The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis

Political and economic transition is often blamed for Russia’s 40% surge in deaths between 1990 and 1994 (the “Russian Mortality Crisis”). Highlighting that increases in mortality occurred primarily among alcohol- related causes and among working-age men (the heaviest drinkers), this paper investigates a different explanation: the demise of the 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign. We use archival sources to build a new oblast-year data set spanning 1970-2000 and find that:

  • The campaign was associated with substantially fewer campaign year deaths,
  • Oblasts with larger reductions in alcohol consumption and mortality during the campaign experienced larger transition era increases, and
  • Other former Soviet states and Eastern European countries exhibit similar mortality patterns commensurate with their campaign exposure.

The campaign’s end explains between 32% and 49% of the mortality crisis, suggesting that Russia’s transition to capitalism and democracy was not as lethal as commonly suggested.