BEHAVIOR

Vodka’s high times

The Kremlin eases its antialcohol policy

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 28 1988
BEHAVIOR

Vodka’s high times

The Kremlin eases its antialcohol policy

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 28 1988

Vodka’s high times

BEHAVIOR

The Kremlin eases its antialcohol policy

Inside the nondescript building on the major Moscow avenue known as Kalinin Prospekt, the lineup began forming at 1:30 in the afternoon. By 2 p.m., when the liquor counter of the Gastronom Novarbatsky opened for business, more than 100 adults of different ages and backgrounds stood in a long line. As the afternoon wore on, they waited patiently to achieve their goal: the purchase of a litre of Georgian cognac at 24 rubles ($48) a bottle or a litre of champagne at six rubles, 50 kopeks ($13) a bottle. Despite the wait, some of the Muscovites said that they felt fortunate. Declared Oleg Nekeetin, a sailor in his early 20s: “If vodka were available, we would have been lined up for hours.” Added Nekeetin: “They should open more shops, but what good would that do when they reduce production anyway?” Since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a campaign to control alcohol consumption in 1985, that lament has been heard with increasing frequency.

Drinkers in the Soviet Union—where the amount that ordinary citizens appear to consume often astounds foreigners—have been stung by restrictive measures. They included a doubling of the price of vodka and a cutback in production that closed hundreds of distilleries. The average Soviet male drinker now spends 70 to 90 hours a year waiting in line to buy liquor or pays up to 40 rubles ($80) for a litre of

black-market vodka. As a result, according to Soviet officials, the number of recognized alcoholics in the country decreased sharply and, over the past three years, alcohol-related crimes have dropped by 36 per cent.

But now, faced with growing public resentment, the Kremlin is easing its antialcohol policy. In the past two months, Moscow city authorities have announced the reopening of almost 200 previously closed liquor stores, while grocery stores have been allowed to resume sales of wine, beer and champagne. As well, government-controlled plants have been told to increase production of alcoholic drinks. In a resolution passed at the end of October, the ruling Central Committee said that attempts to fight drunkenness were being hampered by “prohibitive and peremptory methods” created in “extremes and haste.”

Few Soviet commentators argued with Gorbachev’s attempt to reform Soviet drinking habits. Heavy drinking has been an essential element in the country’s social fabric since at least the 10th century, when Saint Vladimir of Russia declared: “It is Russians’ joy to drink. We cannot do without it.” One long-standing test of manhood has been the amount of vodka that can be consumed in one sitting, often in 3.5-ounce servings that are swallowed in one gulp and followed by a piece of dark bread or cucumber.

By the 1970s, such traditions had led to high levels of alcohol-related illnesses and social problems. Government economists calculated that the average family spent about one-third of its annual budget on alcohol, and that half of all Soviet divorces were attributable to drinking. In 1978, more than 51,000 people died of alcohol poisoning, more than 4,000 of them after imbibing such alcohol substitutes as automobile brake fluid, antifreeze, cleaning solvents and home-made

0 liquor known as samogon, or £ moonshine. And by 1984, per

1 capita consumption of liquor I' had climbed to nearly eight z litres from 3.5 litres in 1953. Ü Economists said that on any § given day, one per cent of all ^ male workers in industry and

construction missed work because they were drunk during work hours, while productivity fell by 12 to 15 per cent every Monday because of the effects of weekend drinking. And despite Gorbachev’s measures, the Soviet ministry of internal affairs estimates that 10 per cent of Soviet citizens are now alcoholics—compared to less than half that percentage in Canada and the United States.

Gorbachev’s temperance drive has created resentment among Soviets. Many people caustically use Russian wordplays on Gorbachev’s title as general secretary to describe him as “secretary mineral water” or “general fruit juice.” One popular, but apocryphal, tale concerns a young man who, exasperated by the lineup at a liquor store, walks away vowing to assassinate Gorbachev. Several hours later, he returns, looking chastened, and declares, “The lineup to get him was even longer.”

The cutbacks in alcohol production have also caused a variety of unexpected problems. Sugar, a key element in making home-brew alcohol, has become so scarce that the Soviet Union had to import 1.8 million tons this year. Almost 400,000 people were arrested last year for illegal alcohol production, and 11,000 people died from drinking poisoned home brew. Some government economists estimate that the shortfall in revenue from liquor sales has cost the government as much as 20 billion rubles (about $40 billion).

Despite such obstacles, the Kremlin is not likely to reverse its efforts to convince Soviets to drink less. In fact, said the Central Committee in its policy statement: “Any departure from the adopted course towards overcoming drunkenness is inadmissible.” Instead, the committee called for increased “educational, economic, medical and legal measures” to promote “a healthier atmosphere in families.” Over time, the government clearly hopes, a thirsty populace will decide that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow