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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dying Without Ideology

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In 1988, when the Soviet Union first started to open up, I took my American-born wife to the Donskoye Cemetery in Moscow, then known as the Crematorium. This is where my grandparents are buried, along with other members of the Soviet middle class and intelligentsia. Many are ethnically Jewish, having migrated to Moscow from the Pale of Settlement after the Revolution.

Unable to read the Cyrillic on the headstones, my wife passed the time by computing dates. To her horror, she found that the average age of the diseased was 60 to 65. It so happens that her own roots are from the same genetic stock -- except her grandparents went to New York, not Moscow. Her great-aunts and uncles were notoriously long-living, surviving well into their 90s. There are many reasons why those generations of Soviets lived such short lives, including the shocks of revolution, war and Stalinist repression. Their diets were poor and they smoked and drank to excess. However, a friend of mine, a U.S.-trained cardiologist, believes that the Soviet system always intended to keep its citizens' lives nasty, brutish and short.

Look at the extremely low retirement age in the Soviet Union: 55 for women and 60 for men. In skilled professions, training takes a long time and the peak productive age comes later in life. Soviet society was clearly geared to manual laborers, those who are sucked dry quickly by working the coal seam and pouring concrete. For a society straining to build communism, supporting this human detritus was a waste of resources. The Soviet labor ethos, as expressed in film, literature and other forms of propaganda, encouraged you to burn up on the job, not to retire. In reality, the elderly perished of a common malaise, uselessness. Their time would come around 55 to 60 for men and 60 to 65 for women: after the grandson no longer has to be picked up from school and starts needing Grandma's koiko-mesto, or sleeping space, at the communal apartment.

Historically, longevity has never been a desirable virtue. In Greek mythology, an unusually long lifespan was a curse. For early Christians, earthly existence was a trial, so the sooner it was over with the better. Various romantic ideologies from the Carbonari to Islamic militants despised long comfortable lives and dreamed instead of dying young for whatever cause they espoused.

It is not surprising that obsession with longevity corresponded with the phenomenon described by American writer Francis Fukuyama as the "death of ideology." In the absence of transcendent goals, values or ideals, Western societies have been turning increasingly materialistic, providing creature comforts to their members as well as long, healthy lives. Life expectancy in the West continues to climb steadily, now measuring around 80 years.

But not in Russia. Although it no longer encourages its citizens to die for the common good, Russia still lags far behind Western Europe in terms of life expectancy. Worse, political turmoil, crime, decaying social and physical infrastructure and permissiveness have pared Russia's life expectancy further. A recent World Bank report puts life expectancy for Russian males at just 58 years, but misses a division that now exists in Russia. Most wealthy entrepreneurs and bureaucrats are every bit as careful of their lungs, livers and hearts as their Western counterparts. The same is true of the nascent Russian urban middle class, which is less interested in chain smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and other forms of destructive behavior.

The scary figures come from the silent lower middle-class majority. They are the ones who keep dropping dead at the prime of life, failing to contribute to society, and leaving behind penniless widows and orphans. Elsewhere, this would have been seen as a national tragedy and a tremendous waste of national resources. In Russia, for all its wealth, their well-being is of no more interest than it was in the old Soviet Union. This attitude, more than anything else, is what still divides Russia from the West.

Alexei Bayer, a former Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.