Russia's deadly summer cocktail

Drownings frequent during long, hot days when people drink

July 02, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The skies are blue, the days are long, the sun is hot and life looks good here at Academic Ponds, 14 acres of slightly murky water and beach where concrete-bound apartment dwellers plunge into the water to escape a city where air conditioning is a rare luxury.

They still sell kvass -- a beverage made from fermented black bread -- out of little yellow tanker trunks. Unlike Soviet times, when vendors used the same glass over and over, every customer gets his own plastic cup. Children dig in the sand; young men and women play a vigorous game of volleyball.

It all looks so soothing, even life-giving, that hardly anyone here notices the huge numbers of people who are dying. In June, 140 people drowned in swimming holes around the city. Like the two men who drowned here, most of them were drunk when they died.

With so much daylight at this time of year, there's a lifeguard on duty 24 hours a day at Academic Ponds. An ambulance stands by, with paramedics. Yet two men, 29 and 37 years old, drowned, and the other day a 53-year-old man was pulled out of the water unconscious.

"He was drunk and he tried to swim across the lake," says Maxim Landichev, a 20-year-old paramedic stationed at Academic Ponds. "He's in the hospital in a coma. He won't survive."

Last week alone, 29 people drowned in the city, and five more were in the hospital in serious condition. On one hot day, 18 people drowned in Moscow. They are mostly adults, and 80 percent are between the ages of 16 and 43.

"It's alcohol," says Sergei Nestorov, a lifeguard who sits on a small pier, scanning the crowds at Academic Ponds with binoculars. "They drink, and then they drown."

Lives cut short

Alcohol has been widely blamed for contributing to an alarming shortening of life expectancy for men here. Today, the average life expectancy for Russian men is estimated at 58, about the same as it was at the end of the 19th century. In the United States, it's about 76 years.

Most people here assume that drinking brings a slow death. There's little awareness of alcohol's role in drownings in summer, freezing deaths in winter, road accidents every day.

A recent report from the State Statistics Committee says that Russia's population fell by about 400,000 last year, to 146.3 million. And if the trend doesn't change, about 40 percent of young men who have reached age 16 will not live until 60, the report says.

In 1995, a quarter of the Russian male deaths were due to accidents and alcohol poisoning. The average age of the victims was 42. A demographer, Sergei Yermakov, estimates that the country lost 2 million working years in 1995 because of premature deaths -- depriving the economy of $20 billion in potential earnings.

"This week, we saved two people," says Nestorov, the lifeguard. "They were drunk."

Academic Ponds, next to Science Stadium, is one of 25 spots around the city with lifeguards, says Viktor I. Kiselyov, a supervisor.

"The majority drown where there is no lifeguard and swimming is prohibited," he says, the bill of a Calvin Klein baseball cap low over his eyes. "And 98 percent of them are drunk. We have too many people who love alcohol."

Thousands drown

In Russia, according to official statistics, the drowning rate is 8 per 100,000 people, while in the United States the figure is 1.68 per 100,000.

Last summer, 150 people drowned in Moscow. But this year has been unusually hot, and with no end to 80-degree days in sight and deaths already at 140, last year's figure is likely to be surpassed.

Throughout Russia, 16,157 people drowned last year, according to government statistics. In 1995, 20,458 drowned. They drown in winter and summer alike. In January, 215 Russians fell through the ice and drowned, most of them fishermen and most of them warming themselves with vodka.

Though drinking is prohibited at Academic Ponds, 4,000 people crowd in on a hot weekend and there's little real supervision. Beer is for sale at kiosks scattered around the grounds -- in the land of vodka, it's not really considered alcohol.

And there are few swimming pools, which might offer closer supervision. Most are indoor pools, and most are closed for the summer.

"Our swimming pool is closed for summer for repair," says Valery Sumin, director of one neighborhood pool. "Many swimming pools are being closed now because there is no money to support them."

And going to a swimming pool is not an easy matter. Entrance requires a doctor's certificate, which requires standing in line for blood and urine tests. A separate visit to a skin doctor is required. Some doctors demand a gynecological exam for women before signing a certificate giving permission to enter a pool.

The certificate is good for two months, then the process begins again -- unless you bribe a doctor to sign one without all the exams.

Swimming in Russia?

"All in all, I wouldn't recommend it," says Landichev, the paramedic.

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