The Boris Bombshell. Two Years Later. Still a Dud.

The two dunces.

The two dunces.

During the past two years, Russian “dissident” liberals Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov have produced a frankly maniacal quantity of so-called “Independent Expert Reports” (there are now seven of them) that purport to debunk the “persistent myths imposed by official [Kremlin] propaganda”. The authors say that their latest exegesis, melodramatically entitled “Putin. The Results. 10 Years” and at 48 pages one of their shorter works, will have a print run of one million copies and will be distributed throughout Russia’s regions. This latest iteration of Nemtsov’s anti-Putin screed differs little in substance from the first, which was pilloried by Sean Guillory in Nemtsov’s White Paper: Bombshell or Dud?

Though Sean castigated the “dynamic duo” for their middle-class chauvinism, neoliberal elitism and poverty of proposed solutions, even he was far too kind in granting them the benefit of the doubt on their “litany of statistics, examples, and facts” showing that Russia had been brought to the brink of collapse by Putin (of course Russia was pushed well past that brink under Yeltsin, when Nemtsov reached his political apogee; but I digress). Now I hadn’t previously read any of Nemtsov and Co.’s earlier scribblings, but their introduction to this latest report raised my suspicions. Apparently, one myth peddled by Kremlin propagandists is that under Putin, Russians began to “give birth more and die less”. Of course, anyone with the slightest familiarity with Russian demography knows this is either a howler or a mendacious lie. If these guys can’t be relied on to get simple facts right, facts which can be looked up on the Internet within seconds, what basis is there to trust them on anything else they have to say? So I decided to sneak a peek at Nemtsov’s chapter on Russia’s demography… and discovered a truly epic mountain of red herrings, statistical manipulation and outright lies worthy of a Brezhnev-era Goskomstat apparatchik.

Nemtsov’s Bomb Defused

The chapter in question is entitled “A Dying Country”… not only is it a kitschy trope, but one that is no longer really valid as Russia saw positive population growth in 2009. But whatever. The choice of title fades into irrelevance in comparison with what comes next.

1. According to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris, one of the main tenets of the “Putinist mythology” concerns Russia’s recent demographic progress, in stark contrast to the “1990’s national extinction”. The authors then invite us to look at the “facts”, which apparently look something like the graph below.

[My translation of Nemtsov’s graph (the “Yeltsin” and “Putin” insertions were my own, but otherwise it is unchanged). Click to enlarge.]

Where to start? First, the giant elephant in the room that our democracy crusaders “forgot” to mention was that immigration into the Russian Federation was far higher in the 1990’s than it was during the Putin period. From 1992-1999, Russia received a one-off 3.6mn influx of net migrants, the vast majority of them ethnic Russians repatriating from the other former Soviet republics. During the 2000-2009 period, Russia received just 1.5mn net migrants. This single factor of declining net immigration would account for almost two thirds, or 2.1mn out of 3.4mn, of the “extra” population decline under Putin.

Second, drawing any conclusions just from a straightforward calculation of Russia’s average yearly population decline under Yeltsin and Putin is an exercise in complete absurdity, given that Yeltsin’s early years were influenced by the (relatively) low Soviet mortality rates and high fertility rates, while Putin’s were influenced by the (relatively) high mortality rates and “lowest-low” fertility rates of the Yeltsin legacy. A more nuanced analysis would:

  • Identify defining trends instead of using blanket averages: a transition to fullblown “hyper-mortality” by 1994, a series of peaks and dips under a Yeltsin and early Putin administration that couldn’t care less for the nation’s demography, and concrete improvements after 2005 when the state began to take these issues seriously.
  • Take into account Russia’s aging population (which places upwards pressure on mortality rates over time), and hence use a statistic that is independent of the population age structure: life expectancy, which at 69 years in 2009 was higher than at any time during the Yeltsin period, when it fell from 68 years in 1992 to 65 years by 2000.

Third, note that the vertical axis Nemtsov uses stretches from just 140mn to 150mn people, giving the impression (to the passing eye) that Russia’s population completely collapsed under Putin and most likely continues to retreat into oblivion (whereas a year by year graph would show population decline flattening out during the past 2 years). This is of course done on purpose to elicit a negative emotional reaction.

2. The next paragraph discusses “hyper-mortality” – the fact that Russia’s mortality rates are abnormally high for an industrialized country at peace. This is a major problem I have written about at length, though since it has been metastasizing since as far back as the mid-1960’s what it has to do with Putin must remain a mystery. Yet even here Nemtsov can’t refrain from “embellishing” an already depressing picture. He does this by citing Russia’s mortality and fertility statistics from the CIA, whose demographic stats on Russia paint a bleaker picture than those produced by Rosstat, the Russian statistical agency.

Let me explain. As a rule, only national statistics services have the manpower and regulatory resources to compile comprehensive demographic (economic, etc) statistics on their own countries. The stats you see from international institutions like the World Health Organization are mostly drawn and aggregated from them. Same goes for the CIA on demography, except that since it rarely brings its figures into “sync” with updated ones produced by the national statistics agencies, most of its demographic data is the result of inhouse projections of what the demographic situation might be given a set of increasingly obsolete past assumptions instead of current measures. Hence, whereas Nemtsov claims that Russia has a birth rate of 11/1000 and a death rate of 15/1000 based on July 2009 CIA figures, the real numbers for that year were a birth rate of 12.4/1000 and a death rate of 14.2/1000. Ultimately, this is a fairly minor point, but it does illustrate how Nemtsov is very selective about the data he uses (he has no problems with citing Rosstat on numerous other occasions).

3. The authors begin showing their reactionary colors when they come to dissing Russia’s rising natality. Granted, not quite as in your face as in their first Report, but the ass is still showing. This section is worth translating in full.

Excessively rapid fertility growth in a non-affluent country, especially amongst the lumpenized segment of the population (which are receiving pro-natality stimuli thanks to Putinist measures such as “maternal capital”[20]), could lead to negative consequences: a reduction in the standard of living, poor caretaking of the newborn, and high rates of illness amongst them.

In April 2008, the Health Minister Tatyana Golikova was forced to admit that this [fertility] increase was accompanied by an increase in infant mortality in 48 regions of the country.

[20] For “maternal capital” of 250,000 rubles [AK: today equivalent to $8,000], based on average housing costs it would have only been possible to buy 4-5 square meters of living space.

They’re really getting desperate, firing at every possible angle in the hope of hitting Putin, aren’t they?

First, forget the negative long-term consequences of the continuation of “lowest-low” fertility (seen up until 2006, hovering at 1.3 children per woman). Is Nemtsov really disconnected and foolish enough to believe that Russians will rally to his holier than thou middle-class chauvinism? Especially considering that most Russians have paternalistic views of government, believing that it should help the poorest members of society? Considering that many Russians complain that they want two children but can only afford one?

Second, the authors transparently try to give the (false) impression that Russia’s recent fertility spurt was accompanied by rising infant mortality through very selective quoting of Golikova. Was that really the case? Not at all. Data on infant deaths per 1,000 live births: in 1990 – 17.4; 2000 – 15.3; 2006 – 10.2; 2007 – 9.4; 2008 – 8.5; 2009 – 8.2; 2010 – still falling

4. Then we come to a rather banal history of Russia’s hypermortality with a generous serving of anti-Putin spin. I’ve translated a typical segment below and filled in what Nemtsov wants you to think on reading it.

The rise in Russia’s mortality began way back with Brezhnev, during the 1970’s [AK: actually from the mid-1960’s but whatever], and continued up until the mid-1990’s [AK: hence Yeltsin and the reformers can’t be blamed for any of this… according to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris]. In 1995, however, Russia’s mortality began to fall and in 1998 retreated below 2 million deaths per year [AK: 1) by “below 2 million deaths”, he means 1.99 million deaths – not kidding!, 2) the inconvenient truth that death rates began to soar again in 1999 during the last year of the Yeltsin Presidency – in the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis, which was enabled by the incessant stealing within Yeltsin’s inner circle (and happening to coincide with Nemtsov being Deputy Prime Minister!) – naturally goes unsaid].

But under Putin, the tendency towards a rise in mortality rates acquired a new strength, and reached a new peak of 2.37mn deaths in 2003 [AK: this at a time when Putin was still surrounded by Yeltsin’s “Family” cronies and occupied with consolidating a half-disintegrated state]. Lowering deaths back below 2 million still hasn’t been achieved [AK: but this is harder now that it was in 1998, since the Russian population in 2009 is now considerably older than it was back then!].

Look, if you really want to, it is just as easy to spin this the other way. Here’s an alternate narrative. The USSR was a healthy nation. Soviet mortality rates strongly increased under Gorbachev, thanks to the anti-alcohol campaign and the birthmark on his bald head (year: 1989, LE: 70 years). Then Yeltsin and his cabal of traitors undermined and collapsed the Soviet Union, resulting in a massive fall in life expectancy (year: 2003, LE: 65 years). However, heroic Putin rescued long-suffering Holy Rus’ from the Judeo-Dollar yoke in 2003 by attacking Khodorkovsky. Now everything is getting better because Putin kicks ass (year: 2010, LE: 70 years).

[Russia’s life expectancy – closely tied *not* to politicians, “shock therapy”, etc, but to alcohol affordability and consumption rates. In fact, perhaps one of the main healthcare achievements of the Putin era is that the correlation between (relatively) cheaper booze and higher mortality rates may have broken. Source: Rosstat data.]

Does the above sound kind of ridiculous? Not really any more so than Nemtsov’s narrative. His screed is the mirror image of what a fawning Kremlin sycophant would write.

5. Nemtsov proclaims in gloomy tones that Russia has a very high number of deaths from external causes, murders, suicides, alcohol poisoning, etc, the aim presumably being to present Putin as a bad ruler based on the ills of his kingdom. But what he doesn’t mention is that in recent years Russia’s mortality from “vices” (alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicide) has fallen back down to late Soviet levels and is now well below the peaks around 1994 and 2002-3.

[The drop in deaths from alcohol poisoning is probably the most encouraging indicator, because excessive alcohol consumption accounts for around a third of all Russian deaths (in the broad sense) and drives trends in homicides, accidents and suicides (in particular). Source: Rosstat.]

6. Nemtsov goes on to make another startling claim (to anyone remotely familiar with the situation on the ground).

Low quality healthcare remains a big problem [AK: certainly], and Putin didn’t manage to do anything about this during ten prosperous years [AK: wtf?]… Russia spends just 5.3% of its GDP on healthcare, like Morocco or Ecuador, in contrast to 9-11% in many countries of Western Europe.

Many, many people would disagree with him. E.g. the guys at The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

A vigorous anti-alcohol campaign, new road safety measures, and a programme of health awareness workshops for teenagers are among the positive signs 6 months after the Kremlin introduced a new 12-year health-care blueprint which identified the “formation of health as a priority in the social and spiritual values of Russian society” as a key task.

Even Nemtsov’s fellow liberal reformer Yegor Gaidar (as translated by Mark Adomanis):

In 2009, despite the economic crisis, expenditures on healthcare from the Federal budget grew 25% in nominal terms from 231.4 billion rubles to 289.5 billion rubles. Expenditures from the budgets of the subjects of the Russian Federation remained practically at the previous level: 518.7 billion rubles against 520.1 billion in 2008. Taking into account investments to obligatory medical insurance of the working population, state financing of healthcare grew in 2009 by 5.6% (2.9% in real terms) having reached 1.06 trillion rubles. This differentiates the situation in 2009 from the crisis in 1998* when state expenditures on healthcare and spending by the population on medicines and medical services all declined.

At the beginning of 2009 the government made a decision to continue the realization of the national project “Health” until 2012. The project’s financing still comes out of funds of the federal budget as well as off-budget funds: the Federal fund of obligatory medical insurance and the Fund of social insurance. Despite the economic crisis and the significant reduction in government income, expenditures on the national project not only weren’t subject to reduction, but grew by 20.2% in comparison with 2008. This attests to the real priority of this project in the government’s budget policy.

*But Kathryn Stoner-Weiss told me that Yeltsin defended Russians’ welfare better than Putin!!

7. Then a big sprinkling of statistics and anecdotes about trends in consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, and smoking. For once in this chapter I think Nemtsov makes a valid point about the Russian government’s overly cosy relations with the alcohol and cigarette lobbies, which have prevented or delayed the passage of needed legislation. Nonetheless, even here Nemtsov’s point is (politically) wrecked by the class hatred that he just can’t keep bottled in. Sean’s summary of Nemtsov’s position still applies:

The poor “drink more” and the wealthy live the “high life.” In contrast, the middle class is the archetype of healthy and productive living. “Moderate use of alcohol and a healthy lifestyle in general,” they write, “is the way of the middle class.”

Now there might well be research showing that this is the case, as Nemtsov claims. (He doesn’t provide a link or citation). But it certainly isn’t the kind of language that is going to get anything more than 5% of Russians fired up with puritanical bourgeois fervor.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s comparison of Russia’s 30,000 annual drug-related deaths to its (lower) losses during ten years of war in Afghanistan will surely be viewed as offensive and asinine by most Russians. There is a fundamental difference between the two in that people (by and large) make the choice to become drug addicts, whereas Soviet conscripts had little to no choice about being sent to the graveyard of empires. Incidentally, one of the reasons for the increased flow of heroin into Russia in recent years that Nemtsov decries so much is the US inability or unwillingness to control the growth of opium production in Afghanistan**… (But don’t forget that in the Russian liberal universe America is always right and if it isn’t then suck on it).

8. Nemtsov miscomprehends the French Paradox, saying that the reason the French lead long lives despite a high alcohol consumption rate is because they drink fine wines. (The real paradox has to do with their low rates of heart disease and high rates of saturated fats consumption)*. However, he is correct in his (one-line) suggestion, a rather obvious one, that incomes have to improve if Russians are to afford more expensive drinks.

His suggestion for cutting smoking rates? “It is necessary to implement the successful experience of the US and Western European countries that was accumulated over decades”. You don’t say, Sherlock?! While it is valid to say that Russia’s progress on this front has been on the slow side, it is not fair to imply, like Nemtsov does, that nothing is being done.

9. Now Nemtsov talks about depopulation and labor force decline without trying to distinguish between them.

Population decline has a long-term character. In the last few years and in the near future Russia will lose one million people of working age annually due to the high mortality rates and natural population aging. The loss of one million workers is equivalent to a fall in GDP of 1.5%, and a loss of revenues to the budget, which will lead to problems with paying for pensions and as a result to social stresses. Therefore, chronic depopulation threatens economic development and puts into question the future territorial integrity of the country.

First, Russia’s population has already returned to growth (or more accurately “stabilization”) in 2009, thanks to rising fertility and life expectancy. Second, declines in the working population are now inevitable, but Nemtsov curiously neglects to mention that this was made inevitable by the fertility collapse of the early 1990’s during the Yeltsin period! Nonetheless, he need not worry too much. According to the Rosstat medium scenario, the labor force will fall from 62% of the total population now… to a truly apocalyptic rather unremarkable 55% by 2030.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s mixing of depopulation and labor force decline is particularly disingenuous because each counteracts the other. If Russia’s population falls, this means it will have failed to raise its life expectancy or fertility rate, and hence its labor force will be higher as a percentage of the population. Paradoxically, if Russia sustainably stabilizes its population by improving people’s health and getting them to have more children, its labor force will shrink much faster as a share of the population for the very reason that this population will have more children and pensioners! (To illustrate this, the labor force in 2030 is at 57% of the population in Rosstat’s low scenario and at 54% in its high scenario).

10. Finally Nemtsov talks the talk about migration.

Instead of [pursuing an effective immigration policy], in 2002 the Putin regime passed repressive [AK: sic!] immigration legislation, which increased illegal immigration while reducing the flow of law-abiding and hard-working citizens into the country. In the 1990’s near 8 million Russophones arrived into Russia from the post-Soviet republics [AK: just to clarify, this is *not* net immigration; during the period, many Russians also left Russia]. With Putin’s arrival this process came to an abrupt halt.

The sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants became the main cause of the plummeting Russian population during the Putin years relative to the 1990’s.

Look, while I’m not a huge fan of said 2002 law, calling it “repressive” is well beyond the pale – especially for any politician the least concerned about his popularity! It is also interesting to note that Nemtsov puts this section on immigration at the end of the demography chapter, well away the graphs showing population decline under Yeltsin and Putin. One can only assume that Russians wouldn’t be so moved by Russia’s almost-stable population under Yeltsin had they known that it was only being sustained by an unsustainable inflow of ethnic Russians repatriating from the Near Abroad!

[Would an honest observer interpret the above graph as a “sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants” under Putin? Source: from Rosstat. Click to enlarge.]

Which brings us to a much bigger misrepresentation by Nemtsov. He essentially claims that thanks to Putin’s mismanagement of migration policy (the 2002 law is cited), ethnic Russian immigration came to a halt. Yet as we can see from the graph above, Russia received by far the biggest numbers of migrants during the early to mid-1990’s. By 2000, most ethnic Russians who would ever immigrate back to Russia from the Near Abroad had already done so. This process was always due to come an end, regardless of who was President, and had already mostly petered out by the late 1990’s. (The new uptick in immigration from 2006 mostly consists of Central Asian, Caucasian, and Ukrainian Gastarbeiter drawn to Russia’s rising affluence).


This chapter “A Dying Country” constituted about 20% of Nemtsov’s paper by word count, so it is a valid gauge by which to judge the rest of it. Now demography is a pretty easy subject, especially when it comes to checking up on straightforward factual claims. For this post I didn’t need much else other than Rosstat, Wikipedia, and my sick googling skills. 😉 In contrast, making accurate statements on the economy, an entity that can be measured and interpreted in any number of ways, is much harder. And assessing levels of corruption is an order of magnitude harder still, since it relates to the quantity of that economy that people take so many pains to hide away from view. So if one finds so much blatant ignorance or deceit in a big chunk of work dealing with demography – practically on every paragraph – chances are the overall opus isn’t worth anyone’s time.

The pattern of simplification and misrepresentation appears to be repeated throughout the entire paper. For instance, take Nemtsov’s graph of the structure of Russian exports in the chapter on the economy, which shows the share of hydrocarbons exports soaring from 44.9% in 1999 to 69.6% in 2009, while hi-tech exports fell from 10.9% to 4.9% during the same period. But only a hack like Nemtsov would say that this proves that Russia under Putin became more resource dependent “than ever before in its history”. For a start consider that the price of oil rose from $16.56 in 1999 to $91.48 in 2008! If there is a sixfold increase in oil prices over a decade, then its share of total exports was practically bound to increase too, barring Russia blowing up all its pipelines! (Besides, that would be “energy imperialism”). But even all this neglects a more fundamental fact: while Russian exports remain dominated by resources because they constitute its comparative advantage, Russia’s domestic economy has, in real terms, become substantially more productive, more services-centered and less extraction-heavy since the late 1990’s (in relative terms).

Now a defender of this Report may accuse me of missing its entire point – isn’t Nemtsov politicking against equally nefarious Kremlin propaganda? Isn’t it perfectly normal and acceptable for politicians to play fast and loose with the facts? While this may normally be an argument, this is not the case here. First, Nemtsov and Milov portray themselves as paragons of accountability and integrity (as opposed to the kleptocratic Kremlin regime) – if they want to demand their bed they have to lie in it too. Second, these ass-clowns entitle their work an “Independent Expert Report” for crying out loud! I am approaching Nemtsov’s writings on his own terms – as an analytical work. It is on its own analytical merit that it either stands or falls under the weight of its lies and contradictions.

But what about its impact as a political statement? Nemtsov’s only natural constituency, as evidenced by his classist rhetoric, is “the urban, semi-intellectual, semi-politically engaged class” who now make up around 25% of the Russian population. A not inconsiderable potential base, true, but they more than most in Russian society owe their allegiance to Putin; it was under his system that they made – or made off with – their wealth. No amount of one-sided paens to the glory Yeltsin years delivered by Nemtsov is going to change that. And although Nemtsov does make some faux populist overtures, they are hardly going to win him any supporters from amongst the lumpen-proletariat whom he wants to breed out into extinction! (Assuming they even bother reading the 12,000 words of what is really a very dull paper). No, the Gospel of Vlad and Boris is only going to be treated as such by the 50,000 odd signers of the Putin Must Go petition, at least in Russia. As for abroad…

In an interesting twist to the story – and ironically what made me aware of Nemtsov’s report in the first place – Russian police confiscated 100,000 of the one million copies of the Report and sent them to the MVD’s “extremism” department for analysis. Coming as it does on the eve of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where “Medvedev is set to hobnob with businessmen from around the world”, Nemtsov and Milov could not have hoped for a better source of publicity. Tinpot dictatorship here we come! Once again, the idiotic zeal of Russian officialdom elicits outraged editorials in the Western (and Russian) press, snickers from the suave and sophisticated, and delivers further confirmation of Russia’s impending slide into totalitarianism to the typical Westerner.

Not to mention endless frustration for people like myself. I am even coming to think that the deaf Russian state might just deserve its blind liberals.

* Though I do agree with Nemtsov that getting Russians to switch from samogon to vodka to wine or beer is a good strategy as far as these things go. Me from two years back: 😉

Convert wine production into a strategic industry and massively fund its expansion. Try to remake Russia into a wine-drinking nation. Aim to turn vodka into an exclusively export industry.

** That said, I’m very skeptical about the (self-interested?) arguments, or alarmism, of Russia’s anti-narcotics department. To test if this is a major, rapidly-spreading drug epidemic, it is logical to look at death rates for the most-affected demographic groups. Say, 20-25 year old males, among whom death rates are low and mostly due to external causes and poisonings.

Take the death rate for 25 year old males in Russia, a demographic group that would be one of the most exposed to drug abuse (Nemtsov cites the average age of death of Russia’s druggies as being 28). In 2000, i.e. before the Afghanistan campaign, it was 0.0060, and it stayed above 0.0050 until 2007 when it fell to 0.0047, and in 2008 fell further to 0.0041. These improvements, one would think, would have been exceedingly unlikely had there been a big jump in Russian heroin consumption.

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