Leaders Give Russia No Reason to Sober Up: Tatyana Tolstaya

Tatyana Tolstaya is a Russian writer whose works include the novel "The Slynx."

The other day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law equating beer with alcoholic beverages, a move that restricts its advertisement and limits its sale and distribution. Unfortunately, the decision can mean only one thing: The vodka lobby trumped the beer lobby.

People's health won't improve. The young beer drinker won't reach for an orange juice. Beer will simply get more expensive, and people will turn back to their beloved vodka.

Legend has it that more than 1,000 years ago, when Vladimir the Great was deciding which religion to accept, he rejected Islam specifically because it proscribed alcohol. "The joy of Rus' is to drink:" That phrase, attributed to Vladimir, determined the nation's destiny for the next thousand years. Back then, people drank relatively weak beverages such as mead, beer or kvas. Vodka wasn't invented until the days of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.

Ivan is reputed to have organized the first drinking house, a specialized establishment in which one could drink but not eat. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Peter the Great continued the inebriation of the Russian people: At balls and assemblies, he required guests to drink to excess -- sometimes, reportedly, to their death -- for his entertainment.

Perhaps, though, the explanation of Russia's relationship to alcohol can be found in a national character prone to extremes, rather than in czars or religion. Any form of moderation, from politeness to prudence, is seen as weakness. The Russian macho won't stop until he's had his fill and dropped dead.

Drunk Tanks

In Soviet times, drunks littered the streets, prompting the government to build half-medical, half-penal tanks to contain them. I knew a narcologist who lost his government job because he was constantly drunk and failed to show up for work. He was unlucky: His co-workers drank no less than he did, but his liver wasn't as tough as theirs. He didn't have the strength to crawl back to work in the morning.

As he told it, his work consisted of verifying the transgressions of moonshiners. The police would haul in the violators and their product, the doctors would solemnly fill out the necessary documents, and everyone would witness the offending liquid being poured down the sink. The moonshiners would pay a fine or go to jail. Then the doctors and police would lock the door; pull out the hidden bucket that had collected the fresh delicious moonshine; unpack pickles, brown bread, preserved fish and other hors d'oeuvres; and get the party started. It was a great job. Some chose to work all night.

Wild With Envy

Whenever I tell the story of the narcologist, my listeners go wild with envy. The fact that his family disintegrated and he died young bothers no one. I can testify that good moonshine is far superior to the vodka one can buy in the store. It's cheap, clean, tastes a bit like aquavit, rates about 100 proof and offers the excitement of feeling like an outlaw. Go ahead, try to ban it. We'll cook it and drink it. We don't need your stinking decrees.

I seldom see people splayed out on the asphalt these days, but that's not an indicator. The drunkenness has shifted to homes and restaurants. Alcohol consumption per capita has increased along with its variety and accessibility.

I know a lot of people who have made drinking their primary pastime. In between benders, they somehow manage to earn enough money to support the habit. Kids drink from age 12 or 13, mainly malt beverages. Beer ads portray its consumers as happy-go-lucky party types, who see nothing more natural than grabbing a case or two, because the world is great and life is beautiful. Then they get behind the wheel stinking drunk, or get run over by someone else.

Fake Vodka

A large portion of the vodka for sale is actually fake, poorly distilled spirits. The deadly rotgut, aimed at the pocketbook of Russia's poorest drinkers, comes by the trainload from the south. Everybody knows about it, but the interests of organized crime are stronger than presidential decrees, particularly given the fact that our current president isn't really in charge. Like cheap vodka, he's also a fake.

Wine, for its part, isn't a contender. Wine-drinking culture hasn't taken root in Russia. We produce very little of our own, and the imported version must get through a gauntlet of excises, checks, bans and licenses designed to enrich the relevant officials. As a result, it's far too expensive for regular consumption. In any case, Russians drink less for flavor than for the brain-numbing effect that hard alcohol -- and particularly poorly distilled hard alcohol -- delivers much more effectively.

Invincible People

The Russian people are invincible, because over the past thousand years they've learned to downshift like no other nation. No 20-year-old French cognac? Can't import Georgian wine? Beer too expensive? No problem. We'll get booze where we can. We'll buy infusion of hawthorn at the pharmacy. We'll make moonshine from potatoes, sawdust or tomato paste. We'll make cocktails from glue. We'll extract spirits from bathroom cleaner (it's called "snowflake," has a grayish color and reeks like hell).

Trying to separate people from their favorite drink with a decree is an exercise in futility. What the country really needs is something else: jobs, affordable housing, opportunities for kids to get into sports or art. Our weak and greedy leaders find it easier to prohibit, but our people have long since learned how to get around prohibitions.

President Medvedev probably won't strain window cleaner through rye bread. But the people will. We may die young, but we'll die free.

Article ©2011 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED; article also appeared at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-29/leaders-give-russia-no-reason-to-sober-up-commentary-by-tatyana-tolstaya.html

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