MOSCOW -- Local officials across Russia are struggling to identify and implement the necessary measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. In addition to stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and other limitations, many regions have introduced or are considering restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
However, even the federal government seems to be of two minds on the issue, which is a sensitive matter for many Russians. Older citizens remember one of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's least popular reforms: a botched sobriety campaign that drastically curbed alcohol sales in the 1980s.
"When a person is in isolation, they still have a normal need to do things, to work, and that need can be replaced by alcohol," Yevgeny Bryun, an addiction consultant for the Health Ministry, told RFE/RL. "People experience anxiety and depression and some people may turn to alcohol. That is why measures to restrict alcohol are completely justified: Any restriction in sales will lead to a reduction in consumption."
On the other hand, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has issued a document urging regions not to restrict alcohol sales beyond existing federal norms "unless absolutely necessary."
"Additional restrictions could lead to a growth in the illegal production of alcohol and its sale, as well as to an increase in social tensions," the April 3 document says.
Federal law restricts the sale of alcohol to the period from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Regions, however, are free to introduce sharper restrictions. In Muslim-majority Chechnya, for instance, even before the coronavirus crisis alcohol was legally available at only one store in Grozny, the capital, and only from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
As a result, local officials have been grasping for their own solutions. In Kurgan Oblast, officials have completely banned the sale of alcohol until at least May 10, a period that includes the May Day and May 9 Victory Day holidays. The Zabaikalye region initially also totally banned alcohol sales, but then backtracked and limited it to sales before 6 p.m. Sverdlovsk Oblast, Karelia, Khakasia, Bashkortostan, Tyva, Kemerovo Oblast, Sakha-Yakutia, and others all introduced sharply restricted hours for the sale of alcohol during the lockdown period.
"The purpose and goals of restrictions on the sale of alcohol are unclear to the public, as opposed to the purpose of the lockdown itself," said Aleksei Potylitsyn, a blogger from the capital of Khakasia, Abakan, in south-central Siberia. "Such orders merely make people angry and provoke grassroots sabotage."
"People buy legal alcohol by the case 'just in case,' and end up getting insanely drunk and consuming all their reserves way before they planned," he said.
A combination of government policies and demographic shifts have resulted in a sharp reduction in alcohol consumption in Russia over the last two decades. However, alcohol abuse remains a serious national problem and the country ranks among the world leaders in terms of alcohol-related deaths as a percentage of total deaths.
A resident of Chita, the administrative center of Zabaikalye in eastern Siberia, who asked to be identified only as Sergei said that alcohol sales increased markedly in his city when the stay-at-home orders were first issued.
"The ban came because at the beginning of the quarantine order…the police and hospitals in Chita were working like they would on New Year's Eve," he told RFE/RL. "There were a lot of alcohol-related injuries and car crashes. Before the ban [on alcohol sales], people were bringing cartloads of bottles home from the legal stores."
Since the sales ban was announced, Sergei said, it has had little effect.
"We are used to such restrictions since the sale of alcohol has long been restricted," he told RFE/RL. "But you can buy alcohol in stores that just ignore all restrictions. We don't have a problem with homemade alcohol because it is so easy to buy normal alcohol illegally."
Irina Kalderova, an entrepreneur in Chita, agreed, saying that "in Chita everyone knows where you can buy alcohol during the times when sales are banned."
"I don't think actual sales have been much reduced," Kalderova said. "It is just that they started selling off the books. On Instagram, it is easy to find offers for alcohol delivery, although you can't tell who is delivering or where they get the alcohol from."
Lines At Wine O'Clock
Ironically, she added, since the authorities banned alcohol sales after 6 p.m., "there are long lines at stores now every day starting from 5:30."
Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev justified his restriction on alcohol sales by saying his office had received numerous complaints about groups of people hanging around outside stores,drinking in the evenings.
"These violations of the self-isolation order, which is necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic, cannot fail to upset the residents of nearby buildings," Kuivashev wrote on Instagram
Denis Puzyrev, who runs a Telegram channel on Russia's alcohol market, told RFE/RL that, in other countries, alcohol producers are switching to the production of alcohol-based disinfectants, which are in great demand.
In Russia, he said, this is not happening because producers cannot secure the necessary government permits. Several producers who are in the process of applying have told Puzyrev they likely won't complete the process until the worst of the pandemic is over in Russia.
In Krasnoyarsk Krai, activists have collected more than 250 pages of signatures on a petition calling on the governor to rescind his restrictions on alcohol sales.
"Well-intentioned officials during a quarantine try to open up whatever possibilities they can and to lift restrictions," said local activist Kamal Lebedev. "They know that people are having a hard time and need to get by somehow. But for other officials, a quarantine is just an excuse to shut down everything and to make everything stricter."
However, Dmitry Kostyugin, press spokesman for the Krasnoyarsk Krai governor's office, told RFE/RL that the sales restrictions were adopted in response to a request from police. As a result, Kostyugin said, alcohol-related crimes in the vast territory fell by more than 60 percent in April compared to the same period last year. The number of citations given to people for consuming alcohol in public or for public drunkenness also fell dramatically, he said.
Many activists in Russia and other countries have warned that lockdown conditions could produce a spike in domestic violence. Anna Rivina, director of the Nasiliyu.net (No To Violence) nongovernmental organization, told RFE/RL that according to official figures about 40 percent of violent crimes in Russia occur within the family. However, she is skeptical that alcohol bans can do much to solve the problem.
"It is an illusion to think that all domestic violence is connected to alcohol," she said. "Bans won't produce the result we need – the important thing is the underlying culture."
Anyway, she said, "in our country, even the most sensible idea can be twisted into something unreasonable."