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Russia’s drinking habits today – still hooked on vodka, or do they prefer vino?

Russians and vodka have always been a notorious and combustible combination, but the availability of alcohol has been in a constant change of flux over the last few decades as successive governments have tried to wean the public off the bottle. Mikhail Loginov reports from St Petersburg on changing habits. 

According to the Old Russian chronicle ‘The Tale of Times Past’, in 988, Prince Vladimir I decided to give up paganism and held auditions to choose a religion for Kievan Rus.  The envoys sent to Kiev by the major religions of the time each expounded on their faith, including what was forbidden in it. The Prince rejected Islam because of its prohibition of wine, saying ’Drink is Russia’s ancient glee, without it we cannot be’. Russia’s subsequent history, and especially that of the 20th century, has done nothing to discredit this aphorism. For successive Russian governments, its people’s fondness for vodka has always provided a useful source of income as well as problems, whilst for the people themselves it is the most easily available and cheapest aid to relaxation. But is this still the case today? Can Russians enjoy themselves without the hard stuff, or are Prince Vladimir’s words as true as ever?

The Museum of Myths and Vices

‘We all drink vodka, but we don’t know anything about it. Come and visit the only vodka museum in Russia!’

Dmitry repeats these words twice a minute as he hands out flyers on the street. It doesn’t bother him that twice a minute he is telling a whopping lie. In Russia today not everyone drinks vodka – Dmitry himself doesn’t, for example. And his vodka museum isn’t even the only one in St Petersburg. Dmitry is resplendent in shiny top boots, a somewhat squashed peaked cap and a small false beard – some designer’s idea of a pub landlord in old Russia.

The Vodka Museum has two rooms. In the first are panels telling the story of this drink in Russia. One of them talks about the taverns established across Russia by Ivan the Terrible, who introduced a state monopoly on the production and selling of alcohol. Since Ivan’s time, Russian governments have sometimes relaxed their monopoly on the selling of vodka, but have always controlled its production. In both Tsarist and Soviet times critics of the government of the day would talk about the ‘booze budget’.    

On the museum shelves are examples of old storage and drinking vessels, from small shot glasses to buckets. There is also a portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev - the creator of the Periodic Table was also the author of a treatise ‘On Combining Spirits and Water’, which gave birth to the myth that he was responsible for the alcoholic content of Russian vodka being fixed at 40% by volume (in fact this proposal came from industrial scientists).     

‘Since Ivan the Terrible’s time, Russian governments have sometimes relaxed their monopoly on the selling of vodka, but have always controlled its production. In both Tsarist and Soviet times critics of the government of the day would talk about the ‘booze budget’.   

The twentieth century is represented in the museum by a still, used for making samogon (moonshine – literally ‘distil-it-yourself’) – domestic vodka production took off in rural areas of Russia after the government introduced prohibition at the start of the First World War. On the walls are anti-drink campaign posters from the 30s, 60s and 80s - Soviet governments fought a constant battle with drunkenness, but without success. And while in Tsarist times most of the population only drank on religious holidays, in the Soviet period they took to drinking every week.

The second room of the museum is in fact a vodka shop. Here you can buy a range of vodkas from the roughest to the most expensive, the production not only of Russia but of countries all over the world. You can even buy samogon, in dark bottles. The label tells you it was made according to traditional peasant methods. Tourists look around the shelves, but rarely buy anything, and not just because they can get it cheaper in a supermarket.

‘People in the cities don’t drink a lot now’, says Dmitry, who has come to St Petersburg from a small town in the Pskov region, ‘but in the sticks they drink more than they did under the communists’.

Dmitry now thinks of himself as a city dweller, so drinks beer rather than vodka.

Wine glasses in the city, plastic beer mugs in the provinces

Sales of vodka are indeed dropping in the big cities, after a jump in alcohol consumption in the early 1990s. Two factors contributed to the increase: the lifting of the restrictions on sales of alcohol introduced by Gorbachev and the liberalisation of the market. In 1991 you still needed coupons to buy vodka, but in 1992 the shelves were full again. You could even buy vodka, cognac and whisky in little kiosks along Tverskaya Street in Moscow and Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg. Budding merchants started importing foreign spirits in everything from carrier bags to goods wagons, some of it pure alcohol. This was a real humanitarian act on their part, since there were other merchants producing so-called vodka from substances frankly injurious to health. More people died from drinking this stuff than from criminals’ bullets.

Posters from Gorbachev's short-lived anti-alcohol campaign (left to right, captions read: 'alcohol'; 'prisoner' [of] 'moonshine'; 'have mercy on the unborn child']. The controversial campaign was dropped after two years because of an unexpectedly sharp hit on tax revenues and the effects of forcing alcohol underground: increased levels of alcohol poisoning and organised crime. 

Ten years later vodka consumption started to drop. A ‘three-way split’, when three people club together to buy and drink a bottle of vodka, is out of fashion in Moscow or Petersburg. Now we drink wine and beer. No longer is it shameful to leave a restaurant still able to walk in a straight line. Groups of friends or courting couples will more often order a bottle of wine, a glass of beer or a cocktail. It is also cool to smoke a hookah. Someone who doesn’t drink is no longer considered weird and laughed at by his mates. One reason for this change has been rising car ownership in the large cities. Driving and traditional binge drinking don’t go together. And a constant nagging hangover doesn’t help your business career. So young people in the cities either don’t drink at all, or drink, but not vodka.

‘[In the cities] someone who doesn’t drink is no longer considered weird and laughed at by his mates. One reason for this change has been rising car ownership in the large cities. Driving and traditional binge drinking don’t go together. And a constant nagging hangover doesn’t help your business career.’

It’s another story in most regional centres, district centres and, of course, villages. Not many people here have a business career, and car owners are also in a minority. So in small towns on any public holiday you will be hard pressed to find a single sober person on the streets. Young people mainly drink cheap beer out of plastic glasses and fizzy alcoholic cocktails in cans. Their parents and grandparents still prefer vodka.

Ha-Ha-Ha’, ‘Putinka’, deadly nostalgia

In Soviet times vodka drinkers could list all the known vodka brands on the fingers of one hand: ‘Pshenichnaya’ (Wheat), ‘Stolichnaya’ (Capital), ‘Posolskaya’ (Ambassador’s), ‘Ekstra’. There were also a few regional specialities, for example in the Krasnodar area they made a liqueur called ‘Visky’.

Since the 1990s there has been a proliferation of brands, produced by both traditional distilleries and new firms. From time to time one label would become fashionable, but as production rose, quality would fall, and the consumer would start to look for a new, unspoilt vodka. Some firms would trade on their ‘tradition’, others on new brands with ingenious names. So we got a vodka called ‘Putinka’ – an obvious nod in the direction of Russia’s president; though oddly enough vodkas named after Dmitry Medvedev didn’t do well.

‘In small towns on any public holiday you will be hard pressed to find a single sober person on the streets. Young people mainly drink cheap beer out of plastic glasses and fizzy alcoholic cocktails in cans. Their parents and grandparents still prefer vodka.’

Vodka production in the republics of the northern Caucasus is a special case. The region’s geographical specifics make government control difficult. There are reasonably good quality vodkas produced in the area, for example ‘Ha-Ha-Ha’, but it is mostly a question of blatant and toxic fakes. Apart from vodka, factories in the Caucasus also produce cheapish ‘port’ in plastic containers, with Soviet labels. But if the well known Soviet brands of ‘portwine’ such as ‘Agdam’ and ‘777’ only produced a memorable hangover, drink two glasses of  this poisonous stuff, produced in an unnamed factory, and you might not wake up again.

Some blame cirrhosis, some Gorbachev

Alcohol is one of the chief factors responsible for the Russian male’s short lifespan. The most common cause of death is cardio-vascular disease related to alcohol consumption. The second most common cause is accidents, where the victim has usually been hitting the bottle. The government has therefore begun a slow offensive against spirits.

Heavier restrictions were introduced in 2009. In most Russian towns and cities drinks containing more than 15% alcohol may not be sold between 11pm and 8am. Regions can extend these hours, and ban sales of alcohol from, say, 10pm and 10am. The most radical step has been taken by Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov, who has restricted alcohol sales to two hours a day, from 8am to 10am.

There is a complete ban on TV advertising of vodka and wine, and beer advertising is strictly limited. An excise stamp has been introduced, and no bottle can be sold without one. A minimum price, equivalent to about three euros, has been set for a half litre bottle of vodka. Vodka may no longer be sold either in kiosks (as it was in the 90s) or market stalls.

‘In most Russian towns and cities drinks containing more that 15% alcohol may not be sold between 11pm and 8am. Regions can extend these hours, and Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov has restricted alcohol sales to two hours a day, from 8am to 10am.’

In Russia there is a bitter argument going on between supporters and opponents of this war on alcohol. Anti-drink campaigners want to impose a limit of six hours a day on alcohol sales, ban sales on Saturdays and Sundays, raise the price of vodka by 300-500% and apply a similar price hike to beer and table wine. Their opponents recall Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, which failed in most of its aims. The public swapped legal vodka for illicit samogon and the treasury lost its vodka income, which triggered a market crisis and the fall of communism. Although it must be said that even critics of the Gorbachev approach do not deny that at the end of the 1980s life expectancy in Russia rose, as did the birth rate, and the incidence of alcohol related accidents decreased.    

A Taxi Named Hope

Ivan is an unregistered night-time cab driver. Now that you can’t buy vodka in St Petersburg after 11pm, his takings have gone up. ‘They’ll stop me at twenty to eleven and say, quick, to a shop, need some booze. And sometimes, if it’s already after eleven, they’ll ask me to take them to a bar. The ban on selling spirits at night doesn’t apply to bars and cafés.’ Asked whether he would sell people spirits himself, Ivan was cagey  - you’d need to discuss it. In Soviet times most cabbies would sell vodka or take passengers to ‘boozers’ corners’ – places where you could buy drink illicitly. This kind of business seems to be springing up again, but this time it’s the unlicenced taxi drivers themselves who doing the selling.

Launched in 2003, Putinka vodka has become a best-selling vodka in Russia. Attempts to introduce a similar brand connected to the less charismatic Dmitry Medvedev proved less successful, however. 

Ivan, however, believes that in Russia, unlike other countries, driving with even the minimum amount of alcohol in your blood should be illegal. Russian drivers, he says, can’t control themselves and don’t even notice when they several times over the limit. ‘You shouldn’t be at the wheel if you’ve been drinking,’ he tells me. ‘After all, you just have to have to stand on the street and raise your arm and the second car is bound to stop and take you wherever you want.’

‘In Soviet times most cabbies would sell vodka or take passengers to ‘boozers’ corners’ – places where you could buy drink illicitly. This kind of business seems to be springing up again, but this time it’s the unlicenced taxi drivers themselves who doing the selling.’

Ivan’s old Ford, it must be said, is not a car for exacting customers. For them there exists the ‘drunk taxi’ service, where a driver comes and drives the tipsy client home in his own car.    

‘I won’t be short of work’

However high the earnings of the night time vodka sellers, they are not as high as those of the people who treat alcoholics.  When newspapers offering free small ads first appeared in the 90s, about a third of the ads were for hangover cures or treatments for alcoholism, but as time passed only the most professional ‘healers’ survived in the market. Aleksandr set up a private drying out clinic after the Labour Rehabilitation Centre - LRC (where alcoholics and drug addicts were detoxified in a strict work regime) where he worked was shut down. He earns more in private practice, but thinks the government was wrong to close down the LRCs. He was happy, however, to see the closure of the ‘sobering-up stations’ – police-run institutions where people were taken if caught the worse for wear on the street: the police, he says, would not only rob the drunkards but sometimes kill them as well.

‘There are plenty of private in-patient clinics that accept alcoholics for treatment, and in some cases drug addicts as well. Some are unlicensed and use pretty crude methods of treatment, including beatings and the use of handcuffs.’

Aleksandr hasn’t needed to advertise his services for a long time. Satisfied clients, or more often their relatives, pass the word around their circles of friends, and they beat a path to his door. He visits the client at home, asks for full payment up front, gets the patient sobered up and gives advice on how to stop him drinking heavily in the future. He won’t reveal the details of his methods, but says he uses a combination of tried and tested Soviet medication, the latest Western drugs and a few Russian folk remedies. ‘I won’t be short of work in the next few years’, he says, ‘there are a lot of young people among my clients.’ 

Although the LRCs have been closed down, there are plenty of private in-patient clinics that accept alcoholics for treatment, and in some cases drug addicts as well. Some are unlicensed and use pretty crude methods of treatment, including beatings and the use of handcuffs. But it is rare for relatives to complain to the police; they believe such extreme methods are necessary to save someone from alcoholism. 

Smoke, drink, give birth to a freak!

The most assiduous campaigners against alcohol are not members of regional parliaments, but the nationalist youth organisations. They stencil slogans on buildings: ‘Smoke, drink, give birth to a freak!’ ‘Come to a beer festival, get pissed, throw up on the street!’. They post pictures on the internet with the caption, ’Drink Jaga, give birth to a spaz’. ‘Jaga’ is a cocktail sold in cans under the brand name ‘Jaguar’. The picture shows a girl with a can of cocktail in her hand, holding a baby that looks like a little monster out of a Japanese cartoon film.

The most assiduous campaigners against alcohol are not members of regional parliaments, but the nationalist youth organisations. They stencil slogans on buildings: ‘Smoke, drink, give birth to a freak!’ 

   To raise awareness, the young nationalists organise periodic ‘Russian Runs’, where 50, 100 or even more young people get together for a two to three kilometre run round an urban park on a Sunday, shouting ’Glory to Russia’ as they go. They see these runs as a chance not only to spread their message but to promote a healthy lifestyle. 

There has been a real shift in Russia’s attitude to alcohol. On the one hand, some Russians – business people, technocrats, skilled workers, have adopted a more civilised drinking pattern. They drink only good wine or beer, in small quantities, or often they don’t drink at all. On the other hand, for much of the population, including young people, drinking is still the leisure activity of choice. And despite all the efforts of the government, both vodka and beer are now both cheaper and more easily obtainable than in Soviet times.    

About the author

Mikhail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller "Battle for Kremlin".


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