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Last Updated: Friday, 15 June 2007, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Drink headache plagues Russia
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Moscow

Two homeless Russian men drink vodka (file image from 1999)
Heavy vodka-drinking has compounded many Russians' woes
"Drink up and shut up," was the way cynics summed up the Soviet "era of stagnation".

Do not complain about your lot.

A few glasses of vodka and all will seem right with the world.

Alcohol has been the cure for - and the cause of - social ills in Russia throughout its sometimes troubled history.

The country's leaders have shown a thorough understanding of the role that it plays in the lives of those they rule over.

The communist revolutionaries led a crackdown against it in their early years of power.

Anti-alcohol campaign

At the dawn of another great upheaval in Russia's turbulent 20th Century, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev highlighted drunkenness as a major problem.

I remember coming to Moscow as a student in the late 1980s.

Mr Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign was at its height.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mr Gorbachev stirred much anger over his anti-alcohol drive
You could not buy vodka before 1400 and, even then, there was no guarantee there would be any on sale.

"There's no vodka," one man half-way down a long queue snarled.

He had noticed people leaving the shop carrying nothing stronger than bottles of Soviet sparkling wine.

He almost seemed to spit out the words as he said to his mates, "Let's go".

As with so many problems of Soviet life, it became the subject of a whispered joke - one which articulated the fury felt by many Russian men at the time:

A man is sick of standing in the vodka queue.

"Right," he declares. "That's it. I'm off to the Kremlin to tell Gorbachev what I think of him."

A couple of hours later, he is back. "Well?" his friends ask. "The queue there was even longer," he replies.

The anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s tried to tackle every aspect of the problem.

Not only were spirits sales banned before 1400. You could not even buy perfume before 1200.

Boot polish booze

Alcoholics in Russia will go to seemingly incredible lengths to get a drink.

It's far from news that alcohol is one of the direct causes of mortality
Nina Rusinova, public health expert

This latest study highlights their willingness to swallow all kinds of domestic and industrial products, provided they contain alcohol.

In other words, they are dying from things which just are not meant to be drunk - in however small a quantity.

I once heard a group of soldiers in Chechnya discussing how you could get booze from boot polish.

Some people here will tell you it is fine to drink surgical alcohol because it is so pure.

The appalling social cost has been counted many times.

If the figures in this report may have shocked some outside Russia, here it has provoked weary recognition.

"It's far from news that alcohol is one of the direct causes of mortality," Nina Rusinova, a public health expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences told the BBC Russian service.

"It's much more important to study the reasons."

As with "drink up and shut up" and as with the crackdown of the 1980s, alcohol consumption mirrors social change.

Poisonings

In a sense, this country is still struggling to come to terms with the end of communism, and the bewildering transformation which followed.

"There really are problems in small towns," says Alexei Mitrofanov, a member of parliament for the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

"They really have died in the economic sense. Let's say, they relied on a factory, and the factory closed."

The authorities are aware of the problem.

The Kremlin has launched a series of ambitious "national projects" to address the social ills which can drive people to drink.

A wave of poisonings from fake vodka last year led to plans for stricter controls on production.

The report's authors call for a major change in Russian attitudes to alcohol.

In a country where a serious drinking session begins by throwing away the top of the vodka bottle - it will not be needed again - they may have a point.




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