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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Stench of Death and Alcohol in Pskov

MTSergei Morshchinin, 46, lying in room No. 6 at the Pskov city hospital. Nurses expect his bed will soon be vacant.
PSKOV -- Sergei Morshchinin's face had turned a sickly yellow. So had the whites of his eyes. His head and arms were bandaged. His bedsheets were splattered with blood.

Morshchinin, 46, had been in room No. 6 on the fourth floor of the Pskov city hospital since Sept. 22. Nurses expect his bed, one of six in the room, to free up in a matter of days.

"The sooner the better," said Svetlana, 26, the on-duty nurse. "We have patients lining up in the hallway."

The former construction worker, his liver irreparably damaged, had been diagnosed with toxic hepatitis from bad alcohol, Svetlana said. The yellow discoloration, or jaundice, was just one of his symptoms. Others included vomiting, weight loss, fatigue and urine dark with blood.

"Seryozha will be gone soon," she said. "He can't possibly recover."

From mid-September through the end of October, 530 people poisoned with bad alcohol have been hospitalized in the Pskov region. Of those, 326 are men, and 204 are women, according to the Federal Consumer Protection Service. About 10 percent of the victims are homeless. Another 10 percent have homes and jobs. Eighty percent are unemployed.

The region has been one of the hardest hit by a nationwide, toxic hepatitis epidemic that has left thousands hospitalized and scores dead. The epidemic was spawned by a state crackdown on illegal alcohol, which drove up the price of legal booze and led many to buy black market vodka and other spirits with industrial alcohol unfit for drinking. Now federal officials are calling for a state monopoly on the sale and distribution of alcohol.

In Pskov, there are mixed signs of what is to come.

"We are hoping this is the peak, but the last three days have seen an increase in hospitalized victims," the region's vice governor, Yury Demyanenko, said at a recent news conference at Pskov's central government building.

Nikolai Merkushev, head of the consumer protection service, said tough policing had helped bring the epidemic under control. Health officials say the 10-day incubation period of toxic hepatitis has also helped.

But the reek of sickness and death, the gloominess, the sense of helplessness that permeates the Pskov city hospital is not encouraging.

Valentina Trofimova, a nurse whose job it is to admit patients, could hardly muster the energy to register yet another case of toxic hepatitis on a recent evening.

"There, that's 28 cases today," Trofimova said, resting her pen on a pile of forms and cracking a wan smile. "Can I go home now?"

But just as she was about to end her 31-hour shift, another "yellow person," as they're now dubbed, stumbled into her office.

"Not you, too," Trofimova said to the homeless man known simply as Slava. Trofimova told Slava to come back in three days, after the weekend and the national holiday on Monday.

"I know he needs treatment sooner rather than later, but I don't have any patience for these drunks," she said.

With that, she packed her stethoscope into her bag and left.

The hospital is, quite literally, running out of compassion.

As Trofimova exited the building, she nearly ran into a homeless woman splayed on the frozen ground outside, her face and hands covered in blood.

"Help me up, please, I fell," the woman slurred. Trofimova walked off.

Another older nurse indicated that passers-by shouldn't worry about the bleeding woman. "It's okay," the nurse said. "She doesn't need help because she's not poisoned. She's just drunk. Leave her."

The tips of the woman's fingers had turned black from the cold. Local weather reports said the temperature had dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius. The wind was merciless.

"Yes, she could die," the nurse conceded. "But where can we put her? We have no space. The hospital is full of yellow people."

Alexander Belenky / MT
Nurses say there are more "yellow people" than the hospital can handle.
Plumbing the Problem

Merkushev, of the consumer protection service, believes the number of yellow people has peaked and will gradually begin to ebb. Local authorities credit a state of emergency declared last month with restoring order. The state of emergency gave police more power to check private property without warning, deputy police chief Gennady Afanasyev said.

A series of coordinated raids on apartments, market stalls, grocery stores and kiosks had led police to confiscate 6,564 liters of hazardous liquids, Merkushev and other officials said. Almost all the seized liquids either contained or were totally composed of industrial alcohol.

But as the police have unearthed networks of illegal alcohol coursing through the Pskov region, they have also discovered the problem may be more complex than expected.

While the illegal cocktails are 96 percent ethanol -- which is also used in legal alcoholic beverages -- the remaining 4 percent that is added by bootleggers remains a mystery, said Yelena Petrova, who works in the city police department's laboratory.

Critically, Petrova said, "we believe that whatever they're adding to the ethanol is really harmful and probably to blame for the poisonings."

Further complicating matters is the easy access locals have to illegal alcohol, Boris Osipov of the city police department's consumer markets division said.

As Osipov explained, large factories in the St. Petersburg area produce alcohol for any number of industrial or commercial purposes -- household cleaning goods, antifreeze and other items. The alcohol is then sold to suppliers legally, who make the roughly 250-kilometer trek from Pskov regularly to buy their wares. The suppliers then illegally sell it to an array of middlemen working out of private apartments in the city. The suppliers get 90 percent of the profit from these illicit sales; the middlemen get 10 percent.

Sometimes suppliers sell their wares to kiosks and small grocery stores, Osipov said.

Suppliers, Osipov said, have gone to great lengths to mask the provenance of their alcohol -- for instance, using empty bottles of legitimate brands such as Prestige vodka, and including water or cheap wine to alter the taste and look of the alcohol.

"It's so simple," Osipov said, half grinning. "We are used to working with counterfeit goods, but not deadly poison."

Alexander Belenky / MT
Hundreds have been hospitalized from the Pskov region for toxic hepatitis.

A Toxic Culture

Situated about 20 kilometers east of Russia's border with Estonia, Pskov was until the 1950s a largely agrarian area. In recent years, machine-building factories, food-processing plants and lumber production facilities, among other private, public and joint-stock companies, have supplied many regional jobs.

But low public-sector wages have prompted many teachers, doctors and research scientists to flee the area for Moscow or St. Petersburg. In some cases, driving cabs has proven more lucrative than teaching schoolchildren. Vladimir Zhurkov, 40, a former schoolteacher, said he used to make $80 per month; now he shuttles people around town, making up to $40 daily.

Health officials here say the region's depressed economy provides a natural culture medium for alcoholism, homelessness and the recent outbreak of toxic hepatitis.

Irina, 32, a homeless woman who often found shelter in warmer months under a tree near the railroad station, said she used to drink a half-liter bottle of anything alcoholic she could get her hands on everyday. Each bottle went for 20 rubles (75 cents), Irina said, and could be bought at one of any number of apartments not far from the tracks.

Now, with the government shutting down illegal alcohol outfits, she has a harder time getting cheap alcohol.

Irina, who declined to give her last name, had spent the better part of the day drinking. With evening setting in, she set out on the 10-minute walk across snow-covered train tracks to the bungalow where the alcohol used to be sold. As a slowly moving train neared, Irina tripped and fell, only to push on.

Several barking dogs could be heard guarding the bungalow. "When you really need a drink, that barking sounds like pleasant music," Irina said. Then she ducked into the bungalow, emerging empty-handed five minutes later. Her supplier, Igor, she said, had been raided by police the day before.

With illegal sellers like Igor on their way out, Irina has been forced to find alcohol elsewhere.

"We just drink this stuff," she said, holding aloft a 100-milliliter bottle of Nastoika Boyaryshnika, an over-the-counter medicine for correcting arrhythmic heart beats.

Those who take Nastoika Boyaryshnika, which is 70 percent pure alcohol, are advised to consume just 15 drops per day, barely a half-teaspoon. Irina ingests 150 milliliters, or 1 1/2 bottles, on a daily average. Each bottle costs 9 rubles (34 cents).

The Fateful Night

Like Irina, Sergei Morshchinin didn't care much where his alcohol came from.

On the evening of Sept. 10, two friends paid him a visit at his two-room apartment on the southern fringe of the city. They came bearing gifts, including a bottle of fake cognac called "Konyak," which they had bought at a nearby grocery store. The alcohol ran for 119 rubles ($4.45). Everyone knew full well that it wasn't for real.

For the next two hours, the trio chatted and drank and chatted and drank. After his friends left, Morshchinin kept drinking.

The next week, Morshchinin said, he felt a bit weak at his construction job, which used to bring in $150 monthly. He didn't think too much of it, having shaken off numerous hangovers.

Then on Sept. 22, Morshchinin awoke with a terrible, mind-numbing headache. "I was in agony," he said. He got out of bed, planning to walk to the hospital. He didn't make it to the front door.

Now he sits in room No. 6, sharing his last few days alive with five other men. The room is small and dimly lit. An IV drip stands between two beds.

A nurse rings a bell, and those patients who are able to get out of bed traipse down the hall for their third meal of the day of curd cheese and nothing else. Sometimes, they also get fruit.

Morshchinin is in no position to get out of bed. Struggling to speak, he said: "Would I drink that rubbish again? Probably not."