Russia's murder rate: a quiet miracle

Russia’s murder rate: a quiet miracle

13 February 2019

Murder rates across Russia have fallen in all regions, to levels not seen since the Soviet glory days of the 1960s.1

“Widespread robbery of the population, contract killings, taking hostages, open rape in the streets, racketeering and terrorism—these have all become virtually mundane aspects of everyday life for Russian citizens,” wrote famous Russian criminologist Vladimir Kudryavtsev in 1997.1 It’s true—in the 90s and early 00s, Russia had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Each year the country saw 20–30 murders per 100,000 people, making it the second most murderous country in the Old World, after violence-ridden post-Apartheid South Africa.2

As of 2017, the official murder rate in Russia has fallen to 6.0,3 not much higher than the United States' rate of 4.7.4 Still, this is much worse than Western Europe and East Asia, where murder rates are typically at 2.0 or below.5

The decline in Russia’s murder rate is unique. No other country has seen such a precipitous drop in murders and to such a relatively low level. Credit must be given where it is due—murder in Colombia and South Africa has declined just as drastically, but both countries still have over 25 murders per 100,000 people, placing them in the top 16 worldwide.5

One possible reason for the drop in murders is a decline in alcohol consumption, since most murders in Russia are committed under the influence of alcohol.6 Virtually everyone I talked to in Russia seems to believe that Russians don’t drink as much as they used to. Indeed, both the Ministry of Health and the Federal Statistics Service claim that alcohol sales and consumption in Russia have gone down by about 30% in the last decade.7

The reality isn’t so straightforward, however. Representatives of Russia’s alcohol industry claim that punitive taxes on alcohol have made homemade samogon (moonshine) quite profitable to produce. “Everyone who isn’t too lazy is doing it,” according to Igor Kosarev, president of the Russian Alcohol Producers' Union.7 This should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that the alcohol industry has been hurt by these taxes and would love to have them repealed. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that official government statistics probably underestimate Russia’s alcohol consumption, so it’s not clear how much alcohol consumption has fallen, if at all.

Moreover, the magnitude of alcohol’s effect on murder rates is not clear to me. The Baltic states have similar (or even greater) alcohol consumption compared to Russia, but far lower murder rates. The same can be said of countries like South Korea and Finland.8

In the United States, a huge decline in violent crime since 1990 is correlated with legalized abortion and a high incarceration rate. Abortion was commonplace throughout the Soviet Era, so that hypothesis would not apply. Russia does have a very high incarceration rate, though lower than in the United States. But Russia’s prison population is actually at a historic low, unlike the massive increase that we saw in the US.9

Broadly speaking, the decrease in murders can be associated with Vladimir Putin’s policy of stabilnost (stability; a term mostly used ironically these days) and re-establishing the rule of law after the so-called “Wild 90s”. There is a general understanding among Russians that Putin, for better or for worse, “cleaned up” the country by establishing the supremacy of his own gang of associates, at the expense of mafia and regional criminal organizations.

But to me it’s not clear what concrete actions were taken, or what was actually done to stop the killing. Nor is it clear that Putin’s government had anything to do with the decrease, at least directly. The Baltic states have experienced similar declines in murder, about a decade earlier than Russia did; needless to say, Putin cannot take credit for that.

“The importance of the socio-cultural context in explaining violent crime has been emphasised. Societies with a low homicide rate have strong informal social control and a generally accepted normative system, a strict network of social responsibilities, and a cultural orientation that suppresses aggression. After the restoration of independence, Estonia entered an era that can be described as a deficiency of social control, the loss of earlier control mechanisms. The development of a new social control based on other principles does not come about overnight,” writes Estonian criminologist Jüri Saar.10

He continues: “If the current developments in Estonia continue and stability is achieved, the violent crime rate is likely to keep falling, to reach a level characteristic of other developed European countries.” Might the same be true for Russia?

Anyway, I’ll leave such theorizing to people who are more familiar with the situation. For now, I just hope you enjoy the animated map. This is my first attempt at a D3 map animation, so the style is a bit rougher than my usual look. I’ll try to make more of these maps in the future until I get quite good.

  1. Luneev, V. V. “Преступность XX века” (“Crime in the 20th Century”). 2005 ↩︎

  2. “List of countries by intentional homicide rate by decade” (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  3. “Число умерших по основным классам и отдельным причинам смерти в расчете на 100000 населения за год—Убийство” (“Number of deaths by general categories and specific causes of death per 100,000 people annually—Homicide”) (EMISS) ↩︎

  4. FBI:UCR. “2016 Crime in the United States: Expanded Homicide Data Table 4” ( ↩︎

  5. Federal State Statistics Service of Russia. “List of countries by intentional homicide rate” (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  6. Korotayev, A. and Khalturina, D. “Много водки — много смертей” (“More Vodka Means More Deaths”) ( ↩︎

  7. Musina, A. “Россия: Потребление алкоголя падает только на бумаге” (“Russia: Alcohol Consumption Declining Only on Paper”) ( 2017 ↩︎

  8. “List of countries by alcohol consumption per capita” (Wikipedia) ↩︎

  9. “Число заключенных в России достигло исторического минимума” (“Russia’s Prison Population Reaches Historic Low”) (TASS) 2018 ↩︎

  10. Saar, J. “Intentional Homicides in Estonia: The Short-term and Long-term Trends” 2010 ↩︎