Every Russian leader, it seems, finds a new way to try to confront the country's addiction to alcohol. Now, it's current President Dmitry Medvedev's turn.
His approach: declaring war on cheap vodka. As of the first of the year, vendors had to begin charging at least 89 rubles — or about $3 — for a half-liter of Russia's favorite drink. Last year, a thirsty Russian could have plunked down just $1.70 for one.
The Russian vodka tradition goes back centuries. The word "vodka" may even come from the Russian word for its main ingredient, water, says Nikolai Kamaletdinov, a guide at the museum attached to the Cristall vodka distillery in Moscow.
The problem is that sometimes Russians drink the liquor like it's water. They are convinced it helps them survive Russia's bitter cold. It is their national drink, in the way other countries have embraced wine or beer. But vodka is a much stronger drink — a problem for Russian leaders who have been trying for years to reduce consumption.
A Historical Problem
Legend has it that the 18th century Russian czar Peter the Great, who liked to drink, would throw lavish parties drenched in vodka. But guests drank so much that some of them died.
Kamaletdinov says one of the czar's ideas to try to get things under control was to force people to drink so much they became embarrassed and learned a lesson.
Fast forward 300 years: Alcoholism remains a serious problem, and Medvedev has his own ideas on how to combat it.
In a speech last year, the president said that when he saw new government data on how much Russians drink, it took his breath away. Eighteen liters — or nearly 5 gallons — of pure alcohol is what the average Russian drinks each year. That, he said, is twice the amount the World Health Organization considers dangerous.
And while the problem isn't limited to vodka, that's the president's target for now.
Target: Cheap Vodka
The government's decision to raise the minimum price of vodka has mostly affected places like produkti stores — Russian versions of convenience stores. Olga Shibitova, a cashier at one store, said prices there are within the law, but so far, the store has seen no drop in business.
Russians will keep drinking, she said, including one of her regulars who came by.
Oleg Mikhailov, 43, drives one of the city's public trolleys. It's been a cold winter, he said, and he likes nothing more than a few gulps of vodka when he comes home.
Mikhailov usually spends more than $3 on a half-liter, because he wants the good stuff, he said.
He hopes Medvedev's new law will close the market on cheaper vodka, which he said can be so bad it damages your vision. He suggested checking out the scene around Moscow's train stations.
For Some, New Policy Hard To Swallow
At Leningradsky train station, the paths around the terminal are lined with seedy stores and kiosks. The ones selling vodka said they are following the new law.
But two men trying to keep warm in an underpass tell a different story. Gerasim Kim said when he buys vodka — and that's often — he goes to a place still selling for $2 per half-liter.
His friend, Vladimir Malugin, said they had heard about Medvedev's new policy. But they don't like it, because they struggle to buy vodka as it is.
Russian leaders face a mighty challenge in trying to water down the appetite for alcohol. Take Malugin, for example.
If he had a job, he said, he would probably buy vodka even more often.
by David Greene
February 24, 2010