As is being made increasingly clear in the furious debate over Brexit, there is essentially no agreement over precisely what constitute “European values”. People on both sides of the EU debate claim, for themselves and their supporters, ownership of concepts like tolerance, democracy and openness.
There are, of course, no objectively right or wrong answers about what precisely constitutes “Europe”. How one answers the referendum question on June 23, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” is almost entirely dependent on subjective, personal beliefs. Given the extreme intensity of the emotions at stake, people very infrequently change their position.
But what isn’t up for debate, what is in fact a readily answerable question, is how Europeans (that is, residents of EU member states) live their lives. How long do they live, on average? How many children do they have? How often do they die in accidents? Or from suicide? How frequently do they have abortions? Or marry? Or get divorced?
Where debates about “values” quickly become abstract, answers to the above questions are pleasingly concrete. Europe’s death rate isn’t some unknowable mystery; it is something that can be ascertained quite easily using the appropriate statistical database.
It’s not exactly a secret that Russia’s political system and its broader economy are in rather rough shape at the moment. There’s some hope that “Plan K” – a third big reform effort headed by ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin – could provide a modest stimulus to the economy, but the political system is ossifying almost in real time.
What is even less controversial than that rather pessimistic overview is that Russia’s tentative movement towards Europe (a movement that, even at its most enthusiastic under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, was long on rhetoric and short on accomplishments) has come screeching to a halt. The Russian government loudly and proudly proclaims its distinctiveness from, and superiority to, Europe, and regularly lambasts the EU for various real and imagined sins. One has to go back all the way to the pre-Glasnost days to find a time that Europe and Russia felt more politically distant.
Yet at the same time statistics show that Russians are leading lives that, in many important respects, are more and more similar to those of their European counterparts. Consider, for example, the rapid convergence of several important indicators including the abortion rate, the suicide rate, the murder rate and the infant mortality rate, seen here below.
As I hope the graphs demonstrate, a decade or two ago Russians were living in a totally different universe. The rates of death from various kinds of social ills were so much higher as to be essentially incomparable. However, quietly and with little fanfare Russia has seen significant improvements, which have not abated since the start of the economic slowdown at the end of 2014. Indeed, in early 2016 the evidence suggests that improvements to Russian public health have actually accelerated, with overall mortality plunging by around 5%.
Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done. The murder rate, in particular, is still a lot higher than it is in Europe. But the differences are increasingly differences of degree, not of kind. The suicide rate, for example, is currently about 76% higher in Russia than in the EU. That sounds absolutely terrible until you consider that, back in 2001, the Russian suicide rate was 340% of the EU’s.
Are these charts the definitive, final answer to the question of where Russia is heading? No, of course not. While important, the above are simply a small sampling of indicators from large, complex and sometimes unwieldy datasets. There are other indicators that paint a somewhat less rosy picture.
But, from my perspective, the information above is highly suggestive in part because it so flatly contradicts the idea that Russia and Europe are ever more rapidly growing apart, or that Russia is somehow in the midst of a wide-ranging social collapse. There’s a lot more to life than politics, and in lots of very important, meaningful and measurable ways, Russians are living healthier, more stable and more predictable lives like their European cousins.
Mark Adomanis is a Wharton MBA student by day, Russian analyst by night. Follow him on @MarkAdomanis