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Kremlin Permits Sobriety Mission : First Alcoholics Anonymous Trip to the Soviet Union

This week 34 Americans will embark on an unprecedented mission to the Soviet Union, taking with them something the Soviets publicly acknowledge they desperately need: sobriety.

Despite a 350-year-old battle with alcoholism--today one of the Soviet Union’s most severe social problems--the Soviet government has never before officially sanctioned this kind of trip: All but three of the travelers will be members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Carrying the Message

The group will “carry the message” of AA sobriety--with full approval from the Soviet Ministry of Health--to factories, homes, hospitals and schools in Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The AA members hope to hold regular AA meetings wherever possible, and share their “experience, strength and hope” and exchange information with top health officials, interested non-alcoholics and alcoholics of all ages.

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The trip is “absolutely significant, I’m encouraged and very supportive” of the effort, said Vladimir G. Treml, an American authority on Soviet alcoholism who has studied alcohol abuse for 15 years.

According to Treml, an economics professor at North Carolina’s Duke University, alcohol abuse in the Soviet Union “directly or indirectly claims roughly 300,000 to 500,000 lives a year, a rate about four (to) five times that of the United States.”

Reports published inside and outside the Soviet Union confirm that excessive drinking there has caused spiraling job absenteeism, increased rates of birth defects, infant mortality and child abuse, and is the country’s leading cause of premature death.

Yet as recently as five years ago the Soviets “simply would not allow” AA in their country, Treml said, though it exists in 114 others.

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“In 1981 on a United States Embassy trip, I spoke with private Soviet economists and sociologists working in alcoholism treatment,” he said. “We discussed AA and they said, ‘We know about it and we are impressed, but it is not for us.’ So maybe now they are ready to compromise.”

(Last June 1, the Soviet government imposed strict measures to fight drunkenness as part of an on-going “Struggle Against Alcoholism.” The actions taken under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, included hiking the country’s legal drinking age from 18 to 21, limiting hours at liquor stores and forming temperance clubs such as the National Sobriety Society. These efforts may perhaps explain the Soviet government’s new willingness to acquaint itself with AA.)

Idea for the Trip

An AA member living in Orange County who “couldn’t imagine suffering alcoholics not having a program of recovery” came up with the idea for the trip.

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Ruth (a pseudonym used to maintain the AA tradition of personal anonymity in the media) has been a sober member of AA for 20 years. She hit her alcoholic “bottom” when she was consuming about a fifth of vodka a day.

Though the Soviet AA idea had been germinating for about 2 1/2 years, it came to the fore a year and a half ago when Ruth attended a communications workshop in which “people were taking stands in their lives, making declarations.” “I just found some kind of invisible thing making me stand up,” Ruth explained, “and in front of 200 people I said, ‘I’m going to take a stand to create Alcoholics Anonymous, with God’s help, in the Soviet Union.’ ”

Then she shakily sat down and asked herself, “What on earth have I done?”

A month later Ruth formed Creating a Sober World, a committee of AA members and others, which has since met every other week to make the 6,000-mile, two-week trip happen.

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(In spite of Ruth’s affiliation with AA, the trip is not sanctioned by AA as a whole, she pointed out. Another AA tradition suggests that an AA group “ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name” to any “outside enterprise.”)

Next Ruth wrote a letter of intent and sent it to AA central offices throughout the country and the world. It announced the self-financed vigil for those who would join the committee or take the trip.

She also sent the letter to ambassadors here and in the Soviet Union, to American senators and the State Department, the FBI and President Reagan. “You see, we had to get approval for the trip from the Soviet Union,” she said, “and how do you do that?”

The answer came late last spring in the form of the Center for U.S-U.S.S.R. Initiatives. The San Francisco-based citizens movement has led Americans on 16 trips to the Soviet Union since 1984. Their aims are to foster friendship between “ordinary citizens” from both countries and to promote peace.

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Ruth flew to San Francisco to meet the center’s president, Sharon Tennison, and vice president, Sarah Seybold, after she learned about the organization from the daughter of a committee member. Preliminary contact was made with the Soviet Ministry of Health.

Then last November, Ruth flew to Moscow with Tennison to speak to the health minister directly.

“We made it clear we were not doing this for publicity,” Ruth said. And, she continued, “he was very warm. His first words to me were, ‘Our country has no problem with this group coming to have meetings here.’ And I just started to cry. I was so embarrassed, but he really understood that we wanted a sharing experience, that we wanted to learn about their (alcohol treatment) programs as well.”

Ironing Out the Details

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Once official sanction was finally granted, all the details of the trip were ironed out. Tennison and Seybold worked to coordinate travel arrangements, engage interpreters and give educational materials about the Soviet culture to the AA travelers. They contacted Soviet education, health and employment officials and friends they’ve made on past trips to enable the travelers to enter official facilities and private homes. Ruth and her committee sought out AA members of all ages from across the country to make the trip.

“When I got into AA, I was a zombie,” said Steve, a 19-year-old AA member from Orange County who wants to share his trials with drugs and alcohol and his AA recovery with Soviet young people. “I had no self-worth and I couldn’t love myself or any one else. Today I have some self-worth and I’ve learned what it feels like to love and to be loved.”

Steve took his first drink at 9, started using drugs and drinking daily in the sixth grade, and got sober and “clean” two weeks after his 15th birthday.

“I’m not too familiar with what’s going on with the kids in Russia right now, so it’s going to be an ad-libbed type of thing. When I get there, I’m going to try to find out where the kids are coming from, if there are a lot of drug problems, and go from there.”

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Don’t Know What to Expect

Ruth is similarly unsure of what to expect once her group arrives. She is aware that the Soviets may not respond to AA philosophies, which emphasize a spiritual as well as physical and emotional approach to recovery.

Treml said there are two problems the Americans may encounter.

“One, though AA is not necessarily a denominational, religious group, it has strong spiritual undertones, and members refer to a ‘power greater than themselves.’ This is of course unacceptable to the Soviet Union, where the only ‘power greater than ourselves’ is the Communist Party.

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“Also, the Soviet Union is a highly ideologically controlled society. The government simply doesn’t like associations or groups of people who are inner-directed, one would say.

“We really don’t know what it’s going to look like. We don’t know whether we’re starting AA in the Soviet Union or not. They might totally reject it,” Ruth said. But she stressed that the group’s goal is simply to “carry the message” of AA sobriety, not to proselytize or to ensure that AA is embraced permanently and unconditionally. And she remains optimistic.

“I feel that just going as a group of great-looking, altogether, recovering alcoholics is going to be a big message in itself. We’re all ages and shapes and sizes. I think that will carry a lot of hope.”

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks before departure, problems have arisen on the home front. Ruth has received several “anonymous hostile phone calls” accusing her group of “going over there to help the enemy.” Some AA members who were to join the trip canceled their plans, and other dissenters expressed fears that the travelers would be used as propagandistic pawns.

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Other dissenters have said they felt the vigil conflicted with the tradition that preserves AA as a program of “attraction rather than promotion,” the rule that usually bars AA advertisements.

“I don’t feel like what we’re doing is wrong, or I wouldn’t be doing it,” Ruth said. “I just feel the disease of alcoholism is really a leveler. Our motive is coming from the heart and from a desire to help the suffering alcoholic. Whether he’s Russian or not, or a Soviet citizen or a Communist or not, doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

In fact, noting the dedication of her committee, which has persisted in spite of often heavy criticism, Ruth said the experience has taught her “how magnificent we are as individual human beings.”

“When you are willing to get out of your own skin, to go out there and risk, and get into an extraordinary commitment like this, you don’t let anything deter you. You don’t let disapproval hold you back or influence you. You’re just totally focused and committed. I mean, there was never any doubt within me that this would happen.”

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