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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Consumption of Alcohol on the Rise




In the six years that he led the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev saved more than a half-million lives, according to some academics -- but not because of any military or political decision.


Gorbachev waged an all-out war on alcoholism, using the classically repressive apparatus of the Soviet State. Warehouses were destroyed; illegal sellers were jailed; vodka prices were artificially hiked; and police got free rein to arrest public drinkers.


But in 1988, the campaign collapsed, a surprise victim of Gorbachev's own political reforms. And now, alcohol has so regained its stature that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist presidential hopeful, raises campaign funds selling his own brand of vodka, picturing him on the label.


The results, experts say, are palpable. A recent study by the Russian National Academy of Sciences concluded that Gorbachev saved 600,000 lives over three years, dropping the combined incidence of alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver, and alcohol-induced violence and accidents to 179 deaths per 100,000 in 1988, a level not seen since 1965.


But since then, per capita consumption has jumped by 600 percent and incidences of alcohol-related deaths are following suit. Government figures from 1995 -- the latest available -- show a rate approaching 500 per 100,000, in contrast to a U.S. rate in 1995 of just 77.


Murray Feshbach, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, has visited Russia regularly since 1972. He says Russians are not only drinking more than they have in the past, they're also drinking more dangerously. What is marketed as vodka or whiskey in Moscow may be anything from 100-proof genuine vodka to "rot-gut moonshine," watered-down aftershave or jet fuel.


And much of the booze is sold in pop-top, nonresealable bottles that prompt the drinker to consume the entire contents in a single sitting.


"It's not just that consumption is high," Feshbach said. "It's the way they consume. It's chug-a-lug vodka drinking that starts at the office during the morning coffee break and goes right into the nighttime."


This form of abusive binge drinking is historic in the region, although not at the levels now being evidenced, experts add. Two Russian customs add to the problem: one, that a vodka bottle once opened must be finished, never recorked; and two, that a shot glass of vodka must be downed in one gulp. Violation of either custom within the male community, in particular, is roundly considered rude and insulting to one's host, and prima facie evidence of a lack of manhood. Drinking on the job, in fact, is a practice that cuts across all levels of society and gender, experts say. For example, Newsday found it was not uncommon for physicians to drink steadily on the job, though they often condemn its effects overall.


At a Moscow hospital, Newsday joined a cognac party among doctors, held on a weekday at 10 a.m. In the arctic city of Talnakh, a group of four pulmonary physicians downed a bottle of champagne and a couple of rounds of cognac over lunch -- a routine break, they said. And in the physicians lounge at a Kiev hospital, surgeons relaxed between operations by sharing bottles of vodka.


But while drinking is considered a "social necessity" in much of the former Soviet Union, it also causes some decidedly anti-social behavior -- a huge increase in day-to-day violence that is placing an uncomfortable burden on a health care system already on the ropes.


The problem isn't only among young men, many Russians said. Arrests of teenagers for alcohol-related crimes have more than tripled since 1991, and suicide rates, which many health experts link directly to drinking, also are on the rise.


In Novosibirsk, Siberia, the 888 Club is a hip oasis filled with ironic Communist memorabilia displayed as kitsch, complete with an empty, but bona fide, nuclear bomb shell painted with a bright red star and the letters C.C.C.P., Cyrillic for U.S.S.R. Adolescent artists and college intellectuals huddle in niches throughout the labyrinthine nightclub, drinking, smoking and debating their futures.


"What is a Russian?" one group is asked.


"Drinking," 18-year-old Alex answers. "And loneliness. No one is lonelier than a Russian."


Later, when the discussion turns to alcohol's effects on their future, Sergei, who is 22, blurts out a bit of his past. "I tried to commit suicide," he says, pulling up his sleeve to reveal the scars of slit wrists.


"Me too!" Alex says, displaying a similar set of scars and, quickly, all five of the young men roll up their sleeves to the astonishment of a reporter, excitedly comparing suicide methods and scarred reminders.


Sergei then silences the group when he takes a reporter's hand and raises it to his right temple. "Here, feel this," he says, as the visitor traces the outline of a bullet lodged in his skull, left over from his last failed attempt. "I thought suicide was the best drug."


Psychologist Anna Terentjeva says the feelings expressed by the young men of Novosibirsk are typical of what she's heard throughout the region. On the staff of the Moscow-based drug group NAN, a Russian acronym for No to Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, she routinely sees young men and women similar to those described at 888 Club.


The issue for many of these young men and women, "has to do with recognizing oneself, one's identity," she said, adding, "they think they have nothing else" other than alcohol or drugs.


It is an alternative that is easily available, legal and fairly cheap, she points out.


While export-quality vodka, such as Stolichnaya Cristall, sells for about $30 a liter in Moscow or Kiev, few local people would dream of wasting their money on such a product. Most vodka is sold for less than $8 a liter, and some is available for a dollar.


"Between December 1990 and December 1994, consumer prices [in Russia] increased by 2,020 times for all goods and services, by 2,154 times for food products, but only 653 times for alcoholic beverages," states a recent report issued jointly by the California-based Rand Corp. and Moscow's Center for Demography and Human Ecology. "This means that over this period, in relative terms, alcohol became over three times cheaper than these other products."


In 1996, distilled alcohol consumption in Russia -- combining officially recorded and estimated black market sales -- reached a new high of 15 liters of pure alcohol a year for every man, woman and child. Assuming most children weren't drinking, adjusted adult consumption was 18 liters a year of pure alcohol, or the rough equivalent of 38 liters of 100-proof vodka, according to the Russian Health Ministry.


By comparison, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland, says the consumption rate for American adults annually is 8 liters, or less than half that of Russians.