'We are new Russians': How a hard-drinking nation curbed its alcohol use

Once known for its enthusiasm for alcohol, Russia has fallen steadily down the list of the hardest-drinking nations, thanks to a variety of social and political measures.

Russia now ranks 14th in terms of alcohol consumption globally, and is comparable to France and Germany

Sober Russia volunteer Eduard Grigoriev shows off a pre-mixed, homemade bottle of energy drink and vodka during a vigilante raid on an after-hours liquor store in Moscow. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Once the holder of the dubious title of one of the world's hardest-drinking nations, Russia has fallen steadily down the list — and Eduard Grigoriev likes to think his group can claim some of the credit.

A volunteer with the group Sober Russia, the 21-year-old is a self-proclaimed liquor vigilante. Since his teens, Grigoriev has been helping police crack down on businesses that break Russia's ever-stricter liquor laws.

"Four years ago, when we started, eight out of 10 stores in Moscow were selling illegal alcohol. Right now, it's three out of 10," said Grigoriev of the role that his band of helpers have played in ensuring liquor violators are brought to the attention of police.

Illegal alcohol sales usually take the form of homemade distilled spirits or legally made products sold after hours. Russian law prohibits any off-licence sales in corner stores or grocery stores past 11 p.m. at night.

The restrictions on availability have been part of a sweeping series of measures enacted by the Russian government since 2005, aimed at curbing widespread alcohol abuse in the country.

In its latest report, the World Health Organization acknowledges the efforts have paid off with significantly lower rates of consumption.

Sweeping restrictions

Grigoriev's group has affiliations with the governing United Russia party and Vladimir Putin's administration, but Grigoriev said Sober Russia isn't political, and everyone who joins is a volunteer.

The group's tactics involve sending volunteers into corner stores after Russia's 11 p.m. curfew and entrapping staff who sell booze.

Grigoriev, left, and another Sober Russia member report back on the outcome of their sting operation with a Moscow police officer. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

A crew from CBC's Moscow bureau was with Grigoriev's team recently when they visited the city's southern suburbs and documented several of their ensnarement stings.

"We're doing this because we think we can make Russia a better place to live in," Grigoriev explained. "This is our future."

Grigoriev said that if fewer stores sell illegal alcohol, "the better the alcohol will be in legal stores, and the less people will have health problems."

Sales of illegally distilled spirits in Russia have been a deadly health problem. In one of the worst cases in recent times, 78 people died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 2016 after drinking tainted moonshine.

Last week, police released a video of a police raid in a factory that was manufacturing illegal vodka just outside Moscow. It resulted in the seizure of more than 77,000 bottles. Not long before that, a bust at a factory in the central Russian city of Nefteyugansk netted about 30,000 bottles. Police claim the booze would have made people badly sick.

A nurse walks through the emergency ward at a Russian alcohol rehabilitation clinic. While Russians continue to be heavy drinkers, the World Health Organization considers their fight against alcoholism to be a success story. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

In one of the Sober Russia stings the CBC crew witnessed, a shopkeeper sold several bottles of beer to a volunteer after the 11 p.m. curfew. Then, with our cameras rolling, other members entered the store and confronted the employee, who quickly denied doing anything improper.

Grigoriev's team then found several large plastic bottles behind the cash register that contained a mixture of alcohol and an energy drink.

"It's like Red Bull, but with alcohol," he said. "This is forbidden."

Less boozy

Twelve years ago, Russians consumed roughly 15 litres of alcohol per person a year, which put them in fourth in the world rankings of the hardest-drinking countries. Now, in Russia, the per capita average is closer to 10 litres. (By comparison, Canada drinks eight litres per capita per year.)

Russia now ranks 14th in terms of alcohol consumption globally, and is comparable to France and Germany.

Notably, the proportion of strong liquor, such as vodka, in the overall mix of Russian alcohol consumption is down substantially, by 31 per cent.   

"Alcohol consumption has decreased a lot," said professor Yevgeny Yakovlev of Moscow's New Economic School, where he tracks Russia's consumption habits. 

"We see that everywhere. Mortality from alcohol poisoning has decreased by 30 per cent," he said. Yakovlev noted that suicides where alcohol is believed to have played a role have fallen by roughly the same amount in the past 12 years.

"In all of these measures, we see progress," said Yakovlev.

Yakovlev credits aggressive government measures to restrict alcohol sales and to discourage use, such as increased taxation. 

Drinking in public is still common in Russia. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)

While taxes on alcohol are politically unpopular, the World Health Organization notes that automatic yearly tax increases on booze have contributed to better health outcomes.

Earlier this month, Russia's health ministry announced it was drafting legislation that could raise the country's drinking age from 18 to 21. The Moscow Times newspaper cited a poll suggesting strong public support for the higher drinking age.

Healthier choices

Many Russians are making healthier lifestyle choices more generally, which are contributing to the significant decline in alcohol use.

At a gym in eastern Moscow, Yuri Sysoev and Alexei Forsenco have gone further than most Russians in promoting an alcohol-free lifestyle, both in their own choices and with their outreach.

"If I look back, well, basically, I had child alcoholism," said Sysoev during a break from sparring with a partner in the boxing ring.

Now an actor and filmmaker in Moscow, the 31-year-old Sysoev said the 1990s were a difficult time in Russia. In the post-Soviet economic and political chaos, he said drinking was a means of escape for many.

"I was a little kid in the theatre playing [roles] of gnomes and hobbits, and I got pulled into [binge-drinking culture]," Sysoev said. About nine years ago, an epiphany about the destructive effect alcohol was having on his life prompted him to give it up entirely, he said.

Moscow film producers Yuri Sysoev, left, and Alexei Forsenco gave up drinking and took up fitness. Then they made a movie about why young people should follow their example. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Forsenco, his 37-year-old friend and business partner, said his story is quite similar, except it took him longer to come to the same realization.

"It wasn't until I had kids of my own, about five years ago, that I understood alcohol could not be part of my family."

Forsenco said the decision to abstain from booze often catches the foreigners they meet off guard. But he said no one should be surprised.

"We are new Russians. We don't drink alcohol."

The pair have made a short film that they are showing at Russian high schools. They are sharing their experiences with students in the hope of dissuading teenagers from repeating their mistakes.

Entitled The Outcast, the film features a teen walking through an apartment complex who is being taunted by his friends for not drinking after school. Instead of yielding to peer pressure, he stays the course and chooses the healthy option of a good workout.

"I don't want to brag, but we are the first in Russia to be making a film like this," said Sysoev.

At a recent showing, students peppered Sysoev and Forsenco with questions about their experience with alcohol and its destructive impact.

"We have to fight this," Sysoev told the students. "Not with banners and meetings, but [you must] change yourself first, and then the world around you will change."

While the film has been well received by students, the pair said they have also run into resistance from nervous school administrators, who are afraid The Outcast might portray Russia in a bad light.

While more Russians are opting for healthy lifestyles, Sysoev said there are still too many instances of people walking in their neighbourhoods and seeing what he calls an "alcohol apocalypse" — like drunks sleeping on benches or just staggering around.

"That's why we wanted to make this film and send a message that a healthy lifestyle and healthy sport is right."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.


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