The changes in Russian mortality rates during the last two decades are unprecedented in a modern industrialized country. Although these fluctuations have attracted much interest, trends for major groups of causes of death have been analysed while trends in specific causes of death might shed light on the underlying determinants. We analysed trends in total and cause-specific mortality in Russia for 1991-2006. The records of 24 836 forensic autopsies carried out during the period 1990-2004 in the city of Barnaul were analysed with respect to blood alcohol level. Diseases of the circulatory system (in the age group 35-69 years) and external causes (in the age group 15-34 years) were the main contributors to the fluctuations in Russian mortality rates observed in 1991-2006. The largest relative changes were for conditions directly related to alcohol intake. Among cardiovascular diseases, fluctuations were due to 'other forms' of acute and chronic ischaemia, and to atherosclerotic heart disease, while rates of myocardial infarction were low and relatively constant. In the autopsy series a very high proportion of decedents whose death was attributed to 'other' or 'not classified' cardiovascular diseases had lethal or potentially lethal concentrations of ethanol in blood. The increases in mortality in 1991-94 and in 1998-2003 coincided with economic and societal crisis, while decreases in 1994-98 and 2003-06 correlate with improvement in the economic situation. Excessive alcohol intake is a major cause of premature male Russian mortality, although many alcohol-related deaths are wrongly attributed to diseases of the circulatory system.