Wed, 11 Dec 2019

Bucking Stereotypes, A More Sober Russia Emerges

Voice of America
21 Nov 2019, 06:35 GMT+10

MOSCOW - Alcohol consumption by Russians has dropped by half over the past decade and now sits at levels that are lower than those of Western countries such as France and Germany, a recent study shows.

The World Health Organization study found that between 2003 and 2016, Russian alcohol use fell by 43%.

Russia "provides a powerful example of success for other countries to reduce the enormous health and economic burdens stemming from alcohol," the report said.

The findings are proof that the enduring stereotypes of Russia as a vodka-swilling nation are increasingly out of touch, Russian alcohol consumers say.

"People come to the bar not to get drunk, but to rest, relax, and enjoy whatever drink it is that they prefer," said Alexander Cherkasov, manager of Pasternak Bar, one of a wave of "craft beer" establishments that have swept Moscow and other Russian cities in recent years.

"People think Russians drink only vodka, but it just isn't true anymore," Cherkasov added.

Pouring through history

Russian drinking - and state efforts to curb it - is an old story in Russian history, with vodka, considered Russia's national drink, at the center of events.

According to legend, Vladimir the Great chose Christianity over Islam because of its lax approach to liquor.

"Drinking is the joy of Russia," the Grand Prince allegedly said. "We cannot do without it."

In the 1980s, then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to curb his country's fondness for drinking, blaming rampant alcoholism for the Soviet Union's poor economic performance. Strict dry laws did reduce alcohol consumption, but people joke today that the laws eventually took the Soviet Union with them.

In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin's legendary thirst - and public gaffes - were a source of national shame. They also reflected a grim post-Soviet reality: Alcohol-related deaths were spiking nationwide amid turbulent political and economic change.

In contrast, President Vladimir Putin has set a more sober tone - preferring sporty photo-ops and rarely venturing for a drink in public.

Analysts say that beyond Putin's carefully managed image, he has introduced smart policies aimed at taming Russian alcohol thirst.

"The fact is, regulation works," said Evgeny Yakovlev, a leading authority on anti-alcohol policy at Moscow-based New Economic School. "And if you want to reduce alcohol consumption, you can do it," he added, pointing to Putin's embrace of liquor taxes, restricted sales hours, and an outright ban on alcohol advertising as examples.

Different tastes for younger drinkers

Changing tastes also explain the shift in alcohol consumption, with younger Russians, in particular, choosing to drink differently than their elders.

"I don't really enjoy getting drunk, so that's why I prefer beer," said Alsubek, who works at a Moscow coffee shop and says he stopped drinking vodka entirely. "I just don't feel good the next day."

Polina, 21, a student from St. Petersburg, said: "It's fashionable these days to go to a bar where they have a craft beer or cider, but we do it really to talk more than drink."

An outcome of reduced drinking is that Russians are leading healthier lives and living longer. The WHO report cited Russian men for gains in average life expectancy - now at 68 years compared to 57 in the early 1990s.

The report also notes that anti-tobacco laws introduced in 2013 are playing a role.

"I've noticed that young people are drinking less and playing sports more," said Sergey Kovalerov, a construction engineer with two grown children. "I don't drink as much as I used to, either, but I won't say no to a drink at parties or on the holidays. That's just normal."

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