ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN RUSSIA
Russians can drink a lot and more often than not the goal of drinking is to get drunk. Men tend to drink much more than women (the average Russian male consumes 12 liters of pure alcohol a year) and alcohol is sold everywhere: shops, restaurants and kiosks on the street. Russians tend to drink vodka, beer and local moonshines. Vodka has traditionally been the drink of choice but it is starting to lose ground to other kinds of alcohol. The middle and upper classes are drinking more and more wine and other kinds of alcohol, The younger generation likes beer. Since Putin—an avowed teetotaler—came to power not drinking at all has become fashionable.
Vodka is regarded as the national drink. Russians like to drink it straight and cold. It comes in a variety of flavors, including orange, lemon and pepper. Stolichnaya and Moskovaya are the most well known brands and Russkaya is said to be the best. Other brands include Rasputin, New Yorkskaya and Gorbachow. Armenian cognac, Crimean champagne, Georgian wine, mead (an alcoholic drink made with honey), and zubrovka (a brownish vodka flavored with buffalo grass) are also popular. Russian, Georgian, Crimean and Moldovan wines tend to be sweet.
On the streets you see people carrying around large bottles of Baltika beer. Bottles of cheap beer sell for 15 rubles. Bottles of Baltika sell for 20 rubles. The cheapest vodka sells for around 80 rubles a bottle. The same size bottle of Moskovskaya sells for 100 rubles. Gzhel Crystal, for 150 rubles. A bottle of cheap Bulgarian white wine goes for 60 rubles. A bottle of good Georgian red wine goes for 300 rubles.
Kvass (a mildly alcoholic, yeasty, beer made from fermented rye bread) is not really regarded as an alcoholic drink. It is often sold on the streets and tastes a little like ginger beer. People near Central Asia and Mongolia also drink kousmiss (mildly alcoholic, fermented mare's milk). Some people in the west drink aquavit, a vodka-like Scandinavian drink flavored with caraway seeds. Alcoholic drinks made from Arctic berries are available. Absinthe, in a safer form than was available in the 19th century, became popular in the late 1990s in Moscow.
A lot of people also drink samagon, moonshine which can be up to 150 proof. On the streets vendors sell home-made wines, brandies and whiskeys made from everything from smokeberries to chemicals. Be careful purchasing liquor outside the main cities. Make sure the cap is sealed and it bears a hologram testifying to its safety. There is a lot of bootleg liquor around. At best it can give you a wicked hangover. At the worst it can kill you. Avoid drinks sold at kiosks.
Book: Russia Goes Dry by Stephen White (Cambridge University Press, 1996). White is a scholar at Glasgow University.
Alcohol Consumption in Russia
Drinking is ritual that has traditionally been done at homes, parks, picnic areas, restaurants and hotels rather than in a bar. Bars are usually at hotels. Many restaurants take on a bar-like atmosphere late at night. There are also nightclubs, discos and casinos. Outdoor beer gardens open in the summer in some cities.
Russia's rate of alcohol consumption, traditionally among the highest in the world, rose significantly in the 1990s, and was major contributor to the country's health crisis, as well as to low job productivity. By some estimates, Russians consume half the world’s hard alcohol.
When restrictions of alcohol sales were eased in 1988, alcohol consumption reached all times highs. According to one study, between 1987 and 1992 annual per capita consumption rose from about eleven liters of pure alcohol to fourteen liters in 1992; current consumption is estimated at about fifteen liters. (According to World Health Organization standards, consumption of eight liters per year is likely to cause major medical problems.) [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In a 1994 survey Russia was picked as the biggest consumer of hard liquor per person (9.3 liters pints of pure alcohol per capita). A 1997 survey calculated alcohol intake at 13 to 14 liters per head. According to the World Drinks Trends survey by Alcowen— a European Commission-funded body—annual alcohol consumption in 1998 was 7.32 liters of pure alcohol per head, compared 11.3 liters per head in Portugal.
Alcohol can be purchased 24 hours a day in most cities. By some counts only 5 percent of adult Russians don’t drink. About 81 percent of the alcohol is consumed in the form of vodka and other spirits. The drinking age is 18. It often easy for youths below 18 to purchase alcohol beverages. A lot of alcohol is bought from illegal sources.
Alcohol and Russian History
"Drinking is the joy of Russia," Grand Prince Vladimir said in the 10th century. "We cannot do without it." Vladimir reportedly chose Christianity over Islam as the official religion of proto-Russia because it allowed its followers to drink every day.
Peter the Great was a big drinker who enjoyed downing vodka with ordinary people from time to time. He reportedly awarded loyalists with free drinking privileges indicated by a brand placed under their chin. All they had to from then on was walk into a bar, show the bartender their mark and presto, a free drink.
One Western observer wrote in 1849, “to drink seems a greater necessity to a Russian than to eat.” In the Russo-Japanese war, the Japanese came upon thousands of drunk soldiers in Mukden, Manchuria and skewered them with their bayonets, defeating them easily. In 1373, the Russians lost an important battle against the Tatars because they were too drunk to fight. Many Russians were thrown into a river later known as the Drunk River.
The tsars tried to control and tax alcohol, with varying degrees of success. Prohibition was enacted in World War I and maintained after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 by Lenin. Stalin was a bit more realistic. He provided daily allotments of vodka to soldiers who fought in World War II. Russian soldiers were given a daily “commissar’s ration” of 100 hundred grams of vodka. Some Russians insist this ration is what allowed the Russians to turn the tide against the Nazis.
See Gorbachev's Alcohol Campaign, See Below.
In July 2005, Putin said that he supported creating a government monopoly on the production of vodka and other spirits to reduce corruption and the sale of low quality alcohol.
Russian Drinking Habits
Russians have a reputation for being drunks. Lots of people drink in parks and walk down the streets with large bottles of beer or vodka in their hand. In Moscow and other places most nights of the week you can see drunks stumbling around the streets and passed out in alleys. This a far cry from the Soviet era, when public drunkenness often the result in fine, imprisonment or trouble at work. Many people drink on the streets and parks because there aren't enough pubs and bars.
Many people have said that Russians are happiest when they are sitting around their kitchen table gulping down vodka, eating dark Russian bread and drinking tea. During the Communist era it was the only place they could be free and speak their minds without having to worry about up ending up in Siberia for insulting a communist official.♦
Unlike the French and many other nationalities who generally consume alcohol with food, Russians often drink straight vodka without food which is more likely to get them drunk, and if they drink enough, cause alcohol poisoning. Some attribute the Russian proclivity to drink to a lack of hope.
Russians don't take kindly to people who don't want to drink all night. When Russians drink vodka they are expected to trade toasts and bottles until no one can stand up. They don't accept no for an answer. "Russian drinking is by toasts and to oblivion," Boyd Gibbons wrote in National Geographic. Even so many Russians seem surprisingly sober even after consuming huge quantities of alcohol.
Russian Drinking Customs
Russians like to drink during meals rather than after them, often tossing down glass after glass in quick succession. One Armenian liquor store owner told the Washington Post: “When the Russians come here to visit, we have a problem. We like to invite customers to taste our product, but with the Russians, it becomes a party. Whoosh. They pour it down...On the other had, they sometimes buy five or six bottles at a time from our store. So we can’t complain.”
Meals are often repeatedly interrupted by toasts, speeches and shots of vodka. Russians like to make lots of toasts. They make toast to your health, to your mother, to the moon, to Russia, to America, to world peace, to beautiful women, anything. They toast a birth in a ritual called "washing a baby" in which a military medal or something else of value is placed into a glass of vodka and passed around the table.
Russians typically begin a meal with a toast and shot of vodka downed in one gulp. To take a drink before the first toast is the height of uncouthness, Toasts are then repeated through the meal and afterwards. The word droog ("friend") comes up often. Foreigners are often asked to make a toast. It is a good idea to have one ready.
Russians often drink communally from the same cup or glass which is passed around. They often eat bread, snacks and other food when they drink, reportedly to keep them from getting too drunk. They don’t take kindly to people who don't join them for a drink. Refusing a drink can be quite difficult. To avoid getting completely wasted, some Westerners take a shot and then spit it into the chaser cup. The Russian gesture of a flick to the throat signifies that someone is drunk.
Drunkenness and Alcoholism in Russia
Drunkenness has been a fixture of life in Russia for as long as anyone can remember. A Dutch visitor to Russia in 1876 wrote: “We saw only ye scandalous behavior of debauchees, glorified by the thronging crowd for their proficiency for drunkenness.” Russians refer to a nasty hangover as "the fish that rots from the head down."
Public drunkenness doesn't raise eyebrows in Russia. No one is outraged if the mail isn't delivered because the mailman is lying in a drunken stupor under a table. People who don't drink are sometimes regarded with the kind of suspicion traditionally given lepers.
It has been said that drunk Russians like to walk down the street with their arms around each other’s shoulder so that if one person falls down they all fall down. Drunks who get out of control or piss in the staircases on local ferries are sometimes wrestled to the ground and tied up to metal pipes until they sober up. So called sober cells in local prisons are often full.
Alcoholism is a big problem in Russia. Most Russian families have an alcoholic member. Studies have shown that men who drink heavily often beat their wives and that pregnant women who drink often damage their unborn children. Many rural Russians estimate that half the people who live in their villages drink excessively. One Russian psychologist told AP, "Alcoholism has always been our national habit, but now there are absolutely no limitations on when you can get hold of liquor or how much you can drink."
In many cities, drunk men often stumble outside and fall sleep in small clearings. Industrial accidents are high because people show up to work drunk. People drink more in the winter and alcohol treatment centers report a huge influx of patients.
Drinking and Poor Health in Russia
Binge drinking is regarded as the primary cause of the decline in the life expectancy of Russian men since the early 1990s. Two thirds of Russia men die drunk, whether from an accident, heart attack or suicide. Many die on Monday at the end of a long weekend of drinking. Under the anti-alcohol campaign of Mikhail Gorbachev in the later 1990s, when vodkas became more expensive and harder to get, life expectancy rose sharply in just three years.
Russia's high rate of alcohol consumption is a major contributor to the country's health crisis, as well as to low job productivity. Rated as Russia's third most critical health problem after cardiovascular diseases and cancer, alcoholism has reached epidemic proportions, particularly among males. In the twentieth century, periodic government campaigns against alcohol consumption have resulted in thousands of deaths from the consumption of alcohol surrogates. The latest such campaign was undertaken from 1985 to 1988, during the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91). Although some authorities credited reduced alcohol consumption with a concurrent drop in Russia's mortality rate, by 1987 the production of samogon (home-brewed liquor) had become a large-scale industry that provided alcohol to Russians while depriving the state of tax revenue. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
A 1995 Russian study found that regular drunkenness affected between 25 and 60 percent of blue-collar workers and 21 percent of white-collar workers, with the highest incidence found in rural areas. Because alcohol remains cheap relative to food and other items, and because it is available in most places day and night, unemployed people are especially prone to drunkenness and alcohol poisoning. Alcohol consumption among pregnant women is partly responsible for Russia's rise in infant mortality, birth defects, and childhood disease and abnormalities. *
Alcohol-Related Deaths in Russia
Each year alcoholic kills about 200,000 people in Russia. Around 160,000 people die from alcohol-related illnesses. Another 40,000 die from alcohol-related accidents, suicides, fatal falls, and poisonings. Police said that 43 percent of murders committed in the Moscow area in 1997 were somehow connected with alcohol.
Every winter drunks pass out during freezing cold night and die from exposure. Many drunks freeze to death after they collapse in a snow drift, sometimes with bottles still in their hands. Some bodies lie undiscovered until the spring thaw.
Drunk Russians die from choking on their vomit and falling out of windows. In some Siberian villages people freeze to death in the winter because the get so drunk they can't cut or carry the firewood needed to keep the, warm.
In 1994 some 53,000 people died of alcohol poisoning, an increase of about 36,000 since 1991. If vodka is unavailable or unaffordable, Russians sometimes imbibe various combinations of dangerous substances. The Russian media often report poisonings that result from consumption of homemade alcohol substitutes. Production of often-substandard alcohol has become a widespread criminal activity in the 1990s, further endangering consumers.
In 1999, about 30,000 people died from alcohol poisoning after drinking low-quality, illegal vodka and other alcoholic drinks. This was down from 32,000 in 1998 and 43,000 people in 1997. By comparison only about 300 people die a year from alcohol poisoning in the United States. The poisonings often result from impurities or distilling too soon.
Drunk Drowning in Russia
Roughly 17,000 Russians, most of them drunk, die from drowning in Russia each year. According to official statistic, 16,157 people drowned in 1998 and 20,458 drowned in 1995. The annual drowning rate in Russia is 8 per 100,000 (compared to 1.68 per thousand in the United States). The majority of the victims are men who drowned when they were drunk.
Hundreds of drink people drown in the Moscow River every year. In July 2001, 219 people died, including 18 on a single steaming hot Saturday, and around 90 percent were drunk when they died. One Moscow doctor told AFP, "The situation on the beaches gets worse in the evenings as Muscovites come to bathe after work. For some drinking beer has become a tradition."
A diver who fishes the bodies out of the Moscow River told the Washington Post, "The typical thing is for people to drink, swim, and decide to take a rest. A lifeguard who rescued a 53-year-old unconscious man told the Baltimore Sun, "He was drunk and he tried to swim across the lake." Many drunk men also die after falling threw the ice while ice fishing in the winter.
Effort to Combat Alcoholism
According to a 16th century British medical historian the Russian cure for drunkenness at that time consisted of "taking a piece of pork, putting it secretly into a Jew's bed for 9 days and then giving it to the drunkard in pulverized form."
In the Soviet-era some people were imprisoned for alcoholism. At that time alcohol was blamed for injuries in the workplace, falling productivity and accidents. Drinking at work is less of problem now because workers get fired for being drunk.
Alcohol has also been blamed on rail and road accidents. In the 1980s, drunkenness was a factor in 70 percent of murders.
Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step alcohol recovery programs are making inroads in Russia. The Kunstkamera— within the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg— contains pickled body parts, siamese twins, two-faced babies, giant skeletons, pickled lizards and frogs and other oddities that Peter the Great himself collected. In the 2000s a deformed human fetus were taken out and used in a “scare tactic” campaign to show children the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
Gorbachev's Effort to Ban Alcohol
In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to improve national health and economic productivity by controlling vodka consumption by regulating shops that sold vodka and introducing a rationing scheme. The campaign entitled “On Measures to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism” began in May 1985, just two months after Gorbachev became the General Secretary.
During the Gorbachev crackdown, liquor stores, distilleries, and breweries were closed. The serving of alcohol at official functions was banned. Homes stills were smashed and bootleggers were arrested. Even vineyards in Georgia, the Crimea and Moldova were bulldozed over. The move, needless to say, made Gorbachev very unpopular. He was called “the mineral water Secretary.”
Getting a bottle of vodka often times required a three or four hour wait. Some Russians waited in line for hours only to find the supplies had run out by the time it was their turn. Those that could afford it obtained bottles of vodka by paying off workers at the loading docks.
The campaign was abandoned in 1987 after two years when it when became clear that for it to be successful they would have to lock up half the nation. When Yeltsin ran for office he made a campaign pledge to keep vodka cheap, saying, "People have a special feeling towards this drink. They don't mind a nip or two after work."
Gorbachev's Alcohol Ban and Health
Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was criticized but it did improve the health of the nation. Demographers said that 900,000 fewer people died than would be expected. The life expectancy in 1987 was 64.9 for men and 74.6 for women the highest in the Soviet Union/Russia history. The birth rate rose as Gorbachev said “wives finally got to see their husbands.”
The restriction on vodka produced a drop in cases of alcohol poisoning, but many people were killed as they scrambled for alternatives. Everything from shoe polish to insecticide showed up in autopsies. There were serious sugar shortages as Russians hoarded sugar to make moonshine.
People became so desperate they would drink about anything: rubbing alcohol, shoe polish, brake fluid, insecticide, cologne, antiperspirants and even tractor oil spread on bread like butter. "It a way to get drunk," Moscow State University sociologist Anatoly Antonov told the New York Times. "And that was far more important to millions of people than how long the live. They would drink brake fluid or kerosene if that was all that was available.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016