Men Wanted

The monument in Almaty to the Great Patriotic War (World War II), during which potential subversives were exiled to Kazakhstan and Kazakhs were enlisted to the front. The inscription on the bottom reads: "Great Russia, there is nowhere to which to retreat beyond Moscow!" - words attributed to the Russian General Panfilov, who famously lead a group of 28 Kazakhs in a heroic defense against ze Nazis.

It is an odd bit of ‘common knowledge’ here that there are (up to, depending on with whom one speaks) six times as many women as men in Kazakhstan. Women cite this as a reason that they have to get very dressed up before going out at night – “the competition is tough!” – and for men its a license for infidelity. It also makes mothers and grandmothers here even more anxious to marry off their daughters to a young foreigner (read: me) than is the case in similar countries.

Frankly, I would have suspected just the opposite. I’m always expecting for a young woman here to break one of her improbable high-heels and topple to her death. However, this doesn’t happen as frequently as I imagine, and women supposedly outnumber men. I’ve heard a number of explanations as to why this is so, including that the Kazakh diet includes a great deal of lamb, which predisposes the womb to create girl babies. Personally, I’ve come to suspect that it is because men are the primary disease vectors in Kazakhstan: whenever a man enters a room, either custom or habit dictates that he shake hands with all the other men present – but only nod greeting to the women (if that). Therefore, the men are passing all sorts of germs to each other while the women stay safe, quarantined in their invisible cage of casual chauvinism. While I’ve started to adapt to the hand-shaking routine, I also carry a handy bottle of Purell.

But the truth is sadder. The average life expectancy for Kazakhs is now 67 years – a level it’s maintained since before 1980 – but according to the UN, men can expect only to live to 61 whereas women live until 72 on average. A quick look at a chart of global life expectancies shows, first, that such a large divergence is unusual globally; and second, that it is particularly unusual in countries with life expectancies below the global average. That is to say, in countries with shorter life expectancies, the averages for both sexes tend to converge. However, the chart also demonstrates that the dramatic difference between male and female life expectancy is characteristic of the post-Soviet countries.

This suggests that the 6:1 women-to-men ratio is the product of early male death in former Soviet states, which in turn must be explained by social conditions prevalent in these countries. What kills off the men? Anecdotally, I’ve learned that there are several possible reasons: First, men of a certain age here have almost all worked in hard labor either in industrial factories with few employee protections or in agriculture, and the flat steppe makes for backbreaking farming. Second, many Kazakh men were killed first in World War II and then in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Third, alcoholism and chain-smoking are endemic in most of the post-Soviet republics. I heard once that the leading cause of death for men in Russia was drunk driving accidents.

But if this is the case, then the demographic imbalance towards women should only be evident in certain age cohorts, such as the population over 60. Confirming this, I’ve been told by an academic geographer that for under 30s (or thereabouts), the gender imbalance is less pronounced, if present at all. The younger generations are closer to gender parity, unlike in China. However, I have one reason to doubt this. The post-Soviet relative poverty of the Central Asian countries (a pit out of which Kazakhstan alone among its neighbors appears to have the prospect of emerging) drives a large amount of labor migration to Russia. Therefore, while the young men might not be dead, men of a certain socio-economic status are simply not here any longer. Whether labor migration contributes significantly to the rumored 6:1 imbalance, I have no idea, but it’s a theory. It also suggests that the gender imbalance would be greater in the other Central Asian republics, which are poorer and generally have greater numbers of labor migrants.

Regardless of the facts of the matter, however, the belief in and perception of an overabundance of young women is generally understood to be driving another trend about which I’ve written before: young Chinese men (of which there is a statistical overabundance in China relative to Chinese women) are coming to Kazakhstan and marrying local girls. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Kazakh girls who fear being unwed are getting imported husbands. On the other, this is seen as a potential avenue by which China will eventually exert its power – economic and demographic – over Kazakhstan.

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