Lifestyle & Belief

Trying to stay sober in Russia

By Jessica Golloher

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At a popular Italian restaurant near Pushkin Square in Moscow, men and women talk business over margarita pizzas, fettuccine and minestrone soup. It could be a typical business lunch in most any city, except for the beverage that sits chilled on most tables — a bottle of vodka.

Hard alcohol at lunch is de rigueur in Russia, according to Oxana Egorova, a businesswoman. She said vodka gets your blood flowing better.

In fact, the country is one of the world's largest consumers of alcohol per capita. The average Russian drinks more than twice the maximum amount considered healthy by the World Health Organization. So why do Russians drink so much? Experts say it's a number of factors, including the lack of adequate social services, employment opportunities and depression, among other things. Oxana Egorova said life is difficult in Russia. "That's why they're drinking. It's definitely seen everywhere, everyday."

And Russians do drink — in public — at any time of the day. Men and women, young and old, buy tiny bottles of hard alcohol at kiosks on their way to work; women push baby carriages with one hand while holding a liter can of beer in the other, and teenagers sit in parks during the middle of the day, drinking vodka straight out of the bottle. It's not just that people are drinking all the time, everywhere; they want you to drink too, said Becca Dalton, an American expat who teaches English.

"I think it's pretty difficult not to drink in Russia," Dalton said. "The first year I was here I had a real problem with it because everyone was offering me alcohol everywhere we went. If you refused, everyone looked at you strangely. I worked at school and they would pull me out of class to go and drink champagne and vodka, and then we'd go back and teach again."

Dalton said that sometimes it's just easier to drink up rather than face dirty looks. That's exactly what American attorney John Sherry says he got when he tried to politely — repeatedly – refuse shots of vodka, glasses of champagne and snifters of cognac during the workday. Sherry said Russians don't get the American motto, "Just say no."

"They won't understand if they're pouring out shot glasses and they pass you one and you say no thanks, not today," Sherry said. "Any of the sort of finesse of how you'd say it in the United States doesn't work here at all."

If you surrounded yourself with people who don't drink, you'd be alone most of your time in Moscow, said Pastor Robert Broncoma, who often works at the St. Andrew's Anglican Church here in Moscow, where Alcoholics Anonymous gathers daily. When asked what it is about Russia that makes it so hard to say nyet, Broncoma responded that this is a place where it's so easy to lose one's inhibitions. For a westerner, he said, there are so many differences here that it's hard to know where the line is.

"I've never lived in a place where there's no line between what's right and what's wrong," Broncoma said. "There's no conscience telling you you should or shouldn't do this, where in other places where I lived there's more of a cultural norm for what's right and what's wrong; there's more of a subconscious feel of how far you can go and not go."

Broncoma added that he's constantly being called on to counsel expats who've lost complete control. People who say that they were just social drinkers back in the US are downing five vodka tonics a night, then going home to have a couple more. Why? Because they say it's expected and accepted. But many are trying to break the habit. Moscow's chapter of AA is one of the biggest in the world. There are daily meetings for alcoholics and weekly get-togethers for friends and family members.

But John Sherry said staying sober involved more than AA for him. He said he couldn't just refuse alcohol anymore. He had to actually tell Russians about his very personal struggle so they would leave him alone when it came time for a toast.

"You get to the point where you own up to everyone that I quit drinking, I have a drinking problem. That they understand because that is one thing that people in Russia are familiar with," Sherry said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has acknowledged that the problem goes well beyond expats. He has called Russia's rampant alcoholism a "national disaster," and kicked off a program to combat drinking, including a comprehensive media campaign and strict penalties for selling to minors. The president said he hopes his reforms will slash the nation's per capita alcohol consumption by 25 percent within the next year.

Russian politicians seem to be on board. For the first time, beer is officially going to be classified as an alcoholic drink rather than as a food.

Ironically, Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev also tried to rein in Russia's drinking during the mid-1980s with his own fight against alcohol. His campaign used some of the same proposed steps as Medvedev's, but also included closing many of the country's vodka distilleries, eradicating vineyards in Moldova and Armenia, and banning the sale of alcohol in restaurants before 2 pm, among other things.

Analysts say the anti-drinking campaign was a partial success. It did ultimately cut alcohol-related deaths but it also caused a dramatic surge in moonshining.

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