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Excessive drinking is killing Russia's people and its future, experts say

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—His eyes are a bright and piercing blue, the same color as the jugs of Icicle-brand window cleaner he used to drink because it was twice as strong as vodka but five times cheaper.

Gennadi Shegurov, 45 years old and five years sober, isn't sure how he survived his 20 years of drinking Icicle, along with untold quantities of antifreeze, beer, homemade vodka, brown bread soaked in shoe polish, industrial solvents, a rose-water cologne called Flight and a popular perfume called Triple.

"I drank like other people breathe," said Shegurov, who was a prize-winning mathematician in college. "I had to look at newspapers to see what season it was. One time, the police stopped me and it took me half an hour to remember my name."

By rights and statistics, Shegurov should be dead, another victim of a national addiction to alcohol that's led doctors and government officials to worry that Russia—its current health and future population—is circling the drain.

Some 85 percent of Russian men drink regularly—they outnumber female drinkers by 5 to 1—and on average they knock back a fifth of vodka every other day. And that doesn't include the Russian intake of beer, wine and liqueur.

Drinking began to rise dramatically in the Soviet Union about 50 years ago, according to Dr. Alexander Nemtsov, one of Russia's leading experts on alcoholism and the head of the psychiatric research department at the Russian Ministry of Health.

Per capita consumption in 1950 was the equivalent of 0.8 gallons of pure alcohol per year. By 1985 it had soared to 3.75 gallons per person. In recent years it's climbed again, to 4 gallons per person, an all-time high for modern Russia.

The average Russian man, in large part due to alcohol abuse, won't make it to his 59th birthday. Government figures show that an estimated 51,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning last year, compared with more than 300 in the United States, which has twice the population of Russia, in the late 1990s. Not surprisingly, alcohol poisoning has its own category in the government's cause-of-death charts.

A startling 34 percent of all deaths in Russia over the last decade—from murders and heart attacks to suicides and traffic accidents—were related to alcohol, said Nemtsov. The comparable figure for the United States in 1996 was 3.2 percent, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"Drinking is how we live," he said. "And now it's also how we die."

Nemtsov's statistical studies show direct correlations between drinking and mortality—with sharp spikes in the mid-1980s as the Soviet Union began to fray, in the mid-1990s as inflation and economic uncertainty went haywire, and then again starting in 2001.

The Russian statistics bureau Goskomstat, the National Security Council and the United Nations all project a sharp decline in Russia's population. The United Nations says the population, now just over 144 million, will fall to 112 million by mid-century.

Dr. Alexey Magalif, a prominent Moscow psychiatrist whose private clinic specializes in the treatment of alcoholism and depression, thinks Russian society has "very deep psychological problems in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union. ... And yes," he adds, "I'd use the word crisis."

"Drunkenness is a slow suicide," Magalif said. "People are disillusioned and they feel they have no future. They feel abandoned by the state. They turn themselves off—and turn to drinking."

The National Security Council worries that there won't be enough citizens capable of serving in the military, patrolling the country's far-flung borders and guarding its nuclear arsenal.

The drag on the economy will be ferocious, too, as Russia loses startling numbers of able-bodied workers and consumers—an immediate decline of a half million by 2008 is projected, according to trade and development minister German Gref.

Mikhail Gorbachev had similar fears 20 years ago.

On May 16, 1985, the new Soviet leader signed a decree restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol.

At first, Gorbachev's prohibition was a resounding public-health success. Industrial production went up, accidents declined and the divorce rate dropped. Nemtsov estimates that 1.2 million lives were saved.

But the measure was as unpopular and unworkable as it was radical and high-minded, and in no time, Russians were making their own vodka, buying impure bootleg vodka called samogon or stealing (and drinking) raw industrial spirits.

Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign evaporated.

"Beer alcoholism" is part of the resurgence in drinking, and beers with 9 percent alcohol have begun to appear on supermarket shelves.

Public drunkenness is especially noticeable among preteens and teenagers, who have been targeted by a wave of advertisements suggesting that beer is safer than vodka and no more intoxicating than soda.

"I'm 60 years old and I find these ads influencing even me," said Dr. Sergei Litvintsev, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and heads the National Scientific Center for Narcology. "These ads are very aggressive. And dangerous."

Russian beer-makers recently pulled some of their kid-friendly TV commercials and billboards that featured animals and cartoon characters, but the powerful beer lobby managed to defeat a measure that would have banned public drinking.

"Our biggest beer producers seem to spend as much time at the Duma (Russia's parliament) as they do at their own factories," said Alexander Chuyev, a Duma member who called beer alcoholism "a terrible new crisis."

A Russian proverb says that drinking beer without vodka is like throwing your money away, and the increase in beer drinking since 2002 hasn't produced a corresponding decrease in vodka consumption.

Vodka remains central to Russia's cultural life, its social traditions and, perhaps, its doom.

Vodka's almost religious importance to Russia can hardly be overstated. Vodka accounts for 73 percent of the alcohol consumed in Russia, compared with beer (17 percent) and wines, cognacs and liqueurs (10 percent).

Vodka—literally, "little water"—has been part of the national fabric since it was developed here in the 15th century. Dmitri Mendeleyev, the Russian chemist who developed the Periodic Table of the Elements, perfected the method for distilling vodka in 1865.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin often forced his underlings to drink at parties until they vomited; mothers still use vodka-soaked tissues to soothe childhood fevers, and Russian soldiers proudly receive their medals in tumblers of vodka that they drink in one gulp.

Doctors and public health experts are almost unanimous in their frustration at the government's inability to stem the tide of alcohol. Requests for interviews with senior officials at the Ministry of Health went unanswered.

"The trouble is, nothing is being done," said Nemtsov, who works for the health ministry. "Millions of personal tragedies have not coalesced into a public sentiment against alcohol. Heavy drinking is part of our daily life, and this sustains the official indifference to the problem."

Nemtsov was aghast that President Vladimir Putin listed 147 priorities for his second term, but "alcohol was not even mentioned."

Gennadi Shegurov credits Alcoholics Anonymous and a vision of God for getting him sober, and he uses his personal horrors to counsel other alcoholics at a Salvation Army center in downtown St. Petersburg.

He and his buddies drank "all day, every day." The six men with whom he shared a vacant attic have all died from drinking.

Russia's tolerance for drunken behavior doesn't help, he said.

"When I had my own apartment, I went on a binge and couldn't get my key in the door, so I spent three days sleeping in the hall in front of the door," Shegurov said. "My neighbors were very kind and understanding. They said, `Oh, that could happen to anybody.'

"But after 10 days of me sleeping there in the hallway, they said, `Oh, he's a drunk.'"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-ALCOHOL

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050502 RUSSIA population

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