Saturday, January 9, 2010

In Moscow, Alcoholics Anonymous Begins To Raise The Curtain

NY Times

As they settled into chairs in a dingy room on the city's eastern outskirts, the leader pounded on the table and brought the group to order with words that remain extraordinary in this country.

"My name is Vera," she said, "and I am an alcoholic."

More than half a century after being founded in the United States, and seven years after its tentative introduction here, Alcoholics Anonymous is slowly taking root in Russia, a country whose alcohol problem is seen by health experts as among the worst in the world.

"The state doesn't support us, and there are still very few doctors who work with us," said Vera, who spoke about her involvement in the groupon the condition that only her first name be used. "There's still relatively little information available even among specialists about alcoholism. But we can provide what official treatments never have, which is to help alcoholics learn to live as healthy people."

When the first group was formed here in 1987, a newspaper article suggested it was a C.I.A. front. The paranoia has faded, and there are now 70 A.A. groups meeting regularly across Russia and Ukraine, the movement's organizers said. But it is still very much a novelty in Russia.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the nation's best-known teetotaler, ran a temperance campaign while he was leader of the Soviet Union. It failed. Recent tax increases on vodka have had little effect but to drive drinkers to moonshine, chemicals and any other substances containing alcohol, causing the rate of death from alcohol poisoning to double in the last two years.

Traditional treatment for alcoholism has been the police drunk tank or medical "cures" of dubious value. Public debate about the drinking habits of President Boris N. Yeltsin has given the issue increased visibility -- "Your fondness for liquor is a secret only to yourself," one newspaper columnist wrote this week in an open letter to Mr. Yeltsin -- but counselors said that even private acknowledgment of alcoholism, much less a public pronouncement, remains anathema to most Russians.

Nonetheless, on this night, the cross-section of Muscovites attending the open A.A. meeting in the basement of an apartment building in the Novogireyevo neighborhood welcomed one another warmly, and one by one, gave their first names and identified themselves as alcoholics.

The group's 35 members ranged from teen-age girls to retired men, from entrepreneurs in sharp clothes to down-and-outers. Some said they had been sent by clinics. Others said they had heard of A.A. on the radio or in newspaper articles. Some said they were sober. Some were clearly drunk.

Sasha said he had been having a bad day, and provoked howls of sympathetic laughter when he said it had been made much worse by the recent plunge in the value of the ruble. Andrei talked about having been invited out by some old school friends, and of his relief at not being able to go, since they never would have understood his desire not to drink.

Nikolai, swaying, reeking of alcohol and with an open cut on his forehead, stood up and boasted that he had been sober for two months. The group hooted and told him to sit down.

Igor said that his sister and brother-in-law had asked him to leave the room they were providing him, and that he feared ending up sleeping on the street again in the rain and the mud.

"I feel I need a drink," he said. "I want a drink. But coming here I feel much better."

The movement's organizers in Russia said A.A. had been introduced into the country by representatives from the United States and Europe who came here in the mid-1980's, during Mr. Gorbachev's unsuccessful anti-alcohol campaign, to talk with doctors, the police, substance-abuse counselors and hospitals.

The group seems to be most appreciated by those members who are old enough to have been alcoholics under Communist rule.

Felix, who works at a research institute, said he was officially registered by the authorities as an alcoholic during the Brezhnev era. His name was kept on a list by the local police. Occasionally he would have to go to a hospital, where he was given injections or pills that were supposed to keep him from drinking.

"I was controlled only by fear," Felix said. "Now, coming here to A.A., I feel no fear at all. This way is much better."

But even among the younger members, the group appears to be meeting a need that neither the Government nor the medical establishment has addressed.

Igor, who discussed his fear of being thrown out by his sister and brother-in-law, said he started drinking 18 years ago, when he was 12. He was in and out of jail for years on robbery charges -- he said alcohol and drugs were easy to get in prison -- before deciding a few years ago to go straight.

"I got rid of my criminal connections," Igor said. "Somehow alcohol was harder."

After bouncing in and out of drunk tanks and hospitals, he was sent to alcoholics anonymous. six months ago by a counselor.

"It completely changed my life," Igor said. "The first time I came here, I'd been drunk for two months. I didn't understand much at that time, but I felt the warmth radiating from these people."

"Here I can tell these people my problems," he said. "Problems that I tried to talk about in the past to people who wouldn't listen." (Gleb Kosorukov for The New York Times)

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