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11 May, 2010 03:34

Heal or kill? Russian vodka might do both

Ever since vodka made its way to Russia in the 15th century as a medicine, it's had no equal in both healing the soul and ruining the body.

Russians are not the world's heaviest drinkers, though they comfortably make it to the top five. But when it comes to alcohol-related deaths and injuries, the country has no rivals.

Intoxicated by revenues and nauseated by the impact. Ever since alcohol production was put on an industrial scale, authorities in Russia have enjoyed huge financial benefits from alcohol sales. Yet, as Russia watched its coffers swell with excise taxes, it also witnessed several campaigns to curb drinking, each more notorious than the other.

The most devastating drive to lower alcohol consumption came 25 years ago. While most Soviet anti-alcohol measures centered on limiting access to booze, the Gorbachev era campaign was about cutting production. The country’s best vineyards were razed, its best wine producers faced persecution.

Nikolay Mekhuzla was one of the USSR’s top wine experts. His close associate committed suicide after seeing a lifetime’s work destroyed.

“Everything that had been done to create the Soviet wine-making industry was being destroyed overnight…It was simply unimaginable, especially if you consider that during the Second World War the Soviet leadership didn’t stop building champagne factories,” Nikolay said.

At 76, Nikolay is a picture of good health. He likes to cite Churchill’s jokes about alcohol and attributes his vitality to good wine, one glass a day for nearly 60 years.

“I think the government should focus its efforts on promoting a better drinking culture, encouraging people to drink wine instead of vodka. Introducing bans and limits may be the easiest thing but it will invariably lead to an increase in production of bootlegged alcohol – that is the main killer,” Nikolay said.

While most previous efforts to curb drinking led to an increase in consumption and alcohol-related mortality, the Russian government is once again embarking on a new anti-spirit program. Citing alcohol as a top killer, president Dmitry Medvedev has voiced his support for significantly limiting the public's ability to buy booze.

“The Gorbachev-era campaign wasn’t thought through well. The limits were too sudden and too harsh,” Pavel Shapkin from the Center for National Alcohol said. “We’ve learned the lesson. But we still believe it is possible to cut alcohol consumption in Russia by half in 10 years and we believe it wouldn’t require any drastic measures.”

The most popular Russian toast is to good health, though repeating it too much usually produces the opposite effect. By pulling bottles from shelves, authorities may be hoping to instill in Russians a healthy spirit, but if the past is anything to go by, they may end up with a heavy hangover.