The Russian politics of vodka

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
7 December 2006

Lena, a 42-year-old teacher, lives in the Russian far east, in a city called Khabarovsk. For years she struggled to help her husband, Dmitri, overcome his alcoholism.

"Why do you drink?" she would ask him. "Do you really have to?" It was rare that she could find a sober moment to speak to him. "All men do," was Dmitri's standard reply. "My friends would not respect me if I didn't."

The talk and the consultations with local therapists led nowhere. In the end, they divorced. A year later, Dmitri drank himself to death. He became another statistic in an annual toll of 40,000 Russian men and women who are killed by alcohol.

The simple and banal tragedy of Dmitri and Lena could be set anywhere across the vast territory of the Russian Federation. Political systems change and the Russian economy grows, stagnates or collapses, but the patterns of Russian alcohol consumption stay the same.

It is rare that such stories attract Russian news media attention. Alcohol abuse is too common, and too much of a social embarrassment, for the media to cover it. If they did, the newspapers would be full of stories involving the pathetic antics of alcoholics, deadly counterfeit vodka being peddled on the black market, alcohol-related crime and entire villages populated only by drunkards. This is the reality in Russia.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich's Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

The Kremlin vs alcohol

All this changed a few weeks ago. These subjects suddenly made it onto television news programmes and the pages of newspapers and magazines. Viewers and readers were presented with scenes from hospitals in remote corners of Russia in which patients hooked up to intravenous drips were struggling for survival. All had consumed massive quantities of illegal alcohol. Investigative reporters found illegal vodka producers who diluted pure alcohol from unknown sources with tap water. Their secret garage and basement workshops then turned out this deadly mixture in glass bottles with fake labels.

In some regions - Pskov, Irkutsk and Voronezh, for example - the situation was described as critical. The consumption of counterfeit alcohol was bringing epidemics of hepatitis in its wake. Alcoholics without the money for official brands of vodka were looking for cheaper alternatives. Anti-freeze, brake fluid, anti-corrosion solution, after-shave, window cleaner, antiseptics, parapharmaceuticals and cheap perfume were all being drunk.

The sudden appearance of alcohol-related stories in the media left most Russians with few doubts about why it had become such a pressing issue. The Kremlin was behind the new high-profile campaign, introducing an anti-alcohol public-relations drive in advance of a state monopoly on all alcohol sales in Russia.

High-ranking politicians such as Boris Gryzlov (speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) suggested that a monopoly was the best remedy for the alcohol epidemic.

It is not the first time that state control has been hailed as the solution to Russian alcoholism. Czars and communist party chiefs alike resorted to it. There were experiments with prohibition, limiting sales to state controlled shops and bars, and vigorous public-relations campaigns.

The results were usually disastrous. The last Soviet attempt to curb vodka consumption was made in 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev. Distilleries were told to switch from vodka production to fruit juices and mineral water. The first signs were encouraging. Male life-expectancy rose from age 62 to 65 for a short period. But then the black market became flooded with illegally produced liquor. As soon as men were able to get their hands on booze once again, life expectancy fell again and Gorbachev's campaign crashed.

Government finances had also suffered, and the Kremlin ran short of money. (Revenues from vodka sales made up 20% of the state budget.) Some economists, including the former acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar, argue that this began the chain reaction which in the end destroyed both the Soviet economy and the communist state.

A national addiction

The history of alcohol in Russia goes back a long way. It is widely believed that Prince Vladimir of Kiev chose Christianity over Islam in the year 987 simply to avoid the Muslim prohibition on alcohol. His words, "drinking is the joy of the Rus", are better remembered in Russia than his other historical achievements. Real vodka appeared on the scene when Vladimir's countrymen learned the craft of alcohol distillation, probably from Tatar invaders. The Russian historian VV Pokhlebkin maintains that vodka was first produced in a monastery in Moscow in the middle of the 15th century.

Russian czars soon learned that vodka sales were a valuable source of revenue. The goal was often to secure a state monopoly over production and distribution.

In 1894, the last imperial monopoly over vodka was decreed by the finance minister of Nicholas II, Sergei Witte. The monopoly ensured that 30% of the state budget came from vodka sales. More than 100 vodka distilleries were constructed, including the famous Cristall factory in Moscow. The rise in production was shadowed by a predictable and damaging rise in consumption. It grew from eight liters of pure alcohol per person each year to 14 by the outbreak of war in 1914.

During the second world war, Red Army soldiers on the front line were entitled to a daily ration of 1 deciliter of vodka - one-tenth of a liter.

Under communism, vodka was just another state monopoly. During the Leonid Brezhnev years, production of the Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya brands kept growing, providing the state with higher and higher levels of income. In the early 1970s, the Soviet government struck a deal with PepsiCo, allowing the American drinks company the right to distribute Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya in the United States. "Only vodka from Russia is genuine Russian vodka," was its advertising slogan.

The fall of communism saw a new range of brands created, using modern marketing strategies. Despite inroads made by beer and wine, especially among women and younger drinkers, vodka remained Russia's favourite drink.

It sometimes seems that Russians are able to tolerate repression and cruel regimes with quiet fortitude, even as their news is censored and political dissidents are arrested. What they have never stood for is governmental deprivation of what is widely seen as a fundamental human right: the freedom to get drunk.

"Being used to drink is one of the elements of our national character", argues Yuri Siemionov-Viazemski, a chemist and the presenter of popular science programmes on Russian television. "To live in Russia and avoid drinking is non-patriotic, anti-national and unnatural."

The process of actually drinking vodka is not something that should be done without thinking. A glass should be drunk in one gulp. If the transparent and colourless liquid is chilled too much, it kills its characteristic taste. Most Russians would never think of drinking vodka without zakouska, an accompanying bite of herring, sausage or pickled cucumber.

If the vodka is distilled and purified up to three times, it will be less likely to produce a hangover. Adding a small amount of honey and sugar during its production makes the taste softer. Russian specialists say the quality of the vodka depends on the quality of the water used to dilute the pure, distilled alcohol. The best water is natural, rather than water that has been mechanically purified.

The Russian health ministry says there are 2 million alcoholics in the country. In reality, that number only includes people registered at state-run psycho-neurological clinics. The true figure is much higher. "In Soviet times alcoholics were treated with obligatory labour therapy," says Yakov Marshak, a leading alcohol and drugs therapist who runs a clinic in the outskirts of Moscow. "Big factories here in the capital eagerly employed them as a source of unpaid labour."

When Marshak first proposed treating alcoholics with yoga, proper nutritional programmes and psychotherapy, the initial reaction from the public and the authorities was deeply sceptical. He gets angry when he describes more common approaches to the problem: "In every newspaper, you can find adverts from charlatans offering treatments for alcoholics that promise results in only a few days."

Marshak's clinic is in the southern Moscow suburb of Aprelevka, an hour's drive from the centre. The two-storey pavilion, standing among trees, is surrounded by a high fence. Security guards are everywhere, alert against the possibility of vodka or drugs being thrown over the barrier.

The clinic was founded in the 1990s after Marshak returned from a trip to the US. His explanation of the roots of alcoholism is what he learned from teachers in America: Alcoholism is rooted in satisfaction-deficit syndrome; people drink when they want to feel immediate satisfaction.

"Compared to other nations, Russians are less happy with reality," he says. "They've lived for generations in a very hierarchical society. Alcohol helps them to overcome stress created in these conditions."

Patients at the clinic, which receives no subsidies from the state, pay for their therapy out of their own pockets. Few Russians can afford therapy in Aprelevka - where a three-week course of treatment costs $12,000. Marshak's patients tend to be businessmen, bankers, media and entertainment stars, and their children.

Marshak says that nearly 70% of his patients have remained sober for more than two years. "One of my patients was the president of a huge national corporation," he adds. "We saved his life. When he returned to work, he realised that his staff also drinks. He instructed his deputies, chiefs of departments and even his head of security to sign up for therapy with us."

Russia needs a full-scale programme to fight alcoholism, Marshak asserts, but he has little hope that this will happen soon. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, money earned from making and distributing vodka has helped to build many luxurious villas at home and abroad, and to buy many limousines.

The city of Moscow alone gets through two million bottles of vodka each day. Annual vodka revenues in the capital alone are $4 billion to $5 billion. Nationwide, the rough estimate is that six billion to eight billion bottles of vodka are drunk each year, at a cost of $4 to $5 a bottle. With $40 billion at stake each year, it is no surprise that the Kremlin is joining in the vodka game.

On the shop shelves, the austerity of the Soviet marketing men has gone. Instead, the bottles are new in design, each aimed at snaring consumers with their pleasing shape and attractive label. The vodka found in the good shops in big cities, produced by the leading companies, is of excellent quality. But the rise in prices in comparison to the old days means that these are often out of reach of the poor.

Far away in the provinces, existing on meager salaries and pensions, those who are unable to cut down on their consumption have had to turn to cheaper sources for their vodka. This is where the black market steps in, offering an alternative that often turns out to be dangerous and poisonous.

But those who understand the ways of Vladimir Putin's Russia have few illusions. Politicians proposing a state monopoly to cover vodka sales do not care about curbing consumption. Just as with the oil industry, the government simply wants all alcohol revenue to be controlled by the Kremlin. From this point on, only businessmen loyal to the government will be able to earn money from vodka. No one else will have the right to supply it to the shops owned and run by the state vodka trading company.

This will, or course, be taken care of by officials in exchange for the proper awards. After all, this is the reality in Russia.

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