These observations on Russian drinking were made in the early 1990s and have been adapted from my book on living in provincial Russia, 'Little Tenement on the Volga'.
Much has been said about Russian drinking habits. In the 17th century a Croatian priest wrote, “What can be said of our drunkenness? If you were to search the whole world over, nowhere could you find such a vile, repulsive and terrible drunkenness as exists here is Russia.
The priest was sent to Siberia for his remarks.
Nineteenth century European travellers in Russia commented upon the comatose figures lying outside every inn, sleeping off the effects of vodka. These days [this was written in the early 90s] there are fewer restaurants and hotels than in Tsarist times, so the sleeping bodies are distributed all over town, in bus shelters, entranceways and courtyards. As a friend wryly observed, ‘You have a lot of pubs, and we have a lot of streets.’
Drunks congregate at railway stations, private kiosks that line the main street and little beer stands called pivnushki. There was a pivnushka at the end of my street which attracted a constant stream of shabby figures clutching three-litre pickle jars. As they left I used to fear they would never make it across the road. Swaying dangerously at the kerbside, they stared ahead with the eyes of crazed fish. Sometimes an unsteady couple would link hands and tenderly help each other across the tram tracks.
Some people preferred cheaper and stronger intoxicants such as furniture polish and window cleaner. The department stores were full of old ladies blowing their pensions on perfumes; in the evenings they displayed their little bottles on upturned crates in the streets. The favourite brand amongst connoisseurs was cucumber face lotion – drunk neat.
In 1986 the militia had to be called to quell a threatened riot in the city’s largest store. Staff had limited sales of eau de Cologne to two bottles per customer.
In 1994 dozens of people in the neighbouring town of Syzran dropped dead from alcohol poisoning. They had waylaid a goods train and broken into a wagon of industrial alcohol. To my mind this was desperation on a par with 18th century London when Gordon rioters fell dead as they drank the gin coursing through the gutters of Holborn.
But who was I to judge? I could afford vodka.
On 5 April, Caroline will be giving a talk at Pushkin House about her experience of co-writing another of her books ‘Smashed in the USSR’ with Ivan Petrov, a vagrant and drunk in late Soviet times, who was practiced in the art of mixing cocktails of glue, petrol and eau de cologne to achieve his alcoholic fix. This searing memoir is a terrifying picture of surviving on the margins of Soviet society, and the affliction of alcoholism on the nation. This talk is part of our season of events accompanying our exhibition: 'Alcohol: Soviet anti-alcohol posters.' (23 March-13 April).