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Gorbachev Says He Botched Soviet Anti-Booze Effort

  • RFE/RL's Russian Service

Mikhail Gorbachev speaks during the presentation of his new book After The Kremlin in a bookstore in Moscow in November 2014.

Mikhail Gorbachev speaks during the presentation of his new book After The Kremlin in a bookstore in Moscow in November 2014.

Many in the former Soviet Union remember lining up for vodka or struggling to find a stiff drink during Mikhail Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign in the 1980s.

Now, 30 years after the famously teetotaling leader launched the policy in one of his first major initiatives, he is telling them something many were sure of all along: It was flawed.

Gorbachev told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in an interview published on May 15 that "it was a mistake to implement the program as if hitting somebody in the head with an ax." He added that the five-year campaign should have been waged gradually and in accordance with a clear plan.

The sobriety campaign was officially launched on May 16, 1985, just two months after Gorbachev took over as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

It was a response to the rampant alcohol abuse that cost the Soviet economy billions in lost productivity and contributed to appallingly low life-expectancy rates.

The majority of liquor stores were shut down and the hours for alcohol sales were dramatically curbed at the remaining shops. The price of alcohol skyrocketed and sugar, a key ingredient to distill alcohol, disappeared from shop shelves.

Individuals who were caught drunk at work or in public were prosecuted. All schools, plants, universities, and other organizations were forced to establish so-called Sobriety Societies. Alcohol was completely banned at wedding parties. Many unique vineyards in the Caucasus, Moldova, Ukraine, and southern Russia were destroyed.

The policy was extremely unpopular, and in the end dealt a serious blow to the Soviet state budget, which lost the equivalent of tens of billions of U.S. dollars as alcohol production moved to the black-market economy.

In 1990, the campaign was officially abandoned.

Gorbachev told Komsomolskaya Pravda that the campaign's poor implementation was his personal mistake, but he said the guilt was shared by senior Soviet officials Yegor Ligachyov and Mikhail Solomentsev, who were responsible for the campaign's planning and rollout.

In a 2005 interview on the eve of the campaign's 20th anniversary, Gorbachev said of it that "such a great idea has been disgraced by mistakes."

In modern Russia, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 30 percent of deaths are linked to alcohol consumption. Russia also has more alcoholic young people than any other country.

Meanwhile, the Russian government said earlier this year that the level of alcohol consumption and the number of deaths caused by alcohol were declining.

With reporting by Komsomolskaya Pravda
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