Walking home through the Novinsky underpass under Moscow’s Novy Arbat, a friend and I turned the corner and stumbled over a body against the wall, his head laying a pool of thick blood the size of a dinner plate. He was motionless. My Russian friend and I ran out of the underpass to call a militiaman. But, that had already been done, and a rickety white ambulance was lumbering down the street, the driver looking lost.
Everyone seems to take the drunks as a matter of fact here. It is a country where people drink to get drunk. Drinking is a socially acceptable way to escape the impossible demands of life. It is also a sign of “manhood.” Those medics who were looking for the body in the underpass may drink tonight. The coup plotters of August 1991 were all drunk. Yeltsin had his periods of “absence." If you go to a Russian party, half of those there will be lost in an artificial euphoria before the evening is over. Saturday afternoon you'll even see teenagers drinking on the street or in the parks.
A medical study shows that almost half the deaths of working-age men in Russia are caused by alcohol abuse. Drinking, as a cultural prerogative, has a particular insistence. Once a bottle has been opened, it must be finished. A glass of vodka must be downed in one gulp. Anything less and you are not a man. On a national average, each adult drinks the equivalent of over 38 liters of 100 proof vodka a year. Take out many women and a surprising number of men who drink little, if at all, the rest must have it running in their veins. With populist politicians pushing for cheap or free vodka (nationalist Zhirinovsky has his face on a label), it seems as if some politicians would like to keep the people forever in this debasing form of self-imposed slavery. To me it is more than a fraternal thing, but a way to pull the others down so all are equally dead.
Contrary to common belief, however, not everyone drinks in Russia. At many a party with Russians, I was not alone in my abstinence. I read that Gorbachev is an abstainer. Contrary to legend, alcohol is not a prerequisite to success in Russia. It may be there for “fellowship,” but the defining goal is to put the other person down, literally. It’s simply an awful habit and damages this society, adding to the decline in the average Russian’s life span and deepening his despair.
I try to look for the humorous side of things, even when it is not so obvious. But, there are things about Russia that are tragic and may take decades to overcome. One of these is the tragedy of alcoholism, and there is not one drop of humor in it.
The drunks we see daily. Disheveled filthy men sprawled on park benches, designed for families and children. Yes, there are some women, too, mumbling their way through the day or unconscious, lying under a truck, or in a clump of trees, or in the street, where cars and trucks steer around them without giving a notice. I have seen it too often. Like the drowning man who refused help because he didn’t believe he was drowning, the government, with all their new found wealth and presumption of empire, looks the other way and takes a drink. Putin and Medvedev have taken public positions against drinking. But that won’t cure alcoholism. It is one of Russia’s great problems.
The man in the Novy Arbat underpass was particularly pathetic. The emergency van pulled slowly onto the sidewalk. The driver and attendants meandered around the truck, talking, and then descended into the underpass. One medic nonchalantly slipped into a white smock while the other kicked the man. The body moved and mumbled, saying that someone beat him up. They ordered him to get up, but wouldn't touch him. He staggered to his feet under his own power. Maybe they treated his wounds, maybe not. More likely he was on the street the next day with a dirty bandage on his head and a bottle in his hand.
In addition to the continually falling lifespan especially among males, drinking is directly related to the growing crime rates, great labor inefficiency and economic losses. It is of some encouragement that at least Russia’s president is not a drinker. Vladimir Putin drinks little, which may explain why he seldom smiles.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.