May 29th, 2008 19:00 EST
Russia on Binge
MOSCOW, Russia. Surprisingly for a country rich in natural resources, it is not crude oil or natural gas that Russians regard as the sign of good fortune. Vodka is.
Panic has rippled through Russia this week when it turned out that the production of vodka may end with June 1. It is on this day that the government is planning to introduce a new computer system to national vodka factories, the same system that failed two years ago and derailed the production for several days. Although authorities claim that all glitches have been removed, traditionally suspicious Russians prefer to stock their fridges in advance.
No state of emergency has been imposed yet as the government says everything is under control. The system will work, ensures the interior ministry. Even if it does not, Russia has the world largest stocks of the valuable substance – some 300 million liters (or about 80 million gallons) that are ready to flood the market, should it dry up. Moreover, national barrels also contain 200 million liters of wine, but Russians, not being French, could hardly be placated by this information.
Extensive drinking has become part of the national tradition, along with fur hats and pickles, that no government – either tsarist, communist or capitalist – has manged to root out. But what seems for foreigners like a funny element of Russian folklore, is a serious problem for central authorities. Vodka kills tens of thousands of people every year, with life expectancy in Russia being one of the lowest in the developed world: 66 years for women and 59 for men.
In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, announced a significant increase of vodka prices which resulted in miles long lines at liquor stores. Between 1950 and 1991, when the communist rule collapsed, alcohol reportedly killed over 40 million Russians. Ten years later President Putin decided to raise state duty on vodka by 40 percent, but soon he, too, had to back down when regional authorities refused to implement his policy.
It is estimated that in 2007 alcohol sales constituted 35 percent of the state revenues. Statistically, each one of 140 million Russians – including children – drinks about 15 liters (over four gallons) of strong alcohol a year while over 40,000 die due to extensive vodka consumption. A website on Russian customs informs that “Russians drink Vodka quite often. Sometimes they drink it all night long and knock out the hangover the morning after with just another shot of vodka - just to feel better.”
Widespread alcoholism is often ridiculed. “Vodka is for Russians what beer is for Germans, and wine for the French,” can be heard on most street corners that local drunkards begin to throng in the morning. “Wherever we walked or rode we could see multitudes of drunken people scattered in the streets and on the iced river,” said one Danish diplomat in 1710 but his words have lost nothing in their meaning three centuries later.
Ever since the tsars created the state monopoly on vodka in the 15th century, illegal alcohol has been produced in almost every home. This is the real reason why so many people die, admit government officials. Every year police raid thousands of small factories but as soon as law-enforcement officers have left, production restarts. It is no surprise that some statistics say that one in seven Russians is an alcoholic.
With the fall of communism, Russia has recored rapid economic growth comparable only to that of China. But with new opportunities remained old habits, especially that the example set by political circles has been so negative. The first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, hardly ever appeared sober just like most politicians that regarded themselves as elites.
The nineteenth-century British scientist Richard Owen, who visited Russia on several occasions said: “The relationship between Russia and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical.”
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