For Soviets, Chance To Drink Freely Again

Posted: October 07, 1988

MOSCOW — The much-ballyhooed battle against the bottle in the Soviet Union is in ignominious retreat.

For the first time in more than three years, draft beer is once again being sold on the streets of Moscow. Hordes of Muscovites queued yesterday in Indian-summer weather with glass jugs and two-gallon plastic containers at stands that formerly sold kvass, a nonalcoholic Russian fermented drink made

from bread.

As is usual before any holiday, the lines to buy alcohol were long on the eve of Soviet Constitution Day. Revelers were toasting a report in one newspaper that the state had decided to sharply increase the production of wine, beer, brandy and champagne.

For economic and social reasons, the Soviet authorities are making liquor easier to buy, reversing a three-year campaign begun by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to get drunks off the street, out of the workplace, sober and ready to participate in the reformist plan he calls perestroika.

The developments mark a significant defeat for Gorbachev, although it remains to be seen whether the blow hits hardest at his prestige or at perestroika.

In recent weeks authorities have announced that 100 stands for selling beer will be opened on Moscow's streets. The party newspaper Pravda revealed has that wine, champagne and beer will once again be sold in grocery stores instead of being restricted to liquor shops.

The deputy chief of the main food sales administration in the U.S.S.R. said yesterday that in addition to an increase in the production of wine, beer, champagne and brandy, there would be an increase in the importation of alcoholic beverages from other socialist countries.

The deputy chief, A.S. Konobov, also told Trud, the daily for the shot-and- a-beer trade union crowd, that local authorities could decide whether to start liquor sales earlier than the 2 p.m. start imposed under the harsh regime of three years ago.

When he became party leader in March 1985, one of Gorbachev's first acts was to initiate a massive anti-drinking campaign by cutting back severely on production and sales and by raising prices, in particular on vodka, the national drink.

In a country where drinking is considered an inalienable right, the attack on alcohol went against the grain of the people in a big way.

Gorbachev was derided as the "mineral water secretary." A popular joke making the rounds had Mrs. Gorbachev trysting in the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, but suddenly telling him to stop when she thinks she hears her husband about to enter their room.

"Why?" asks a bemused Shevardnadze. "We're not drinking."

The jokes never stopped and neither, somehow, did much of the drinking. The semi-dry years might have even hampered the progress of reform, so unpopular was the party leader.

The campaign wasn't even very popular among the intelligentsia, who make up a large chunk of Gorbachev's fan club.

In an article this year, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: "The first harsh anti-alcoholism measures came as positive shock therapy. But you can't have daily shock therapy; the society's nervous system will collapse."

But the shock to the nation's already struggling economy might have been what caused the Kremlin to ease its grip on the tap.

The drop in alcohol sales - 70 to 80 percent of liquor shops were closed after 1985 - resulted in the loss of billions of rubles in revenue for the state, according to Soviet economists. The making of home-brewed samogon, or moonshine, increased so drastically that necessary ingredients, such as sugar, disappeared from store shelves altogether and had to be rationed in a number of cities.

According to official figures printed in the government newspaper Izvestia, more than 500,000 people in the Soviet union were charged with illegal distillation of spirits in 1987, a fivefold increase over 1985.

In May, respected economist Nikolai Shmelyev said that per-capita consumption of alcohol in the Soviet Union had not been reduced despite the campaign.

"Unfortunately, I am afraid nothing has changed," Shmelyev said. ''Instead of state-produced spirits, people are drinking moonshine. Sometimes they even drink chemicals."

Hardened drinkers were quaffing cologne, insect repellent, almost anything with an alcoholic content. The Soviet press was full of horror stories about the extent to which drinkers would go, including a particularly vivid account in June of an alcoholic woman who sold her 12-year-old daughter to a stranger for six rubles and half a bottle of vodka.

The sugar shortage really got people up in arms. When it appeared, it was rationed, but mostly it didn't appear. Deputy Trade Minister Sergey D. Aleshin said in Izvestia that the demand for sugar in early 1988 had jumped by nearly 30 percent in some regions and that it was "not for tea drinking."

Noting the shortages in the Soviet Union's three largest cities - Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev - Aleshin estimated that the nation might have to spend up to $1 billion in hard currency to import sugar.

"It becomes more and more obvious that the state is being drawn into a moonshine war with the population," Shmelyev said. "It can hardly win this war."

So the Kremlin appears to have sued for peace. The Moscow City Council has decided to open 133 new beer bars and automatic beer machines as part of what it called "a more balanced approach" to the alcoholism problem.

The battle is now more public relations than prohibition. This week the news agency Tass reported that there were more than 4.5 million officially registered alcoholics in the U.S.S.R.

"Since a large-scale anti-drink campaign was launched in this country, groups similar to Alcoholics Anonymous have formed here as well," Tass said. ''But as yet their membership is too small."

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