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.