Hangover cure for the bear with a sore head

July 28, 1995

Stephen White looks at the widespread problem of alcohol abuse in Russia and the nation's efforts to sober up.

It is ten years since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and launched perestroika. Less widely celebrated, at least in Russia, was another decadal event: the tenth anniversary of the campaign against alcohol abuse, and even drinking itself, that the Central Committee had agreed on May 7, 1985 and then announced (after comrades had satisfied themselves on Victory Day) a week later. Gorbachev himself was always a moderate drinker, and newly elected general secretary Raisa Maksimovna, according to reports, saw nothing wrong with a glass of wine. But it was the experience of her brother Yevgenii, a promising student and writer who had turned into a hopeless alcoholic, that appears to have convinced her of the need for public action.

The campaign is usually associated with Yegor Ligachev, a convinced teetotaller who had tried to turn Tomsk into a dry zone while its regional party first secretary. Ligachev, in fact, was not a member of the group within the Secretariat that prepared the new measures, although his nature inclined him towards what he himself described as "severe and administrative" measures. The key figure was Mikhail Solomentsev, formerly prime minister of the Russian republic and now chairman of the Party Control Committee. In his earlier years Solomentsev had enjoyed "rather a good relationship with alcohol", according to his colleagues, but, in a series of interviews conducted for the Soviet Elites Project at Glasgow University, he emerged as a convinced reformer. He had, he said, been particularly affected by a series of "heart-rending letters" from wives and mothers who had heard that a change in policy was being considered.

There was certainly no doubt that "something had to be done". Levels of alcohol consumption had trebled between 1940 and 1970, and quadrupled by the early 1980s. Alcohol was the main cause of industrial accidents, drownings and suicides; it was associated with about half of all crimes; and it was the main cause of divorce and family breakdown, at least in the view of the partners that initiated proceedings. In some industrial areas, by the late 1970s, consumption for adult males had reached a bottle a day. Women were drinking more than ever, though still less than men, and drinkers were younger than ever. And life expectancy was falling, for this and other reasons. A dissident writer, Mikhail Baitalsky, called alcohol "Commodity No. 1". Though the figures themselves had disappeared from official publications, in terms of its impact on the wider society it was better described as "Calamity No. 1".

The decisions published in May 1985 led to a campaign against alcohol and alcoholism that in scope and determination went far beyond Prohibition in the United States of the 1920s, or in Finland some years earlier. The first and easiest task was to cut production of alcohol products; another was to limit access (drink could no longer be sold before 2pm, near schools or hospitals, or to minors). There were some more positive elements in the resolution, including an increase in the output of soft drinks and better sporting and cultural facilities. A temperance society was established, with its own journal; rather improbably, it had 11 million members within months of itsfoundation.

Early reports of the campaign were certainly encouraging, as local officials bid against each other to ingratiate themselves with their superiors. In Sochi, the restaurants and bars were selling record numbers of "fruit juices and milk cocktails, juices, non-alcoholic drinks, ice cream and confectionery". In Yaroslavl', the number of drunks detained in local sobering-up stations fell so much that some of them had to be closed. Life expectancies began to rise; infant mortality began to fall; so did crime; so did absenteeism; so did accidents at the workplace. Supporters of "cultured drinking" were hounded out of their positions, and government officials - supported by an influential and now very prominent group of total abstentionists - called for the elimination of alcohol by 2000.

There were many reports, in these early years, of hardened drinkers who had been "saved" by the campaign. A junior officer from Perm had fallen ill and started to drown his sorrows; he was on a downward slide until he met a "remarkable person and genuine Bolshevik" who persuaded him to take a cure. Or there was the story of Suzanne and Oleg. They had met at a friend's party. A drink was proposed, but Oleg refused to take one as Suzanne had also declined. The evening went well, and they began to see each other more often. But then he vanished, and a card arrived urging her to forget him. It had come from a hospital. Somehow she found her way there, and to Oleg's bedside. He told her to go away, but she stayed. Oleg spent two months in hospital, with Suzanne in attendance every day. He proposed, she accepted. But would he agree to a non-alcoholic wedding? He did, despite objections from his family; and a year later their joy was complete when a son was born. Would he ever, wrote Suzanne, know how hard it had been for his parents to find simple human happiness?

Despite these and other forms of encouragement, it became clear by 1987, that the campaign had been going wrong. The temperance society itself had set an indifferent example: its members were sometimes advised that they had to give up drinking "unless they needed to", its expensive bureaucracy began to attract criticism, and some of its local officials had to be dismissed after serious violations of the legislation. The Communist Party was divided: Marx, after all, had been a drinker, and it was widely felt that "a Communist is also a human being" . Above all, the campaign had led to a dramatic rise in home brewing, and to the use of wide and often toxic alternatives or what a despairing letter to the newspapers described as a "muddy wave of homebrew, eau de cologne, toothpaste and shoe polish and, horrible as it may sound, trichlorofon and dichlorofon".

Like earlier Soviet campaigns, the original intentions of the central authorities were taken to extremes as local officials bid against each other to report the quickest successes. Vineyards, for instance, were torn up, though the original resolution had not mentioned them. There were calls to ban liqueur chocolates, to stop the production of kefir (a mildly fermented milk drink), and to outlaw shopping bags that carried the insignia of drink manufacturers. More alarmingly, there were calls to "isolate" persistent drinkers, to declare them "enemies of the people" or even to prevent their further reproduction.

Gradually, the campaign was relaxed, consumption began to increase, and by 1993 Russians had overtaken the French as the world's heaviest drinkers if all categories of drink were included. Russians were drinking more than ever before; they were starting to drink even earlier; more of what they drank was spirits; and more of it than ever before was imported or illicit, and often dangerous. An inebriated Russian was found climbing up one of the domes of St Basil's cathedral (he got five years for "hooliganism"); and a Beerlovers' Party was founded, as in Poland. There was a Zhirinovsky vodka, a Gorbachev vodka (rumoured to make those who drank it "talk uncontrollably about perestroika"), even a "Terminator vodka". And the president himself set a poor example. He "allowed himself a glass or two on a Sunday evening at home", he told interviewers, but Russians were more impressed by a series of unsteady public appearances and - still more so - nonappearances, as at Shannon airport (his former vice-president Alexander Rutskoi later accused him of being in a "permanent state of a visit to Ireland").

If there was a positive outcome of the campaign, it was perhaps the emergence of a deeper and more searching analysis of alcoholism than the one that had inspired the original campaign. It was argued, in particular, that levels of alcohol abuse were better understood as a means of coping with a society based upon authoritarian controls and deep social inequalities than as a distinctively Russian failing. Sergei Kochergin, a Moscow worker, was a good example. He had always been a drinker, he told the temperance journal, and did most of his drinking at a sort of "men's club" in a basement near the Sandunovsky baths. But vodka was just a sort of "background" against which people could relax and express their feelings in a society in which people said one thing and did something entirely different. "On the television," he pointed out, "everything is fine. But go into a shop anywhere on the Volga or in Siberia - empty shelves." And there were other analyses on similar lines. Sociologist Igor Bestuzhev-Lada, who thought alcoholism "no less serious a social problem than food or energy", argued that the main cure for alcoholism was a democratisation of society itself and of a citizenry that was able to take responsibility for its own actions. "It is the system that should be cured, not the alcoholics," others suggested in a letter to Pravda. "When millions of workers see equal treatment," argued another letter, "then the question 'To drink or not to drink?' will come off the agenda."

Stephen White is professor of politics, Glasgow University. His book, Russia Goes Dry: Alcohol, State and Society, will be published by Cambridge University Press in November.

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