The fact that almost 50 people in Irkutsk have died after drinking surrogate alcohol may be a shock, but it is no surprise.
The victims had drunk boyaryshnik, a methanol-based hawthornberry cosmetic, a popular alcoholic beverage with millions of Russians who can no longer afford to buy vodka.
The tragedy in this Siberian city casts new light on Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Russia’s president finds it easier to have his way in Syria than to convince his own people to stop drinking themselves to death. In January this year, the state consumer rights watchdog agency estimated that alcohol abuse was implicated in the premature deaths of 30% of men and 15% of women in Russia.
And the booming ‘surrogate alcohol’ industry is exacerbating the crisis. One fifth of the alcohol consumed in Russia are ethyl alcohol-based tinctures and rubs made for medicinal and cosmetic purposes or methanol-based bath lotion (which proved fatal in Irkutsk). In stores, these liquids cost around $1 a bottle – a third of the price of a half-litre of vodka.
Surrogate alcohol is one of Russia’s most dynamic industries, growing at around 20% a year. Industry expert Vadim Drobiz estimates that between 12-15m Russians drink these products every year.
Although the victims in Irkutsk bought their bath lotion from local stores, these drinks are available in vending machines in many cities. A consortium of businessmen in the Russian cities of Chita, Kaluga, Novoraulsk and Saratov have installed machines to sell Boyarka cosmetic rub, which contains 70% ethyl alcohol. The brand’s website suggests that the machines should be set up to occasionally give two bottles for the price of one and make every fifth bottle 95% proof. The site says: “This will generate a spirit of competition among consumers. It’s tested. It works.”
The authorities are finally taking action – the government will start monitoring ethanol, as it does alcohol, from 1 January 2017. Prime minister Dimitry Medvedev told the Russian cabinet: “This is a complete disgrace. Clearly we should put an end to it. Such liquids should simply be banned.”
That idea has been mooted before. The Ministry of Finance proposed to ban all alcohol from vending machines but it was feared this would make popular medicines prohibitively expensive – and could, Drobiz warned, drive up the manufacture and consumption of samogon (homemade and dangerous) alcohol.
In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, Putin was an undercover KGB agent, pretending to be a translator, in Dresden, East Germany. Yet he is an avid enough student of Russian history to remember Gorbachev’s disastrous campaign to woo the people off vodka.
A massive state promotion for orange juice and soft drinks was expensive, but ineffectual. His attempt to limit the production and sale of vodka – by, for example, systematically destroying vineyards in southern Russia and hiking up the price – led to long disorderly queues outside vodka stores.
Before the campaign, three Russians – known as a troika – would chip in one rouble each to buy a bottle for three roubles and enjoy a glass each. When the price shot up, the campaign, as Alexei Bayer, eastern Europe editor of The Globalist wrote “took the dampening effect of drink out of everyday Soviet life. That exposed the true misery of life under Communism without any alcoholic shock absorber.”
In desperation, many Russians began drinking anything – window cleaner, industrial lubricants, even shoe polish. The crackdown did not endear Gorbachev to the people and, in 1991, he was effectively succeeded by Boris Yeltsin, whose love of booze made him very popular in his homeland.
So, although having your citizens drinking themselves to death with bath lotion is not great for the state’s prestige, Putin will be keen to proceed carefully.
The problem he faces is that the most effective means of reducing demand for surrogate alcohol would be to make vodka cheaper. If he does that, he has little chance of meeting his arbitrary goal of extending Russia’s life expectancy to 74 years by 2018 (it is currently about 71).
The war in Syria may be going well for Putin. His war against alcoholism isn’t.
☛ Want to stay up to date with the news? Sign up to our daily bulletin.