Alcoholics Anonymous : Soviets Try Proven Cure for Drinking

Times Staff Writer

"I'm Volodya, and I'm an alcoholic."

So began Volodya's personal account of 20 years of alcohol abuse, his subsequent misery and his despair of ever being able to quit drinking.

Such declarations form the core of every meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous around the world, strengthening the resolve of the movement's members to remain sober by recalling in vivid terms the results of alcoholism and reminding them that a relapse is just a drink away.

The difference was that this group, Moscow Beginners, was the first AA chapter in the Soviet Union, and Volodya, its first member, was trying to share with other alcoholics a system that has kept him sober for nearly a year.

'My Drinking Was Killing Me'

"Before I joined AA, I despaired, truly despaired, for I thought I would never be able to stop drinking and I knew that my drinking was killing me," Volodya said. "I realized that my countless attempts to quit drinking had failed and probably would always fail as long as I tried alone. I did not have the strength myself to stop.

"And no one could help me. I had gone to doctors and to clinics, and they did their duty, but they could not help me stay sober afterward. Perhaps only God alone might help, I thought, and I asked him in my prayers to rid me of this terrible habit. But even he was not in a hurry to help."

What had finally helped him, Volodya said, was the discovery of AA, with its approach of staying sober a day at a time and its philosophy of self-help and mutual support.

'This Is a True Miracle'

"God chose you to help me," he told the other 20 people at the Friday evening meeting. "Now part of my anxiety, my problems, I can shift onto your shoulders, and strangely enough you are waiting to accept this burden. . . . Each of you wants to help if I'm in trouble. . . . I am religious, and for me this is a true miracle."

One by one, others told their stories, some with the nervousness of a newcomer unused to baring his soul to strangers, others with the self-confidence drawn from several months of sobriety in AA, and a few with tears.

"I'm Olya, and I'm an alcoholic," a young woman said, speaking between quiet sobs. "This is my first time here, and I place all my hopes on you."

After more than two years of effort, AA is starting to take hold in the Soviet Union, where widespread alcoholism remains the country's leading social problem despite repeated government attempts to end it.

The nation has more than 4.5 million registered alcoholics who receive medical treatment, and an estimated 20 million more who are alcohol-dependent. According to official Soviet statistics, drunkenness is a major element in 80% of violent crimes, 40% of divorces, 30% of traffic accidents and 25% of industrial accidents causing death or injuries.

An American specialist on Soviet alcoholism has estimated that as many as 500,000 deaths a year here are due to alcoholism, a rate four to five times that in the United States.

Moscow Beginners, which for many months had barely enough members to call itself an AA chapter, now draws 20 to 30 people to its meetings four nights a week. A chapter of Al-Anon, which brings together the relatives and friends of alcoholics in a mutual support program, is being formed. And plans are being made to organize chapters in other cities, including Leningrad and Kiev.

Articles in the popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, two interviews with a member of Moscow Beginners on national radio and the television appearance here last month of the American comedian Carol Burnett, who portrays a recovering alcoholic in a television drama about AA, have brought hundreds of inquiries by letter and telephone from around the country.

"The members of Moscow Beginners now realize what a unique possibility they have to spread AA across the country," the Rev. J. W. Canty III, who as chairman of the Soviet-U.S. joint conference on alcoholism and drug addiction, has advised the organizers of the Moscow AA chapter. "There is now a realistic opportunity of helping sober up a whole country."

Sasha, who described himself as "really going under" when he learned about AA and joined Moscow Beginners, said that letters were coming from alcoholics from around the country seeking the group's assistance in starting local chapters.

"There is more than an opportunity to help--there is a desperate need for assistance," he told other members. "These people are writing to us from Smolensk, from Perm, from Yaroslavl. These letters are full of pain and anguish. We must do everything we can to help them."

'The Only Way Out'

Sasha, who in keeping with AA tradition uses only his first name within the group, had spent nearly all of 1987 in government clinics trying to overcome 20 years of progressive alcoholism. Sober for the past four months, he believes strongly in the methods of AA, calling them "the wisest, sanest and probably the only way out of alcoholism."

"I first discovered here in AA that the word 'alcoholic' could be uttered, and people would even applaud your admission," Sasha told newcomers at a regular meeting of Moscow Beginners. "Then you could hold your head high again. One has to admit defeat before he can have hope of becoming victorious."

The Soviet Union acknowledges alcoholism as one of its most acute problems, but a solution has remained elusive. In one of his first and most controversial moves after assuming the Soviet leadership three and a half years ago, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev introduced the government's toughest measures yet to curb alcohol abuse.

State alcohol production was cut by more than 40%, the price for a bottle of vodka was raised to the equivalent of two days' wages for a factory worker, liquor sales were limited to afternoon hours, the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 and penalties were increased for illegally distilling liquor.

Soviet officials report that the measures have reduced alcohol-related crime, including serious crimes, by more than 35% and contributed significantly to increased labor productivity and industrial safety. Deaths from acute alcoholism dropped from 47,300 in 1984 to 20,800 last year.

More Officers Needed

But the anti-alcohol program has been controversial. A leading economist has calculated that alcohol production has remained about the same, with moonshiners now producing two-thirds of hard liquor and wine rather than one-third as before. Police acknowledge that twice as many officers are needed to maintain order in the long lines that form outside liquor stores each morning.

"We have mainly concentrated our efforts on the external attributes of this phenomenon, on alcoholic drinks and their availability, instead of making a greater effort to influence what causes the broad masses to make use of alcohol," Grigory Zaigrayev, a sociologist doing research on alcoholism, said in a recent radio discussion of the government's temperance program.

On Oct. 25, the Communist Party's Central Committee acknowledged publicly that the program had failed to reduce alcoholism, perhaps because of its harshness. A party statement called for a new emphasis on rehabilitation and education.

Even before the policy resolution, the government had started to relax the measures, reopening some of the closed liquor outlets and beer bars in the hope of reducing the speculation in vodka and production of home-distilled spirits. Medical authorities are looking at new methods of treatment going beyond existing procedures of detoxification.

"Drying out an alcoholic does not make him a sober person--it can't," another member of Moscow Beginners observed, speaking from more than 20 years of unsuccessful attempts to stop drinking. "The chances of success in those state clinics is very small, the rate of relapse is very high. Doctors know, I know. . . . But AA is different, and I am find it easier and easier to say no to alcohol."

Marriage Collapsed

Volodya, 36, a lathe operator, recounted in a separate interview how he had tried for more than a decade to stop drinking as his marriage collapsed and he lost one job after another. But each time he failed, despite repeated hospitalization in the special government clinics for alcoholics.

"For me, alcohol was both an escape and a protest," he said. "I had begun drinking when I was 14 and had long since gotten to the point when, if I could not get wine or vodka, the after-shave lotion or window cleaner or anything else with the least bit of alcohol sufficed. . . .

"Why? It is hard to talk about alcoholism in the Soviet Union, whether in personal terms or more broadly, without appearing to criticize our political and social system. But, to my mind, the main reason is that people have been taught for too long to live according to someone else's wishes, and that makes internal conflicts inevitable.

"Alcohol was for me, as it is for many, the only possible way to escape a reality I didn't want," Volodya said. "Conformity is instilled too deeply to permit outright rebellion, but some form of inner protest drives us to escape. And drinking is a form of protest that is so much a part of our history that it does not bring too hard a response from above.

"I saw how successfully I had been manipulated by the system. I felt no personal stake in my work, and always I was being told not to work harder, not for myself but for someone else. I had a strong desire to do something to show them that I wasn't theirs. Heavy drinking is regarded as anti-social, and that would show that I was not like the party members. Well, that was the initial stage, and it grew into true alcoholism."

Canadian Religious Broadcast

Volodya said that he heard about AA on a Canadian religious broadcast last year and wrote AA's New York office for information, the first request AA had for help from the Soviet Union. Two Americans, one a teacher and the other a student but both AA members then living in Moscow, visited him.

"The first time these two Americans came to me, I asked why they were interested in me," Volodya recalled. ". . . They quoted these words to me, 'If someone's in trouble and needs assistance, then I am responsible.' That moved me profoundly."

AA members from the United States had first tried in early 1986 to interest the Soviet Union, which the year before had undertaken a national effort to reduce the endemic alcoholism here, in the movement's methods. Although the group of 34 that came on a two-week trip had limited impact, further attempts by other American AA members, some living here and others visiting, helped Moscow Beginners to get started.

But Soviet authorities, while not openly opposed to AA and its methods, have tended to view the movement as essentially American in character, strongly religious--and consequently incompatible with official atheism. Thus, it requires adaptation, including a different name, to fit into Soviet society, they feel.

"For us, there is a paradox here," Volodya said. "In the Soviet Union, to succeed you usually need the support of the authorities, but an alcoholic, who is a sick man, is hostile to anything official. He sees, for example, all these government attempts to fight alcoholism as attempts to fight him. So, to succeed, most people would say we need official support, but that really would mean failure. We are afraid of having an official standing and government relations.

Road to Rediscovery

"AA appeals to us because it ends this psychological dependence on waiting for a cure from above. We are rediscovering how to help ourselves and how to help one another. We have forgotten how to do that in this country."

Although it has received a number of AA pamphlets translated into Russian from the movement's New York office and more are being translated and printed, Moscow Beginners is still struggling to establish itself, Volodya said. It is concerned about its independence, particularly from the government, he said.

"We are afraid of violating a vitally important tradition or practice of AA, though we also do not want to become subordinate to or dependent on outside structures," he continued. "The problem revolves around this issue of adaptation--what to observe rigorously, what to modify, what possibly to drop. Some say that in a socialist state, not all AA beliefs and practices are applicable, but others say, 'Let's do it by the book.' We have to work this out."

Another issue within the group revolves around belief in God, or as AA's Russian-language material puts it, "a higher power."

"I don't believe in God," Valery, a new member of Moscow Beginners, said, "and to me, this higher power is sober socializing, this assistance and sympathy and support we give to one another."

Belief in 'Higher Power'

In a discussion that returned repeatedly to the question of belief in God or a "higher power," others also described themselves as atheists or agnostics, but all joined in AA's "serenity prayer" to close that portion of the meeting.

Canty, an Episcopal priest from New York whose work as chairman of the conference on alcoholism and drug addiction brings him to Moscow several times a year, has watched Moscow Beginners grow, particularly over the last four months, and feels confident it will work on these problems.

"They are seeing the basic kernels of what AA is about," Canty commented. "They are also facing enormous fundamental questions. But AA should match up well with the process of reform and broader renewal that is going on in the Soviet Union today."

50 Years of Experience

To give members of Moscow Beginners a wider perspective and more contact with other AA groups, Canty said there are plans to arrange for six of the Soviet AA members to visit the United States in the next three or four months. Plans are also being made, he said, for an international conference of recovering alcoholics here next year to permit the young Soviet organization to draw on their diverse experiences.

"AA is not an American group with an American ideology," Canty said, "nor is it a religious movement. It is a self-help group with a step-by-step program based on more than 50 years' experience around the world. These steps do have a spiritual basis, but religiosity and spirituality are not the same.

"No one is certain why AA works as well as it does, but everyone who is in it or who has studied has concluded that the spiritual basis is a very important element. And the reason is that 99% of alcoholics are spiritually bankrupt, and this helps them recover spiritually. The condition of Russians when they enter AA is no different from that of Americans or Germans or Mexicans, the reasons they join are no different and the help they can draw

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