RUSSIALINK RBTH: “Do Russians really drink as much as people think they do?”

Man in Silhoette with Bottle of Alcohol and Head in Hand

“How is vodka…” “Why did Putin…” RBTH has chosen some of the most popular search queries related to Russia and will answer each question in detail in a series of articles titled “Why Russia.” Today, we examine how Russia has earned its reputation as a country that loves to drink.

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – rbth.ru – OLEG YEGOROV, RBTH – April 19, 2017)

In 2011, a post featuring funny facts (in Russian) about Russia written by a Canadian English teacher who was living in Moscow began to circulate on the internet. Some of these “facts” were questioned by Russians, such as the statement that they do not say “please” or “thank you,” but entry number 17 was not contested by anyone: “Russians drink a lot of vodka. It’s not a myth.”

The Russian love of alcohol has been discussed since before the country of Russia even existed. According to the 12th-century chronicle “The Tale of Bygone Years,” when Prince Vladimir, the ruler of Ancient Rus, was choosing a faith for the pagan Slavs he discovered that Muslims were forbidden from drinking alcohol and immediately gave up any thought of converting his people to Islam. “Drinking is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without it,” the prince said (in Russian).

At that time, Russians did not yet have vodka, but instead drank wine and mead – a strong drink made from honey. According to historians, vodka first appeared (in Russian) in Russia in the 16th century and quickly became one of the country’s symbols, along with bears and matryoshkas. In his novel “Moscow to the End of the Line,” Soviet writer Venedikt Yerofeyev went so far as to jokingly propose drawing a border between Russia and Europe on the basis of alcohol consumption: “On one side of the border people speak Russian and drink more, while on the other side, they drink less and speak a language that is not Russian.”

Genetics and history

So why do Russians drink so much? One of the answers, according to (in Russian) Svetlana Borinskaya, PhD in Biology, lies in genetics. Russians, like Europeans, slowly metabolize alcohol into the toxic chemical acetaldehyde, which causes hangovers and other unpleasant effects. In Asians, however, this process happens much more quickly and is one reason why these populations tend to have a lower tolerance for alcohol. “You could say that genes do not make Russians drink, but they allow them to do so,” Borinskaya explains.

Another factor that contributed to high levels of alcohol consumption in Russia had to do with the way alcohol was regulated by the state. Historian Alexander Pidzhakov says (in Russian) that in the 16th and 17th centuries the tsars introduced a system of state taverns. Tavern owners were required to send a certain amount of money to the treasury, regardless of how much vodka or wine was actually sold or consumed, which incentivized the sale of as much alcohol as possible. The government received large profits from the sale of alcohol, and Russians gradually got used to drinking it. “The authorities systematically accustomed people to the taverns,” Pidzhakov concludes.

As time passed, Russian authorities began to understand the dangers of alcohol abuse for the country. In the 19th and early 20th century the prohibitionist movement gained momentum, and following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Nicholas II introduced a complete ban on alcohol. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they kept the ban, but only until 1923. Later, the Soviet state carried out several anti-alcohol campaigns, the largest of which took place under Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985-1990. During this time, shops were allowed to sell alcohol for only five hours a day, prices were raised and vineyards were destroyed.

Russians are drinking less, but they still drink a lot

Moving from history to the present, Russians continue to drink a lot, though over the past five years the amount has declined. According to a 2010 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), the average per capita consumption of alcohol in Russia was the fourth highest globally, at 15.1 liters per year – after Belarus (17.5), Moldova (16.8) and Lithuania (15.4). However, by 2016, data (in Russian) from Rospotrebnadzor listed that per capita consumption of alcohol in Russia was “more than 10 liters.” While no exact figure was given, the implication is that the number has dropped below 15 liters per year.

“Judging by the numbers, Russians are drinking less,” Afisha wine critic Anton Obrezchikov wrote (in Russian) in late 2016. Rospotrebnadzor agrees, stating that “consumption of alcohol, in comparison with 2009 levels, has decreased.” At the same time, they cite WHO findings that “if per capita consumption of alcohol is greater than 8 liters a year, it is harmful to the health of the population.” Accordingly, officials have concluded that the fight against excess alcohol consumption should continue.

[Article also appeared at rbth.com/why_russia/2017/04/19/do-russians-really-drink-as-much-as-people-think-they-do_746405]

[featured image is file photo, not directly related to article subject matter]