Why do the Russians drink so much

alcoholism : Vodka and Russia: A Tale of Drinking and Dying

Moscow - The first person to pour me pure alcohol was Misha (name changed by the editors). Medical alcohol, diluted with water, in Moscow, on New Year's Day 1991. "Drink if you dare!" He said. I managed to get a teacup and vomited. Misha later confessed to me that he didn't like me and that he wanted to wipe me out.

We still drank a lot together, wine, vodka, cognac, mostly hard things. Misha became my friend, I was proud of it. Mischa was someone everyone liked, the broad-shouldered guy with the Mel Gibson grin. Misha had charisma, he was a painter.

When he drank, he began to talk about the huge, colorful fish he was painting, about their bodies, their souls and their thoughts. He smoked one cigarette after the other, talked and continued to drink, but his eyes and his voice remained fixed. In the intoxication he seemed to discover new solutions for his canvas.

According to the latest state statistics, Russians now drink less than Germans, Austrians or French. But statistics and the reality experienced often have little to do with each other in this country. The Russian soul continues to suffer from brandy. In the provinces in particular, the poisonous shadow of the “green snake”, as alcoholism was already known in the days of the tsars, hangs over friendships, marriages and families. But above all about the men.


We are sitting in Kejses, a village in Western Siberia, between a stable and a vegetable patch, the July sky is deep blue and scorching hot. On the table is a glass carafe full of cloudy liquid, surrounded by bowls of steaming young potatoes, beef, cucumber, onions, sour cream, bacon and salads. Oleg pours plenty of it into the water glasses and grins: "Drink!"

Artyom had pierced me with the same look back in 1987: My future roommate in a Leningrad dormitory was sitting with two friends on the bed in a cloud of papyrosy smoke, holding out a glass of sticky port wine. His first words also commanded: "Drink!"

Command to challenge a duel and pipe of peace

Afterwards I heard this command over and over again, in Moscow offices, on Tver backyard benches, in military planes or provincial discos, from Belarusian car thieves, Chechen militiamen, deputy editors-in-chief or skinheads. "Drink!" It was a duel challenge and at the same time an offered pipe of peace. And always the invitation to plunge into the neck of the bottle, into a world of new revelations.

For 20 years, the non-drinker Vladimir Putin has been a national role model, the military portal topwar.ru brags that other European countries, such as Germany, could learn from the Russians and their president how to stay sober. But at the same time Russia longs for Soviet bottle brotherhood, for the times of rationed vodkas, wild yearnings and binge drinking, during which murderous cocktails were mixed: From Shigulovskoye beer, spirit varnish, some perfume “White lilac” and anti-perspirant spirit.

Most of the time, people are conceived in a fuss, nobody likes to love without booze.

Sergei Schnurow, lead singer of the rock band Leningrad

The author of the recipe, the writer Wenjamin Erofejew, was a staunch alcoholic and died of throat cancer. Other creative Russians also perished at that time. The actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky sang: "You smoke on an empty stomach and drink against the hangover", he died at 42. Vysotsky, his lyrics and his rasping voice are still cult today.

And many Russians continue to regard vodka as the water of truth, and the alcohol level as the yardstick for masculinity. The bosses in the gangster films of the state broadcaster NTW continue to swallow straight from the bottleneck. Drinking is like swearing: not necessarily nice, but real.

Alcohol is rock and poetry at the same time

Once I went to a concert with the rock band Leningrad on the train from Petersburg to Tver. Sergei Schnurow alias Schnur, her lead singer, copywriter and also self-confessed drunkard, ordered the first glass after 200 kilometers in the dining car with a thoughtful expression. After that, new beer and vodka bottles kept popping up. When we reached the concert stage on the Volga, everyone was drunk. Denis, the drummer, had lost a mallet and was beating the drums with a plastic bottle, but the rhythm was right.

"Alcohol brings us death, alcohol brings us life," wrote Schnur a few weeks ago. “Most people are conceived in a fuss, nobody here likes to love without booze.” Alcohol is weird poetry, alcohol is rock.

Oleg wants to drink me under the table. According to the old Russian ritual: pouring, toast, toasting, ex ... then bite into something as fat as possible, preferably raw bacon. And pour it again, toast ... Oleg's “Samogon”, home-made schnapps, is a lukewarm, 50 to 60 percent abhorrent. But he grins blue-eyed: “Drink! Or do you want to get hit on the neck? "

Consumption is falling - because there are alternatives

According to official statistics, Russia has halved its alcohol consumption since 2011. That may be true - as far as students or yuppies in Moscow, Petersburg or other megacities are concerned. There is now European pub and bar culture here, mainly beer is served on Fridays.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, the bottleneck is no longer the only way out into other realities; you can also smoke pot, smoke coke or play cyber games. And you can emigrate now, according to a survey by the Levada opinion research center, 53 percent of Russians under the age of 24 want that.

“My sons drink practically nothing,” says Jeff, a Petersburg ethnographer and the most alcohol-resistant Russian I know. “But the academics around me now drink as much as I do.” Jeff is 59, a giant like the baroque alcoholic Peter the Great, Jeff has had heart and cancer operations behind him, continues to smoke and drink, basically only hard liquor.

Alcohol loosens tongues

Oleg is 20 years younger than Jeff, he too is a man like a tree, his teeth are perfect except for one steel tooth, for him drinking is a sports festival. Oleg is a trained electrician, but he can actually do everything. He cuts his own wood, fishes with his own net, slaughters himself. Oleg is someone who, like millions of other rural Russians, can work as an all-round artisan on any big city construction site.

Even in Siberia, alcohol is poetry, it loosens the tongues of taciturn Taiga hunters, while Samogon the men tell stories about bears, wolves and hunting dogs in series like films. The village Siberians also have their own unofficial statistics, Oleg belongs to the majority of the "Rabotjagi", the Malochers, but 20 to 30 percent of the inhabitants in the village are "Alkaschi": alcoholics and their families. Village school teachers and neighbors take care of their children, for the "Alkaschi" schnapps is no longer a pleasure, but a staple food. When there is no more samogon, they also swallow antifreeze.

The government is trying to intervene

And the state power knows that the green snake is much more alive than its own numbers suggest. In November, the Duma passed a first reading law to reintroduce the Soviet drunkards to get drunks off the streets, lock them up and sleep off their drunkenness.

In December, the government issued a ban: household liquids such as perfume, disinfectants or bath water additives with more than 28 percent ethyl alcohol may not be sold cheaper than drinks with a comparable alcohol content. At the end of November, five people died in a village near Yaroslavl. The police suspect that they drank car window cleaning fluid.

I didn't end up under the table. But morally, Oleg is the clear winner. In the end I just flee from him and his samogon, tumble over the garden gate, keep walking. I'm stumbling into a pothole, rapping myself. Land back on the asphalt, "with your nose in the salad", as the Russians say in such cases.

Half the village may have been watching, it's still light when I get to my front door. The last thing I remember is that my Lada Niwa is still standing in front of Oleg's garden fence ... But in the morning the car is parked in front of my house, I must have walked back drunk and turned home with him ...

Violent when intoxicated

In Russia, fighting drinking is a men's business, with alcohol accounting for 70 percent of deaths among men of working age. And in 2016, according to official information, more than 64,000 acts of domestic violence were registered; according to police, 80 to 95 percent of the perpetrators are intoxicated with alcohol or drugs. And these are only statistical fragments, not only in the families of the "Alkaschi" beatings that nobody reports are part of everyday life.

Men are perpetrators, men are victims. Dima from Yaroslavl signed up for the May holidays. But on the day he wants to arrive, he calls that his car has overturned, everything is okay, he'll be a day later. After that, his cell phone was switched off, and three weeks later he apologized for his "inappropriate behavior" via the Viber chat service.

Dima has got into the "sapoi", a constant binge that can last for days or weeks. For Dima, schnapps isn't an adventure, it's a pain reliever. He works as a plumber six to seven days a week to finance his wife and two children, but she has driven him out of their shared apartment, he sleeps in a garage or with friends. Other old comrades from the provinces or from Petersburg just phoned to insist on their friendship, they were seen drunk in the city, and disappeared altogether.

Death is snake green

Death in Russia is often snake green. A good friend, three years younger than me, was a film director, has won international awards, and he also drank. “If you are afraid that your liver will not be able to do that,” he once advised me, “then you have to drink dry red wine.” He died of liver cancer.

Timofej worked as a functionary of a Duma party in Moscow, and he also drank. Once a year, his mother invites all his friends and acquaintances to his birthday - to the Kuzminsk Cemetery in Moscow. Artyom from the Leningrad dormitory died two years ago.

Most of the dead Russian friends were over 40 when they perished. Perhaps their undoing was that they grew up in the Soviet Union. But maybe at this age the green snake will attack the next generation as well.

Misha, the painter, is lying on a table in the courtyard, his face looks strange, his skin has turned yellow, Misha is buried today. He had a smile like Mel Gibson, he had charisma, he drank because he was looking for new pictures. Then, after quitting painting to make money as an advertising designer, he drank because there was nothing left to find. In the end he moved to the village, carpentry, became a father again, stopped drinking, but his organs no longer cooperated.

Misha's young widow strokes his forehead, the Russian sky is gray, the first snowflakes are staggering through the air.