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Russia: Efforts Under Way To Confront Region's Rate Of Alcoholism (Part 3)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Alcoholism is an endemic problem throughout Russia. Perhaps nowhere is it felt as strongly as among the indigenous populations of Siberia, including the Evenk Autonomous Okrug. In the third and final part of a series on Evenkia, RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele looks at the impact alcohol is having there at a time when the large oil company Yukos is launching a massive investment project in one of Russia's poorest and least-developed regions.

Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A shocked Moscow-based oil industry executive remarked after a recent visit to Evenkia that "even the dogs drink up there." Hard alcohol is ever present in this poverty-stricken region of taiga that stretches over an area bigger even than Ukraine but with a population smaller than tiny Liechtenstein.

Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, is currently considering a bill that seeks to limit alcohol sales to the indigenous peoples of Russia's northern regions, including the Evenks, Yakuts, Koryaks, and Nentsi. It would bar alcohol sales altogether during the hunting and fishing seasons and during reindeer calving, roundups, and migration.

Some lawmakers and newspapers allege the bill violates the clause in Russia's Constitution on the equality of all Russian citizens. The Moscow daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda" recently asked whether Siberian bars in the future will have to post signs like "Vodka only for Russians" or "No entry for Yakuts and Evenks." Some local authorities are concerned the bill could lead to a resurgence in household production of "samogon," or moonshine.

Russia's Academy of Medical Sciences has issued a study saying the death rate due to alcoholism is 16 times higher among northern indigenous peoples than the Russian average. It warned that if the current situation continues for the next 15 years, the native population will shrink by two-thirds as a result of alcohol-related deaths.

Pavlina Brzakova is a Czech anthropologist who has made seven expeditions to Evenkia over the past decade to study the region's last shamans and nomads. She also has witnessed the region's socioeconomic collapse, due in part to alcohol.

"As far as alcohol is concerned, there have been attempts [in Evenkia such as] a so-called 'dry law' according to which vodka was rationed when people returned from the hunt at the end of the hunting season or when they returned from the taiga, they were allowed to buy one bottle. Of course, that's not enough," Brzakova says. "So in every village there is a sort of middleman from whom it's possible to get not only vodka but also 95 percent alcohol, which is in the greatest demand because one can buy a small amount and dilute it with water as needed, and one's mood is quickly affected. They tend to get in the 'mood' quickly and maintain that state for several months."

As a result, Russia's second-largest oil company, Yukos, which is building a pipeline to pump oil from under the Evenk tundra, says it is bringing in workers and managers from western Russia rather than rely on the local population.

Brzakova says she believes the bill before the Federation Council would merely lead to an illicit trade in alcohol and force native peoples to resort to drinking cleaning fluids, perfume, and gasoline. She predicts that if the bill becomes law and does discriminate against native peoples, it will inevitably strengthen existing nationalist, anti-Russian feelings.

Brzakova says alcoholism in Evenkia has made her ability to work as an anthropologist difficult: "For me as an ethnographer, it's very difficult. If I want to get out to some nomads and have the luck to catch a ride on a helicopter, relatives of those out in the taiga send the best they can, since the helicopters don't fly out there all that often. So they send along some food supplies and a crate of vodka. Then for the next two weeks I have to deal with their being drunk and forgetting who I am. Then we have to get acquainted all over again."

Brzakova says a positive aspect of the economic decline that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union is that people can't afford to drink as much as they used to.

"As the economic situation has worsened, there is less vodka to go around. So if I decline [their invitation to drink with them], they are only too happy. Back in 1991, and even in 1993, when vodka was a lot more available, I had to face perhaps worse problems than I do now," Brzakova says. "But recently, it has been difficult for me to record anything [as an anthropologist], as there are days when there is no one [who is sober] at all to speak with. I have to avoid them to keep from getting involved in bigger problems."

Brzakova says many native women and children also drink heavily. She notes that special boarding schools have been built for mentally handicapped children who are primarily the children of alcoholics. Their parents are unable to care for them.

Brzakova says drinking in Evenkia is a ritual, like almost anywhere else, but that it can often get out of hand: "They always proceed in the same way. They start to get drunk. First, it's just for fun. Then they start to attack each other -- 'You're insulting me' [or] 'You insulted my mother.' They just provoke an argument, and usually they start shooting and it ends badly. If any women are around, it is they who'll hide the guns and knives. This always repeats itself there. Murders and suicides are almost an everyday occurrence."

Sergei Kolesnikov is the founding president of the Irkutsk-based East Siberian Scientific Center of Russia's Academy of Medical Science. Kolesnikov has written that indigenous Siberian peoples have "a decreased ability to detoxify the liver, hence the quick development of alcoholism in this population."

Polina Borisenkova, a sociologist in Moscow who is part Evenk, subscribes to this view also. "This problem [of alcoholism in Evenkia] has always been known. It's simply genetic," Borisenkova says. "These people don't have the enzymes to break down alcohol. It's a fact, written in the scientific literature."

Research in the U.S and Asia has concluded that as a result of a genetic variation, nearly half of East Asians have only one liver enzyme to metabolize alcohol, rather than two enzymes as in populations in other parts of the world.

However, David Anderson, a Canadian lecturer in anthropology at Scotland's Aberdeen University and a frequent visitor to Evenkia, insists the causes of alcoholism among the Evenks are socioeconomic.

Anderson explains that, because of the shortage of alcohol, "a lot, if not the majority, of the people in the community might in fact be drinking at one time" after a shipment arrives.

"This has led to the stereotype that Evenki people drink more than Russians or that they have a genetic intolerance for alcohol. Both stereotypes are untrue. They're viciously untrue, as a matter of fact," Anderson says. "There's absolutely no evidence to support a genetic difference, let alone an ethnically distinct reaction to such dire socioeconomic consequences. And I would put to you that if Russians or Canadians or Europeans were forced to live in similar conditions, they too would be driven to drink because of the dire hopelessness of the situation."

Anderson says one aspect that is apparently unique to the Evenks is their acceptance of what he terms "Russian folk models of the reasons for alcoholism."

"Most Evenki people would judge a drinker very harshly, especially if that drinker were a woman, and would see it as a collapse of moral character in that individual, rather than a disease brought upon by a bad situation," Anderson says. "Many Evenki people will confirm that they have a genetic disability to process alcohol and a genetic weakness, which of course is unfounded and untrue. But that contributes to their feeling of powerlessness."

The Canadian anthropologist says while there is not much difference between Evenki alcoholism and alcoholism in other parts of the world, "rural indigenous people are some of the most disempowered peoples in any part of the world, whether it is Australia, Canada, or Siberia."

"[Alcoholism] really has more to do with the history of those communities and how industrial forms of structured exploitation affect these communities, removing their autonomy and ability to build lives as they want to, leaving them with a sense of hopelessness. So you get this terrible cycle where people aren't able to help themselves, and then they end up in this sort of remorseless cycle of drinking, which then leaves them less able to help themselves."

Anderson says one of the most dramatic effects of the fall of the Soviet Union was the "complete systemic collapse" of Evenkia's health system. Basic health needs were not being met in villages or even major settlements.

When people had to fly hundreds of kilometers just to visit a dentist, many simply decided to move elsewhere. During the 1990s, at least half the population of Evenkia's two biggest settlements, Tura and Vanavara, moved away for good.

Unemployment soared. Today, only two or three Evenks out of several hundred inhabitants in many rural communities are employed. Anderson and Brzakova say the rest have no incomes or even subsidies to buy what they need to feed their families -- be it bullets for hunting or fishing nets. Anderson says that, as a result, "people are left in a desperate state of psychological collapse.

The Canadian anthropologist notes that under Soviet rule, Evenkia had several highly educated doctors who were working in central hospitals and outlying regions. "Within 10 years, you saw a change in conditions from that of a modernizing industrialized country to one of the Third World. It's not even a change within a lifetime. It's a change just within a small fraction of a generation. Within a short period of time, basically from 1991, the life expectancy of an indigenous person in an Evenki rural village dropped from 50 to 42 [years]."

Anderson says the incidence of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, which had been virtually eliminated during the Soviet period, by 1999 reached epidemic proportions, infecting between 10 and 30 percent of Evenkia's population. And the toll from alcohol abuse increased, as well: "Perhaps most tragically, the rate of violent deaths due to alcohol -- that is, violent deaths due to exposure or to violence -- was almost four times the rate of natural deaths."

Help has come from a part of the world with similar terrain and similar experiences with alcohol abuse among the indigenous population -- northern Canada.

Anderson was a project manager on a recently concluded two-year Canadian-Evenk program on rural health, sponsored by the Circumpolar Institute of the University of Alberta. He says the project found that some of the ideas that aboriginal peoples are using in Australia and Canada to cure themselves of alcoholism had never been voiced at all in Evenkia, such as the ability to use traditional religion or culture to build up a sense of self-respect, and to use people within the community to police bootlegging and other illegal sales of alcohol.

Anderson notes that when a group of Evenki health workers visited villages in the Canadian Arctic, they witnessed traditional initiatives that local people were taking to improve health and fight alcoholism in their communities. These included sweat-lodge ceremonies used to build up spiritual strength and cure alcoholism.

Anderson says this awakened memories in the minds of the visiting Evenki medical practitioners. Before they went to Canada, all of these people were "very modern, clinical types of medical workers who would dress in medical outfits and who would keep a very Western-looking nurse's office within their community."

"And when they came back, they would invite older people to come in and do certain Evenki rites such as -- Evenki people also have a spiritual smoking rite where they burn bits of wild reindeer fat over hot coals in order to feed spirits and in order to strengthen and clean the environment in which they are working," Anderson says.