Yesterday at work, one of the local teachers told me that St Patrick’s Day is known as “Drunk Day” in Russia, and I posted as much on my facebook. A friend commented that “isn’t that every day in Russia?”, so I figured it was time to talk about alcohol.
I was waiting to cross the street near my house just now, when I noticed that the man in front of me was 100% about to be hit by a bus. Naturally, I stepped forward, grabbed him, and pulled him back with me onto the pavement. He wasn’t very happy with me and yelled at me, and I don’t know how to say “you were about to be hit by a bus” in Russian, so I apologised and moved on. Another man was standing next to me at the time and was about as confused as I was at the situation. But to be honest, when I saw the guy’s face, I realised that he had little idea what was going on. He was obviously an alcoholic and probably homeless, and later I saw him outside the supermarket, begging for money. I don’t know whether he was aiming to get hit by the bus, or whether he just wasn’t conscious of what was happening, but either way I’d rather be yelled at than see someone die in front of me.
I find it difficult to estimate what age people are here, as I find they age quite badly. Very badly. Add this to the alcoholism, and the bus guy could have been almost any age really, though I’m guessing around 50-55. That’s nearly as old as he’ll ever be: the average life expectancy for a Russian man is just 60. Women live 13 years longer, and by the age of 65, there are two women to every man. (Federal State Statistics Service—Rosstat—cited here)
So, why this gender/age imbalance? Well, a lot of it is down to alcohol. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture on Russian population health around a year ago (you can download/listen to it here) which spoke fairly frankly about alcohol and alcoholism here. There were a few main things which I drew from it:
- There are a lot of alcohol-related deaths in Russia. According to the World Health Organisation, “One-in-five men in the Russian Federation and neighbouring countries die due to alcohol-related causes.” (source). I read another time that the WHO estimates that Russia’s population will fall by 20% by 2050. There are a couple of hundred thousand alcohol-related deaths here each year.
The lecture illustrated the number of alcohol-related deaths against a political timeline of Russia, and it showed some incredibly interesting things. Mainly, when there’s a lot of strife here, deaths skyrocket. You can also see the fall in consumption following Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol reforms on this infographic.
- There is a class difference in alcohol consumption. That of the intelligentsia remains fairly steady irregardless of outside circumstances (eg politics, economy), and is significantly lower than that of the less-educated classes (so, most of the Russian population). Deaths among men were of course a lot higher than those among women.
- “Why doesn’t the government just make alcohol more expensive?” you might wonder. I normally spend around $6 for 500mL of vodka, which is cheap/middle-of-the-range. Half a litre of Baltika beer is around $1. So, alcohol’s pretty affordable. But a lot of the deaths, as per the lecture, aren’t from drinking drinking alcohol—it’s from drinking things like 98% proof medicine. Nom nom. There’s even a special technique for drinking things with such high alcohol levels, so that you don’t burn your lungs out (and no, I’m not going to write it here).
- A man aged 25 has only a 1 in 2 chance of surviving to the age of 65.
One thing I find particularly interesting is the number of people who completely abstain from alcohol in Russia. Some of my students drink (and yes, they are underage), but a similar number passionately advocate against the consumption of alcohol or non-medicinal drugs. Some people won’t even take medicinal drugs, and prefer traditional remedies instead (I’m presuming this doesn’t include vodka in this case!). A large number of businesses and sports clubs strongly disapprove of drinking at all. I’d never used the word ‘straight-liner’ until I came to Russia.
Another thing I find surprising is what incredible light-weights Russians are. It actually really confuses me. Pretty much the first thing people think of when they hear ‘Russians’ is ‘hard-core vodka drinkers’—but actually, I think Australians drink more, and I can easily out-drink a Russian guy. (Not that that’s a thing to be proud of, of course). Haha and girls are like teenagers drinking—they’ll have one or two drinks and be the drunkest people in the world. They all have a great time though, so who cares? I read on someone else’s blog once that Russians treat every night like it’s their last night on earth, and when they go out, they certainly go hard.
Back to a more serious note though: I was just looking at a slide-show on the ‘Russia: Beyond the Headlines’ site of women in Ivanova, the ‘City of Lonely Brides’. It shows some of the women who are single, because alcoholism is such a problem that they can’t find husbands. And yet even in that environment, one woman of 24 is embarrassed because she’s now “too old to meet a man” (fifth slide). Is it worse to be single than married to an alcoholic?! How… warped.
Also, I just read this:
At the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, … the Holy See, Iran and Russia are pushing efforts to cut … language that says religion, custom or tradition must not be used … to avoid a government’s obligation to eliminate violence. They have also opposed any efforts to recognize spousal and partner rape. (source)
Not happy, Russia.