Russia's Medvedev Launches a New War on Drinking

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Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty

Russians purchase vodka from a street kiosk in Moscow

It's a cliché because it's true: Russians love their booze. The word for the national drink, vodka, is in fact a cutesy version of the word for water. The first course in every meal is designed to encourage its consumption. And there is nothing unusual about seeing a mother walking down the street pushing a stroller with one hand while holding a beer in the other. Alcohol runs through Russia's veins and is ingrained in its culture. The last time someone tried to change that — former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — his popularity plummeted.

But now, 24 years after Russia's last big push for sobriety, President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to give it another shot. He said at a government meeting on Aug. 12 that alcoholism has become a "national calamity," with every man, woman and child consuming the equivalent of 4.8 gallons (18 liters) of pure rubbing alcohol per year, according to the National Institute of Health. "Imagine how many bottles of vodka that comes to — it takes your breath away," Medvedev said. He then proposed a mixture of higher taxes and tougher laws aimed at curbing Russia's drinking. And so begins another round of the nation's quixotic struggle: the government vs. the boozing masses.

The smart money is on the masses. Minister of Health Tatyana Golikova backed up Medvedev's announcement by stating, "We are the absolute leaders in alcohol consumption," before adding that the problem is getting worse. Russians have roughly doubled their alcohol intake every decade since the 1970s. State statistics show that today, 38% of Russians between the ages of 20 and 39 suffer from alcoholism — between the ages of 40 and 59, that number jumps to 55%. Alcohol poisoning kills an average of 30,000 people in Russia each year, twice the number of Soviets who died during the 10-year war with Afghanistan in the '80s.

In 1985, when Gorbachev raised vodka prices and destroyed local vineyards, Russia's drinkers simply turned into bootleggers, churning out bathtubs full of rotgut called samogon, which the nation guzzled down despite its tendency to poison people. The propaganda posters associated with the anti-booze campaign — showing square-jawed citizens declining their daily dose — are still the butt of jokes today. Still, according to Golikova, Gorbachev's efforts did end up saving a million lives. But his popularity took a drastic hit from which it would never recover after perestroika, his effort to restructure the Soviet economy, which led to the end of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev's seat in the Kremlin was filled by President Boris Yeltsin, whose government reversed most of the reforms. Anything else would have been hypocrisy considering how much Yeltsin drank. Current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has built up a much more puritan image — he is known to prefer beer, especially the German variety after his stint in Dresden as a KGB spy. But he never tried to tackle Russia's drinking problem during his time as President and stayed away from Medvedev's Aug. 12 sobriety caucus.

Russian lawmakers, however, were quick to jump on the wagon with Medvedev. When the parliament reconvenes in the fall, lawmakers are expected to raise taxes on alcohol, toughen labeling laws and ban the sale of alcohol at kiosks and small stores, allowing only big retail outlets that are a safe distance from schools, universities and leisure centers to sell booze.

As well as the potential health benefits, Boris Gryzlov, the chamber's speaker, is excited about all the money Russians will save. "The amount each citizen spends on alcohol every year is enough to buy a new car," Gryzlov said in a statement. "And if you look at what they spend on food, then alcohol is simply in another league. Consumers spend more on beer and alcohol than they spend on red meat, fish and fowl put together. And three times more than on sweets!"

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. "Politically, these plans are just a dumb idea," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Every time they impose these restrictions, two things happen: people start brewing their own liquor, or they turn to cheaper substitutes. By that I mean cheap perfume, hair tonics, window cleaner, industrial alcohols. This is a deadly game."

Just how deadly was made clear in 2006, when someone in the western region of Pskov whipped up a batch of cheap booze mixed with a medical disinfectant. The bargain vodka killed dozens of people and hospitalized more than 400 others who were suffering from jaundice, liver failure and toxic hepatitis. The regional government had to declare a state of emergency.

But incidents like that probably won't put off most of Russia's dedicated drinkers. One man enjoying a beer outside a Moscow subway (who asked to remain anonymous) becomes wistful as he recalls the bootleg brew produced during the last crackdown. "I remember the moonshine during the Gorbachev days," he says. "The best I've ever had. The people really showed a genius for brewing it. I'm telling you, it's in our genes."