You might say it’s no country for old men. Russia, that is. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russians have been increasingly ravaged by disease and death. And one of the main reasons is the nation’s favorite drink. There’s so much vodka going down the throats of so many Russians, life expectancy for men has fallen to just 60 years old – about the same as in Myanmar and Haiti. The World’s Laura Lynch ventured out to the Russian countryside to find the roots of the country’s troubles with alcohol.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. You might say it’s not country for old men; Russia that is. The average life expectancy of Russian men has been sinking lately. It’s down to around 60 years old. One of the main reasons for this decline in the health of Russian men is that nation’s favorite drink, vodka. The World’s Laura Lynch ventured out to the Russian countryside to find the roots of the country’s troubles with alcohol.
LAURA LYNCH: Life in the village of Klyuchi seems frozen in time. It certainly is frigid today, as Antonina Bilikova wraps her gloved hands around a water pump. Here on snowy path, her head wrapped in a babushka, Bilikova could be living in the Russia of 50 years ago. But there’s something, or someone missing here, the men. Bilikova points to the homes of her neighbors.
INTERPRETER: There, she lives alone. Over there she lives alone. Almost all the husbands have died.
LYNCH: This is a village full of widows. It’s like this across Russia. More than 30,000 villages, once thriving farming communities are very nearly empty. Those who remain are almost all women. After much looking, I did find one man living alone at the end of a lane lined with crumbling cabins. A guard dog stands sentry as Gennady Mikhailovich comes outside. Unsteady on his feet, he breaks into a smile.
INTERPRETER: He’s seen you before.
LYNCH: Really? Okay. Nice to see you. In fact, I’ve never met Mikhailovich but that doesn’t stop him from welcoming us into his house. It smells of urine and rotten food. He starts to cry. Life these days, he says, isn’t good. It’s clear how he’s enduring the hardship. Mikhailovich tells me he’s been drinking vodka all day and it’s just past one in the afternoon. This tragic scene is replayed in vast parts of Russia. The areas where the collective farms of Communist times once provided security are now soaked in vodka as the people struggle to cope. Andrey Treyvish is a senior lecturer in geography at Moscow State University.
ANDREY TREYVISH: Enterprises cannot survive, in fact. They are real bankrupt. Jobs are almost absent.
LYNCH: So Russians turn to alcohol. The World Health Organization says alcohol is responsible for at least a quarter of all male deaths. A Kremlin Advisory Panel estimates 500,000 people a year die from diseases, crimes and accidents related to excessive drinking. Dr. Alexander Nemstov is one of Russia’s leading authorities on alcoholism. He doesn’t believe the government or the people are ready to face up to the crisis.
INTERPRETER: So far, I don’t see any serious action that suggests we can deal with this problem. Moreover, I find it hard to say what will happen to our country if everyone suddenly chooses a sober life, because it’s a hard life and people find comfort and even happiness in having a drink.
LYNCH: A lot of people who find comfort in drinking wind up in places like this. It’s a drunk tank, or as officials like to call it, a sobering up center in the Moscow Satellite City of Khimky. One man is led in and slumps down on a bench, just steps away from a cell where other men have already passed out. His belly spills over his pants. His red face is moist with sweat. He eyes me warily as I ask him why he drinks.
INTERPRETER: Every man deserves a drink after work to relax after a tense and difficult day. It’s normal. Everyone doe sit.
LYNCH: Major Yelena Grakova looms above him. She’s a sturdy, stern faced woman who knows it’s going to be a busy Friday night.
INTERPRETER: When people finish work, when they get paid, that’s when it starts to get busy in here. Actually, most of the people who end up here are unemployed. But it’s difficult to check because when we ask they deny being jobless.
LYNCH: The big bellied man is now attempting a sobriety test. His running shoes squeak as he teeters while trying to do knee bends. He fails, then he’s stripped of both his clothes and his dignity. Four officers are needed to remove his shirt, pants and shoes. They then lead him cold and nearly naked into the cell, clearly not quite ready to sleep it off. Later tonight when he sobers up and leaves, he’ll pay a fine of about $4.00. It’s not the best way to battle alcoholism in Russia. The government has tried to find other solutions. Twenty-five years ago Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered stores to empty their shelves of vodka, but there was a backlash and he was forced to back down. Now President Dmitry Medvedev is trying something else. He’s doubled the price of vodka to about $3.00 a pint. Tatiana Nefedova of Russia’s Academy of Sciences says the lessons of the past prove price hikes don’t work.
INTERPRETER: When the priced increased, it actually made the problem worse because it led to an increase in the production of bootleg vodka.
LYNCH: Instead, she says, what’s really needed is a broader strategy to deal with the reasons men drink; unemployment, poverty and little hope for the future. So this is where all the strands of Russia’s multilayered crises come together, with its younger generations. Natalie Kivenko is having a drink with a few friends at a bar in downtown Moscow. She’s 25, beautiful and well educated. In Russia, women outnumber men by more than 10% and that gap only increases with age. So Kivenko is keenly aware of how difficult it is to find a suitable husband.
NATALIE KIVENKO: Yes, even if you get below average, it’s considered to be okay because at least you have a man.
LYNCH: And if she does find a husband, she’s not counting on him living to a ripe old age. She’s just hoping when she’s a widow her children will take care of her. For The World, I’m Laura Lynch, Moscow.
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