It was late on a Monday afternoon at the drunk tank in Mytishchi, a Moscow suburb, but it could have been any day, at any hour, at any similar facility across this land. People would come. They always do.
Such is Russia’s ruinous penchant for the bottle — and the challenge facing a new government policy to curb it.
First to be escorted in by police officers was a construction worker named Damir M. Askerkhanov, who said he had been bingeing on vodka and beer — “This is my very own holiday!” — before he was found stumbling about in the cold. At 23, he admitted that he had already been picked up intoxicated twice recently. ‘Only even drunker,” he said.
Sergey A. Yurovsky, 36, who is studying to be a government clerk, arrived next, mumbling and getting tangled up in his sweater when he was asked to take it off for a brief medical exam. After he was moved to a room to sober up, and dozed off, officers showed up with Larisa V. Lobachyova, 53, whose hair was matted with dirt from a fall.
“It is this way all the time,” said Inspector Igor I. Poludnitsyn, who has supervised the drunk tank for seven years. “It is our national calamity.”
Russia’s President, Dmitri A. Medvedev, has been voicing that sentiment a lot lately, declaring that the government must do something about the country’s status as a world leader in alcohol consumption.
The Kremlin has already vanquished one vice this year, casino gambling, which it all but banned in July. But drinking — vodka in particular — is another thing entirely. It is a mainstay of Russian life, both a beloved social lubricant and a ready means for escaping everyday hardship.
Mr. Medvedev is seeking steeper penalties on the sale of alcohol to minors, as well as a crackdown on beer, which has grown more popular among young people. Beer sales at kiosks would be banned, as would large beer containers. The government may seek more control over the market for vodka, still the most common alcoholic beverage.
Mr. Medvedev’s plan, though, follows a long line of failed temperance campaigns here, going back centuries. The most notable was pressed by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who in the mid-1980s ordered shelves emptied of vodka and historic vineyards razed. Those measures succeeded at first, resulting in a nationwide bout of temperance that even increased life expectancy. But they also touched off a severe public backlash that damaged the standing of Gorbachev and the Communist Party, and he eventually relented.
In recent years, as Russia has rebounded and engaged more with the world, alcohol has hindered its development. Foreign companies that operate here are particularly aware of the toll as they grapple with lower productivity.
Russians consume roughly 4.75 gallons of pure alcohol a person annually, more than double the level that the World Health Organisation considers a health threat. The consumption figure for the United States is about 2.3 gallons.
The country will have difficulty resolving its demographic crisis — its population is predicted to drop nearly 20 per cent by 2050 — if it does not confront its alcohol problem. Life expectancy for Russian men is now 60 years, in part because of alcoholism.
Researchers studying mortality in three industrial cities in Siberia in the 1990s found that in several years, alcohol was the cause of more than half of all deaths of people ages 15 to 54, often from accidents, violence or alcohol poisoning, according to a report this year in The Lancet, a London-based medical professional journal.
The Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory panel, has asserted that roughly 500,000 people die annually in Russia from causes directly related to or aggravated by alcohol.
“No matter what people say about it being too deep-rooted in our culture, about it being practically impossible to fight alcoholism in Russia,” Mr. Medvedev said in August, ‘we must recognise that other countries, and you know them yourselves, have been successful in their efforts to address this issue.”
Drastic steps needed
Several experts said they doubted that the government would accomplish much unless its plan was drastically strengthened. They said the most important step would be to raise vodka prices significantly through heavier taxation and the closing of unlicensed distilleries. A half liter of vodka now costs as little as $2.
They pointed out that in other countries, like France, people drink heavily, but mostly wine and beer, which are seen as less harmful. The trouble here is hard liquor.
In Mytishchi, with a population of 170,000, Poludnitsyn said it was clear that more limits were needed. The drunk tank typically receives a dozen or so people a day, and many more on paydays and weekends.
“It is not a fight that can be waged in a single year,” he said. ``It has to be waged over time, over decades.”
Drinking has increased sharply since the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, though heavily intoxicated people have been somewhat less visible on the streets in recent years, in part because the police do a better job of whisking them away.
Dr. Aleksandr V. Nemtsov of the Moscow Psychiatric Research Institute, one of Russia’s leading alcohol experts, said that little would change unless the Kremlin got serious about shutting down unlicensed distillers, which produce half the vodka consumed in the country and usually are protected by corrupt officials.
``The government does not want to deprive poor people of cheap vodka,” Nemtsov said. “Because it is better for them when people are drunk. You probably know that Catherine the Great said it is easier to rule a drunk public. That is the root of the evil.”
Mr. Nemtsov said it would be foolish to constrain beer sales. Given that people are unlikely to spurn alcohol altogether, the government should prefer that they drink beer, he said. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service