BEHAVIOR

War on Soviet alcoholism

NOMI MORRIS January 19 1987
BEHAVIOR

War on Soviet alcoholism

NOMI MORRIS January 19 1987

War on Soviet alcoholism

BEHAVIOR

Every day from Monday to Saturday, in the centre of Moscow, people stand in a block-long line on Prospekt Marxa outside a liquor store which is open only from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. After they have waited for as long as four hours, a police officer allows them to enter the store, where they pay the equivalent of more than $20—or about a day’s wages—for a litre of the cheapest vodka, if it is available that day. Indeed, a year and a half after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a sweeping crackdown on the use and abuse of alcohol— the U.S.S.R.’s No. 1 social problem — the abolition of the workers’ vice is far from complete. Said Mikhail Volodkin, a maintenance worker in Moscow: “I don’t know how they can afford it. But they are still lined up outside the wine shops, waiting for them to open.” Gorbachev announced the 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. Although the Soviet Union lags behind wineand beer-drinking nations in per capita alcohol consumption, it has one of the highest rates in the world for hard liquor. Per capita consumption of pure alcohol is six litres annually—taken mainly in vodka. Before the sobriety drive began, alcohol was the largest cause of premature death and a shortened male life expectancy. It was also responsible for most marriage breakups and the majority of crimes committed. To deal with the problem, the government made drastic cuts in vodka production, reduced the number of stores allowed to sell it—in Moscow by more than 50 per cent—and doubled prices. As well, authorities raised the drinking age to 21 from 19 and introduced stiff penalties for being drunk in public or getting a minor drunk—including the possibility of a labor camp term.

The government’s battle against drink has had many casualties. Indeed, more alarming than the lineups for al-

cohol or the booming market in samogon—illegally distilled liquor—is the rising use of bizarre, sometimes deadly, chemical substitutes. Said one middle-class Moscow linguist: “People who cannot live without alcohol are finding replacements.” According to a recent article in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, hard-core alcoholics have turned to cheap perfume, antiperspirants and even “bed bug and cockroach poison” when vodka was not available. And in September five construction workers died in the town of Volgodonsk, 1,000 km southeast of Moscow, after consuming ethylene glycol, which is used as antifreeze.

In addition, some claim that the new laws have led to greater repression of religious expression, particularly for the country’s more than two million Jews, whose faith requires the ceremonial drinking of wine. On Oct. 25 five Jewish men were arrested at the Simchat Torah celebration in Moscow, the only occasion on which Jews are allowed to gather outside a synagogue. The five were charged with drunkenness and hooliganism. Still others have felt the check on individual freedom: last April workers at the Veselovsky mine in the Donets region of Siberia were forced to undergo sobriety tests before being permitted to return home. Said the Moscow linguist: “The whole campaign is ugly. It’s absolutely Soviet, once again restricting my freedom. I don’t want to be told when and what I can drink. If a person is not mature enough to decide for himself when he has had enough, he must be educated.”

Official figures show that sales of alcoholic beverages declined 30 per cent during the first year of the antidrinking campaign, costing the stateplanned economy $5 billion. But the authorities say that they expect the loss in revenue to be more than offset by a predicted 10-per-cent rise in overall productivity once drinking on the job and hangovers are eliminated. Still, in a culture where there has historically been more of a social stigma attached to abstaining than to drinking, the long-term success of the crackdown remains dubious. There have been periodic and unsuccessful attempts at restrictions since the time of the czars. And while media attention has recently turned to drug abuse, heavy drinking is still a fact of Soviet life. Said one Moscow maintenance man: “People drink in order to cope with the oppressiveness of everyday life. Economic conditions are difficult, and, denied freedom of expression and thought, people look for another outlet-vodka.”

NOMI MORRIS

JACK REDDEN