Our Friends in Russia are drowning; AA is Struggling to change their Culture

The norm usually looks likes this: Where there is a big drinking or drug problem, there is also a pretty decent sized recovery movement. However: this isn’t so everywhere. Russia’s dry, not of alcohol but of AA. And well, you would think Russia is a place where they need it most. Yet drinking in Russia, is the equivalent of drinking water. That coupled with a country where opening up can be a bit hard. AA just can’t get a foothold in the place.

Walk down the streets of Russia at one point in time, and you were bound to see a couple men, drunk and slippery holding 3 fingers in the air. Why? Well a bottle of vodka cost 3 rubles, and that meant if there were three of you, it was an easy, cheap share and split. The three fingers was a universal sign for investing in a bottle and a drunken day.

Today, vodka cost a bit more in Russia, but that doesn’t mean anyone has slowed down on their drinking. A 2011 report from the World Health Organization estimated that Russians were drinking an average of about 4 gallons of pure alcohol per year. To put that into perspective, that is 70% more than we Americans do. In 2009, the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that more than half of all Russians dying between the ages of 15 and 54 were dying from excessive drinking. And half the children in Russian orphanages suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. The alcohol problem in Russia is equivalent to the prescription/heroin problem in the states.

And all Russia’s leaders think to do is to make vodka harder to buy. But that has not worked. And nothing else really has either. Alcoholism has been declared a “national disaster.” And from our perspective the thing it looks like Russia is lacking is AA. They have no recovery movement built. In the United States, the recovery movement has become almost synonymous to AA. And the 80 year old movement has had a lot of success. But in Russia, AA is struggling to catch on. Only about 40 groups have formed throughout the entire country. Which is minuscule amount considering the size of the country, and absolutely nothing when compared to us here. There is twelve times that in just the Cincinnati area alone.

So why hasn’t AA caught on in Russia? Some of the reasons are medical, some of them are religious, some of them are cultural. The difficulties that AA has to deal with in Russia point to the fundamental idea that trying to transplant ideas across borders, may not always work. That some ideas are not as universal as we like to think.

So what is it really? Why not AA?

Well, Russians have a special relationship with their booze. We always laugh when we are told that the word “vodka” translates literally to “water.” And stuff like the recent news that Kremlin officials were only just getting around to formally recognizing beer as a form of alcohol. But it all just confirms an enduring and undying stereotype about Russian people: that they can, and do, drink in quantities that would startle people in most other nations. The roots of Russia’s special relationship with alcohol have been the subject of widespread speculation, with some chalking it up to genetic predisposition and others pointing to the supposedly essential melancholy of the Russian soul.

The Russian states official stance toward alcohol is lax at best. With a number of the country’s leaders trying to curb excessive drinking, they don’t attack the issue at the root. Svetlana Moseeva, who operates a free alcohol recovery center outside of St. Petersburg, compared her country’s record of dealing with alcoholism to that of a drunk man who decides one morning to kick his habit and finally dry out, only to pick it back up the next day. “They think, ‘OK, we did something, we put a check mark next to the problem, and now we can calm down,’” Moseeva said.

Oh and the Russian government is trying to keep the drinking culture in tact. Here is an example having to do with an 1859 uprising of peasants who decided to protest the state’s liquor taxes by going sober. A British journalist who witnessed the state’s crackdown on the teetotalers reported seeing peasants getting liquor “poured into their mouths through funnels” before being “hauled off to prison as rebels.”

A further obstacle to AA’s growth in Russia is something more philosophical: At a basic level, its premise of sobriety through mutual support just doesn’t make sense to a lot of Russians. In the past, this has taken the form of anti-Western suspicion—“What are the Americans trying to get out of this?” is a question Moseeva used to hear regularly. But more fundamentally, the group-therapy dynamic collides with a skepticism about the possibility of ordinary people curing each other of anything. “The idea that another drunk can help you is asinine to most Russians,” said Alexandre Laudet, a social psychologist who has researched Russian alcoholism.

Then there’s the problem of opening up to strangers.The AA method works in part through trust in people you’ve never met before, and coming clean to them about one’s most shameful secrets.“It is much harder for a Russian person to talk about himself than it is for an American,” said a Russian AA member named Mikhail. “And there are a lot of reasons why, including that the generation of my parents—and my own, I’m 55 and couldn’t speak the truth at all, because it was possible to get arrested for it.” Today, according to Moseeva, Russians are reluctant to admit in public they have a problem with alcohol because, while drinking is not considered shameful, doing it because you have some kind of psychological problem very much is.

Meanwhile, AA’s advocates note that the new Russia is still young. Less than 25 years ago, the country was ruled by a totalitarian regime, and its post-Soviet culture is still, in many ways, a work in progress.