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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Man Who Wants to Keep Russia Sober

MTYarygin, standing by the portrait of Dovzhenko, was the top anti-alcohol propagandist.
It's not easy being the man charged with keeping Russians sober. In fact, in a country that loves its booze, it's a next-to-impossible task.

Vladimir Yarygin, head of the All-Russian Temperance Society, used to run one of the most powerful organizations in the country. Just 15 years ago, he enjoyed generous financing from the ruling Communist Party, an enormous network of 84 affiliates across Russia and a spacious office in central Moscow with a 30-member staff devoted to keeping vodka out of the hands of Russians.

These days, the All-Russian Temperance Society consists of three people who work for free. The only support it gets from the Communist Party is in words.

"Only the most devoted are left now," Yarygin, 65, said in a recent interview in the organization's tiny two-room office. Behind him hangs a painting of revered perestroika-era doctor Alexander Dovzhenko.

The Soviet government offered the post to Yarygin, twice awarded the title of hero of Socialist Labor, shortly after then-President Mikhail Gorbachev outlawed alcohol in 1986.

"At that time it was a customary practice to attract people with merit to high-profile undertakings like this," Yarygin recalled.

In return, he was promised a Moscow apartment, which he declined.

Equipped with the slogan "Temperance is the Norm of Life," the All-Russian Temperance Society has during its existence spearheaded a huge propaganda drive promoting a healthy lifestyle. Among its activities were lectures on the evils of drinking that even nondrinkers had to attend.

The society printed hundreds of titles on treating alcoholism, as well as compilations of proverbs and sayings about Russians' relationship with vodka, which was introduced to the country in the 16th century.

Yarygin is proud of his work, saying that he believes the movement's books, brochures, lectures and group meetings with alcoholics have kept many thousands of people sober.

His favorite project, launched together with the Railways Ministry, was called "A Train of Sobriety." Dozens of anti-alcohol campaigners traveled across Russia on a train, warning about the dangers of making friends with the enemy vodka.

Yarygin made few friends with his line of work. Millions of Russians hated prohibition and Gorbachev for introducing it.

Gorbachev cut vodka production and ordered ancient vineyards in Moldova and Crimea to be destroyed.

Alcoholic beverages were sold for limited hours and never late at night, when demand typically grew. Police regularly approached people in increasingly long lines outside shops selling alcohol to demand an explanation about why they were not at work.

Brides and grooms were strongly recommended to have alcohol-free weddings with tea and soft drinks instead of champagne and vodka. It was not unheard of for cognac and vodka to be placed in innocent-looking teapots and discreetly served to guests at wedding parties.

Some 200,000 men ended up in so-called preventive treatment camps, a group of colonies where men suspected of having a fondness for the bottle spent two years getting treatment through labor. The camps were abolished by a parliamentary decree only in 1993.

The government trumpeted prohibition as a success, pulling out statistics showing that life expectancy for men was slightly rising. Nevertheless, the number of deaths from often lethal moonshine was also soaring.

But all too quickly alcohol proved to be even more powerful than the Soviet government. The Kremlin began phasing out prohibition in 1987.

Drinking reached Brezhnev-era highs by 1992, about the time Gorbachev was ousted from office by Boris Yeltsin, himself known for a propensity for drinking. "Everything changed under Yeltsin," Yarygin said. "He fancied drinking, and everybody stopped paying attention to us."

Yarygin, who keeps his temperance job for old times' sake, also continues to work as a lathe operator in his Moscow regional hometown of Elektrostal. He has worked at the factory for 50 years.

He acknowledged that many of the measures adopted by the Soviet government only helped increase alcohol consumption, but still considers the cause a noble calling.

"Something had to be done with drinking anyway," said the man who once believed that his propaganda would cure the masses. "I now figure it is better to help two or three people than try to save the nation."