What are often the first things that come to mind when Russia is mentioned in conversation? Freezing cold temperatures? Communism? Putin? All of these are probably true, yet probably the first thing to pop into a person’s head when imagining Russia is vodka.
It’s no secret that Russian’s love their vodka. It is deeply embedded within the countries culture and the drink of choice for the vast majority. In fact, approximately 70% of all alcohol consumed in Russia is vodka. When we hear ridiculous alcohol related stories in the news, such as former president Boris Yeltsin drunkenly summoning a taxi in Washington, dressed only in his underpants, it is easy to laugh off this issue as just a harmless national tradition. Unfortunately for a large proportion of the population alcohol is a serious problem and is responsible for huge number of deaths, suicides and a great deal of violent crime each year.
There have been many attempts over the years at curbing the excesses of this drinking culture. The Bolsheviks, upon first coming to power, tried to stamp out this problem. This did not last for long though, as the potential revenues from alcohol manufacturing soon convinced many that sobering up the population would mean a sharp dip in government funds. It was only in the 80s that Russia again attempted to tackle its alcohol problem. Mikhail Gorbachev famously launched his own anti-alcohol campaign in 1985 only to see his popularity greatly decline. The programme was actually fairly successful with sales of state alcohol declining by 61% which resulted in alcohol related violent deaths plummeting 51%. A side effect of this though was the massive increase in bootlegging. The result of this was that many, who were unable to afford officially produced alcohol, switched to drinking illegally produced moonshine which often contained toxic industrial chemicals.
Alcoholism in Russia has been climbing steadily since the 1970s, with alcohol intake roughly doubling each decade since then. Since the dissolution of the USSR, levels have dramatically increased in many areas, especially in places which experienced the fastest rate of transition. Current statistics estimate that the country has approximately 2.5 million registered alcoholics but there may be many more in reality. Russia also has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption per person. The National Institute of Health revealed in 2009 that on average, Russians drink 4.8 gallons (18 litres) of pure rubbing alcohol a year. This has resulted in a huge increase in deaths caused by alcoholic poisoning, which on average kills 30,000 citizens a year. The drinking culture is also believed to have led to a massive increase in violence and homicide. The mortality rate from homicide was 30 per 100,000 in 2002, twice the level of 1990 which was 14.25 per 100,000. Many factors, other than alcohol, have of course been attributed to this rise but it should be noted that in 1995 around three quarters of those arrested for homicide were drunk at the time. It is also estimated that 60-75% of all spousal homicides were carried out whist the perpetrators were drunk.
This is obviously a terrible problem which must be tackled. In 2009 President Medvedev called for a new war on drinking after calling Russia’s drinking problem a ‘national calamity’. Since then certain measures have been introduced with the aim of reducing peoples’ dependence on alcohol. In January 2010 the price of a bottle of vodka was increased to a minimum price of 89 roubles (£1.87) and plans were announced to outlaw alcohol sales at kiosks. Later in the year a ban on selling spirits between 10pm and 10am was also introduced for the city of Moscow. This summer Russia also officially classified beer as an alcoholic beverage. Previously the drink was viewed as a soft drink and marketed as a healthy alternative to vodka!
The question remains as to whether these measures will have any effect. History after all has not been kind to politicians who attempted to fix this problem. At the moment it is too early to tell, but experts have warned that mere increases in prices and the limiting of sales will not solve the problem. Many believe that this will probably just result in a revival of home brewing and all the negative health problems that are associated with it. The situation looks bleak at the moment and one has to wonder whether this is a crisis that will ever be solved.