The Russians do so like their vodka:
Today, according to the World Health Organization, one in five men in the Russia Federation die due to alcohol-related causes, compared with 6.2 percent of all men globally. In 2000, in her article “First Steps: AA and Alcoholism in Russia,” Patricia Critchlow estimated that some 20 million Russians are alcoholics in a nation of just 144 million.
The problem has been going on for centuries, and attempts to combat it have been sporadic and largely futile. Those death rates are astoundingly high, but they were even higher just a few years ago.
And Russians aren’t picky when they drink, either:
…[A]s of 2003 Russia was Europe’s heaviest per capita spirits consumer; its reported hard liquor consumption was over four times as high as Portugal’s, three times that of Germany or Spain, and over two and a half times higher than that of France.
Yet even these numbers may substantially understate hard spirit use in Russia, since the WHO figures follow only the retail sale of hard liquor. But samogon—home-brew, or “moonshine”—is, according to some Russian researchers, a huge component of the country’s overall intake. Professor Alexander Nemstov, perhaps Russia’s leading specialist in this area, argues that Russia’s adult population—women as well as men—puts down the equivalent of a bottle of vodka per week.
…One forensic investigation of blood alcohol content by a medical examiner’s office in a city in the Urals, for example, indicated that over 40 percent of the younger male decedents evaluated had probably been alcohol-impaired or severely intoxicated at the time of death—including one quarter of the deaths from heart disease and over half of those from accidents or injuries. But medical and epidemiological studies have also demonstrated that, in addition to its many deaths from consumption of ordinary alcohol, Russia also suffers a grisly toll from alcohol poisoning, as the country’s drinkers, in their desperate quest for intoxication, down not only sometimes severely impure samogon, but also perfumes, alcohol-based medicines, cleaning solutions, and other deadly liquids. Death rates from such alcohol poisoning appear to be at least one hundred times higher in Russia than the United States—this despite the fact that the retail price in Russia today is lower for a liter of vodka than a liter of milk.
The question, of course, is why so much drinking? There may be a significant genetic component, but that only increases the risk and does not explain the phenomenon. But in a society in which drinking is as common and accepted as it is in Russia, those with the gene are probably more likely to be drawn to the behavior. And of course there’s the famous Russian gloom.
I must confess that my ancestors probably did a bit to encourage all of this—although not the hard liquor part. Family legend has it that they were brewers living in Alsace-Lorraine who were invited into Russia some time around the 1870s by Alexander II, with the aim of helping to establish a viable beer industry in Russia.
I have no information on how successful they were. But after Alexander’s assassination things tightened up considerably in that country, and whether they took to drink or not they managed to leave for the US in the early years of the 20th century.
For which I’m extraordinarily grateful.