking patterns are sharp as well: men are much more likely to participate in “heavy episodic drinking” (i.e. binge drinking) than women. That too is a significant contributing factor for the short male life expectancy in Russia.














Besides deaths attributable to heavy smoking and drinking, many other major causes of mortality in Russia are indicative of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Russia ranks 5th in suicide deaths, with only Guyana, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and Swaziland having more “successful” suicides per capita. Also among the leading causes of death in Russia are stroke and coronary heart disease (CHD). Russia’s rate of deaths from stroke (195.8 per 100,000) is the 4th highest in the world, trailing only the Marshall Islands, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan, stroke_death_ranking_mapand is nearly 8 times higher than in the United States and nearly 10 times higher than in Israel. As for CHD, it kills even more Russians—296.7 per 100,000—placing the country at the 9th ranking, behind Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. Both stroke and CHD are heavily attributable to environmental causes and poor lifestyle choices.










fires_death_ranking_map Russia also ranks 19th on deaths from fires, with a rate of 6 deaths per 100,000 population, comparable to that of Malawi and Iraq. The figure of 45 deaths per 100,000 from injuries (other than those caused by violence, road accidents, falls, and fires)—comparable to that Swaziland—places Russia 5th in this ranking. Even more astonishing is its #1 ranking on deaths caused by poisonings, with a rate nearly four times that of the United States.















In contrast, Russia’s rates of death from incurable diseases most commonly diagnosed in older patients, like Alzheimer’s (dementia) or Parkinson’s, are quite low. The Alzheimer’s (dementia) death rate is only 1.6 per 100,000, compared to 34.9 in Finland, 25.1 in Iceland, and 24.8 in the U.S. The Parkinson’s death rate in Russia is 0.4 per 100,000, ten times less than in Iceland or Finland.***









These issues of health and lifestyle choices in Russia remain largely unaddressed in the public arena. As a result, some critics contend that the Sochi Olympics serve to distract the public from the real problems, not unlike the gladiator games at Rome’s Coliseum or the races in the nearby Circus Maximus (which could accommodate up to a quarter of Rome’s population at the time; nowadays TV broadcasts help reach an even greater audience at once). A similar point was made by Russian opposition writer and satirists Viktor Shenderovich, who wrote that the Sochi Olympics is one event in a “ceaseless … chain of patriotic festivals, accompanying Putin’s rule, which has little legitimacy—from the Eurovision though sport victories to the … 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia” (translation mine). The desire of the Russian public itself to be distracted by a joyful festival, no matter what lies behind it, is also aptly described by another opposition writer Lev Rubinstein:

“Let us alone with your Gulag! Enough already about the poor and the homeless! We are sick of your beaten and injured [activists]! ‘nough said about your … sick children, about the Homeric scope of thievery, about despotism and oppression, about all that! We know! But enough! We cannot do anything about it. That’s why we want a festival! We want the Olympic torch and rings…” (translation mine)

Rubinstein, not surprisingly, has been accused of lacking patriotism, while the article by Shenderovich triggered an even harsher reaction from both Russian government-sponsored media and some Western pundits (chiefly for his “in passing” comparison between the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Games in Berlin, which provoked some to label him a “fascist”).**** Other journalists and activists protesting the non-recognition of the Circassian genocide, the environmental impact of the Olympics, or other Sochi-related issues have been prohibited from going to Sochi, arrested, or even jailed. Yet another journalist, American David Satter—who was hounded by the KGB during the Cold War—was declared persona non grata in Russia without any official reason, the first such act since the end of the Soviet Union. Satter himself called this “an admission that the system under President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate free speech, even in the case of foreign correspondents”. The crackdown on the Russian opposition media also led to the taking off the air of TV Rain (in Russian Дождь), Russia’s only independent, privately owned television channel, whose audience consists chiefly of educated, liberal-minded Russians who have become disenchanted with mainstream television.

The curtailment of the freedom of the press in Russia is reflected in the Index published annually by Journalists Without Borders. As will be discussed in my forthcoming posts, Russia’s standing on this index in the past few years—particularly since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012—has been characterized as being in a “difficult situation”. In the 2013 Index, Russia occupied the 148th position, which it retains in the recently published 2014 Index). It thus finds itself in the same category as Afghanistan (128th) and Burma (Myanmar) (151st). But Burma’s and Afghanistan’s ranking has improved, while Russia sank in the Index between 2012 and 2013. The authors of the Index cite Russia’s continuing failure to punish or even charge those who have murdered or attacked journalists. For example, the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya—a staunch critic of Putin and his war in Chechnya—remains unsolved; some analysts claim that FSB (Federal Security Service) was responsible for her assassination.

Given these facts, I must agree with Satter’s assessment that “Russians need access to truthful information—which, given the censorship of Russian media, foreign sources are best able to provide”. But given the failure of the mainstream media to provide comprehensive information on such issues as the plight of the Circassians, I feel an even greater need to do so.



* The world’s “pole of cold” is also located in Russia, close to Verkhoyansk in Siberia, where the average January high temperature is -44.9 F (-42.7 C).

**Unless otherwise indicated, the data on causes of death below comes from the website, based on “the most recent data from these primary sources: WHO, World Bank, UNESCO, CIA and individual country databases for global health and causes of death”, supplemented by the “CDC, NIH and individual state and county databases for verification and supplementation for USA data”.

*** The rate of death from Parkinson’s is the highest in Kiribati, 13.8 per 100,000. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 3.4.

**** Unlike Shenderovich, who compared the 2014 Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Games in Berlin, but made no direct parallel between Putin and Hitler, Elizabeth Dunn, writing in Savage Minds, said: “Like Hitler at the 1936 Olympic games, Putin hopes to use the Olympic moment to showcase his grip on power.”


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