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KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, October 27, 1998

I Love Me Some Vodka

The elixir of Russia!


Cultural Hints: Russian Vodka

Let's talk about vodka, which is an important product in Russian culture. There are 1,8 million officially recognized alcoholics and over 10 million Alkashy (people who drink at first opportunity) in Russia. Teetotaler may look like a black sheep at many Russian parties. Why is that so? Let's take glimpse on Russian drinking history and traditions.

In XI Century Kiev Price Vladimir feeling a necessity to strengthen statehood in pagan Russia decided to introduce a new strong religion. He met Moslem messengers and favored much a heterogamic family traditions (Harem). But when Prince Vladimir was told, that Allah does not allow drinking, he said, that Russians will not understand such religion. In this way Russia accepted a Christianity, which allows drinking.

Many old Russian fairy tales heroes celebrate a happy end by drinking Medy (Honey alcoholic drinks), which was an old Russian tradition. I found in an old book a version that Russia lost its first battle with Tartar-Mongol hordes near Kalka river, because Russian Princes, who united for the battle, went on a drinking spree (Pyr). When Mongol troops attacked them, many Russians were unable to fight, and some of them even could not understand where they are.

At the beginning of XVIII Century Tzar Peter the Great in his effort to civilize Russia introduced vodka, tobacco smoking and potatoes. He even issued a special reward: Vodka Order, which gave a right to its bearer to enjoy unlimited free drinking of vodka in all Russian Traktirs. Before that Russia imported small amounts of vodka from Germany, which was used as a medicine. Tzar Peter was a famous heavy drinker and died from liver problem.

Despite a strong opposition from Russian Old Orthodox Church, which pronounced vodka and tobacco a "Devil's Stuff", Russian people fast accepted vodka as a strong and cheap booze. While Russian Bonde Monde drank Champaign and French wines, Russian people drank vodka. In old Russia vodka was often sold by pails (about 10 liters). Together with bread it became one of the main Russian food products .

Cheers!Russian Tzars had a tradition to celebrate a special events by feeding people with free vodka on the streets. For example in 1913 during celebrations of 300 Anniversary of Tzar's Romanov's Dynasty in Ordynka Pole many people were crippled and jostled to death in a crowd's rush to barrels of free vodka, established by Tzar on the square. In his memoirs about Bolshevik October Revolution commandant Malkov writes, that after take over of Winter Palace and arrest of Russian Provisional Government, people rushed to the Palace's cellars with big stocks of wine and vodka. A drinking bout continued for 3 days, until it was stopped by Bolshevik Red Guards.

It's widely known fact, that Stalin often arranged heavy drinking parties with top ranking government officials in his country house (Dacha) in Kuntsevo. Red Dictator used the practices of some Russian Tsars to monitor thoughts of his underlings when they got drunk. There's a famous Russian saying: "What a sober person has in mind - that he will have on his tongue when drunk". During W.W.II Red Army soldiers were provided with 100 g. of vodka per day. Often before a serious attacks soldiers and officers received a weekly norm to raise their morale. One of my father's (he is W.W.II veteran) favorite war stories is about an old Hungarian castle with stocks of good wine, which happen to be right between Soviet and Germans battlefront positions.

Russian and German soldiers concluded a wine truce agreement. Russian messengers visited the castle's cellar for wine before noon, and Germans in the afternoon and both sides were happy.

During Khrushev's and Brezhnev's times vodka was pretty available to ordinary people. Khrushev liked to drink cognac and during 1962-1964 often showed drunk in public. I remember my mother's indignation, when Nikita was shown on a movie clips evidently drunk. Now old people often remember Krushev's rule, as the days "when vodka was cheap".

Leonid Brezhnev tried to limit consumption of vodka by raising prices for alcohol, unsuccessful propaganda compaign, and by limiting its production. People's humor often fooled him. Russians had a lot of anecdotes, like: <During a visit to industrial plant Brezhnev asks a turner:"If I shall raise a price of the bottle of vodka to 10 Rbls., will you continue to drink?". "Yes" - was the answer. "But if I shall raise the price to 20 Rbls?". "Yes Leonid Illyich. You may raise it as high as you like and I shall continue to drink". "Why?". "Look at this spare part. It costs one bottle of vodka today, and it always will cost one bottle of vodka".

To understand this joke, you must know, that many people used their working facilities to make products and sell them besides a regular earnings. It was a common practice, when a turner who made left-handed spare part for private car was repaid with a bottle of vodka. Those days vodka was a kind of convertible hard currency. Old Babushka's paid few bottles of vodka to a man who helped them to cut firewood. We paid a bottle of vodka to plumber, who repaired our water tap, and to electrician, who repaired a switch. People called vodka a "Liquid Currency".

In June 1986 Gorbachev, in an effort to civilize Russian people, introduced Prohibition. He started a compaign of "civilized drinking". As Russian Ex-Premier Chernomirdin mentioned one day "We (Government) wanted to make it better, but it went on as always do (i.e. wrong)." In 1986 police and Communist Party structures started a war against alcohol in Russia.

Gotta have another!

At first Russia was in shock. The situation can be described by the following popular Russian anecdote: Raisa Maximovna (Gorbachev's wife) came up to Gorbachev and said: "I have a terrible news for you about Shevarnadze (Foreign Minister)". "What is the news???". "Shevarnadze is a CIA agent!!!"- said Raisa Maximovna. "Uph, it's not a terrible news. You much scared me, because I thought that Shevrnaze went drunk." - answer Gorbachev.

I know many people who were hit by this Prohibition compaign. In 1986 my friend Stanislav, a chairman of Khabarovsk Krai Importing Company, was expelled from Communist Party (Those days it was similar to civic death) and lost his job. But he was a highly respected and skilled professional. His crime was, that after signing a good contract he drank vodka with Japanese in the Intourist hotel room. Somebody reported to the police and Stanislav was taken by cops, when he left the hotel.

Or chief accountant of Khabarovsk Promstroi Bank after hours arranged a a small birthday party in her office. Police raided, crashed the Bank's door and after spending a night behind the bars all "criminals" were expelled from Communist Party and lost their jobs.

But Russians are fast in adaptation to new laws and conditions. Government offered every Russian a coupon for 2 bottles of vodka per month, and Russians offered the government a huge bootleg Samogon industries. They started to produce Samogon (Moonshine) at home. People exchanged Samogon recipes, invented modern moonshine distillers and that became some kind of national sport. I've made myself a good stuff.

A low level authorities closed eyes to people's "drinking under the table". For example, CPSU arranged a "Sober Wedding Parties" compaign. But in Russia a wedding party means at least two days of drinking with friends and relatives. So, people brought on the tables a colored booze and pretended that they drink tea and juice. Some Russians drank everything containing alcohol, and we had a number of reports about people poisoned to death by alcoholic surrogates.

Production and sales of vodka always was a Russian state's monopoly, which made up a major share of state budget. In 1992, after dissolution of the USSR, a New Russian government allowed private production and import of alcoholic drinks. Bootleggers Mafia received a legal ground for its development. In conditions of government's corruption and fraud, Mafia organized a stable alcoholic drinks import and shadow production industries. Russian markets were filled with cheap and low quality booze (Often counterfeited) coming from Western countries USA, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and etc. Vodka Mafia arranged a stable illegal traffic of pure alcohol spirits into Russia. A wide network of small illegal plants all across Russia use this spirits for production of cheap vodka. Until 1997 import of alcohol was controlled by so called Russian Sports Mafia.

Russian Athletic organizations were provided by the government with import and taxes benefits. The raised profits were supposed to be used for development and support of Athletic organizations and programs. After a number clashes between different Mafia groups and a chain of killings, the Government cancelled this benefits. But traffic of illegal alcohol continues today.

For example, in May 1998 Nakhodka Customs stopped a big party of barreled pure alcohol spirits from USA. A similar smuggle parties were reported by Leningrad Customs. Last spring Russian border patrol troops tried to stop continuous traffic of illegal spirits delivered by heavy trucks across Russian-Georgian border. This caused political tension between Russia and Georgia and Commander of Russian Border Guards was dismissed by Kremlin.

According to some mass media reports 80% of alcohol and cigarettes export into Russia today are controlled by Russian Orthodox Church. I don't know if it is true, but somebody at the highest level controls this business.

Russians are a collectivist society and alcohol plays an important role in Russian social life. Most parties are traditionally arranged at home, where people drink, sing songs, dance. Men usually drink straight vodka and women are offered wine or Champaign. The only Russian cocktails I know are Bloody Mary (Vodka and tomato juice), Polar Lights (Vodka mixed with Champaign) and Eyrsh (Vodka mixed with beer). This stuff make you drunk fast, and you get a lot of headache next morning.

Usually Russians have plenty of food on the table. The most favored food for vodka (one drink of vodka is 100 -150g.) are salted pork fat (Salo) and pickles. When you attend a Russian drinking party, the only way to avoid vodka is to tell, that you do want to drink, but the health problem doesn't allow you to do that. Many Russians can hardly understand how a healthy and strong man does not want to drink vodka. And if you decline their proposal to drink they may consider this as an act of disrespect. Russians usually have a specific good feelings towards Americans and try to arrange "Who can drink more" competition.

The growth of alcoholism and drinking in Russia during the last years is the result of growing social stress caused by fear, economic instability, unemployment. Police reports that about 80% of crimes are committed by drunk people. All this of cause does not mean, that Russia is the country of alcoholics and you will meet many drunk people on the streets. There's a lot of sober minded nice people and this country must have a better future.

Russia Today Press Summaries Novye Izvestiya October 14, 1998

The Great Vodka Redistribution Will Start Again in Russia

Whenever the state treasury becomes empty, the government suddenly remembers alcohol production, the daily wrote on Wednesday.

In the history of the new Russia, three prime ministers have attempted to impose a state monopoly on the production and sale of alcohol -- Victor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Kiriyenko and Yevgeny Primakov.

Although they may have believed what they were saying, such a measure cannot be, the daily argued. After several years of war for markets among vodka kings, they will hardly surrender to an enemy as weak as the state.

The previous 70 government resolutions and decrees on alcohol were openly sabotaged, so one can hardly expect that orders of First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov will be observed. For instance, a new order would check production volume at every plant and block production between shifts. This would require an army of inspectors to be present at every plant. But the director of one alcohol plant told the daily it is easy to bribe a tax inspector. It only cost himself $2,000, while a single production line gives him $60,000 of profit per night.

Chernomyrdin tried, in vain, to impose similar measures in North Ossetia in 1996, where they earn millions of dollars on illegal vodka production. Experiments on controlling wholesale trade of liquor will also fail, the daily predicted. Attempts to control retail trade in vodka will be detrimental for the sector, because it will increase the price of vodka and lead to outbreak of fake liquor in the country.

31 Oct 1998 Johnson's Russia List

Radical Statistics: The Russian Morality Crisis

By Ray Thomas

The average male expectancy of life in Russia declined from 65 years in 1986 to 57.5 years in 1994.

A fall of this magnitude must be unprecedented in world history for any country capable of maintaining a statistical system capable of measuring such a decline with any accuracy.

Irrespective of matters of accuracy a decline of such magnitude must also be unprecedented in that it was not the product of famine or from some kind of plague. The only major epidemic suffered by Russia in this period has been the outbreak of capitalism. Russian pundits and journalists reports put the decline down to demoralisation. Millions of men in Russia have lost their work and their purpose in life.

The ILO unemployment rate is only 10%, but that conceals massive underemployment and massive wage arrears. This decline has not yet been the subject of investigation by social scientists. But Professor Martin McKee gave a paper in September that dealt with the medical aspects (as part of a programme of public seminars held by the International Centre for Health & Society at UCL). McKee is the leader of a research group at the European Centre on Health of Societies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which has reported extensively on Russia's mortality experience - which is parallel to that of many other former soviet countries.

There were only two items of good news in McKee's lecture. One was that the team did not find anything wrong with the statistics. Any major errors or fiddling, McKee argued would reveal inconsistencies. But no inconsistencies were found. The other positive point was that there was a sharp rise in the male expectation of life of nearly three years over the period 1984 to 1987. This is attributed to Gorbachov's anti-alcohol campaign and the vigilance of the KGB in regulating the market for alcohol.

After 1987, illicit brewing of alcohol is believed to have become widespread and much of it is said to be of such poor quality as to be a special danger to health. Commentators in and outside Russia have long attributed that low male expectation of life to drinking vodka. Russian sources estimate that Russian men drink nine times as much as Russian women, and this must go some way to explaining the large difference between the expectation of life for men and for women. Russian women have an expectation of life ten years greater than that for men - a difference greater than that in any other country in the world. But relating consumption of alcohol to the statistics on cause of death is another matter. If alcohol is the cause, it is well disguised.

The number of deaths from accidents, injuries, drownings, murders and suicide are all high - but alcohol is not included in the statistics as a contributory factor for these categories.

The big medical puzzle, as McKee explained, is that the major cause of death among men is diseases of the circulatory system including heart disease - that are not usually associated with heavy alcohol consumption. The theory developed by McKee's team is that the pattern of drinking in Russia is different from that in other countries. High alcohol consumption in the west is usually associated with regular drinking.

But in Russia, McKee asserted. The pattern is one of binge drinking.

The Russians do not sip wine with every meal, but on the occasion gulp down lots of vodka. The statistical evidence supporting this conclusion flashed on the screen in a chart showing deaths by day of week. The peak day for deaths is Sunday. The number of deaths per day declines through the week until Thursday, and then starts to climb again. Another chart, presumably from the Walberg article cited below, showed a close correlation between the rate of labour turnover and the increase in the death rate over the period 1987 to 1994.

I suspect that this chart is just the beginning of the important story. Bingeing on vodka may be part of the Russian male soul, but a large increase in bingeing that may help to explain the massive increase in the death rate over the period 1987 to 1994 has to be attributed to social and economic factors. The obvious sets of factors are the economic disasters associated with the transition to capitalism. Russia has suffered from all the problems of Thatcherism writ large.

Privatisation there has produced what was described a few years ago as a million millionaires and 149 millions living in poverty.

The economic crisis of 1998 seems likely to give a new lease of life to that description.

31 December 1998 The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Russia's vodka culture

by Geoffrey York

MOSCOW -- There is perhaps nothing quite so hopeless as a Russian anti-vodka campaign.

Mikhail Gorbachev proved it in 1985 when he launched a futile crusade to limit the sale of vodka. Today the Kremlin is about to discover it again. In a rash burst of optimism, the Russian government is trying to ban the distribution of cheap bootleg vodka -- the mainstay of working-class drinkers for years, and the main cause of an estimated 30,000 deaths from alcohol poisoning every year.

Russians are unfazed by the latest crackdown. Illegal vodka is still available at 60 cents a bottle from elderly women who dodge the police outside Moscow's subway stations. Street kiosks offer the bootleg stuff under the counter. Market vendors sell illicit bottles to their friends and trusted customers. 'The state will never win this fight,' shrugs Andrei, a 41-year-old labourer. 'There's a lot of money at stake, and nobody is going to lose this money.'

The campaign against bootleg alcohol has merely confirmed the obvious: vodka is as inextricably Russian as snow and ice, and just about as impossible to abolish. The national drink has been inseparable from Russia's cultural identity for centuries. For millions of Russian men, the vodka bottle is at the very heart of daily life. It is a social and business necessity, a medical panacea, a faithful friend, and the quickest method of escape from the hardships of post-Soviet poverty.

The most famous vodka drinkers are heroes in Russia. Next month the Russians will proudly erect a bronze monument to their leading vodka philosopher, the alcoholic author Venedikt Yerofeyev, who eulogized the spirituality of booze in his classic underground novel (italics) Moskva-Petushki (end italics). On the 60th anniversary of his birth in October, a Russian television channel devoted six hours of programming to his memory, while 1,500 of his biggest fans crowded into a suburban train to retrace the alcohol-fogged odyssey in his famous novel.

One for the road!Yet vodka is also Russia's deadliest scourge. An estimated 10 million Russians are alcoholics, and half of all deaths in the country are at least partly caused by vodka. Of the 2.1 billion litres of vodka consumed annually in Russia, more than half is the bootleg variety -- illicit, untaxed, unregulated, and often highly unsafe.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov points out that Russia suffers more deaths annually from vodka than it endured in the entire 10 years of the Afghanistan war. About 30,000 to 40,000 annual deaths are caused by alcohol poisoning -- three times the total in 1990. (By comparison, only about 350 Americans die from alcohol poisoning annually.)

Russians know that vodka can kill them, but their loyalty to the national drink is unswerving. 'I love vodka because it's the strongest drink,' said Vladimir Nosov, a 41-year-old Moscow maintenance worker. 'Russians need their drinks to be very strong. Even when they make homebrew in the villages, it's not less than 40 per cent alcohol. Otherwise you'd need to drink too much to get high.'

A few years ago, Russians surpassed the French to become officially the world's heaviest drinkers. By some estimates, the average Russian man consumes 18 litres of pure alcohol annually -- the equivalent of a full bottle of vodka every four days. (Surveys of Russian drinking habits, however, can be difficult to conduct. In one survey, as many as 2 per cent of those approached were too intoxicated to respond.)

Flat Jon shows how its doneAlcohol has been vital to Russian life for at least a millenium. When Grand Prince Vladimir of ancient Rus was searching for a religion for his pagan country in the 10th century, he chose Christianity -- rather than Islam -- because it allowed his people to keep drinking. 'Drinking is the joy of the Russes,' he said. 'We cannot do without it.'

By the 15th century, a European ambassador in Moscow observed that the Russians were 'great drunkards and take great pride in this, despising abstainers.' Two centuries later, even Russia's priests and monks were notorious for heavy drinking, and another European diplomat remarked that Russians were 'more addicted to drunkenness than any nation in the world.'

Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign against vodka in the mid-1980s is believed to have saved the lives of 600,000 people. But it also taught millions of Russians how to get drunk on potato-based homebrew and hundreds of other toxic substances, including perfume, shaving lotion, insecticides, anti-freeze, toothpaste, shoe polish and varnish. Soviet military recruits drained the de-icing fluid from fighter jets to satisfy their cravings. By 1988, the anti-vodka campaign had collapsed.

In the 1990s, vodka drinking surged to record levels, accelerated by the human dislocation of the post-Soviet transition and the drastically cheaper price of alcohol in the new capitalist economy.

The new era of vodka liberation was symbolized by the president himself, Boris Yeltsin, who became notorious for drunken performances in public. He opened the floodgates for cheap vodka in 1992, allowing almost any kind of cheap booze to pour onto the Russian market. Indeed, this was one reason for his political popularity. One poll found that daily vodka drinkers were 50 per cent more likely to support Yeltsin than those who drank less.

The vodka epidemic is the biggest single reason for the drastic decline in the life expectancy of Russian men in the past decade. Their life expectancy has plunged from 64 to 59 -- the steepest decline of any nation in peacetime conditions -- and Russia's population is falling by 400,000 every year. Studies have concluded that alcohol is linked to 80 per cent of Russian murders, half of all suicides, 60 per cent of fires, 75 per cent of absenteeism and half of all car crashes. Heavy vodka consumption by Russian men is also the main reason why Russia has the world's biggest life-expectancy gap between men and women. On average, Russian women live 15 years longer than men.

In the Soviet era, vodka was controlled by a state monopoly, which provided as much as 35 per cent of all state revenue. Today, with the monopoly dismantled, alcohol provides only 3 per cent of state revenue, and the Russian government is losing as much as $2-billion in potential annual revenue as a result of bootleg sales.

Most of the illicit vodka is produced in underground factories that spring up as fast as the police can shut them down. Half of the vodka at street kiosks is of dangerously poor quality, often made from industrial-grade methyl alcohol. Some Russians routinely use cheap vodka as a windshield-wiper fluid for their cars.

Because of its low production costs, the vodka trade is one of Russia's most profitable. Much of the cheapest stuff floods across the unguarded border from Ukraine and Belarus, where the cost of production is even lower. Indeed, vodka is so inexpensive that it has destroyed much of the traditional moonshine industry. Nobody needs to make their own homebrew alcohol when they can simply buy vodka on the street at 60 cents a bottle.

Mr. Primakov, desperate to increase government revenue, has now imposed a state monopoly on the distilleries that produce pure alcohol for vodka bottlers. His goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate the illicit production of vodka.

But the rulers of Russia have been vainly trying to control the vodka industry for centuries. The first recorded anti-vodka campaign was in 1652. (It failed, of course.) Throughout the 1990s, the Kremlin announced dozens of new measures to license and restrict the vodka trade. Whenever it ordered a new licensing rule, fake excise stamps and labels were available on the underground market within days.

'We can't fight this competition,' said Sergei Lukashuk, production manager of the famous Kristall vodka factory in Moscow. 'It's very easy to produce vodka in underground plants. You can set up a factory in a week. It's easy to get bottles and spirits. All this chaos must be profitable for someone. It's big money.'

The Kremlin is facing an immutable law: Russians will always insist on a ready supply of cheap vodka, and the underground industry is the easiest source.

'If the government tries to make the price too high, the illegal market will increase,' said Maria Katkova, a Moscow art-gallery curator who helped build the bronze monument to the vodka philosopher Venedikt Yerofeyev. 'Russians will find a way to produce illegal vodka,' she said. 'They live in very difficult conditions -- a harsh climate, wars, revolutions. They need a different emotional reality. When they have problems and sorrows, they need something to forget about life.'

Later this week, millions of Russians will gather around their televisions to watch a pre-taped New Year's Day television show, featuring a host of Russian show-business celebrities. The show, fittingly enough, is sponsored by a vodka company. 'When it was over, the guests could hardly stand,' a Russian newspaper reported. 'We are a drunk and talented people!'

St. Petersburg Times October 16, 1998

House of Hope Puts a Cap on Russia's Drinking

By John Varoli

"I am an alcoholic," said artist Dmitry Shagin, making a deep and heartfelt admission before a crowd of hundreds at a recent rock benefit concert. In response, the crowd burst into wild applause. When the clapping died down, Shagin added, "But I haven't had a sip in five years." The audience answered with moans of disappointment.

Despite their enthusiasm for unabated boozing, with the money these concert- goers paid for their ticket, they were effectively supporting the House of Hope the Hill - an alcohol rehabilitation center organized and attended by several of that night's leading names.

The reaction Shagin received is endemic of attitudes toward heavy drinking in this country - regardless of the fact that Russia is widely considered one of world's most alcoholic nations. "Alcoholism is a national tragedy in Russia," says Dr. Yevgeny Zubkov, an official who helped found the House of Hope - known in Russian as Dom Nadezhdy Na Gore - one of Russia's first private alcohol rehab centers.

Evidence to support Zubkov's claim abounds - in scientific reports, official statistics and casual observations. Since Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev began his anti-alcoholism campaign in the 1980s, consumption has jumped 600 percent, according to the Russian National Academy of Sciences. The average Russian adult now annually consumes the equivalent of 38 liters of pure alcohol.

Meanwhile, the life expectancy for the average Russian man has been declining throughout the 1990s, dropping to the current low of 57.4 years, primarily due to binge drinking. According to Zubkov, about 50,000 Russians die each year from alcohol poisoning and accidents due to drunkenness, giving Russia a per capita rate six times greater than that of the United States. In addition, about 80 percent of all crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol.

Me, in a past life, out coldYet few officials want to admit publicly the true severity of the problem and take effective measures to tackle it. "The problem of alcoholism in Russia is more severe than any financial crisis," said St. Petersburg businessman Valeri Gusev, a House of Hope sponsor. "The financial crisis will eventually pass, but the problem of alcoholism will persist, and in the end, we cannot talk of rebuilding Russia when half the population is often drunk and raising their children under those conditions."

Bucking the trend, a number of medical specialists, prominent cultural personalities, and businessmen have been teaming up to fight the disease. The House of Hope, which opened in summer 1997 on the initiative of the American-based International Institute for Alcoholism Education and Training, has the backing of several leading pop cultural figures - from Yury Shevchuk, the lead singer of the popular rock group DDT, to Shagin of the famous Mitki art collective. And most have gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous program in America.

Though the House of Hope is a separate entity from Alcoholics Anonymous, which first appeared in Russia in the late 1980s, it fully uses AA's 12-step program as a guide to recovery. "Our hope is that slowly the House will become an model of successful anti- alcohol treatment in Russia," said Shagin, who serves on the House of Hope's board of directors. "The goal of the center is to bring humane anti-alcoholic treatment to Russia," said Zubkov. "Russia's problems are quite specific and have their roots in spiritual crisis."

Treatment at the House of Hope lasts one month, during which time patients take their first four steps. The remaining eight are to be taken in the three months after the patient returns home. The first step along the path to help is to admit loss of control over one's life, and the second is to admit that there is a higher power that can help, said Yakov, a councilor at the House of Hope, who himself has gone through the treatment. Yakov declined to give his complete name due to an AA tenet that members preserve their anonymity.

"Our treatment will only help if the patient wants to help himself," he said. "We do not force anyone."

The House itself - a three-story, solidly built building of red brick - was purchased for $28,000, funded by private donations. Still, some expensive renovations are needed. Construction is underway to build a Russian bath, a chapel and a wing for women, who are currently not allowed to take part in the program. Right now the House can accommodate 16 inpatients; 10 are currently living there, though Yakov hopes the number will grow.

As much as $120,000 is needed, said Zubkov, in addition to the center's $70,000-per-year operating budget.

While alcoholic treatment did exist in Soviet times it often consisted only of imprisonment in the brutal detox centers, widely known as LTPs. The House of Hope takes a much gentler approach, and one that relies greatly on spirituality. "The idea is come to God, clean oneself, and then go out and help others," said Shagin. "There are no strict rules that one has to believe, but in the end many come to understand that it is only possible to overcome one's alcoholic problem with God's help."

"It is important to have the House," said a Russian singer who went through the treatment and wished to maintain her anonymity. "It is a place where one can go when there [seems to be ] no more reason to live and no way out."

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