Russia battling ruinous penchant for the bottle

Highs and lows

They always do. Such is Russia’s ruinous penchant for the bottle — and the challenge facing a new government policy to curb it.

First to be escorted in by police officers was a construction worker named Damir M Askerkhanov, who said he had been bingeing on vodka and beer — “This is my very own holiday!” — before he was found stumbling about in the cold. At 23, he admitted that he had already been picked up intoxicated twice recently. “Only even drunker,” he said.

Sergey A Yurovsky, 36, who is studying to be a government clerk, arrived next, mumbling and getting tangled up in his sweater when he was asked to take it off for a brief medical exam. After he was moved to a room to sober up, and dozed off, officers showed up with Larisa V Lobachyova, 53, whose hair was matted with dirt from a fall.

“It is this way all the time,” said Inspector Igor I Poludnitsyn, who has supervised the drunk tank for seven years. “It is our national calamity.” Russia’s president, Dmitri A Medvedev, has been voicing that sentiment a lot lately, declaring that the government must do something about the country’s status as a world leader in alcohol consumption.
The Kremlin has already vanquished one vice this year, casino gambling, which it all but banned in July. But drinking — vodka in particular — is another thing entirely. It is a mainstay of Russian life, both a beloved social lubricant and a ready means for escaping everyday hardship.

Medvedev is seeking steeper penalties on the sale of alcohol to minors, as well as a crackdown on beer, which has grown more popular among young people.  Beer sales at kiosks would be banned, as would large beer containers. The government may seek more control over the market for vodka, still the most common alcoholic beverage.

Anti-alcohol campaigns

His plan, though, follows a long line of failed anti-alcohol campaigns here, going back centuries. The most notable was pressed by Mikhail S Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who in the mid-1980s ordered shelves emptied of vodka and historic vineyards razed. Those measures succeeded at first, resulting in a nationwide bout of temperance that even increased life expectancy.

But they also touched off a severe public backlash that damaged the standing of Gorbachev and the Communist Party, and he eventually  relented.

In recent years, as Russia has rebounded and engaged more with the world, alcohol has hindered its development. Foreign companies that operate here are particularly aware of the toll as they grapple with lower productivity.

Russians consume roughly 4.75 gallons of pure alcohol a person annually, more than double the level that the World Health Organisation considers a health threat.  The country will have difficulty resolving its demographic crisis — its population is predicted to drop nearly 20 percent by 2050 — if it does not confront its alcohol problem. Life expectancy for Russian men is now 60 years, in part because of alcoholism.

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