ABUSE of alcohol has been rightly called "Russia's hereditary plague." It has transcended time and ideology.
Neither the czars of old nor the Communist commissars of the Soviet state have been able to dissuade their subjects from their stubborn proclivity for drink.
Drink may be "Russia's joy" — as Vladimir said in the 11th century — but the sobering — or rather unsober — facts reveal that it is also "Russia's sorrow."
Tremendous National Losses The evil effects of alcohol abuse permeate Soviet society. Soviet statistics published in newspapers and on television blame alcohol for three fourths of all violent crimes, two thirds of serious industrial, traffic and household accidents, one third of all sexual dysfunctions and nearly half of the country's divorces. Close to 70 percent of drownings and 45 percent of all poisonings are blamed on drinking.
Alcohol abuse, primarily in the form of hard liquor, and that mostly vodka, takes an alarming toll of the Soviet Union's hard-pressed economy. As many as 30 to 40 percent of Soviet factory workers show up Monday mornings too drunk or hung over to perform properly. "If everyone came to work sober and stayed that way," says one expert, "productivity would rise as much as 10 percent."
That figure — an enormous loss for the world's second largest economy — is significant in another respect. Western analysts, working from Soviet statistical data, estimate that Russian factory and office workers "tithe" — and then some — to the bottle. The sales of hard liquor account for more than 10 percent — perhaps as high as 15 percent — of all consumer purchases in the Soviet Union.
Republics on a Self-destructive "Bender" Far more serious than cold economic statistics is the impact of alcohol abuse upon the state of health of the 267 million people in the U.S.S.R.'s 15 republics.
The impact is so devastating that Western observers believe this is the reason why Soviet authorities stopped publishing statistics on alcohol consumption in 1963, and even more significantly, have not published life expectancy estimates in recent years.
By examining other available official statistics such as census figures and alcohol production, Western analysts have pieced together a grim picture of a union of nations on a self-destructive "bender."
While the Soviet population increased 9 percent in the decade of 1970-79, the production of spirits rose 33 percent and wine 49 percent. Higher Soviet exports of quality vodka and cognac cannot account for this steep rise.
Consumption has been rising roughly 5 percent a year, compared to an average 3 percent for 14 other industrial nations.
From a pre-Revolution per-capita consumption of 7.75 liters of vodka in 1913, estimated figures for 1968 show that the total consumption was the equivalent of 9.1 liters for every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union. Only four years later, the projected figure had risen to 10.8 liters.
These figures do not include the illegally produced spirits — estimated to be half again as great.
The steady steep rise in consumption has undoubtedly played a major role in the alarming increase in death rates in the Soviet Union over the past several years.
According to an article in the New York Post (February 17, 1981) author Guy Hawtin, referring to research done by American census experts, writes that "death rates for [Soviet] people in their 40's have soared by 30 percent since 1960, for those in their 50's by 20 percent."
These age groups, of course, comprise people in their most productive years.
Most alarming of all, the average Soviet male's life span dropped from 66 years in 1965 to 62 years in 1975! Women's life expectancy tailed off at 73 years in the early 1970s and appears to be dropping. Russian men are thus dying 10 years earlier than their women — the largest such longevity gap in the world, despite improved Russian health care.
The experts also believe that alcohol abuse is a primary contributor to an increase in infant mortality since 1971. Alcoholism, it is now known, has its impact upon the unborn of pregnant, drinking mothers-to-be.
Drinking "Everything Under the Sun" Working from Soviet data, Western scholars have deduced another remarkable statistic: 40,000 Soviet citizens died from acute alcohol poisoning in 1976, or 15.9 deaths per 100,000 population.
"This high mortality is significant," reports Professor Vladimir G. Treml of Duke University, "since it is completely outside the range of world experience. In the same year, deaths in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning were recorded at 400, or 0.18 per 100,000. The U.S. rate is roughly representative of world rates" (The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 1981).
The alcohol poisoning is largely attributed to the vast quantities of inferior, if not outright toxic, homemade "bathtub" vodka and other alcohol surrogates consumed in the Soviet Union. (Price increases in alcoholic beverages have contributed to the development of this enormous underground market)
An equally important lethal role is played by various types of industrial alcohol stolen in large quantities — as high as 200 million-250 million liters a year — from state enterprises and construction sites.
"This industrial alcohol," notes Professor Treml, "is either drunk immediately or made into bogus vodka, bottled in standard glassware, given faked labels and sold through state retail outlets by corrupt sales clerks."
Even this is not the whole story. "Finally it must be added," says Dr. Treml, "that lacking funds to buy legal or illegal beverages, drinkers in the U.S.S.R. consume large quantities of alcohol surrogates, such as lotions, medicinal alcohol, shellac, varnish, brake and de-icing fluids and the like. In 1976, for instance, 200 people died from ingesting ethylene glycol (antifreeze), 1,000 from drinking various cleaning fluids and solvents, and some 5,000 from vinegar concentrate, which is considered to be a good (although a rather permanent) remedy for hangover."
Drink — the Teenage Drug Problem Drug abuse among the Soviet Union's teenage and young adult population is low by Western standards. But a soaring rise in teenage drinking is a deep concern to Soviet authorities.
One survey indicated that 12 percent of 14-year-old boys and 47 percent of 17-year-old youths drink regularly. "Drinking problems are occurring in younger and younger age groups," warned the editors of one Soviet magazine.
Teenage crime and hooliganism go hand in hand with alcohol. "Most of the crimes young people commit are committed while they are drunk," lamented the Communist Party newspaper Pravda. (Nearly 60 percent of all burglaries and 49 percent of all rapes in the Soviet Union are committed by youths under 20)
Governmental decisions have only compounded the youth drinking problem. For example, the increased production of cheap beer and wine (products of lower alcohol content) has perversely brought the price of alcoholic beverages within reach of even more youths.
The Soviet economic system, with its stress on "fulfilling quotas," further adds to the problem. Youths are permitted to purchase alcohol at age 16, but state liquor stores will generally sell to them at a younger age, since shop managers are under pressure to fill predetermined sales quotas.
Experts criticize the government for speaking out of both sides of its mouth on the entire alcohol addiction crisis. While aggressively campaigning for public sobriety on one hand, the government, just as in czarist days, is dependent upon the sale of alcohol for more than 10 percent of all tax revenues. Taxes comprise roughly 80 percent of the price of a bottle of vodka.
Drinking Customs and Causes The main reason alcohol abuse is such a deeply rooted problem is directly related to the approach to alcohol taken by the vast majority of Soviet citizens. Western Europeans, for example, generally prefer wine or beer, often as a complement to a meal. Soviet Slavic and Baltic populations relish consuming the far stronger vodka or brandy in straight shot gulps either without food or early in a meal.
The ordinary vodka glass contains 100 grams, or roughly three ounces — the equivalent to a "double" by American standards.
By Russian tradition, hard drinking is accepted, even encouraged. It is considered unmanly to sip a drink (only women do it), a manner of pride to drain a bottle. It is almost impossible not to do so anyway since domestic Soviet vodka bottles do not have corks or screw tops, only discardable foil caps. Once the bottle is opened it must, by custom and design, be finished. There is no such thing as putting it back on the shelf, a notion that amuses Russians whenever a Westerner mentions the idea. Few Russian homes have such things as liquor cabinets or wine cellars.
The overall approach to alcoholic beverages is quite simple: Drink to get drunk, or at least very high. In this regard, alcohol becomes nothing but a drug, an escape from the rigors, real or imagined, of life.
In his authoritative work The Russians, author Hedrick Smith writes:
"Russians drink, essentially, to obliterate themselves, to blot out the tedium of life, to warm themselves from the chilling winters, and they eagerly embrace the escapism it offers."
Young and old alike abuse alcohol, treating it as though it were like one of the expensive mind-warping drugs common to the Western world.
"The drug action on Soviet campuses [does]... not begin to compare with the West," continues author Smith. "Far more of a problem is alcohol — the vodka which Soviet students, like their elders, drink with the self-obliterating intensity of Western drug addicts who seek oblivion on a high."
Communism No Cure The late Premier Nikita Khrushchev once called drunkenness "one of the harmful remnants of the past." He professed that he was confident that under communism it would soon wither away.
That is still the official Communist Party line. According to Soviet ideology, socialism has destroyed the "social foundation" of alcoholism, which is said to be capitalist exploitation.
But the facts are far different from the unattainable Marxist-Leninist ideal. More than 64 years after the Revolution, the authorities are forced to concede that drunkenness remains communism's number one social problem — and that it is on the increase, particularly among the young.
Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, as Lenin proclaimed in setting up the Soviet Union's atheist society, but hard liquor certainly is. And communist ideology has not been able to remove the underlying causes for widespread addiction.
The ideal of the "new communist man" striving confidently — and soberly — toward materialistic perfection has been lost in the reality of contemporary Soviet life.
Pressures of everyday living make resorting to vodka's seductive qualities even more tempting. Cramped living conditions in overcrowded cities, lengthening queues for consumer goods, money to spend but not enough to spend it on, a shortage of leisure-time facilities — all these are contributing factors to the rise in alcoholism.
Soviet authorities acknowledge that major factors behind the increase in drinking by young people are sheer boredom and the lack of any sense of purpose in their classless society — factors that could describe youths in many differing societies as well.
How to Provide for "Spiritual Needs"? Two authors of an article in the Soviet journal Literary Gazette recently probed the U.S.S.R.'s alcoholism crisis. To combat the problem they propose a "real system of struggle" employing the tools of education, punishment and prevention. The authors concluded:
"An extremely important role belongs to raising the population's cultural level, increasing cultural requirements and spiritual needs...."
Spiritual needs in an atheist society?
In another journal, this time one devoted to economics, writer Vasili Belov blamed Soviet drunkenness on "the primitive level of spiritual life in some people and their lack of any clear moral ideal, the psychological and material debasement of their jobs and the monotony of their daily life."
Atheistic communism cannot provide the Soviet Union or any other country adopting such a philosophy with the "spiritual needs" and "moral ideals" to cope with the curse of alcoholism. Atheists deny the spiritual and have only human definitions of morality.
And so-called Christian countries in the Western world also ignore the clear instructions of the Bible with respect to dealing with such morality-debasing dilemmas. For example, Finland, the Soviet Union's prosperous pro-Western neighbor, also suffers from serious vodka-fueled alcohol problems.
While the Bible does not forbid the temperate use of alcohol (Christ's first miracle was to turn water into wine for a wedding celebration), it clearly counsels moderation (Phil. 4:5), and absolutely condemns drunkenness (I Cor. 6:10, I Tim. 3:3, 8, Titus 1:7).
What all people the world over need is a clear understanding of the real purpose of life, a purpose so astounding that, when comprehended, will totally eliminate the desire to drop out of life, via the use of drugs or the abuse of alcohol.