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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 15:43 GMT
Russians dying for a drink
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Pskov, Russia

Patients don't bother anyone, they just sleep and die, says Sergei

Sergei is not sure how long he has got to live.

He wanted alcohol so badly he did not think about what he was actually drinking. It was poison.

He told me that he and his fellow drinkers could only tell the strength of what they were gulping down by how much it burned their lips.

Now, he told me, he knows the risks.

"Seven people have died since I've been here," he told me.

His voice was so weak that I could hear the snowflakes hitting the hospital window next to us.

"They don't bother anyone - just sleep, then die. And I've heard that at the autopsy they find their liver's in pieces."

Dozens of people across Russia have died after drinking fake and home-made vodka. Thousands more are in hospital.

A lot of my friends have died, so I don't buy the bad stuff anymore
Reformed drinker

In Pskov, in the north-west of the country, there is not enough room for them all.

The wards are full and the corridors are lined with extra beds and even stretchers.

Some sleep, others just stare. Liver failure has turned their skin a sickly yellow.

Moonshine market

Across town, Inspector Yevgeny Kuleshov sets out on a raid looking for illegal distillers.

He and his men are acting on a tip-off. They go into a flat and search every possible hiding place - under the bed, under the floorboards, even in the cooker.

Illegal liquor
The liquor comes in buckets, jars, even milk churns

There is a strong smell of alcohol in the flat but it seems he and his men are just too late.

The bathroom tap is running. The officers suspect that the evidence has been washed down the plughole.

Inspector Kuleshov accepts there is a market for moonshine, despite the dangers.

"People make it and buy it because it's cheap," he tells me. "But of course it's very bad for the health, and illegal."

At his feet as we chat in his office is a selection of what the Pskov police have confiscated in the past couple of days.

There are buckets, jars, even milk churns - all full of potentially deadly liquid.

There has always been illicit distilling in Russia.

The present crisis has been blamed in part on new, stricter labelling laws for alcoholic drinks that came into force in the summer.

States of emergency

The crackdown has made cheap vodka harder to come by. Some drinkers have turned to window-cleaning fluids and anti-freeze instead.

Unscrupulous traders have put additives in drinks - making them stronger, cheaper and lethal.

Illegal liquor
Thousands are in hospital, poisoned by the illegal liquor

Several regions have declared a state of emergency. The authorities have started a public information campaign.

There was a poster on the wall of one of the blocks Inspector Kuleshov and his men raided - another on a wall in the hospital.

It warned that dozens of people had died already, then asked bluntly: "Do you want to live?"

Most of the victims have been poor - like Natasha, whom I found collecting bottles to exchange for a few coins. Her drinking habits had changed.

"A lot of my friends have died, so I don't buy the bad stuff anymore," she said.

The crisis has prompted calls for a state monopoly on the production and sale of vodka.

Laws alone will not be enough to stop some Russians dying for a drink.

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