Life: When will Russians live as long as Brazilians?

Posted June 9th, 2011 at 6:44 am (UTC+0)

When will Russian men live as long as Brazilian men?

Brazilians, smoking less and exercising more, are living at least a decade longer than Russians. Soccer, volleyball and swimming are the sports on Rio's Ipanema beach. Reuters/Sergio Maraes

A Russian baby boy born today can expect to live 59 years and four months. That is two months longer than a baby boy born in Haiti.

By contrast, a boy born in Brazil can expect to enjoy almost an extra decade of life – for a total of 68 years and 11 months.

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is now at the bottom of the BRICs, the economic group that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China.

An Indian baby boy’s life expectancy, for example, is 67 years six months.

A Chinese baby boy’s life expectancy is 71 years and seven months.

I was back in Brazil recently, after a 16 year absence.

That 16-year gap sharply highlighted how Brazil’s health indicators had leapt ahead, while Russian indicators had fallen back.

Take Saturday night at Pacha, a Florianopolis nightclub hopping with 1,000 young people, including my three college student sons.
On entering, I wrestled with a strange word “chapelaria” – vaguely familiar from a different century. It meant hat check. In modern, Brazil this is where guys and their dates check their motorcycle helmets. Starting 1997, it is obligatory for everyone on a motorcycle to wear a helmet. In Russia, helmet and seatbelt laws are still widely seen as infringements on personal freedoms. Check one for Brazilian male longevity rates.

Inside Pacha, the awful techno music and prima donna Australian DJ were compensated by skimpy female attire – and clean air. In 2009, Brazil’s three largest states banned smoking in enclosed public areas – legalese for what Brazilians call bars and restaurants. Many major cities, like Florianopolis, a booming resort and high tech capital, followed suit. At Pacha, the only smoking took place on the outdoor terraces, under the winter stars of the Southern hemisphere.

When I left Brazil, in 1995, 35 percent of Brazilian adults smoked. Today, 15 percent do. About 20 percent of Brazilian men smoke. Compare that to Russia, where surveys indicate about 70 percent of men smoke. Check two for Brazilian longevity rates.

On leaving Pacha at 5 a.m. (son James’ request), I was struck by the traffic. A long line of late model cars streamed down a highway for breakfast beach parties (some things never change in Brazil). Had this been Rio in the 1980s, half of the cars would have been crossing the double yellow line, flashing lights, and blowing horns. This time, no one tried to pass, no one speeded, and everyone in front seats seemed to wearing seat belts. In recent years, Brazil has installed thousands of highway radar checks, backed up by a computerized point system to penalize bad drivers.

The result: Brazil has a highway fatality rate of 18.3 per 100,000 inhabitants per year, well below Russia’s rate of 25.2. Check three for male longevity rates.

The impact of the post-Soviet privatization of Russia’s health system can be everywhere. Currently, 30 percent of male military draftees are rejected for poor health. Russian athletes increasingly fare poorly in international competitions. Although Russia has the world’s largest population living in snow and ice zones, Russia did not place among the top 10 nations for gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Last month, at the International Ice Hockey Championship in Slovakia, Russia did not even win a bronze.

Optimism has long been the cliché trait of Brazilians. Brazil is the country of the future – and (the joke went) always will. But on my return to Brazil, I picked up something I had not heard of before: lots of Brazilians are moving back from the U.S. to Brazil, where they see more economic opportunity.

Pessimism hangs over many Russians. Since the economic crisis of fall 2008, about 1.25 million Russians are estimated to have emigrated, a number comparable to the exodus immediately after the October, 1917 revolution.

In Russia, where male life expectancy has fallen below 60 years, this fisherman is a survivor. He drinks hot tea while fishing on the ice of Seliger lake next to his horse drawn sledge near the village of Priozernaya. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Just as voting with one’s feet is a statement on faith in the future, having babies is another statement on belief in the future.

In 1991, when communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation had 148.6 million people, about 2 million people more than Brazil.

In the 20 years since, Russia’s population has shrunk by 4 percent or 6 million. Brazil’s population has increased by 30 percent – or 44 million people, to 192 million today.

And, as noted at the outset, these new Brazilians are expected to live longer, healthier lives than Russians.

Many Russians look down on Brazil as an upstart nation.

Maybe an intra-BRIC health check can serve as a reality check.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

18 responses to “Life: When will Russians live as long as Brazilians?”

  1. Gennady says:

    Excellent article.
    While the Kremlin plays its “political” games deciding who will be the next president, Russians are simply dying out.
    With billions $ in oil and gas revenues the Kremlin has neither time nor skills, nor ideas to consider the problem.
    IMHO, there are many reasons why health care in the country is horrible.
    1. The main is unprofessional guidance. What can one expect of Health minister being an accountant by profession and publicly denouncing prominent medical professor for his concerns? There are no professionals left in health care administration.
    2. 10-20% of billions ruble spending in health care is swindled and stolen by roll-backs on unneeded equipment and improvements. Bribery is beyond anybody’s imagination. Money is extorted. Being admitted to a hospital anyone will die unless he pays to a nurse for coming up.
    3. Medicines are of poor quality by exorbitant prices.
    4. Medical laboratories are of XIX century standards
    5. Horrific state of Russian hospitals. The last high-profile example is when in a FSB-controlled hospital after surgery dies President of a friendly country at the age about 60. Could he have lived until the end of his term in office if he hadn’t been operated on? Is diagnosis of his cancer a sort of emergency and a reason for postoperative death? So, what one could expect while being an ordinary citizen in an ordinary hospital?
    6. To meet a drunken doctor in a hospital is sooner the rule rather than an exception.
    7. Even the easiest way to promote health-knowledge among fellow citizens is heavily censored. I mean miserably looking Russian Wikipedia – one hardly will find a contemporary page on any health issue promoting healthy way of life.
    8. Although they publicly announce vacancies in hospitals and clinics and staff shortage, one hardly can be employed. I personally being a MD with a science degree can’t find employment for years.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience
    I noticed that when the preliminary census results came out in April, the Kremlin quickly buried them
    It is not a great reelection campaign point: the population got smaller and less healthy during my Presidency…
    Jim Brooke

  3. Pyotr says:

    James, the article is good though half of it concerning Russia is very well known to me unfortunately. Here is some personal statistics of deathes of people with whom I personally was acquainted or their relatives. These deathes have happened during some recent years. A woman 49 yo(heart attack), man 54(some liver desease), man 64 years old(alcohol, heart failer), my former classmates, woman 25(narcotics) and man 32(alcohol abuse, overweight, heart failer).
    Though health care is formally free, to get seriously ill in Russia is a family disaster. You must pay for everything to avoid endless waiting lines and neglect in the state hospitals. And even money don’t guarantee you anything. Perhaps very big money do I don’t know. Personally I’ve decided if I get ill I will never go to doctors because I don’t believe they can actually help. I see how patients are treated now and I do not want to go through all the humiliation myself.
    And you absolutely right the census has never been even mentioned in the state mass media since it had been officially over as though it had never been taken. This is the main trait of Putin – very, very bad memory of facts and given promises if they are not benificial for his personal image.
    Huge amounts of money are spent by central and local governments to build new big sport buildings for professional hockey and football teams, to buy new players abroad, but nothing is spent to promote sports or healthy life styles among population and especially kids. Old soviet mass sport infrastructure for children and amateurs in villages and towns is destroyed. People spend their spare times drinking or watching TV. Most people have unlearned how to enjoy life, they expect it to become worse and worse with years to come, so there is no sence in sports or any healthy activity for them.
    When the communism collapsed in 90s I was a schoolboy. I hoped that Russia would become a fully fledged democratic country in 10-20 years. But after the second reelection of Putin the thought of emmigration began itching my mind. Now I am ready to emigrate at any moment if I had a possibility, but I have two sons of young ages, and that is what is keeping me here, I must be near for I am responsible for their upbringing and emmigration of all my family would take a long time. From the other side I am afraid they will become a cannon fodder for this regime. I was a fool to believe that Russia has future. It has not. There always will be Ivan-the-Terribles, Rasputins, Lenins, Stalins, Putins and so on. Call me a russofobe, I’ve stopped believing in Russian people.

  4. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    thanks — that is a depressing, but probably realistic outlook
    I think of all the Pioneer camps that everyone made fun of in the 1990s — but at least they brought kids in the countryside for summer months at minimal cost —
    now that they have been ‘privatised’ huge numbers of kids spend their summers in front of TVs or playing video games — no progress there!

  5. Vadim Massalskiy says:


    thank you for the interesting and reasoned comparison.

  6. Sergey says:

    As always.
    All Russian is bad.
    All non-Russian is good.
    So typical of the Anglosaxes.

  7. Vadim Massalskiy says:

    Sergey, Braziliens are not Anglosaxes. 🙂

    • Sergey says:

      Vadim! It was said about the author of the article who has to live in the country which he doesn`t like.

  8. zundere says:

    first, life expectancy is now 62, not 59 (not great either, but it’s improving, and – inaccuracy ALWAYS not in Russia’s favour cannot be a coincidence). Second, the sources of premature mortality are 1) alcohol (welcome to the world of democracy – the Russian Gov’t can’t just crack down on alcohol abuse as it will lose votes. Gorby’s campaign against vodka was great for national health but contributed to his downfall) 2) drugs – thank you NATO for eradicating Afghan heroin SO well! Third – the Russian population is not falling but growing for the last 2 yrs, mainly due to migration. Russia is world’s second most attractive country for immigrants after USA – this is UN data.

  9. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Don’t jump to conclusions — there are things I like about Russia, and there are things that I don’t like.
    I find it sad that health standards have fallen so low that Russians can only hope to catch up with Indians and Chinese.

  10. Gennady says:

    FSB and its activists [Sergey]

    are engaged in silencing even foreign reporters with hard facts

    on the issue of self evident ineffectiveness of government’s actions on health care and combating depopulation of Russia.

    The gagging of all Russian citizens and censoring of vast expanses of Internet isn’t enough for them.

    • Sergey says:

      Dear Gennady!
      My grandgrandmother lived 93 years.
      No government helped her to live so long.
      Her pension was 20 roubles (30 $ dollars) a month.
      Lenin, Stalin, the american presidents and other rascals even didn`t know of her.
      She lived long because she fasted on a regular way according to the traditions of the Russian orthodox church, ate little, prayed several times a day and was very good.
      Do the same @ you will live long.
      Because for 90% the long life is a result of the personal efforts rather than the governmental measures.
      Personally I do the Tibetan exercises twice a day @ fast one day a week , buy the fruits @ never think the government should save me. I recommend the same to all the happy Brasilians and unlucky Russians.

      Let your comments about me @ FSB be on you.
      The ill imagination is uncurable.
      By the way, a classmate of mine works in the FSB.
      I haven`t seen him for eternity, but I know he is a decent man.
      May be, you work for the CIA yourself? They pay well 🙂

  11. Gennady says:

    To sum up Sergey’s recipe for 90% health improvement for The Russians:

    -don’t rely on efforts of FSB-led government in health-care and pensions,
    -fast every week,
    -eat little,
    -pray several times a day,
    -buy the fruit,
    -do the Tibetan exercises,
    -apply for recruitment by the CIA for good pay.

    Thank you. You were most helpful

    • Sergey says:

      The last recommendation is only for you.
      Being the jobless looser you hate your country for that?

      Only the incompetent foreigners can trust to your FSB mantra.
      If you dislike Putin, vote for somebody else.

      I can see the whole cluster of the modern clinics which was built up in Cheboksary the last years. Is it not a progress? In our region the new born baby mortality dropped down and is on the level of the best european indices. Why? The government supported the local initiatives. Chuvashia wants to become the regional medical center and the government support such intentions.

      As for Brazil… I think we should take the best world experience but Brazil is not in the priority.

  12. Gennady says:

    To update Sergey’s recipe for 90% health improvement for The Russians:
    – build cluster of modern clinics,
    – drop down baby’s mortality rate.

    Now seriously. Once again you gave misleading or layman’s information.

    1.You want the world to be blinded by white gowns doctors in the “modern”clinics you’ve mentioned have on. You missed that the clinics have specific specialization. They claim to cure syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in one shot; they cure men’s importance, they fix women’s boobs, beatify appearance. And that’s all. No clinics on cardio-vascular diseases-main killer and other priorities.
    2.What does mean “dropping down mortality rate in a city” with depopulation of the largest country of the world?

  13. Pyotr says:

    Sergey wrote “If you dislike Putin, vote for somebody else.” I had a really good laugh reading this. Thank you for this brilliant piece of the kgb humor. They say laughing extends life, so I hope it’ll extend mine to compencate the time I wasted on reading your fsb gibberish.
    Sergey wrote “Being the jobless looser you hate your country for that?” Putin with his friends makes us all loosers because under his rule we all, even those who concider themselves successful, gradually lose our freedoms and rights, our health and our future as a civilised country. we are steadily being turned into a slave personnel of natural resources drill and transport companies owned by a bunch of swindlers from putin’s “team”. Putin will never let go of Russia, not because he is greedy or something, he understands that after he is ousted he will have to go to jail for creating the most corrupted political system even for Russia.

  14. Sergey says:

    You both are not better than Putin.
    He can`t dream @ you can`t dream.
    What good can come from the people who can`t dream?
    All your comments are the concentration of the deep pessimism.
    What good can come from the pessimistic people?
    The pessimism is a decease of spirit, a mistake of all life.
    Do you know why you are here?
    In the Runet such crying would be not interesting.
    And here you can practice your English.
    It is not the criticism that creates the worlds.
    Think about such notions as creation, making, building, self-improvement, harmony.
    Otherwise what do you live for?

  15. Pyotr says:

    What I say is not a pessimism, it is realism. Optimism is good when its consequences are insignificant. Do you really want a captain of a plane with you aboard be optimistic and choose not to land on the nearest airport when one of the engines failes and a thunderstorm ahead?



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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