The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Shock: Russia Rules Beer Isn't Food

Did you know that beer was an alcoholic substance and not a “food product”? That’s what Moscow has just declared in its latest bid to curb alcohol use in one of the planet’s tipsiest countries. The status change means that beer will no longer be allowed to be sold in street kiosks and will only be sold in stores between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. The Russian man-on-the-street reaction has been just about what you’d expect:

“It’s not a spirit,” he declared matter-of-factly, standing in the Leningradsky railroad station in Moscow. “It’s a drink that quenches the thirst.”

“With spirits, fine, I agree, put some sanctions on it,” Viktor continued. “There’s beer that they make, which isn’t really beer at all, it’s actually a spirit. But normal beer, good beer, it should not be banned. It’s not right.”

This is the latest round of regulations in the attempt to control alcoholism in Russia inaugurated in 2010 under then-President Dmitri Medvedev. Calling alcoholism a “national disgrace”, Medvedev instituted a minimum price for vodka. A ban on advertising booze on television, print, radio, the internet, public transport and billboards also went into effect in July 2012.

All of these echo Gorbachev’s ultimately failed attempt to curb alcoholism in Russia at the tail end of the Soviet Union’s existence. Those moves ended up grievously impacting his popularity and led to countless Russians’ resorting to drinking perfume and rubbing alcohol as a substitute.

Will this government fare any better? It’s difficult to say. But as anyone who has spent time in Moscow or St. Petersburg will tell you, on many a morning Russian cityscapes show signs of public drunkenness: frozen pools of vomit and the occasional frozen drunk. (We have our own beloved Bowery here in New York, and San Francisco and other American cities have their share of street winos, but Russia can go toe to toe and then some with anything we’ve got.) But alcoholism takes a serious toll on more than just aesthetics; with Russian men living a full 17 fewer years than their Western European counterparts, the country’s demographics to say nothing of its family life are taking a hit that will affect generations yet unborn.

Published on January 7, 2013 12:00 pm