How Alcohol Conquered Russia

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To date, there have been only two expansive anti-alcohol campaigns in Russia, both of which took place during the Soviet Union: one under Vladimir Lenin and the other under Mikhail Gorbachev. All other leaders have either ignored alcoholism or acknowledged heavy alcohol consumption but did nothing substantial about it. As Critchlow wrote, “Under the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev regimes, harsh penalties were imposed on those who committed crimes while intoxicated, but heavy drinking was not viewed as a threat to society, perhaps because the leaders, who themselves liked to indulge, saw the use of alcohol as a safety valve for low morale.”

“Gorbachev announced ... legislation in May 1985, after a large-scale media campaign publicizing the Kremlin’s new war on alcoholism—the third most common Soviet ailment after heart disease and cancer,” Nomi Morris and Jack Redden wrote in Maclean’s.

It was largely seen as the most determined and effective plan to date: The birthrate rose, life expectancy increased, wives started seeing their husbands more, and work productivity improved. However, after a spike in alcohol prices and a decrease in state alcohol production, some started hoarding sugar to make moonshine, and others poisoned themselves with substances such as antifreeze, as Erofeyev points out. The people’s displeasure with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign can be summarized by an old Soviet joke: “There was this long line for vodka, and one poor guy couldn’t stand it any longer: ‘I’m going to the Kremlin, to kill Gorbachev,’ he said. An hour later, he came back. The line was still there, and everyone asked him, ‘Did you kill him?’ ‘Kill him?!’ he responded. ‘The line for that’s even longer than this one!’”

 Despite Gorbachev’s efforts, by the end of the Soviet era, alcoholism still had a stronghold in Russia. Its success ultimately lead to its failure: spending on alcohol from state outlets fell by billions of rubles between 1985 and 1987. Authorities expected that the loss in revenue would be offset by a predicted 10 percent rise in productivity, but such predictions were ultimately not met.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the state’s monopoly over alcohol was repealed in 1992, which lead to an exponential increase in alcohol supply. In 1993, alcohol consumption had reached 14.5 liters of pure alcohol per person, as the journal World Health found in 1995, making Russians some of the heaviest drinkers in the world. 

To date, “taxation on alcohol remains low, with the cheapest bottles of vodka costing just 30 rubles ($1) each,” as Tom Parfitt explained in the Lancet in 2006. “There is a simple answer to why so many Russians fall prey to alcohol…it’s cheap. Between 30-60% of alcohol is clandestinely made, and therefore untaxed. A large quantity is run off on ‘night shifts’ at licensed factories where state inspectors are bribed to remove tags on production lines at the end of the working day.”

Vladimir Putin has criticized excessive drinking, and Dmitri Medvedev has called Russia’s alcoholism a “natural disaster,” but besides the rhetoric, little has been done to tighten regulations on the manufacture of liquor, and no coherent programs have been implemented to combat alcoholism. Gennady Onishchenko, Chief Public Health Inspector of the Russian Federation, has urged major spending on the treatment of alcoholism as a response to the tripling of alcohol-related mortality since 1990, arguing that prohibition and excise tax hikes are counterproductive.

Today, the dominant “treatment for alcoholism in Russia are suggestion-based methods developed by narcology—the subspecialty of Russian psychiatry which deals with addiction,” as Eugene Raikhel wrote in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Narcology, otherwise referred to as ‘coding’, is a procedure intended to create a subconscious aversion to alcohol, as Critchlow explained.

“While many aspects of addiction treatment in Russia had been radically transformed during the 1990s, the overall structure of the state-funded network had not changed significantly since the 1970s, when the Soviet narcological system was established,” wrote Eugene Raikhel of the University of Chicago. Other, less common methods that have been used to treat alcohol and drug addiction include brain “surgery” with a needle and “boiling” patients by raising their body temperatures, as Critchlow noted, which is intended to ease severe withdrawal symptoms. Conventional treatments for alcoholism, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are available in Russia, but they are not officially recognized by the Kremlin and do not receive government funds, making them scarce and very poorly funded.

The Russian Orthodox Church has met self-help programs with suspicion as well. Critchlow explained, “Despite their record of success with many alcoholics and drug addicts, the self-help programs Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous . . . have [been] met with resistance in Russia, especially from the medical profession, government officials, and the Russian Orthodox Church clergy.” She further wrote, “Members of the Russian Orthodox clergy have expressed distrust of the self-help movement, often because of the perception of it as a religious cult invading the country.”

In 2010, the Church described AA as an "effective instrument in rehabilitating drug and alcohol addicts,” while saying it would develop its own alcohol program.

 Meanwhile, many Russians still prefer more traditional remedies. "I went to the AA and I couldn't believe my ears. They have no God and they say that they conquer alcoholism themselves. That fills them with pride," one Orthodox believer wrote on his blog. "I went back to the Church. There, they conquer it with prayer and fasting.”

 

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Stan Fedun is a masters student in political science at the University of Toronto.

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