It would be reasonable – if not a little unfair – to say that Russia is synonymous with alcohol consumption. Strong, undiluted alcohol. Stereotypes abound for all nationalities and races, many of them unpleasant. Like the Irish , Russian people are often generalised as being heavy drinkers. Rather than a tipple of Guinness, though, for the Russians vodka is their assumed poison.
Whilst undoubtedly ridiculous to declare a population of more than 140 million a bunch of drunkards, there is evidence that the Russians suffer the scourges of alcohol more than most countries. Alcohol-related deaths have traditionally been high per capita, likewise alcohol-related crime.
Matters have not been helped by Russia’s refusal for many years to count beer as an ‘alcoholic’ beverage and by the proliferation of street vendors selling the hardest spirits at all hours of the day from small kiosks.
As Nikolai Gogol wrote:
Go along, go along quickly, and set all you have on the table for us. We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes, and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year old mead! And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavorings, but pure foaming vodka, that hisses and bubbles like mad.
Vodka is, regardless of its potency or adverse affects when voraciously consumed, an undeniable part of Russian culture, just as drinking alcohol is in many countries.
The myth goes that Vladimir the Great, Prince of Novgorod from 980 to 1015, rejected Islam because of its prohibition of alcohol. The sale of intoxicating beverages was encouraged for centuries in a bid to fill royal coffers, with Ivan the Terrible even demanding the erection of more kabaks (taverns) as a primary source of taxation. By 1648 more than a third of Russian men were in debt to kabaks, and by 1860 the sale of vodka accounted for 40% of government revenue.
It was little wonder, then, that by 1909 the average Russian consumed eleven bottles of vodka per year, and that by 1913 nearly 5% of the population of St Petersburg were alcoholics. With the Tsarist system coming under increasing strain, and a World War on the horizon, something had to be done.
But attempts at prohibition fell short. Beer was still not classified as alcoholic and procuring harder liquor was not particularly problematic. By the time of Stalin, alcohol sales were again required to generate state income and the half-hearted attempts by his Communist successors to stave off the blight of drunkenness were rebuffed by an unwilling populace.
One question that seemed not to be considered, however, was why so many Russian people were seeking solace in the bottle in the first place. Culture is one thing…but an epidemic needs more explanation. Dostoevsky hit on an idea in Crime and Punishment:
“And the more I drink the more I feel it. That’s why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink…I drink so that I may suffer twice as much!”
Misery, loneliness, lack of opportunity; Russian’s lower classes have suffered from all of the above, whether under the Tsars, the communists, or Putin. Systemic causes for alcoholism have always been overlooked, not to mention a frigid climate!
Yet there seems to be a bright patch on the horizon for, as a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report has outlined, Russian alcohol consumption decreased by a whopping 43% between 2003 and 2016. The abolition of the old kiosks, the increase in alcohol prices, penalties for drinking on the street, a president whose personality cult revolves around a healthy, all-action lifestyle; all these things have helped.
As with other countries, alcoholism will never be eradicated in Russia. Nor will it stop being an important part of the nation’s culture…nor should it. Still, in an era where Vladimir Putin seems intent on making the world a less stable place, potentially leading his people on a path of economic ruin, his reign has at least begun to address an important balance.
Pleasure vs over-indulgence. We all struggle to find that balance now and again. Whether the debilitating plague of alcoholism is dispersing from Russia on the Arctic wind remains to be seen, but at least the promise is there. The chances of other opportunities arising for the people under Putin, on the other hand, is far less likely.