. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Alcoholic Myth

The Russian press is unanimous in attributing the high mortality rate of Russian males to the excessive use of alcohol. Similar explanations are widespread among Western experts. It is true that Russia now holds first place in the world in the yearly level consumption of pure alcohol, which was 14.5 liters per person in 1994. But this was not always the case.

In the 1970s, the consumption of alcohol, in the form of wine, was higher in France and Italy than in Russia today. (In France, consumption reached 17.6 liters of pure alcohol per year and 16 liters in Italy.) At that time, France and Italy had the highest mortality rate in Europe from cirrhosis of the liver. International statistics, however, do not confirm a direct link between the level of alcohol consumption and average life expectancy. Moreover, an increase in alcohol consumption usually reflects the rise in a country's economic prosperity. Alcoholic drinks are not staple products. As a result, expenditure on alcohol is higher in countries where the population has more surplus income after satisfying its basic needs. In the 1970s, the number of registered alcoholics was highest in the world's richest country at that time, the United States.

At various periods between 1980 and 1991, Russian health centers have recorded between 2.5 to 2.9 million people diagnosed for alcoholism, a relatively lower level than in the United States or France. But in Western countries, the recognition that alcoholism is hazardous to the health has provoked campaigns against it through sales tax on alcohol and duties on imported wine and spirits. As a result, the price of alcoholic drinks has steadily risen there and has always exceeded the rate of inflation.

In the Soviet Union, the growth in alcohol consumption between 1970 and 1982 was also connected to a rise in the population's income. Rather than using the well-tried means of lowering consumption of alcohol by increasing prices, however, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev adopted measures in 1985 to curtail the production and sale of vodka, wine and beer. Predictably, the result was a rise in the illegal production of home brew, which by 1987, exceeded the production of vodka in state distilleries. The rate of alcohol poisoning began to rise correspondingly.

The period of reform between 1992 and 1993 marked a turn in the rate alcohol consumption. During those two years, and to a lesser extent in 1994 and 1995, the consumption of alcohol rose rapidly even though incomes and most people's standard of living fell sharply. The incomes of approximately half the families in Russia dropped below the minimum subsistence level, whereas alcohol consumption sharply increased. There was also a rise in the consumption of tobacco products, although not as steep.

There is an absurd theory, which the press tends to support, that Russians have a innate proclivity to abuse alcohol. This is untrue. Any nation will drink too much if state policy encourages this. The sharp rise in alcoholism in Russia in recent years can be linked quite directly to government policy. At the beginning of 1992, President Boris Yeltsin signed two decrees which abolished the state monopoly of vodka production and removed all controls on the sale of alcoholic beverages. In a short period of time, dozens of new types of vodka of unknown origin had appeared, and they were sold from boxes on the pavements and alongside roads. No other country in the world has ever experienced such freedom in the sale of alcohol. At the same time, the uncontrolled import of duty-free alcohol was permitted, and numerous organizations which previously had nothing to do with the sale of spirits -- sports, veteran and invalid organizations -- were given special licenses to import this duty-free alcohol. Thus, a vast stream of cheap, duty-free foreign drink arrived in Russia.

As a result, vodka became extremely cheap. The average salary's purchasing power in relation to basic foodstuffs fell four-fold between 1992 and 1993, whereas it tripled in relation to vodka in the same period. The government seemed to be making a conscious effort to stimulate the consumption of alcohol (and, from 1994, of imported tobacco, which also fell in price) by making vodka accessible even to the poorest people.

This "opium for the masses" perhaps explains how Russian state property could be redistributed and state enterprises transferred into private hands so rapidly without provoking any serious social unrest. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan fell far behind Russia in bringing about such economic transformation. But they also fell behind Russia in the number of cases of poisoning, suicide, homicide and heart diseases. In 1992, Russia ranked first in the world in the number of fatal alcohol poisoning cases (48,342 men and 14,555 women). The huge increase in the number of suicides, particularly among men, from 26,796 in 1988 to 46,016 men in 1993 can also be linked in part to alcoholism.

But the reduction in average life expectancy in Russia cannot be attributed to alcohol abuse alone. Between 1992 and 1994, mortality from infectious diseases rose sharply in Russia. Approximately 20,000 people per year are dying at present from tuberculosis. This is the result of poverty and the collapse of health and epidemiological services.

In 1995, when the most acute phase of the reform and redistribution of property had ended, the Russian government tried to bring some order back to the anarchy in the production, import and sale of alcohol. Customs duties were imposed on imported alcohol. Controls were introduced on the quality and sale of alcohol. Vodka had played its part in reducing conflict during the acute period of reform; now it has become necessary to return it to its previous function of contributing revenues to the budget. One must hope that as this process gradually takes place, the nation's health will be restored.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of "Soviet Science," "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals" and "The Legacy of Chernobyl." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.