Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Rural Russians drink themselves under the table

With easy access to cheap vodka and little incentive to face the next day with a clear head, is it any surprise that villagers in rural Russia are drinking themselves into early graves?

DPA , MOSCOW

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Goats graze near rambling rows of wooden cottages, the smell of fresh cut grass wafts on the breeze, pails rattle at the well as a small village by the Russian capital passes another uneventful day.

Less idyllic are two teetering men who rise from the undergrowth at minute intervals. They swing blows at each other, miss each time and fall from view in a tragicomic testament to Russia's enduring curse of alcoholism, most visible in daily life in the countryside.

Today, thousands of Russian villages are ravaged by unemployment and poverty, while widespread and fearsome alcohol abuse nudges many communities closer to extinction.

Rural settlements across the country tell the same pitiful story.

After the 1991 collapse, local factories and farms that used to provide work closed down, leaving little more than the bottle to occupy the days for many men and a sizeable contingent of women.

Most subsist on scant welfare payments, the produce they grow in their allotments and what remaining possessions they can sell.

"They've nothing to live for and nothing to die for," concluded a London-based journalist after an eye-opening trip outside the city.

A native Muscovite adds: "It's difficult to say why it's like this in Russia -- are things this bad because the men drink or do they drink because things are this bad?"

In fact, one has to go back almost as far as the original chicken and egg to make any sense of the boozing phenomenon.

Tsarina Catherine II let her people drink their fill in the 18th century, reputedly saying that "a nation of drunks is easier to rule than one in which the people are sober."

The same principle applied in the 1970s era of stagnation under Communist chief Leonid Brezhnev, when the Soviet state ensured plentiful cheap vodka for town and village dwellers alike to compensate for deprivations and to keep the populace pliable.

Unsurprisingly, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was widely resented for his anti-alcoholism campaign in the late-1980s, when the state choked supplies of vodka, wine and champagne in a bid to get the country back on its feet.

Instead, inventive Russians got busy distilling their own heady and often fatal alcoholic concoctions using ingredients like toothpaste or shoepolish.

Today, the only restriction is your budget, and vodka remains absurdly cheap at about a dollar for half a liter. Head into the country and the 60 to 70 percent proof samogon moonshine made from yeast and sugar is cheaper still.

"There are villages where every single man is a drunk," said Oleg Zykov, president of the No to Narcotics and Alcohol Foundation, a nationwide non-profit organization in the front line of the battle.

And it's a hard battle to wage when the enemy is so well armed: Last year, Russia officially produced 1,387 billion liters of vodka and other spirits, a record amount for the past eight years.

Meanwhile, fake vodka, low-quality hooch and brute excess led to 40,121 registered deaths from alcohol poisoning last year, up six percent from the previous year. Alcohol abuse is also recognized as a key contributor to the low average male life expectancy of 57 years.

But if many hard-drinking Russians took their cue from Catherine II, Brezhnev or the oft inebriated example of former president Boris Yeltsin, a glimmer of hope is seen in the country's new, sporty and only moderately imbibing leader Vladimir Putin.

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