OK. This is interesting but it’s pretty wrong.

The idea that recessions have a negative impact on population movements is, by this point in time, broadly accepted, even here in the US. Census data clearly show that the “great recession,” exerted massive downward pressure on the birth rate, a decline which has substantially outlived the recession itself. Recent scholarly work by Angus Deaton and Anne Case (while not immune from controversy!) also suggests that deep-seated economic problems are increasingly wreaking havoc with the health of working class whites. Basically, even in rich democracies, big changes in the economic environment can have significant impact on birth and death rates.

  1. It’s Case and Deaton.
  2. Recessions do tend to depress fertility, but this is because people can (broadly) choose when to give birth, and can thus choose to delay childbearing when they find conditions unfavorable. This is why the article linked above talks about a “baby bounce” – a few years after a recession, those people who want children, but delayed having them, get back to it. So, not wrong, but also not really a long-term problem.
  3. Recessions do not generally tend to increase mortality. I’m sorry, but there is no consensus that they do, because they don’t. The study by Case and Deaton is interesting, but it’s not about recessions. From the article linked: “…virtually all of the rise in mortality took place between 1999 and 2005: since then, death rates have been pretty flat for whites aged forty-five to fifty-four.”
  4. As for Russia, yeah, this recession sure is different from the 1990’s. Here are a few ways:
    1. It’s not accompanied by a total collapse of the political and economic system.
    2. Alcohol policy and drinking patterns are wildly different, and the country is not coming off of a multiyear sobriety campaign for which the necessary political will has evaporated, thus introducing a massive alcohol-related shock to mortality just as said political system collapses.
    3. The country’s primary care medical system, though still far from perfect, has undergone significant reforms that have improved standards of care and access.
    4. Russia has made great strides in controlling and treating cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death both at older ages and for middle-aged drinkers.

There are certainly reasons to be concerned about the situation in Russia and suspicious that mortality will not continue to improve the way it has for the last twelve years. Among these are the recent cuts to the health care system and the incredibly low level of pensions, which leaves the increasingly aging population more and more vulnerable. But the country is not at risk of the kind of massive, unprecedented mortality swings that it saw in the 1990’s, and no one who knows anything should think that it is.

If you want to know more about Russian demography and you speak Russian, have a look at this absolutely stellar interview with the demographer Evgeni Andreev, featured in Meduza a couple of months ago. Here’s an excerpt, which I’ve translated. (See the original at Meduza – these two questions occur right next to each other, about halfway down the page.)

Now it is clear that Russia is entering a very difficult economic period. Is it possible to say for certain how this will affect demography?

The outlook is grim. I don’t presume to tell you how the process will continue. Obviously, the lives of pensioners are getting much worse – they have no income besides their pensions, and pensions are not likely be increased by much. But we must understand that the relationship between economics and demographics is complex and indirect. Demographic processes have great inertia.

In the popular imagination, it’s quite simple: when the economy gets worse, demographics get worse. Is this not true?

Far from it. I can say this: in the late 1980s we had a very high life expectancy – in Russia it was almost at 70, and at the same time, there were practically no groceries, everything was distributed by coupons. And in 1998, we again had a rather high life expectancy while the wages were not being paid and half the country was protesting just to get their salaries for the past year. Don’t assume that population dynamics can be easily manipulated. Demographic processes are stable, but that’s why an abrupt change of direction is very dangerous. If, for example, life expectancy begins to decline and falls for two or three years in a row, albeit slightly, it is always much more difficult to change direction again than to continue on the same path. I don’t presume to explain why this is so. But if people stop drinking, and then suddenly begin to drink again, then to get them to quit again is hard.

In the news this week, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade is considering restrictions on the import of foreign-made condoms, along with a slew of other medical goods. Naturally, because demographic crisis is never far from Russian policymakers’ minds, jokes (…I hope) have already been made about how these restrictions will improve the birth rate. One jokester (…probably not) is the always-opinionated Gennady Onishchenko, former head “sanitary doctor” of the Russian Federation, who thinks a shortage of condoms will make people choose their partners more carefully and have more children.

Okay. Guys. The Russian birth rate is low because Russians are having the number of children they want and can afford to have. It cannot easily be raised by tricking women into getting pregnant. But as ridiculous as restricting condom access is as a pro-natalist policy, this flap did get me wondering how big a role condoms play in the Russian contraceptive scene, and what share of them are imported.

I don’t intend to make a habit of citing LifeNews, but this conversation with a Moscow sex shop owner is actually quite interesting. The shop owner, Yesenia Shamonina, claims that there is only one Russian factory that produces condoms, and they’re mostly cheap novelty varieties. (I leave more specific interpretation of her phrasing, “the sort with mustaches and little balls on them,” to the reader.) She estimates that production would have to increase a hundredfold to compensate for a ban on imports, and reports that people are already visiting her store to stock up on Trojans in bulk.

Hussar condoms, for all your pre-revolutionary contraceptive needs.

In the relentless pursuit of knowledge, I looked up the condoms I remember most vividly from my time spent in Russian supermarket checkout lines circa 2007 – “Hussar” brand. (Hard to forget the lady in the circus monkey suit.) There’s not much that’s more (tsarist) Russian than a dashing young hussar, but according to the website condomo.ru, this brand is owned by a UK company called Contex, produced in Thailand and South Korea, and packaged in Russia. No dice under the potential ban, I think.

So it sounds like the Russian condom market might be in trouble. How bad would that be? As it turns out, condoms are actually a somewhat popular choice among Russian contraceptive users. According to the UN, in 2011, a full 25% of Russian couples 15 and older (married or cohabiting) used condoms for their contraceptive needs. This is higher than anywhere else in Europe or the former Soviet Union in the last ten years, except the UK, where the figure is 27%. (The figure for the US is 11.6%.) I don’t have data on this, but I would guess that among Russians who are not in couples but are having sex and using contraceptives, condoms are an even more popular choice. (This is true in the US, where condoms are the most commonly used method for teenage contraceptive-users.) A lot of people will have a hard time using their method of choice if this ban happens.

But the concept of unmet need for contraceptives is important here. Unmet need is a measure of sexually active women who wish to avoid pregnancy but are not currently using a contraceptive method. It’s an important indicator if you’re studying a country or region’s fertility, and it’s also what would actually need to rise in order for Russia’s birth rate to change (at least in the trick-the-women way that Russian policymakers seem to be dreaming of – there are, at least in theory, more humane ways to raise a birth rate).

It’s not entirely impossible that a condom shortage would increase unmet need, but in a country like Russia, it seems unlikely. The population is highly educated and thus likely to know its other options; oral contraceptives are available over the counter; and – perhaps most importantly – abortion is safe, legal despite increasing restrictions, and more frequently accessed than anywhere else in the world. It seems more likely that a condom shortage would increase use of other contraceptives and abortion than the birth rate.

Why do Russian women outlive Russian men? Even with the substantial improvements in mortality that Russia has seen over the past decade or so, it has one of the largest gaps ever seen in life expectancy by sex – about 11.3 years in 2013, when women’s life expectancy was just over 76 years, and men’s was about 65.*

Human women generally have longer average lifespans than human men, but the size of the difference in Russia is remarkable. From what we know of the Russian pattern of mortality, we might guess that this is because of high mortality from external causes (that is, causes originating outside the body – accidents, violence, poisoning, etc.), and especially alcohol-related death among working-age men. Those who have spent time in Russia might think of a ruddy-faced man getting on their tramvai or marshrutka, reeking of alcohol and having trouble standing up at 9 a.m.; or a party where they were poured and pressured to take shot after shot of vodka; or a news story about a tragic alcohol-related car crash, pedestrian accident, or murder. These images play into stereotypes of life in Russia, and do indeed reflect certain aspects of Russian reality. However, in terms of demographic rates, they’re only part of the story.

The chart below shows how many years of that 11.3-year life expectancy gap are caused by excess male deaths at each age and for each cause of death. It features data from the Russian Fertility and Mortality Database and is constructed using an incredibly nifty algorithm for comparing demographic rates devised by Andreev, Shkolnikov, and Begun in 2002.

excess male death

This is based on age-specific death rates, so the differing number of women and men in the population doesn’t matter. (Also, I left off the childhood ages for better readability – the sex differences in death rates there are very small.) It shows, for example, that a higher male death rate at ages 50-54 accounts for a full year of the Russian sex difference in life expectancy, and about a third of that excess death is from accidents, while another third is from cardiovascular diseases. The cause-of-death categories are deliberately broad here – “other internal causes” includes anything internal that’s not cancer or cardiovascular disease – emphysema, kidney failure, cirrhosis, ALS, etc. – and “all other causes” includes external causes that are not accidents (suicide and homicide, infectious disease), maternal and infant mortality, death of undetermined causes, and senility.

What’s surprising about this chart (at least to the layperson – folks who work on Russian mortality already know this) is that the most excess male death occurs not at working ages, but in early older ages. What’s more, the largest part of the sex difference is not from accidents and external causes, but from cardiovascular diseases, which account for over four years of the life expectancy difference. Accidents and external causes are still quite important, contributing about 2.8 years of lost male life expectancy, and playing an especially important role for younger adult men. It’s also worth noting that much of this excess cardiovascular mortality may also be alcohol-related; the ebb and flow of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular deaths in Russia is intimately tied to alcohol consumption. But the sex difference is not just due to an epidemic of violent deaths and accidents. This is good news, because it means that both alcohol policy and other measures – such as improved health care, better prevention and monitoring of cardiovascular disease, and lifestyle changes such as better diet and more exercise – can go a long way toward improving Russian men’s demographic profile.

* A quick note about the nuances of life expectancy – despite the name, it doesn’t actually tell us how long a real person can expect to live. It tells us how long a hypothetical person born today and then exposed to today’s age-specific death rates at each age throughout her life could expect to live. Of course, this doesn’t really happen; when a person born today is five, she’ll be exposed to the year 2020’s age-specific rates for five-year-olds, which may differ from 2015’s. When she’s twenty, she’ll be exposed to 2035’s age-specific death rates for 20-year-olds. Et cetera. Despite its confusing nature and uselessness as, say, a retirement planning tool, life expectancy still gives us a good summary picture of current mortality conditions.

This semester I’m using data from the fantastic Russian Fertility and Mortality Database for a term paper on mortality. Since the Russian mortality crisis has been analyzed to death (…sorry) by demographers more capable than I, I’m focusing on the less-studied mortality improvement that Russia has seen since 2003. As a lover of the Russian regions and the peripheries of empire more generally, I haven’t been able to resist looking at the data geographically. Though my term paper is far from finished, I thought I would share some of the interesting geographic trends I’ve found.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, life expectancy had been in decline for more than 20 years, interrupted by a short period of improvement in the mid-to-late 1980’s, likely attributable to Gorbachev’s alcohol prohibition policy. In Russia (and in other former Soviet States, but most severely and prolongedly in Russia), this decline in life expectancy became much worse during the turmoil of the early 1990’s. Much ink has been spilled on the causes of this sharp drop, but it’s generally agreed that increased alcohol consumption underlies it. Life expectancy recovered a bit in the mid-1990’s, but took another nosedive with the Asian financial crisis of 1998. It didn’t begin to improve again until three years into Putin’s reign, in 2003, and since then, we’ve seen the first sustained improvement in mortality in Russia since about 1965. Whether it truly signals the end of the mortality crisis is unknown; I favor the optimistic idea that it does, and is a mark of the onset of the ‘cardiovascular revolution,’ the drastic reduction in cardiovascular disease that marks the next big mortality transition after a society conquers severe mortality from communicable diseases.

Okay, so, on to the pictures. Don’t tell the real demographers, but I analyzed the data in R and then put the regional summaries into my old friend Excel for this post.

federal districts

Note: The North Caucasus Federal District was created in 2010; prior to that, its component subjects were part of the Southern Federal District. For ease of comparison, I analyzed the 2003 data using current district divisions.

Things that aren’t surprising about this chart: in terms of mortality, it is much, much better to be a Russian woman than a Russian man. One of the characteristics of the mortality crisis was a large excess of male death at adult ages, and Russia still has one of the largest gender gaps in life expectancy in the world – in 2003, it was 13.3 years, and in 2012, 11.5 years.

Things that are surprising: in terms of mortality, the best place to live in Russia is not Moscow or St. Petersburg, and not one of the oil-rich donor regions, but the relatively poor and politically fraught North Caucasus. This is true through time and for both sexes. The Southern Federal District, which is adjacent to the North Caucasus, is generally second-best (though the Central District, which includes Moscow, edges it out by a tenth of a year for women in 2012); Siberia and the Far East are the worst.

The easiest explanation for the North Caucasus’ great showing is that alcohol use may be lower in these more Muslim regions. While the relationship between alcohol use and Islam is far from straightforward in the former Soviet space, and data is spotty, this seems to be broadly true. (And it seems broadly true that alcohol use is highest east of the Urals.) It’s telling that this effect could counteract poverty, rurality, and political and social instability – all of which tend to raise mortality – so dramatically in the North Caucasus.

This is a bit harder to interpret, but here’s a look at the top 20 performers (sorted by male life expectancy in 2012):


The shades of orange, blue and green represent quartiles for each indicator; the darkest shades represent the top quartile (21 regions) and the lightest, the bottom. So we can see there’s quite a bit of overlap; 15 of the top 20 regions by men’s 2012 life expectancy are also tops for 2012 women, and 14 were also tops for both sexes in 2003. The North Caucasus clearly dominate, along with Moscow and Petersburg, but Chechnya is a curious case, as the only region for which women’s life expectancy didn’t improve from 2003-2012; in 2012, it’s in the bottom quartile for women. (This could be a data quality issue.)

In general, we can see from the light green shadings at right that none of the North Caucasus regions had particularly large gains in life expectancy, particularly for women, during this period. This makes some sense, since they were already doing so well – in fact, it’s a bit more surprising that Moscow and Petersburg started out in the top quartile of life expectancy and also had gains on life expectancy in the top quartile.

In case you’re wondering, the region with the lowest life expectancy is generally Tuva, although Chukotka was slightly worse for women in 2012. Thankfully, both men and women in Tuva gained over six years of life from 2003-2012, making it a top performer in that respect.

The overall story here is, I think, one of optimism: not only is life expectancy improving for everyone, but large geographic and by-sex differentials are closing. The least healthy regions are making large gains relative to the smaller, but still significant, gains seen by healthier regions. Men are gaining the most; while in 2003, male life expectancy hit 65 in only three regions, in 2012 it did so in nineteen. In Russia as a whole, men’s 2003 life expectancy was 81.5% of women’s; in 2012, it was 85%.

Public health challenges such as drug-resistant tuberculosis and still-high rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as recent economic uncertainty, may slow the mortality decline, but the universality of the positive trend so far is a heartening sign that Russia’s health will continue to improve.

All data in this post sourced from:

Russian Fertility and Mortality Database. Center for Demographic Research, Moscow (Russia). Available at http://demogr.nes.ru/index.php/ru/demogr_indicat/data (data downloaded on March 6, 2015).

Post #1 is here.

More preliminary results are now available from last October’s Russian-run census of Crimea, apparently having been dropped at a round table in Simferopol on the occasion of the first anniversary of the annexation of the peninsula.

Given the political implications of nationality in the Ukrainian conflict, as well as reports of an exodus of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, I had been waiting for details about nationality – not included in the first round of preliminary figures – and these results do not disappoint. (Sorry, this is an image because I don’t know how to embed graphs in WordPress – if you want the Excel file, feel free to contact me. Click the image to make it bigger.)

Click to view larger!

Here I’ve compared four nationalities’ 2001 and 2014 Census numbers, lumping everyone else into “other” (although there are some interesting things to note among the less numerous nationalities as well, I’m short on time).  In the second column of numbers we see the share of population attributed to each ethnic group in the 2001 Ukrainian Census; the fourth column gives each group’s share in 2014. The share of Russians appears to have increased quite a bit, while the share of Ukrainians has declined even more substantially. But perhaps the most noteworthy thing here is that the share of Crimean Tatars has remained exactly the same.

The two rightmost columns show what we’d expect each nationality’s population to be if we took the overall 2014 population of 2.2 million and applied the 2001 nationality breakdown. (Note that this is illustrative only; I don’t know if we can reasonably expect each group’s fertility, mortality and migration patterns up until the Ukrainian/Russian crisis of 2014 to have been similar enough to make this a valid forecasting method). Here we can see that the actual number of Crimean Tatars in 2014 is only about 900 lower than, or less than a tenth of a percent off of, what it would have been if 2001 proportions had held. By contrast, there are over 200,000 fewer ethnic Ukrainians – and 113,000 more ethnic Russians – than 2001 proportions would lead us to expect.

It’s no surprise that these numbers were saved for release during #крымнаш week. These nationality results are very, very politically useful for Russia. The shifts in Ukrainian and Russian representation toward a Crimea that’s fully two-thirds Russian help provide further justification to the assertion that the annexation protects the interests of ethnic Russians. The stable Crimean Tatar numbers – especially when considered with the shocking more-than-tripling of the “other Tatar” population and the note from Head of the Department of Health and Population Statistics Svetlana Nikitina that “часть крымских татар назвали себя татарами, поэтому при финальном подсчёте эти группы будут суммироваться,” (“a portion of the Crimean Tatars identified themselves as [just] Tatars, so at final count these two groups will be summed[!!!!!]”) will almost certainly help the Russian state put to rest rumors of a massive Tatar exodus from Crimea and continuing mistreatment of the Tatars who remain.

Like many English-speaking Russia watchers, I first heard about this book via Masha Gessen’s NYRB review. You know, the one that sparked an absolutely insane feud over nothing, which I will not spend too much time on here because it is an absolutely insane feud over nothing. On one side we have someone who is not a demographer and writes perfectly adequate book reviews; on the other we have someone who is also not a demographer, but likes making graphs and using them to shout at people. Okay, moving on to my review.

I was really jazzed to find out that this book is an ethnography of the Russian mortality crisis of the 1990’s; the idea of combining ethnographic and quantitative methods is something that I find intellectually appealing (okay, thrilling), and the mortality crisis of the ’90’s is tragic and still not adequately explained by the data we have. But combining ethnography and quantitative methods is tough to do well – methodology aside, it’s hard to make two such fundamentally different ways of knowing about the world engage with each other. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Dying Unneeded really delivered; I put down the book feeling like Parsons didn’t make much effort to engage with quantitative data, and because of this, her ethnography suffered.

Her method was to conduct semi-structured interviews with pensioners around Moscow, focusing on their experiences of the Soviet Union’s collapse and ensuing transition to a market economy. She found consistent refrains about space, bounded and unbounded (prostor); limitlessness or lawlessness (bespredel, a hard word to translate), and, crucially, being needed/unneeded (nikomu ne nuzhny). Using a kind of discourse analysis or semiotics-lite (which, as an aside, made me long for Nancy Ries’ mastery of and deep commitment to these methods), she makes these three concepts the foundation of her argument: the collapse of Soviet life robbed the post-WWII generation of Russians of the social, political and economic structures within which and around which they operated for most of their lives, taking away not only their sense of control and freedom but also their ability to be ‘needed,’ or useful to others.

She focuses particularly on ‘neededness,’ suggesting that it functions in a socialist context in much the same way social capital does in a capitalist one, and ultimately connecting it to a conception of ‘soul’ (dusha) as something that arises in the interaction between people, rather than a characteristic of an individual. Along the way, she questions the universality of American intellectual notions such as social capital and freedom, and, perhaps most valuably, provides a new and nicely nuanced interpretation of the data we have on the puzzling and not at all straightforward relationships between alcohol consumption, health, and death in the ’90’s.

It was this rereading of data that left me feeling so frustrated with the rest of the book. Connecting drinking not only with thwarted masculinity and powerlessness but with social connection and neededness was great; I was waiting for the next step, a concrete connection between neededness and what we know about who died and how. But such a connection remained tenuous, floating in the realm of generalization and stereotype – e.g., we know that more men died than women, and gender roles in Russia made the feeling of being unneeded more acute among men. But which men? What can we find out about the social connections, histories and practices of the dead versus the survivors? With a bit more specificity, her argument could be really powerful, but Parsons gets no more specific with the data, and also fails in her interviews to discuss death or dying, so that we actually do not have any stories of the victims of the mortality crisis. Ultimately, the book is much more about how Russians lived in the ’90’s than about how and why they died. Parsons herself acknowledges this; however, a deeper engagement with the data we do have on mortality in the ’90’s and a willingness to talk about death could have led to a better connection between her original research question and the answer she arrived at.

Structurally, the book suffered from the repetitiveness that plagues many academic works of this length; it felt like each chapter was written to stand on its own, so reading all of them at once and revisiting the thesis over and over got quite tedious. My other main complaint with the book’s style is that Parsons’ Russian-to-English translations tend toward word-for-word literalism. I can understand the basic appeal of this approach in ethnography, but while reading the quotations from her interviews, I found myself unconsciously rooting around to try to feel the original Russian structure under the often-mangled English facade.

Ultimately, though it falls short in some ways, this book is an ambitious work on a sprawling topic that gives us new ways of thinking about how the collapse of a society manifested itself in individual bodies and lives. I hope the attempt made here to cross disciplines and methods will inform future work in sociology and demography – I know it has helped me think about what I want my own research to look like.

After annexing Crimea in March of this year, the Russian Federation has gotten down to the business of governing its new federal subject. The Russian State Statistics Service conducted a census of Crimea in October, the first since the all-Ukrainian census of 2001 (itself the only census Ukraine has undertaken since independence).

Preliminary results of the census, which took place from October 14 to 25, were announced on Monday. No information on some of the really interesting stuff yet – ethnicity, language, migration, economics, age, household composition, etc. – but here are the basics, with comparison to past data, and some of my initial thoughts.

A note on geography: Both Russia and Ukraine divide Crimea into two administrative units – Sevastopol, designated as a federal city (like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kyiv), and the Republic of Crimea. Russia lumps these two regions together into the Crimean Federal Okrug, a designation which (I believe) does not have an official equivalent in Ukraine.

Crimean and Ukrainian Population

All numbers shown are permanent resident population; 2014 data on population present (including non-residents) is available for Crimea as a whole – 2,293,300 people – but a breakdown of that number between the Republic and Sevastopol has not been given.

* Ukraine total for 2014 is not a census count; it’s this year’s March 1st monthly estimate from the Ukrainian State Statistics Service, and includes Crimea.

2013 estimates are year-end estimates from the Ukrainian State Statistics Service.

Two noteworthy things: Sevastopol’s relatively large increase in population and the Republic’s relatively large decrease. In its April estimate, the last one it conducted in the annexed territory, the Ukrainian State Statistics Service estimated a population of 386,000 for Sevastopol, of which 384,000 were permanent residents of the federal city. The average for 2013 was 384,700 total and 382,700 permanent population, with monthly counts about 2,000 above that average toward the end of the year. So the population was growing, but an increase of eleven thousand people since April 1 is noteworthy.

In the Republic of Crimea, on the other hand, we see a 3% drop in the population from last year’s estimate. If all the numbers are correct, that means the Republic lost more people last year than the twelve previous years combined.

Obviously, the possibilities here are:

1. These large changes really happened. In Sevastopol, it’s possible that members of the Russian Black Sea Fleet were previously uncounted, and are now considered permanent residents of Sevastopol. That would account for much of the increase, as the Black Sea Fleet is several thousand strong. As for the Republic of Crimea, while reports of (Russian) refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk are more common, it’s possible that refugees fleeing to mainland Ukraine, including Crimean Tatars, account for some of the drop. Or maybe a lot of people moved from the Republic of Crimea to Sevastopol.

2. The Ukrainian State Statistics Service estimates were wrong. I don’t know much about Ukraine’s record-keeping, but if these estimates are calculated by accounting for births, deaths, and migration since the last census (which they usually are), there’s been thirteen years for them to drift, so this is certainly a possible factor.

3. The census is wrong. Rosstat claims a very low refusal rate of 0.6%, and they spent almost 400 million rubles on this census. I don’t know anything about Russian census methodology, though. Hopefully when the full results come out, the picture will be clearer.

Georgian Eggplant-Walnut Rolls

Vegan, gluten-free, kosher for Passover – the only thing these rolls aren’t is nut-free (or low-fat, ha). But they are delicious, and everyone, even people who hate eggplant, will love you for them. The following is an approximate recipe for how I make them. I picked up techniques and ingredients from a bunch of places, so these are a little more complex than most versions. If you are interested, there are many other versions online, both in English and Russian. There’s also an Armenian version – which apparently includes dairy – that I’ve never looked into.

Jenny’s recipe

Southern Living did one

Gotovim-doma (RU)

Armenian eggplant



  • Walnuts (I use about 2-3 cups, ideally on the higher side of that)
  • An onion
  • Some garlic to taste (I use 3-5 cloves)
  • Oil for frying
  • Fresh herbs: definitely cilantro, optionally also flat-leaf parsley, chives
  • Spices: Use a variety, including paprika, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, maybe a little turmeric. Fenugreek, summer savory and marigold are great if you have them; if not, some nice fresh curry powder actually makes a good substitute. If you’ve been to Georgia recently (which you probably have if you have summer savory or marigold on you), whatever spice blend you have from there is good to add too – particularly the yellow one.
  • Fruity/sour component: I’ve used lemon juice, red wine vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and (in a pinch) Thai tamarind paste. Pomegranate molasses is my preference, if you have it. If you don’t have it, check at Middle Eastern or Persian grocers in your area.
  • Salt
  • Water


  • Eggplants – I like the smaller, somewhat thinner ones best because they make the best-shaped wrappers. (But not Chinese or Thai varieties, which are too thin and too small, respectively.) But really, whatever you can get is probably fine. The eggplant is just a vehicle.
  • Salt
  • Oil


  • A food processor or other way of turning the filling to paste.


A note about quantities: I have never successfully made this and had the right ratio of filling to eggplant. You generally need fewer eggplants than you think, is all I can say – often I buy 3 and find that after slicing 2 I have enough for, like, 30 rolls and am going to be out of filling before that. Also, having extra filling is great because it’s outrageously delicious. So maybe buy 2 eggplants.


Okay so: toast your walnuts in a dry pan. Set them aside. Fry up your onion in a little oil to a nice golden color – don’t worry too much about whether it’s sliced or diced or chopped, since you’ll be food processing it later anyway. Either add the garlic, chopped, to the pan at the end of this step (this is what I do) OR leave the garlic raw. I think that is more traditional, but I’ve never made it that way because raw garlic, gross. If you’re using curry powder you can add that to the pan at this point, too, as parts of it are oil-soluble. Remove from heat and add all the other spices.

Put the onion-garlic-spices into the bowl with the walnuts. Drizzle over some of the sour component, maybe 3 tablespoons. Throw on the herbs, roughly chopped. Don’t be afraid to use a couple handfuls of herbs. Put in some salt – don’t go crazy, but definitely don’t skimp. Now, food process it. You’ll get a sort of meal at first – once you get that, add a few tablespoons of water. That should help the mixture turn a sort of weird light gray color and become more paste-like. Lightly chunky, cohesive, not crumbly but definitely not sopping wet – that’s what we’re going for. Like a spread. Once you get there, taste it and adjust the salt and sour if you need to. Don’t be afraid to make it bold – remember, people are eating 1-2 bites of this at once, so assertive and super flavorful is good. Try not to eat the whole batch while tasting.

So next, put all that in the fridge, well covered. Weirdly, it doesn’t handle being unrefrigerated that well. It goes kind of limp and the top gets dried out. I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but I believe letting it sit in the fridge for a while so the flavors can marry makes it better. So this could be a two-day recipe if you want.

While that’s in the fridge, make the eggplant. Slice it lengthwise as thin as you can – if using a mandoline slicer, the 3/16” setting is recommended. Here I must admit I have not decided what works best. I’ve tried brushing the slices with oil and baking them, which leads to a less heavy, greasy wrapper but  sometimes involves stickage and ruined eggplant and also tends to make the skin brittle and hard to roll up. I usually just pan-fry, which is fine but uses many paper towels (you’ll want to put the slices on paper towels to absorb the grease). Sometimes I salt beforehand to make the slices absorb less oil, and sometimes I don’t. Frankly, I haven’t noticed much difference in oil absorption either way, and I prefer unsalted, to up the flavor contrast between the eggplant and the filling. Anyway, bottom line, no one will complain about the eggplant no matter what you do to it. So cook up a bunch of slices, done but not crispy, and let it cool.

After that, take the filling out of the fridge, use spoons to place portions of it on the eggplant slices, and roll or fold up the eggplant end-over-end. Arrange nicely on a serving plate, garnish with pomegranate seeds if you want to be real fancy, and prepare for everyone to love you.


…originally posted as a Facebook comment. Yeah. Edited a bit, paragraph break added.

I find the whole Olympic boycott business, while well-intentioned, pretty obnoxious. I do agree that it’s important for countries and their athletes to consider their safety in-country before going to any international sporting event, but the idea of boycotting just because we’re mad at Russia seems a little uninformed and silly. It doesn’t send Russia a “powerful signal,” because Russians already think (with a certain degree of truth and a certain degree of paranoia) that the West unjustifiably picks on them. Why not boycott Olympics in the U.S. over Guantanamo? Why didn’t we boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics? China’s got at least as many human rights problems as Russia, if not specifically against LGBT people.

Taking another tack, if you’re going to boycott, why not align with the Circassians, who have been protesting since Sochi was chosen that the Olympics are taking place on their ancestral land on the 150th anniversary of their genocidal expulsion from the Russian Empire, with zero acknowledgment from the Olympic organizers that Sochi is anything but an ethnically Russian city? Or with the Sochi residents who have had their homes demolished for the corruption-riddled Olympic construction projects? Finally, I’d argue that a boycott and international outcry against the Russian government are, in this case, unlikely to build significant pressure. The vast majority of Russians – over 80% – support this legislation, and popular support is a powerful thing.

There are several important questions we can ask after last week’s news from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that Russia’s population is “old.” As Sociological Images reminds us, there are a lot of numbers we should know, or at least know to ask about, when we’re interpreting statistics like this.

1. Who counts as old? The Moscow Times says that 13% of the population is 65 or above, and then quotes a figure of 22.7% over the age of retirement later on. It fails to clarify that the age of retirement in Russia is not 65 – it’s 60 for men and 55 for women. So men ages 60-64 and women ages 55-64 make up nearly 10% of the population? Yep – according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, they actually make up 10.2%.This significantly changes the picture from a place like, for example, the U.S., where the demographic age cohort delineation of 65 is also the retirement age.

2. Mark Adomanis at Forbes, clearly a demographic crisis skeptic, asks how different Russia’s age structure actually is from neighboring countries’. (Answer: not that different – although the countries he picked are a bit of a hodgepodge.) I didn’t find his population pyramids very easy to read, so I put the data together another way:

Percentage of Population by Age Group



Czech Republic






























To further contextualize, in the good ol’ U.S., adults 65 and over make up 12.8% of the population, but we have a much larger youth cohort – 20.2% of us are under 16. Our birth rate also almost matches Russia’s, at 13.5 births/1,000 U.S. population vs. 13.3 births/1,000 Russian population, but our death rate is lower, at 8.38/1000 vs. 13.3/1000.

3. What problems might an aging population cause for Russia? Of course, workforce and the pension system come to mind immediately (well, immediately after the specter of demographic crisis and the gradual erasure of Russia, Russian language and Russian culture from the face of the earth, depending on how much of an alarmist you are); and indeed, the possibility of raising Russia’s very low age of retirement has been under discussion for quite some time. I’m interested in something else, though – in its unit on mortality, the demography textbook I’m reading through mentioned something interesting: rising death rates in Russia and neighboring countries in the past few decades, while caused in large part by social upheaval, also reflect the Soviet medical system’s inability to make the shift from curing contagious diseases (which it did, and does, fairly well) to adequately managing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In terms of Russia’s aging population, this is problematic both because it suppresses life expectancy overall and because it decreases the aging population’s quality of life and productivity. In addition to many people’s end-of-life care, more and more pensioners will need years of medication and management of diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure. The silent AIDS crisis (you should definitely click that link) and the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis add to the number of Russians who need chronic medical treatment. How will the Russian medical system respond to these changing needs?

Those are my three questions (and answers, sort of) about Russia’s shifting demographics. Anything you’d add?


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