How a Country Drinks itself to Death

[From The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, Oliver Bullough’s new book on the roots of Russian decline]

Russians have always had a reputation for drinking. One of the first mentions of them in the historical record features their king rejecting Islam because of its prohibition on alcohol. The average Russian drinks three times the volume of spirits drunk by a German, and four times that of a Portuguese, and that’s only the official figures. No one has any idea how much self-distilled moonshine is drunk, but it must be a lot, for every traveler in Russia has a story about it.

I was once on an overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I had bought the cheapest ticket, and was one of eight passengers sitting bolt upright in a dingy compartment as the train crawled through a dark forest. We had all brought beer to drink, but the bottles were finished now, and lay littered around our feet. We were semi-drunk and morose, staring ahead at the gloomy outline of the person opposite.

The drinking went on until I passed out.

An old woman sitting by the window stood up, rummaged around in her bag on the luggage rack and brought forth a two-litre plastic bottle and a light-blue cup. Holding up the cup, she offered us all a drink. It was too dark to read, and I was too uncomfortable to sleep, so I agreed. So did everyone else. The cup went up her row of four passengers, crossed over to me and came back down our side. We each downed our share in a gulp, then breathed through our sleeves to take away the burn. The last man before the window passed the cup over the table and back to her, so she could pour out some more.

It tasted like white spirit, but the effect was spectacular, a rush of well-being to the back of the head. Conversation was kindled, and we became rowdier as the light-blue cup’s journey continued. Stopping once I had started was apparently not an option, and I got drunk very fast. It was a relief when I saw the old woman drink the last glassful. I had not disgraced myself. No one could say the foreigner had failed to keep pace. That was when she stood up again and reached to the luggage rack, whence she pulled down a jerry can.

She could barely manage it, and I could hear the liquid sloshing around inside. She rested it on the table and carefully filled the bottle up again before lifting the can back on to the shelf. There would be no escape. The drinking went on until I passed out.

Something like that happens every night on trains all over Russia. Done once, it is an amusing anecdote. Done daily and it is a disease, and it is killing the nation. Between 1940 and 1980, Russian consumption of all alcoholic drinks increased eightfold. The nation decided, apparently as one, to go on a huge zapoi, and the consequences have been disastrous.

Comparable countries for violent death are Angola, Burundi, Congo.

All across what is the Russian heartland, old Muscovy, the land where the Russians held out against the Mongols, Napoleon and Hitler, the picture is of destitution. Thousands of villages are empty. Thousands more are home to a handful of pensioners, and will be empty too within a couple of decades. Some towns have halved in population in twenty years. In 1950 – when Stalin was at his most erratic, when the country was still half destroyed by World War Two, when terrible sacrifices were being demanded from the population – births outnumbered deaths by 1.7 million.

In 2010, deaths outnumbered births by 240,000, and that was the best year for a couple of decades. In 1991, the country was home to 148.3 million people. In 2010, that number had fallen to 141.9 million. The Russian nation is shriveling away from within.

And it is not just that Russians are not being born. Russians are dying. The average Russian male born in 2010 was calculated to live less than sixty-three years. Russians of both sexes taken together are almost four times more likely to die of heart disease than a Western European, and more than five times more likely to be killed by an ‘external cause’ – murder, suicide, drowning, poisoning, car crashes. The comparable countries for violent death are Angola, Burundi, Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Russia is not the only country afflicted with a falling population. In Italy and Germany, for example, the average couple has fewer than two children, which will inevitably lead to population decline. Western European women are reluctant to have as many children as their mothers.

The average Russian man will not live to get his pension.

Western Europe’s situation causes problems of its own, not least when it comes to affording the state pension system, since people are living longer thanks to improving healthcare and healthy living campaigns. The Russian situation is far more serious, however. It is driven by the death rate, and overwhelmingly by the death rate among working-age men. The average Russian man will not live to get his pension.

It is widely assumed that the drinking and the population crisis are a post-Soviet problem. It is true that the problem accelerated with the collapse of communism and the extreme economic dislocation that followed. Inflation wiped out pensions and savings, while factories closed and threw millions of people out of work. Russians drank to blot out the times they were living through. In truth, however, they were drinking before.

The years of the late 1950s and early 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union are little remembered today, but they were the high point of the state’s achievements and self-confidence. It was not only people in Moscow who believed the Soviet Union would surpass the West in production and living standards. People in the West worried it would too. This was the era when sputnik, Laika the dog and Yuri Gagarin blasted into orbit. Gary Powers in his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Urals and it seemed even the most advanced American weapons were at the Russians’ mercy.

No one drinks themselves to death just because they can.

Armies of state employees controlled the production of ever greater volumes of steel and armaments, all checked by legions of statisticians. Soviet tanks stood poised on the borders of West Germany. Hungary’s attempt to throw off Moscow’s dominance in 1956 was ruthlessly crushed. The government could be forgiven for congratulating itself on its achievements. The future was red. Khrushchev, addressing Western ambassadors in 1956, showed his confidence and contempt with the phrase ‘we will bury you’. Soviet citizens would outlive their Western rivals, and would dig their graves for them.

It was an ironic boast because, if Khrushchev had been alert and well informed, he would have noticed a worrying trend. At or around the same time that Gagarin became the first man in space – a triumph Russians boast of to this day – the Russian nation began to die out.

For a start, Russian women stopped having enough babies to maintain the population. For a nation to sustain itself, the average woman must have around 2.1 children. From 1965, Russian women gave birth to fewer than that. And that was when Russians started to die younger too. In the early 1960s, the average Russian and the average Austrian both lived for about sixty-nine years. By 2005, the Austrian was living for an extra decade and a half, the Russian for four years fewer.

I could speculate about why Russians were drinking so much. I wondered if it was a simple function of availability. The Soviet Union produced vodka, so Russians drank it. But that is not a real answer. No one drinks themselves to death just because they can. When a whole population takes to the bottle, something far more serious must have happened. Perhaps Russians felt their destinies were out of their control. The country was stagnant and would remain that way for as long as anyone could predict. If tomorrow will be no better than today, why not enliven today by getting drunk?

Oliver Bullough
Oliver Bullough is Caucasus Editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and author of Let Our Fame Be Great, which won the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. His most recent book, The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation is on sale now.
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