Vienna, December 18 – Excessive consumption of alcohol over the New Year’s holiday will cost the life of 300,000 Russians, according to a Moscow psychiatrist, making the alcohol consumption threats to Russia’s demographic future than terrorist attacks and fires, even though those continue to garner far more media attention.
At a press conference this week, Aleksandr Nemtsov, a professor at the Scientific Research Institute of Psychiatry of the Russian Ministry of Health, said that “the new year alcohol marathon will take the lives of 300,000 Russians,” some directly and others through accidents, murders and psychoses (www.win.ru/topic/3053.phtml).
Because alcohol-related deaths have become so common, he continued, “the victims of alcoholism elicit much less information resonance than do terrorist acts and fires,” even though, for example, deaths from alcoholic binges kill “many more young people than at the ‘Lame Horse’ nightclub,” which held the attention of all Russians.
Another specialist on alcohol consumption in Russia, M. Voskresensky of the ‘Spas’ Rehabilitation Center, noted that when Russians were growing up a generation ago, Soviet officials “in order to indicate the horror of war” told them that “every fourth person in Belarus died” as a result of World War II.
“This was the most terrible figure for wars of recent centuries,” he continued. “Not one people in the world bore such losses. But over the last 15 years, the population of a city like Petushki in Vladimir Oblast declined from 24,000 to 18,000 – that is, every fourth person disappeared.”
Now, Voskresensky said, reports that “in the course of recent New Year’s celebrations in that district from excessive drinking have died 150 people.”And in Moscow, alcohol abuse over the New Year’s holidays kills about 2,000 people – “a figure comparable to losses [from that city] in the entire Chechen war.”
For two decades, these experts say, Russia has experienced “alcohol supermortality,” a reflection of market forces and tax policies reflecting a powerful alcohol lobby that have made high-alcohol drinks like vodka more attractive relative to lower-alcohol ones, a willingness to use even cheaper surrogates when incomes are low, and a uniquely Russian history.
Voskresensky goes so far as to suggest that “in essence,” Russians have adopted alcohol as a religion, a kind of “cult of Bacchus, which in fact has replaced Orthodoxy. Earlier, when wishing people well, they prayed for them, but now they drink for them, that is, they commit one of the mortal sins.”
Indeed, he points out, when “people die from vodka, on their last journey,” those accompanying them to the cemetery drink on their behalf. Among Russian men today, he argues, “the criteria of male friendship is [now measured by] the quantity of alcohol those involved have drunk together.”
Russia’s alcohol “marathon” starts on December 25th with Western Christmas and continues well into January until Eastern New Year. But it is not just the length of the holiday that makes it so deadly, Moscow experts say. Instead, it is the specifically Russian history of that event.
In Russia, the celebration of the New Year on January 1 “does not have too long a history.” For most of the last millennium, Russians have celebrated the Orthodox Church’s New Year on March 1. But “by an irony of fate,” Peter the Great “became the founding father of Russian drunkenness” by his insistence on the celebration of the Western New Year.
In Europe itself, Christmas not the New Year was the chief holiday, and the latter was seldom celebrated as intensively as in Russia. Then, when the Bolsheviks reformed the calendar in 1918, the situation became even worse, not only because two calendars were involved but also because the Soviet rulers wanted to promote the New Year holiday in place of Christmas.
Given that the number of alcohol-related deaths in Russia will continue unless something is done, Moscow announced today that it will seek to reduce alcohol consumption by adult males there from its current level of 18 liters a year – more than twice the level of the next heaviest drinking country -- to 5-6 liters by 2020 (www.argumenti.ru/news/2009/12/18/43376).
But its first effort in that direction – raising the minimum price of a half liter of vodka to 89 rubles (3.30 US dollars) as of New Year’s Day – may have just the opposite effect, leading more Russians to turn to “samogon,” as moonshine is known, or to other cheaper surrogates, something that could make the holiday this time around even more deadly than in the past.