Russian priests enlist U.S. aid to treat disease of the spirits

January 18, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez

The Russian holy men came to Baltimore for answers to an ancient scourge.

For the past three days they talked with doctors who treat the problem, listened to academics who study the problem and rubbed shoulders with people victimized by the problem.

Their country's battle over the bottle is old, and they are looking for new weapons.

The Orthodox priests come from a country with one of the worst epidemics of alcoholism in the world, a public health problem recognized by the former Communist government as a national plague.

After visiting local halfway houses, sitting in on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and touring detoxification centers, Archbishop Vladimir of Tashkent and Central Asia and the Rev. Irinarkh Grezin, founding member of the Orthodox Sobriety Fraternity in Moscow, went to the University of Maryland Medical Center on Greene Street yesterday.

"What kind of people, what intellectual level, most easily become alcoholics?" asked the archbishop, speaking through a translator.

Spreading his arms in front of the dark, bearded priest, Dr. David McGuff gave his most succinct answer of the day. "All people," he said. "Alcoholism affects all."

Head of the hospital's alcohol and drug abuse division, Dr. McGuff told the Russians about several established models of ++ alcoholism that define the problem variously as a disease, a learned dysfunction, a symptom of moral weakness, a form of self-medication for other ailments or a result of social environment.

When alcoholics are treated, Dr. McGuff said: "About one-third are prone to [chronic] relapse; about one-third have relapse between longer and longer periods of sobriety; and about one-third stop drinking forever."

Even Alcoholics Anonymous, since 1935 a growing movement in the United States and introduced in Russia in 1989, only has about a 33 percent success rate, the doctor said. The archbishop and Father Grezin nodded as if deep in thought while a woman accompanying them on their church-sponsored visit took notes.

Before the Bolshevik revolution transformed Russia into the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church had a long history of battling drunkenness, the archbishop said.

"We think it is one of the worst diseases destroying human society," he said. "Alcoholics lose their human appearance, and the church must take care of humans. We must treat body and soul."

When the Communists came to power in 1917, they outlawed God, and the church was forced underground. The Soviet method of dealing with alcoholism was to force the worst drunks into state hospitals or labor camps, dry them out and send them home. Even today, the priests said, a Russian alcoholic is not generally thought to have a problem unless the disease has brought him to the gates of the graveyard.

Since the Soviet government began to crumble last year, the church has returned as a public influence and has targeted alcoholism in a country where thousands line up in freezing temperatures to buy state-rationed vodka, a country where a pint of homemade liquor can be bartered to a mechanic for a brake job.

"During the whole period of Bolshevik rule, there was no possibility to help people overcome this disease," the archbishop said. "But now the church has full freedom we have started again to recover our power and influence to help people take care of their health. Every priest wants to help his believers to overcome alcoholism, to strengthen their spirit."

The clergymen were surprised to find that in the United States the effort to help alcoholics and drug addicts is concerted.

"The physicians, the church, the employers all seem to help people overcome this disease," the archbishop said, adding that at the moment the fight back home was being waged almost solely by the church with the help of fledgling AA programs.

Asked if he thought the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were divinely inspired in the manner of the Old Testament, Father Grezin said: "They are quite appropriate to the general human laws and principles which were given to us by God."

The 12 steps, which met with some resistance in the officially atheistic Soviet state, attempt to free an alcoholic of the desire to drink through a spiritual awakening.

Archbishop Vladimir said he grew up drinking red wine in Moldova, where people drink red wine the way the English drink tea. Although he said he personally had no problems with alcohol, he was intimately familiar with Russians unable to make it through a day without getting drunk.

"Evil tries to find a base to make people [weak]," the cleric said. "And through alcohol, it succeeds."

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