Do Russians Have a Death Wish?

Authorities were warned of the attack on Domodedovo Airport a week ago, but they didn’t beef up security.

Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport 

MOSCOW—Within hours of the deadly explosion at Moscow’s busiest airport, it emerged that the airport’s management had known of a planned terrorist attack at least a week ahead of time. They had even been informed of the location of the potential blast: the busy arrivals area. But no additional security measures were put in place: Just as before, anyone could enter the arrivals area off the street, without passing through a metal detector or any other sort of security screen. Not only that; it appears the airport’s security staff was cut by half in the months just before the blast.

In Russia, this is pretty much the norm.

There is a peculiarly horrible sense of recognition that you get watching footage of the aftermath of terrorist attacks that occurred in a place that is intimately, physically familiar. You almost get the feeling that you have touched the carnage. Over the last few years, I have experienced this several times. In 2004, a suicide bombing killed 10 people at a bus stop along my usual commute: I would likely have been stuck in traffic somewhere nearby had I not taken the day off. Less than a year ago, 40 people died in two explosions in the Moscow subway; one of the bombs went off at a station my son regularly passes through on his way to school—that day he just happened to catch a ride with his younger sister. There were half a dozen explosions and hostage-takings in between, too—along other people’s usual routes. Today, when the news of the airport bombing broke during my magazine’s editorial meeting, everyone present fell silent, clearly visualizing a place through which all of us had traveled dozens or even hundreds of times.

I know of only one other place in the world where danger is so imminent. That would be Israel, the country where one cannot enter a shopping mall or a movie theater or board a train to the airport without passing through a metal detector and undergoing a security check. Moscow’s approach is the exact opposite: There is no security at the entrance to shopping malls, movie theaters, or parking lots, and airport scanners are usually in what airport officials call “standby mode,” which is to say, turned off.

How is this possible? Are Russians so unconcerned with personal and public safety? The answer is, well, yes. Russia is the world’s only developed country where the average life expectancy has steadily fallen over the last half-century. Russia is the only country that is experiencing catastrophic depopulation while not being formally at war. Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who has recently published a book on the subject, estimates that since 1992 Russia has lost nearly 2 million women and 5 million men to what demographers and public health specialists call “excess mortality.” These are people who, given their age and social status, should not have died. Eberstadt is fond of pointing out that the life expectancy for a 15-year-old Russian boy today is less than that for a Somalian 15-year-old.

What do these people die of? Cardiovascular disease, AIDS, and, most strikingly, so-called external causes: violence, accidents, suicide, and poisoning (primarily alcohol). What all these causes of death have in common is self-inflicted risk. Cardiovascular disease is usually the result of an abhorrent diet, alcohol abuse, and smoking (a majority of adults of both sexes smoke cigarettes). HIV is transmitted unimpeded in a country that, polls show, has one of the world’s highest AIDS awareness rates and lowest rates of condom use. Accidents and violence, almost invariably linked to alcohol abuse, are also obviously the result of systematic excessive risk-taking.

Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is that after a certain point, risk-taking begins to look entirely rational. If, at 15, you have a life expectancy of less than 50, why should you worry about the long-term consequences of cigarette smoke—or even about the short-term consequences of not wearing your seat belt? And, if you are an airport security manager, why would even the known threat of a terrorist attack motivate you to turn on an idle security scanner?

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