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Originally published Sunday, December 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Russians drink themselves into the grave

On a recent morning in this small swatch of log cabins and collective farms along the Volga River, Stanislav Morzhukhin began his day the...

Chicago Tribune

VYPOLZOVO, Russia — On a recent morning in this small swatch of log cabins and collective farms along the Volga River, Stanislav Morzhukhin began his day the way he begins most days: swilling moonshine made from solvent-strength spirits and allergy medicine.

By midafternoon, the 34-year-old repairman knew he couldn't work. He could barely stand. He jabbed his finger toward three empty bottles on the floor, as if to damn them for ruining his life. His words tumbled out in fragments, but the desperation in his voice rang clear.

"I don't know how to stop. Teach me how to stop," Morzhukhin pleaded to a visitor as his wife, Elena, glowered at him from across their kitchen table. "I go on a binge for two weeks, go to work, then go back on a binge. I'm tired of my life now. This isn't living, it's existing."

In Vypolzovo and thousands of ramshackle villages like it across Russia's heartland, the salve for empty pocketbooks and gloom-filled futures comes in a bottle of hooch — everything from homemade vodka to windshield de-icer.

Fifteen years of post-Soviet capitalism has left rural Russia straggling far behind. Russians in collective farms across the country's 11 time zones could count on a safety net of free housing and health care — and on regular paychecks — during the Soviet era. In today's Russia, those same villagers live day-to-day, shivering through stretches of winter without heat, cringing at the sight of their children in tattered clothes.

"Those who don't have cattle or a job, they drink," says Artem Norbekov, 29, unemployed and wobbly from an afternoon of drinking diluted solvent. "We're not to blame for drinking — those who are in charge of our jobs are to blame."

Alcoholism poses as much a national health crisis in Russia today as it did during the Soviet Union's early 1980s, when up to two of every five men were considered alcoholics.

Today alcohol plays a role in the deaths of nearly a third of all Russians, says Alexander Nemtsov, director of the Moscow Psychiatry Institute and one of the country's leading experts on alcoholism. Alcohol poisoning kills an estimated 40,000 Russians each year, compared with just 400 Americans annually.

Alcohol abuse is believed to be one of the driving forces behind Russia's shrinking population, which now stands at 143 million and is projected to plummet to 80 million by 2050. The average life expectancy for a Russian woman now is 72 — but for Russian men it has dropped to 58.

"Solving Russia's alcoholism problem isn't the easiest way to solve its demographic crisis," Nemtsov said, "but it's the best way."

The Kremlin has a history of ignoring the problem. When it has tried to act, the results have not been impressive.

Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign slashed the hours that vodka could be sold and scaled back production; the measures infuriated Russians and fueled a booming black market. The Russian government nearly caused a revolt when it raised taxes on vodka by 40 percent in 2000. More recently, President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to beer, signing into law earlier this month a ban on drinking it in public places.

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Health experts say government efforts should target the counterfeit alcohol market, which is wreaking havoc on Russia's working class. Occasional stings aimed at uncovering illegal alcohol production aren't enough, the experts say — authorities need to clamp down on corrupt officials who look the other way for a price.

"The main problem is the availability of cheap counterfeit alcohol, and the corruption associated with it," Nemtsov said. "That's the root of the evil, and so far, authorities haven't done anything about it."

The toxic brew Morzhukhin is hooked on is called Gamyrka and is sold by dealers who work door-to-door. A 16-ounce bottle of Gamyrka costs about 60 cents. The toll it takes on villages such as Vypolzovo is incalculable.

Vypolzovo's dairy farm employs about 50 people. More than half are alcoholics, says the farm's director, Nikolai Ustinov. Many routinely show up to work drunk, and some drink at work.

Firing them would slash his work force, so Ustinov sends them home if they are too drunk. He also has sent a few workers to the regional capital, Yaroslavl, to be "coded," a kind of treatment that relies on a regimen of powerful drugs and counseling to scare the alcoholic into staying sober. Its effects don't last. Morzhukhin has been coded eight times.

"I think our productivity would increase threefold if everyone weren't so drunk here," Ustinov says. "These workers are a burden, but we don't want to ruin their lives, so we try to help them."

Villages that surround Ustinov's farm long ago lost any sense of community. Villagers stagger down snow-packed roads, drunk by midday. Standing on a village lane with her coat open on a frigid afternoon, Ludmilla Kulikova bobs her head and insists she is perfectly fit to work her shift in the dairy stables at Ustinov's farm.

She has had several rounds of what many villagers in Manylovo drink: a spirit called Russian North, diluted with water. Ostensibly sold as bath foam, Russian North, the label on an 8-ounce bottle states, is more than 90 percent ethyl alcohol.

"If they sell it, why not drink it?" Kulikova says. "It's cheaper than vodka, so we buy it."

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