The decades since the collapse of the USSR are the longest period of depopulation in Russian history, and the first peacetime loss of that scale anywhere in the world. Booze, violence, obesity, and poor standard of living alone don't account for the mortality either.
There are other parts of Eastern Europe where they drink more than Russians, Russians aren't as fat as other Europeans, and their standard of living isn't on a scale with other countries with the same level of mortality — countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Yemen. Indeed, Russian men have a shorter life expectancy than men in Ethiopia, Gambia, and Somalia, and it's getting shorter.
For Eberstadt, who is seeking an explanation for Russia's half-century-long period of demographic regress rather than simply the mortality crisis of the 1990s, the issue of mental health also furnishes a kind of answer. While he suggests that more research is needed to prove the link, he finds that "a relationship does exist" between the mortality mystery and the psychological well-being of Russians:
Suffice it to say we would never expect to find premature mortality on the Russian scale in a society with Russia's present income and educational profiles and typically Western readings on trust, happiness, radius of voluntary association, and other factors adduced to represent social capital.
Another major clue to the psychological nature of the Russian disease is the fact that the two brief breaks in the downward spiral coincided not with periods of greater prosperity but with periods, for lack of a more data-driven description, of greater hope. The Khrushchev era, with its post-Stalin political liberalization and intensive housing construction, inspired Russians to go on living. The Gorbachev period of glasnost and revival inspired them to have babies as well
The Dying Russians [Masha Gessen/New York Review of Books]
(Image: 2008 08 13 – 2048-2049 – Kyiv – Alley of the Hero Cities, Bossi, CC-BY-SA)