A joke is being told in Moscow about the man who makes a pass at his secretary. “Shouldn’t we close the door?” she asks, and he replies, “No, the others might think we’re drinking.”
The joke underscores the stigma attached to the consumption of alcohol since Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev started his drive against drunkenness last June 1.
Although he has been mockingly called “Lemonade Joe,” after a teetotaling cowboy in a film, Gorbachev is dead serious about his effort to sober up the Soviet masses.
Some results are already obvious. Liquor sales are off by 30%, vodka toasts have been outlawed at state dinners, and falling-down drunks have been cleared from the streets.
Buying vodka now usually means a two-hour wait in line to pay the equivalent of $8 for half a liter, about a pint. Desperate for a drink, many people have switched to drinking perfume or industrial solvent, triggering a sharp rise in the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning.
On occasion, the police have overreacted by sending hundreds of citizens to sobering-up stations without adequate cause. This led the Supreme Soviet to clarify the guidelines set out in an anti-drinking decree it has issued.
The battle against the “green snake,” the popular term here for alcohol, has become a gigantic struggle affecting the daily habits of tens of millions of people. It is especially difficult because Russians, who make up more than half of the Soviet population, have long been known for their love of strong drink.
Skeptics contend that the campaign is hopeless. They recall that the authorities tried total prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s but made little progress toward solving the drinking problem. Now, Gorbachev and his people have declared that the nation can no longer afford the absenteeism, birth defects and declining life expectancy associated with alcoholism.
800% Increase since 1940
A 1984 survey showed that liquor accounted for fully a third of the average family’s food bill and a sixth of all its spending on consumer goods. The sale of alcohol increased nearly 800% in the four decades ending in 1980.
Stunned by the statistics, many officials have said they not only want to curtail the use of liquor but to eliminate it entirely through voluntary abstinence.
“The aim is complete sobriety in everyday life,” said Vitaly V. Fedorchuk, who as head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is the nation’s top policeman.
E.A. Babayan, chief of addiction treatment for the Public Health Administration, said: “We have to change life styles, habits and ritual to achieve a psychological breakthrough in the consciousness of tens of millions of people. It will be very difficult to achieve our goals.”
The 18 million members of the Soviet Communist Party are under special pressure to turn from tippling to teetotaling in response to Gorbachev’s call. If they drink too much, they can be expelled from the party.
Helped Fulfill Sales Targets
There is a paradox in the Kremlin’s new campaign. Liquor taxes once produced 12% of government revenues and helped many retail stores and restaurants fulfill the sales targets set out in the five-year plan. Officials are advising drinkers to substitute fruit juices and soft drinks, but so far this has failed to catch on with store managers or the public, despite a proliferation of juice bars in Moscow and other large cities.
Articles in the controlled press indicate the depth of the problem. The newspaper Socialist Industry complained that an enormous volume of pure alcohol is provided to nearly every government ministry, supposedly for use as a cleaning solvent.
It said that even the Moscow fruit and vegetable trading organization gets four tons of 96-proof alcohol a year for this purpose, the newspaper said, but the evidence shows that most of it has not been used as a cleaning solvent but has been consumed by the work force,
Raising the price of vodka and closing many liquor stores, the press has indicated, has had a strange effect on confirmed alcoholics,
The government newspaper Izvestia reported recently: “Inveterate drunkards have switched from port and vodka to perfumes and industrial liquids containing alcohol. Medical people are worried--the incidence of poisoning cases has increased sharply.”
Treating Alcohol Poisoning
Two popular publications, Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life) and Selskaya Zhizn (Rural Life), recently carried detailed instructions on how to treat alcohol poisoning at home.
Even before the anti-drinking drive started, alcoholism was a major public health problem in the Soviet Union. Vladimir G. Treml, an American authority on Soviet drinking habits, estimates that in recent years the annual death toll has reached 40,000, almost as many as are killed every year in traffic accidents in the United States.
A popular substitute for vodka is derived from a rubber cement known as “BF,” the initials in Russian for butyl phenol. Salt is added to the cement and stirred with a stick to remove the rubber, leaving a liquid known as “Boris Fyodorovich.”
A young Muscovite recalled that he once drank a glass of this, in Siberia. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. “It completely paralyzed my face, and I literally couldn’t speak for 20 minutes.”
Even moderate drinkers have been affected by the new crackdown. Liquor stores are now open only from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and are closed altogether on weekends. Many have gone out of business.
As a result, lines of 100 yards and more are common. It is not unusual to wait two or three hours. Hard-bitten drinkers mingle with respectable citizens looking to buy no more than a bottle of wine to go with dinner.
Old women on pensions often earn extra income by standing in line to buy vodka and then selling it to someone who is unable or unwilling to stand in line.
Taxi drivers, well-known as purveyors of after-hours liquor, now demand up to $18 (15 rubles, about 10% of the typical monthly salary) for a half-liter of vodka.
The war against drinking is being fought on many fronts. A National Sobriety Society has been formed. Government television programs promote alcohol-free weddings, a sharp break with Russian tradition. Anti-alcohol lectures have been introduced for seven-year-old schoolchildren, for many youngsters begin drinking at the age of 10.
“The idea of total and absolute abstinence is gaining, even for those who once favored moderation or limits on strong drink,” according to an editorial in Soviet Russia, an influential national newspaper.
Despite the serious nature of the campaign, some editors have kept their sense of humor about it all.
Trud, the trade union newspaper, recently poked fun at drugstores that were selling lotions containing alcohol only during times when liquor is for sale.
“This logic might one day lead to a total ban on sales of drinking glasses, for they are clearly suspicious implements,” Trud commented.