Vodka: Russia's deadly addiction

April 04, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

LIPETSK, Russia -- Worn out by the daily battle for survival, impotent in the face of overwhelming economic and social upheaval, more and more Russians are finding solace in an old fashion.

They're getting drunker than ever.

An epidemic of alcohol abuse is sweeping the nation, with costly consequences.

Here in Lipetsk, a typical city of 500,000 and center of a region of 1.2 million, doctors estimate that nearly half the adult male population is alcoholic. And this is a place where they are trying to do something about it.

For Russia, alcohol has become a deadly enemy, although one often overlooked in the general chaos of post-Communist life.

Experts attribute a dramatic drop in life expectancy -- unprecedented for a developed country -- largely to the steadily rising drinking of the last few years.

Six years ago, life expectancy for Russian men was nearly 65. Now it is 60, heading steadily to ward 59. In contrast, a newborn U.S. male can expect to live to 72.

"We're the heaviest drinkers in the world," says Alexander V. Nemtsov, head of the drug and alcohol department for the Russian Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow. "And our people don't consume it gradually. They take it in shock amounts."

While other people, such as the French, drink nearly as much alcohol as Russians, they do so leisurely, sipping wine. Russians throw back vodka until they can't stand up.

Alarmed by the toll that drinking was taking, Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched a tough anti-alcohol campaign in the mid-1980s. But Russians reacted perversely to the rather heavy-handed approach.

While fellow workers turned each other in for drinking, and bottle factories were smashed apartand vineyards uprooted, Russians cranked up home breweries and began drinking even more.

"As a result of the anti-alcohol campaign, the sale of alcohol was reduced by 60 percent," Dr. Nemtsov said. "But actual consumption increased by 20 percent."

Today, the campaign has been largely forgotten. The problem grows.

According to government statistics, the death rate has been steadily rising since 1988, particularly among working-age people. In 1988, the mortality rate for people between the ages of 30 and 44 was 30 deaths per 10,000 people. The 1992 figure was 46 per 10,000.

The major cause of death among that age group, Dr. Nemtsov said, is alcohol, which is causing more illness and is increasingly a factor in rising car and workplace accidents and in homicide. He estimates that about 25 percent of the work force's potential working hours was lost in 1991 because of alcohol-related illness or death.

"I think it's only getting worse,"he says. When the drinkers themselves reflect on their addiction, he says, they often mention the word "toska," which means an oppressive sickness of the heart, the feeling that might envelop you if you were alone in the middle of the endless steppe, caught in loneliness, darkness and despair.

And they nearly always begin with perestroika, the period in the middle 1980s when Mr. Gorbachev began loosening the controls on society, when people began to feel the first stirrings of freedom but discovered more loss of security than promise for the future.

"Take journalists," said Andrei Alexandrovich, a Muscovite who drinks every day. "We used to be first-class people, giving important information to the Communist Party, the Central Committee, the government. We went abroad and we were necessary and useful to the KGB and the country.

"Now we have only a very second ary role. We're not making enough money to survive. We're quite well aware we'll never have enough money to buy a car or apartment or dacha. So there's no reason not to spend it on drinking.

"And when you're drinking you're not thinking about all that. You can communicate with your colleagues. You can escape the problems, drug yourself, kill yourself as quickly as possible."

Others are less eloquent about it.

Standing in the street in Moscow, a little wobbly from his daily ration of a bottle and a half of vodka (750 ml), a professional driver named Ilya said that drinking is the only way he can relax. "I'm under stress every day. Vodka is the only way out."

His neighbor, Yuri, who works for the traffic police, said he started drinking as life became more unpredictable. About three or four times a week, he downs two bottles (one liter) of vodka. "I don't drink because I feel pleasure but to drown my emotions," he says.

Here in Lipetsk, 250 miles and a 10-hour train ride from Moscow, life is better and simpler in many ways than in the big city. Nikolai I. Malyukov, head of the health department, has valiantly kept a system running that is collapsing elsewhere.

Every day, patients are undergoing kidney dialysis or laser treatments. Helicopters fly in emergency cases from the outskirts, with up to six landings per day.

While Moscow ambulance drivers were striking for working vehicles, those in Lipetsk were driving a new, meticulously maintained fleet.

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