In cash-starved Russia, vodka is 'liquid currency'

December 30, 1991|By Joseph Albright | Joseph Albright,Cox News Service

MOSCOW -- As the ruble collapses, Muscovites have hit upon a new form of hard currency: pints of vodka.

"People keep vodka in stock to use as liquid currency," said Dmitri Shmidrik, 40, a clerk in a scientific laboratory. "I have more than 20 bottles at home, and I don't drink at all."

The reason: A repairman will yawn if you offer 20 rubles to get the car fixed or a ceiling plugged. But if you offer a bottle of vodka, the job gets done.

Hoarding by little people like Mr. Shmidrik, as well as big-time liquor speculators, has caused what many Russians call a scandalous shortage of their national drink.

New Year's Eve is supposed to be the cheeriest, most liquid night of the year in Moscow. Yet nearly all state liquor stores have been sold out of vodka for weeks.

To buy vodka now, people patronize the numerous small private markets that spring up in vacant lots and on street corners. There, vodka is often available, but the price is about 80 rubles for a half-liter (about a pint). That is a week's wages for a typical office worker.

The few times vodka appears at the state liquor stores, a bottle costs only 10 rubles. People line up for hours in the cold to buy one bottle. (At tourist exchange rates, 10 rubles is worth a dime.)

One factor behind the vodka shortage is that Russian glass factories haven't made enough bottles. Too late, liquor stores began imposing a bottle-recycling system, but the vodka factories still are short of bottles.

Why? Several years ago, some bottle factories were closed as part of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's anti-alcoholism campaign. This summer, some remaining plants broke down for lack of spare parts.

Then there was the shortage of raw alcohol.

Usually, alcohol is supplied in abundance to the Moscow vodka factories by distilleries in Belarus, Russia's neighbor to the west. But this year Russian collective farms held back on grain deliveries to Belarus, provoking Belarus to halt alcohol shipments to Moscow.

With all of Russia's other problems, no one has bothered to collect statistics on whether the vodka shortage has reduced drunkenness.

But if a reporter's random impressions mean anything, there seem to be fewer drunks on Moscow streets than on the streets of Washington -- a clear reversal since a decade ago.

At Moscow's biggest vodka factory, the chief executive, Vladimir Yamnikov, said last week that the bottleneck in bottles has been broken and alcohol has started flowing again from Belarus.

Mr. Yamnikov said his plant, Kristall -- which also makes Stolichnaya for export -- is turning out a half-million bottles of vodka a day under the Moscovskaya label for Moscow drinkers.

On paper, that should be enough to supply all the vodka Muscovites are entitled to drink on the government's vodka-rationing system. But he said it isn't nearly enough to stem the demand.

"This panic buying began in August," he said. "People are using it for trading, not just because people drink vodka from morning until night."

Mr. Yamnikov accused the Moscow City Council's trade committee of mismanaging the ration-card system and diverting some of the vodka to places unknown.

"Unfortunately, rationing cards are being used for a second time in some way," he said.

"I am sure the vodka we make is going somewhere, but I have no idea what they [the trade committee] are doing with it. It is out of my competence."

Mikhail, 41, a night watchman waiting in a vodka line, said he knows the answer: "It's total corruption. Big people are selling it to the speculators."

Igor, a driver, said he is getting around the problem by brewing what he calls "moonshine" out of water, yeast and sugar. One pint of his home brew from his stainless steel contraption will get his car fixed just as readily as a pint of factory-made vodka, he said.

The only problem is that Moscow is pinched by a sugar shortage. In fact, many believe it has been aggravated by a sharp increase in home brewing to overcome the vodka shortage.

At Moscow City Hall, Aleksei Taraskin of the city's consumer market department, said the city is trying special holiday measures such as distributing vodka to workers at factories. But he said there is no way to give out enough to meet the demand now that vodka has taken on the attributes of money.

"People who never drank vodka are standing in line to buy it so they can sell it somewhere else at high prices," he said. "It is not that you can't find vodka. If people want vodka for New Year's Eve, they can always go to the private markets."

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