Russia lies reeling under heroin’s tracks


The young man named Anton is a member of Russia’s “lost generation.”

He’s the son of middle-class, college-educated engineers; he studied at a good university and became a truck sales manager in Moscow. He’s also a 28-year-old heroin addict.

In the years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan triggered a sharp increase in poppy cultivation, Russia has been flooded with heroin. The drug has crept along a trail stretching from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and other Central Asian nations and over the Russian border, turning this country into the world’s top consumer of heroin, the government says.


The drug has spread like fire through a country uniquely unqualified to cope with its dangers: Narcotics were largely absent during Soviet times, and most people are still unaware of the risk of heroin addiction, even as an estimated 83 Russians a day die by overdosing on the drug, government figures show.

“It’s a catastrophe for us. We were completely unprepared for this turn of events,” says Evgeny Bryun, Moscow’s chief drug addiction specialist. “We have our own lost generation.”

The transition from a Soviet state largely free from heroin to a booming nation awash in the drug has been painful and dark, marked by widespread public ignorance of the risks and symptoms of addiction, lingering shame and stigma, and muddled government efforts at treatment.

Methadone, which is widely used in the West to wean people off heroin, is illegal in Russia, and rehabilitation programs are unavailable in many parts of the country. In 2007, Human Rights Watch concluded that the treatment at state drug clinics was “so poor as to constitute a violation of the right to health.”

Meanwhile, at private clinics, all manner of experimental treatments -- including shock therapy and the removal of parts of the brain -- are in vogue. In Bryun’s government-run clinic, addicts take turns sleeping hooked up to machines that send gentle electrical impulses through their brains, or lying encased in a full-body relaxation therapy machine.

Heroin has also emerged as a thorn in U.S.-Russian relations, as officials in Moscow have grown increasingly angry over what they describe as American indifference to the booming heroin trade.

On the margins of the grinding war in Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy fields -- and to come up with persuasive incentives to wean farmers from the crop -- have remained largely ineffective for years.

In a nod of cooperation to the Obama administration, Russia recently agreed to allow cargo planes carrying U.S. troops and weapons to pass through the country en route to Afghanistan. But at the same time, it’s lobbying noisily for tougher crackdowns on the cultivation of opium poppies, which are used in the production of heroin. Early this month, President Dmitry Medvedev called rampant heroin addiction “a threat to the country’s national security.”

Russia has called on the United Nations to link the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan to an obligation to destroy poppy plantations.

“The question is, why is this happening in front of the coalition troops’ eyes?” Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov said this year. In remarks to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, Ivanov called Afghanistan “our soft, low underbelly” and compared the “tsunami” of heroin into Russia to China’s opium wars.

The link between Afghanistan and drugs is nothing new to the Kremlin. Some of Russia’s first heroin addicts were soldiers who got hooked during the disastrous 1980s Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. But with overdoses now gripping the country, Moscow appears to be running out of patience, and eager to throw much of the blame overseas.

“If the situation in Afghanistan is not reversed, we will have a drug addict in every family in five or 10 years,” Ivanov said. “This is not a fantasy. This is a real forecast.”

After a boom that reached its peak in 2007, Afghan opium production dropped by 10% last year, according to U.N. figures. But in Russia, some fear it may be too late. Addiction is already eating away at the country, especially among the young. And officials say heroin use is still rising.

Anton is fighting the drug now; he’s trying to stay clean. It left scars on his skin and his soul, and now he sits in a barren room with all the other young, middle-class, shellshocked junkies, trying to pick his way from one day to the next in a private rehab center tucked among the scrubby hills outside Moscow.

“The general notion is that a drug addict is badly dressed, begging on the street,” he says. “But there are so many people you can’t even suspect of taking drugs.”

The patients at this center, called the Land of the Living, are all 19 to 34. They are men and women, grown children of families who can afford as much as $1,000 a month for the private treatment facility, where they sleep stacked together in big, dormitory-style rooms and pin stars onto posters to represent their ascent to health.

Today they are sitting in a circle and arguing about whether a skinny, mousy-haired young woman and a dark-eyed man should be expelled from the center after having a clandestine affair. Sexual relations are strictly prohibited.

The woman stares miserably at her toes. She wants to stay in the program, she says. “We went too far.”

“Don’t talk about the program,” the other patients badger her. “Talk as a human being.”

In the end, the group comes to a verdict: The two can stay, but another young woman, who is accused of dragging the others down by talking about drugs and sex, has to go.

Afterward, the program director sits in her office and sighs. Over the last five years, she says, the number of addicts has ballooned, and she began to be confronted with a new kind of junkie.

“Spoiled boys and girls who are just bored with life. Drug addiction from boredom,” Yelena Krylova says. “Bribes were paid to keep them out of the army. Bribes were paid to get them into college. Cars were bought for them. They get everything for free, and these are the most difficult drug addicts.”

Anton, who doesn’t want his last name printed for fear of damage to his reputation, agrees.

“I saw rich people who had something going for them, who had families. I saw lonely people. I knew a 9-year-old who took drugs with his father,” he says. “I can’t think what they had in common, except for one day they just tried it.”

He himself grew obsessed with heroin, waking up and clinging to the walls as he crept to the bathroom, and winning release from police custody through bribes by his parents. “I turned into an insensitive animal,” he says.

Statistically, his chances of staying sober are relatively small. State addiction counselors say that nearly nine out of 10 heroin addicts are back on the needle within a year of leaving rehab.

They will have to lie, to cover up their time in rehab, because the stigma of drug use in Russia is so high.

“The drug addict is feared and loathed. People here like alcoholics but they don’t like drug addicts,” Bryun says. “So the addict feels like a pariah and has no reason to get healthy.”