Every family has a secret; a skeleton in the closet. Ours was that my father drank. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t drink; it started long before I was born. He was a quintessential Russian alcoholic, often drinking before work, at work and after work. His problem lost him jobs, friends, his health, his property and, finally, his marriage.
His sober periods were followed by stretches of zapoi, a Russian word for an alcoholic binge that can last days, even weeks. Sometimes my dad's zapoi coincided with stressful events such as me, then a teenager, leaving for the United States for a year after winning a State Department high school scholarship program. My father was too wasted to show up at the airport to see me off.
Other times there seemed to be no apparent cause for his benders — in fact, my dad's life was definitely more exciting than an average person's living in the Soviet Union. He had a PhD in history from the Moscow State University, authored books, spoke three languages, edited important magazines and travelled to Europe on a regular basis, even during the very peak of the Cold War.
When spring and warm weather arrive in Russian cities, the streets immediately fill up with all sorts of boozers. Some sip from their beer cans to decompress after work. Others take a heavier plunge, alone or in company, to celebrate something, or for no reason at all. Yet others appear so loaded already that they pass out in the middle of the street (this happened to my dad on a number of occasions.) Whenever I see these often well-dressed and decent-looking men I ask myself: "Why did my dad drink? Why do Russian men drink?"
Several explanations immediately come to mind. One is the climate. How many sunny days do we have on average compared to most cities? And vodka certainly warms you up fast. Another is history. We Russians loved our booze long before the Communist Revolution and many say alcohol addiction runs in our genes. Add the stress. The instability. And liquor being the cheapest painkiller, antidepressant and tension-reliever. Actually, my dad's drinking peaked when the Soviet Union began to crumble. Reports show that alcohol abuse doubled in Russia between 1987 and 1994, causing more than half of deaths among the male adult population.
But these same factors are part of life in many other cultures. Stockholm or Vancouver are no warmer than Moscow, and the global uncertainty caused by the recent economic crisis was no laughing matter. Yet Russia remains the world's largest spirits consumer, drinking twice the global average. The male life expectancy is on par with some of the world’s poorest countries, with about 50 percent of adult male deaths linked to excess drinking.
I personally am not fond of speculating about the limitless profundity and complexity of the Russian soul. But when it comes to exploring the roots of my countrymen's weakness for booze, somehow Evgeny Onegin, the character of Alexander Pushkin's main tome, comes to mind. This flashy early 19th century aristocrat suffered from a curious form of the blues, seeking solace in aimless travels and futile love affairs. It seems to me that many Russian guys happen to have a similar form of ennui manifested in a mysterious lack of optimism and jois-de-vivre. And since most of our men possess neither Onegin's money nor his drive, alcohol becomes the most accessible means of distraction. Besides, in Russia, it's believed that men are supposed to be able to drink copious amounts of strong alcohol. The ones who don't risk being labeled unmanly, or losers. Or to quote a popular Russian rock song - "My friend doesn't drink or smoke, and I wish he did — then I'd visit him more."
Finally, as psychologists observe, for a great number of Russian men, especially those who were raised by single mothers, alcohol is a self-confidence booster. "With the family in crisis and divorce levels sky-high, booze becomes a substitute for love," says Olga Danilina, a Moscow-based practicing therapist with an extensive male clientele. "It gives men a temporary sense of protection and security many of them never had growing up with working mothers, who in the fight for survival have become insecure or depressed themselves. Or it might also give them an illusionary feeling that everything is possible and their lives are under control."
"It's only when I am drunk that I start accepting myself," my dad once confessed to my mother. He hasn't touched alcohol for more than a year now and we have grown closer as a result. I have accepted him, not because he gave up drinking, but because drinking is just part of who he is. And I am hopeful for the younger generation of Russian men for whom opportunities and sources of inspiration are definitely more plentiful than during my dad's time. I also look forward to further measures from the government restricting alcohol consumption. A recently passed law prohibiting sales of heavier liquor between 10 pm and 10 am in a country where some men are prepared to drink perfume or antifreeze, or at the very best, potent homemade brew called samogon, just isn't enough.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.