Background Between 1987 and 1994, life expectancy in Russia declined substantially. Between 1994 and 1998, this trend reversed, and mortality rates returned to those of the early 1980s. Although the decline in life expectancy has been examined previously, much less is known about the subsequent improvement in mortality rates. We used recently published cause-specific mortality data up to 1998 to clarify this issue. Methods Changes in cause-specific death rates at ages 15-74 years were examined. Rates for 1998 were compared with those for 1994 (the year of lowest life expectancy) and for 1991 (the year the Soviet Union broke up). Findings Death rates among children fell steadily throughout the 1990s, and those in elderly people changed little. The reduction in mortality since 1994 was mainly due to a decrease in the death rate among middle-aged adults, which had increased until 1994. Deaths among those aged 15-30 years, which rose during 1991-94, remained high. Some causes of death, such as stomach cancer and road-traffic accidents, declined throughout the 1990s, whereas others, such as breast and prostate cancers and tuberculosis, increased. The decline in mortality since 1994 was, however, mainly due to a reduction in the rate of deaths from a group of causes associated with alcohol consumption. Interpretation The changing life expectancy in Russia is a consequence of a complex pattern of trends in different causes of death, some of which have their origins long in the past, and others that result from contemporary circumstances. This study provides further support for the view that alcohol has played an important part in the fluctuations In life expectancy in Russia in the 1990s, although there remains a need for a much better understanding of the factors underlying these continuing changes.