What does history teach us about the dynamics of collapse? Almost 30 years ago, the Soviet Union was falling apart. In our previous column, we saw, contrary to popular belief, that wildlife declined during the decade of political and social chaos that followed the fall of the Wall. But what about humans?
For centuries, historians and archaeologists have tried to understand the decline and fall of societies, dynasties, kingdoms, empires or states. They explore the past to shed light on our present and glimpse a future. Thus the Greek historian Polybius (c.-200‑c.-118) described the « anacyclose », a cyclical theory of the succession of political regimes; Montesquieu (1689–1755) discussed the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire; or more recently, Dmitry Orlov (1962), a Russian-American engineer and writer well known to collapsologists, analysed the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union(1).
The USSR was dissolved on December 26, 1991 in a « strangely peaceful atmosphere, without Kalashnikov shots or missile threats »(2), the day after Gorbachev’s resignation as President of the Union. If this date marks the day of its final demise, historians agree that its decline actually began in the 1970s, and that events accelerated abruptly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. 25 months later, the USSR was no more. For some, freedom, democracy and capitalism were triumphant. For others, financial, economic and political collapses were just beginning…
The shock wave affected the populations of the fifteen countries of the former Union with different intensities. The political collapse (stage 3 on the Orlov scale) that shook Moscow was the epicenter. But the economic collapse (stage 2) in the first half of the 1990s had a considerable impact on Georgia (-233% for GDP per capita) or Armenia (-419% for energy consumption per capita), while the impact was smaller in Uzbekistan (-21% for GDP) or Latvia (-56% for energy)(3).
All countries have suffered the consequences of these collapses: hyperinflation, massive layoffs, Blackouts, confusion, the emergence of mafias, Russian oligarchs, dictators and autocratic governments, as in Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; civil wars in Georgia and Tajikistan; endemic corruption in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan; and extreme poverty in Moldova and Armenia.
This financial, economic and political turmoil has not been without consequences for the people. An entire generation has been marked by wide fluctuations in available resources and increasing uncertainty in all facets of life(4).
From the mid-1980s onwards, birth rates fell overall. Mortality rates, on the other hand, rose sharply in the early 1990s, causing a negative natural balance (migration is not counted) which only returned to zero in 2012! This
The collapse period was also characterized by an accelerated decline in life expectancy. For example, in Russia, between 1992 and 1994, men lost more than 6 years (from 63.8 to 57.7 years) and women more than 3 years (from 74.4 to 71.2 years). The causes? Increased stress, a failing health care system, infectious diseases, suicides, homicides, as well as traffic accidents and excessive alcohol consumption, especially in Russia for adolescents and young adults.
The suicide rate of men aged 50–60, which rose sharply after 1992, was found to be strongly correlated with the state of the economy (GDP). For women, it was found to be closely related to alcohol consumption. Alcoholism therefore played a major role in this social and health chaos, especially for people who were not solidly supported psychologically by their entourage. The number of homicides tripled between 1988 and 1994 and is still among the highest in the world. 90% of murderers are men, often under the influence of alcohol, and 30% of their victims are women, often raped.
With respect to nutrition, the researchers note no significant differences in the number of calories ingested by children and the majority of adults, suggesting that households maintained sufficient caloric intake during the crisis years, likely due to their small self-production capacities. However, as household financial resources dwindled, protein (calorie quality) and fat (taste) were sacrificed in favor of cheaper meals. On the other hand, caloric intake decreased by about 10% and protein intake by 5–10% among pensioners who were no longer receiving their pensions.
How resilient have these countries been over the years? From the 2000s onwards, the GDP of most post-Soviet states gradually returned to a level higher than in 1991. Today, only Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to have a GDP significantly lower than in 1991.
However, nearly three decades after the end of the Soviet Union, mortality rates for the majority of the population remained significantly higher than in Western Europe(5). Excessive alcohol use, disease, and declining quality and funding of health care systems are the main factors explaining this difference.
What lessons can be drawn from the case of the former USSR?
1. The consequences of a collapse on populations are highly variable, and depend on each regional context (culture, geography, political regime, etc.). Let’s see it as a very complex mosaic!
2. A collapse does not necessarily imply the disappearance of a population (as on Easter Island), but can nevertheless cause serious damage whose after-effects may persist long after the initial shock.
3. Local resilience (community, family) can be achieved through food and energy autonomy, but also through a stable psychological and emotional environment . Thus, if we are to prepare for a chain of disasters in our regions, we might as well start with these two pillars. Either way, it can’t hurt.
Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens
- D. Orlov, Reinventing Collapse, The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, New Society Publishers, 2011.
- L. de Meaux, « La fin de l’URSS ou la seconde mort de l’empire Russe » in La fin des empires (P. Gueniffey & T. Lentz), Ed. Perrin, 2016, p.440.
- Selon les données statistiques de la Banque Mondiale http://data.worldbank.org .
- La littérature scientifique regorge d’études sur la santé des populations de cette époque. Pour une revue, voir S. Stillman,« Health and nutrition in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during the decade of transition: A review of the literature », Economics & Human Biology, vol. 4, n°1, 2006, pp. 104–146.
- B. Rechel et al., « Health and health systems in the Commonwealth of Independent States », The Lancet, vol. 381, n°9872, 2013,pp. 1145–1155.