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How Alcohol Conquered Russia

  1. Rob Cypher
    A history of the country’s struggle with alcoholism, and why the government has done so little about it.

    Picture the Russian alcoholic: nose rosy, face unshaven, a bottle of vodka firmly grasped in his hands. By his side he has a half-empty jar of pickles and a loaf of rye bread to help the devilish substance go down. The man is singing happily from alcohol-induced jubilation. His world may not be perfect, but the inebriation makes it seem that way.

    Today, according to the World Health Organization, one in five men in the Russia Federation die due to alcohol-related causes, compared with 6.2 percent of all men globally. In 2000, in her article “First Steps: AA and Alcoholism in Russia,” Patricia Critchlow estimated that some 20 million Russians are alcoholics in a nation of just 144 million.

    The Russian alcoholic was an enduring fixture during the Tsarist times, during the times of the Russian Revolution, the times of the Soviet Union, during the transition from socialist autocracy to capitalist democracy, and he continues to exist in Russian society today. He sits on broken park benches or train station steps with a cigarette drooping out of his mouth, thinking about where his next drink will come from and whether he can afford it.

    The Russian government has repeatedly tried to combat the problem, but to little avail: this includes four reforms prior to 1917, and larger scale measures taken during the Soviet period in 1958, 1972, and 1985. “After each drastically stepped-up anti-alcohol campaign, [Russian] society found itself faced with an even greater spread of drunkenness and alcoholism,” explains G.G. Zaigraev, professor of Sociological Sciences and Head Science Associate of the Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Kremlin’s own addiction to liquor revenues has overturned many efforts to wean Russians from the snifter: Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink their last kopecks away in state-owned taverns to help pad the emperor’s purse. Before Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the 1980s, Soviet leaders welcomed alcohol sales as a source of state revenue and did not view heavy drinking as a significant social problem. In 2010, Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, explained that the best thing Russians can do to help, “the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.”

    By facilitating alcohol sales and distribution, the Kremlin has historically had considerable sway in recent decades. But Russia’s history with alcohol goes back centuries.

    In the year 988, Prince Vladimir decided to convert his nation to Orthodox Christianity, partly because it allowed the consumption of alcohol. According to legend, monks at the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin were the first to lay their lips on vodka in the late 15th century, but as Russian writer, Victor Erofeyev notes, “Almost everything about this story seems overly symbolic: the involvement of men of God, the name of the monastery, which no longer exists (chudov means “miraculous”), and its setting in the Russian capital.” In 1223, when the Russian army suffered a devastating defeat against the invading Mongols and Tartars, it was partly because they had gone into battle drunk.

    Ivan the Terrible established kabaks (where spirits were produced and sold) in the 1540s, and in the 1640s they gained monopoly status. In 1648, tavern revolts broke out across the country, by which time a third of the male population was in debt to the taverns. In the 1700s, to regain order, Peter the Great monopolized the vodka industry and used his subjects’ alcoholism for personal gain. As Heidi Brown, who spent 10 years covering Russia for Forbes magazine, explained, “[Peter the Great] decreed that the wives of peasants should be whipped if they dared attempt to drag their imbibing husbands out of taverns before the men were ready to leave.”

    Peter the Great also found a steady supply of free labor by allowing those who had drunk themselves into debt to stay out of debtors prison by serving 25 years in the army.

    Widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was not only tolerated, but encouraged as a way of generating revenue. By the 1850s, nearly half the tsarist government’s tax revenues came from vodka sales. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin banned vodka. After his death, however, Stalin used vodka sales to help pay for the socialist industrialization of the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, receipts from alcohol again constituted a third of government revenues. One study found that alcohol consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, to 15.2 liters per person.

    It has been argued that heavy consumption of alcohol was also used as a means of reducing political dissent and as a form of political suppression. Russian historian and dissident Zhores Medvedev argued in 1996, “This ‘opium for the masses’ [vodka] perhaps explains how Russian state property could be redistributed and state enterprises transferred into private ownership so rapidly without invoking any serious social unrest.” Vodka, always a moneymaker in Russia, may have been a regime-maker as well.


    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 brushed alcoholism under the carpet 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.”

    In May 1985, Gorbachev announced legislation and a large-scale media campaign as part of the Kremlin’s new war on alcoholism—then the U.S.S.R.’s number one social problem and the third most common ailment after heart disease and cancer. 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 dangerous intoxicants such as antifreeze. 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 more than offset by a predicted 10 percent rise in overall 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, making Russia one of the largest consumers of alcohol 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 mode of treatment for alcoholism in Russia is a suggestion-based method developed by narcology (the subspecialty of Russian psychiatry that deals with addiction). Narcology, otherwise referred to as ‘coding’, is a procedure intended to provoke a subconscious aversion to alcohol.

    “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, 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.”

    Stan Fedun
    The Atlantic
    September 25, 2013



  1. killer_demo
    Great article. Loved this part "by which time a third of the male population was in debt to the taverns"
  2. Alien Sex Fiend
    the things with russia are that A government has a monopoly on alcohol and makes huge money from it.

    B there is no law against drinking in public or being drunk in public. you can go to any supermarket, buy a 750ml bottle of vodka for $1(in russia it about 1.5 hour of min wage), start drinking it on the way home without hiding it and cut through a kindergarden and nobody would wink an eye, its like people in civilized places drink coffee on a street. its legal. everyone lives in apartment buildings. people normally come out to sit on a bench outside with vodka and get so shitfaced they can't get back up to the apartment

    C people use vodka to excess for a kind of temporarily freedom and happiness. There are bands that perform songs like "when you are drunk you are happy and our country is no longer a third world country." seriously.

    D that people are constantly reminded that drug users are evil and should be beaten by police, while drunks are normal because well almost everyone is a drunk, that alcohol is an anti-drug and that people drink not because they are addicts but because they have family problems. a person may very certainly go to prison for possession of one joint and get beat by cops few times on the way there. people don't say lets get drunk or lets party, its considered rude. people say lets have fun, that means they will get shitfaced

    F drunks are still "funny drunks" like they used to be in victorian times, like potheads in the west

    H people don't check ids, 12year olds buy vodka themselves from a store with no problem
  3. Basoodler

    I actually read this article last night and even checked out the english russian news pages. It seems like the russian government is always saying " don't worry about us.. Thoae places are much worse".. An example of this was an article titled "British give up traditional Tea and replace it with alcohol".. It even gave a specific figure of 41% dont drink tea . (i will post in wierd news or something later). Another example was about how american police brutality was.out of control.. Citing several specific cases that were isolated.. But makes it look like the police are beating the shit out of everyone when you list it like that. Hell from reading the russian news (moscowtimes, voice of russia, pravada.ru) you would think we were knee deep in the cold war and russia is a second away from victory.

    That bravado in the media has to come off as bullshit to anyone who has an internet connection. Hell, there was a published opinion peice that claimed the west was demonizing alcohol to open the door for drugs and homosexuality. I figure that was ment to lump anti alcohol in with illegal gay propaganda lol.

    Its almost like the government is isolated from the populaton, like the wizard of OZ standing behind his curtian trying to pretend he is magic.

    In that enviornment is it possible for community intervention with public issues like alcohol? When the press is reporting there is no alcohol problem.

    the goverent acts like the mother who knows her kid is fucked up on drugs, but finds ways to ignore it.

    Also, what the hell is the deal with the underhanded comments about democracy? its almost comical.. For example they started an article about the danish monarchy with. " the good thing about not being an elected leader is you can speak your mind and tell the truth"
  4. Alien Sex Fiend
    my grandparents are from there. they finally moved here a year ago. russia is a mix of mexico and china. all politicians are extremely corrupt. all political figures end up on top only if they have ties with mafia and kill off their opponents. Cops are the same as mafia, they work for same people, cops mug and beat people and take bribes in broad daylight. there is mandatory military service for 18year olds. the army is a group on its own and the corrupt politicians with thug friends always compete with the military to find out who is stronger. all citizens have a serious social anxiety problem. all privet residencies have metal doors. there are some barbaric laws, too. for crimes like murder one goes straight to jail, there is no bail. it doesn't exist. there is a bribe to the judge. there is white supremacism inside the country that keeps getting more and more support on top of that all.

    one cannot trust russian newspapers, russian newspapers change news around to look better than western countries, just like chinese newspapers. once something big bad happens, they just make up news.
  5. Basoodler
    Here is an example of bullshit used to enable alcoholism in russian media

    . http://en.ria.ru/business/20130813/...Kvas-Sales-of-Russian-Beverage-Bubble-up.html

    Thanks to russia, americans will get healthy by drinking alcohol!.. And whatever this fermented beet juice is popular and trendy.. Packed with alcohol and vitamins

    pinball tourneyment? .. We.actually have those?
  6. Alien Sex Fiend
    yeah thats exactly what i meant. Lol they bullshit about russia and they bullshit about usa at once. I doubt Beef Stroganoff is a russian dish. everyone knows the most common everyday russian dishes are soup, salted bacon, salted fish in a jar, pork and beef and bread dumplings, and macaroni with ground beef mixed in. Russian food prices are higher than american food prices, its a fact. A retired citizen gets 3700rubles a month = $120, ends up eating only potatoes unless he saved some money. the good/bad thing is that one can buy 30bottles of vodka for about $35. and they are surprised everyone gets shitfaced? My grandparents owned an apartment but still had to pay "rent" to the government along with water and electricity tariffs. Old people are really in old ways there, for example my 80 years old grandparents NEVER used Internet. thus their government still manages to brainwash most of people. weird shit over there.

    kvas is not purple! kvas is brown like brittish ale. i ve tried it, not a fan. it tastes like sour water mixed with some soda water, it has very few bubble. it smells like old bread. its brewed like homemade cider. it contains up to 3% of alcohol. the cool thing is you can buy a package and its all in there except for water. kinda like a beer kit but a hundred times cheaper.
  7. Basoodler
    What a novel idea.. More alcohol to clense the liver

    Its funny because the USA really doesnt bash russia. Even after snowden mysteriously ended up there the media was showing restraint. And because the republican party will stop at nothing to make Obama look like a failure there really isnt much contraversy over syria..

    Yet on the russian media its reported like putin made the american imperialists bow to his wishes.. When really its just retarded politics on the american side..

    If we had a republican president Assad would have been dead months ago
  8. Alien Sex Fiend
    russia still believes in the cold war. yet there is no cold war. well, anybody who was born before mid 80s does. Putin easily manipulates people by bashing the west or talking about religion, or about bashing middle easterns, to make the situation seem better. normal life expectancy in russia is about 55 for men and 56 for women. that has to mean something. besides putin was a russian version of john e hoover before his presidency.
  9. rawbeer
    I recently read an article by a former KGB officer who defected to the USA - I've been looking but I can't find it anywhere - talking about Putin's KGB past and how he is almost certainly still as anti-American as any Soviet-era KGB agent would have been. This guy says that to many Russians the cold war is essentially still going and the USA is still regarded as the primary enemy, and that Putin's political machinations are geared towards the same end goal: destroying the USA.

    After reading the article I read a few things on Pravda and was sort of blown away, especially by the comments. The nonsense conspiracy theories made Fox news seem sensible and balanced!

    I've read quite a bit about the dirty deeds of the CIA, some of which are pretty well documented. But there's a wide grey area where both the CIA and KGB were just pointing fingers at each other. It gets really hard to separate the facts from bullshit when you're talking about massacres in the middle of the jungles of Latin America 30 years ago. While I am quite certain the USA did some pretty awful things under the cover of anti-communism, the more I read about Soviet-era mentality the more I become sympathetic to the Red Scare paranoia.

    I hope in this age most Russians are able to see through the propaganda - it seems even in the Soviet era many of them were - but I guess regardless there's not much you can do against such a corrupt system. Propaganda is one thing but the corruption and extortion isn't something you can "see through" it's just something you deal with one way or another.

    Anyway it's pretty sad, I've met some really great people from Russia who are really passionate about their culture. It sucks that culture has been buried in corruption for so long. But I guess it's like I used to have to say several times a week when I lived in Europe - "don't blame me for the actions of my government! I disagree with them probably more than you do."
  10. Alien Sex Fiend
    liike some guy on vice said, terrorist organizations bring heroin into russia to degenerate the citizens. thats a normal viewpoint over there. the scary part is that military supports it. if a person buys drugs they support terrorists and break the law. they drink vodka and because of the government's monopoly, help the government earn money and maybe make russia a better place
  11. Rob Cypher
    Well, that and they use the money to fund their operations and all. And it's not just "terrorists" bring opium there; plenty of Russian nationalists have a hand in it as well; probably in the same way some more ethically questionable Americans get involved in the process of importing opium from Afghanistan (that's where Russia gets most of theirs, as well...all the empires that have gotten stuck there recently fell into opium (ab)use among their soldiers/contractors/mercenaries/etc as well.

    I assume you say that with a bit of sarcasm in your voice. The levels of which vodka is abused at by some folks over there is not making Russia a better place. And most of the money is probably going into a few plutocrats' hands; I wouldn't be surprised if the wealth has to 'trickle down' for a while until it actually reaches a place where it can be properly used for the people. I don't think they wholly own those businesses like they did back in the 1970s. A lot of things got deregulated during the 1990s and only some of it was basically either rebought (if not outright seized at times) during the 2000s when Putin took control (mostly the gas industry, IIRC).

    Speaking of which, I heard gay folks in North America and Europe were boycotting vodka due to recent Russian laws that banned being LGBT or even talking about the subject. The Russian Orthodox Church certainly has gone a long way from wiping the more neutral stance that the atheists in the USSR held about things like this. I think everyone has a right to religion, but it bothers me when religion can influence a country into enacting laws against innocent citizens simply because they are different from what is considered 'morally correct' by the religious body.

    BTW, they did have one major period of prohibition (just like the US) between 1914-1925; first started by the Tsar and continued on by the Soviets until 1925. There was three minor attempts in 1958, 1972, and in 1985, but they all failed fairly quickly. Apparently it really hurt their economy in the short run to prohibit their own businesses to sell to their own countrymen, and crime rose as well as the black market grew to absorb the profits that the government was no longer making. That being said, life expectancy did rise quite a bit during the major period of prohibition.
  12. Basoodler
    Speaking of owning business

    If I rember correctly,.when the commumist government failed, all of the land was split between the citizens.. Each person recieved a land grant but had no money or amyway to get any. all of the currency was on the hands of the individuals from the former government.. Who paid the hungry people next to nothing for the land grants becausw they were desperate

    this left most of the power to the few douche bags with money

    I will try to find a.source.. I did some research on various collapases for a paper.. Its been a while though

    That would explain some of the bold opinions and laws. A few people together can hold strong opinions together, but it becomes impossible with several
  13. Alien Sex Fiend
    yeah i know what you are talking about. its a bit more complicated than that. when each person received some land, it was a superficial land. meaning that anything below the surface still belongs to the government. meaning one could farm, but could not dig a basement because one needs a permit for that. all nature belongs to the government. as in if you happen to walk around russia and pick up a chunk of gold, or a chunk of any mineral, or chop down a tree, you must surrender it to the government and receive nothing in exchange otherwise you will be charged with theft

    during the very early 90s revolution, when yeltsin became a president, they had a huge built up depression. people went to the store with stacks of cash. bread used to be 3000. and a person shows up and pays in 5s. yeltsin decided that the best way to cut the national debt short was by reducing zeros. he was probably drunk. so 3000 became 30 in one night. the debt got much smaller but all savings people had were rendered useless. imagine had $3000 in the bank, now you have $30
  14. Rob Cypher
    yeah...someone else probably should've been president during that time. I liked boris, but he wasn't up to the task of running a post-revolutionary society. Because of his indecision (or whatever) it appears that gangsters have taken over, more or less; and fascism is increasingly "the way" these days. :/
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