Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine are driving his fellow Russians to alcohol addiction.
The number of people with alcohol addiction and alcoholic psychoses has started to grow in Russia – for the first time in 10 years – as the war nears the start of its third year.
Face unshaven, nose and cheeks rosy red, clutching a bottle of vodka or homemade hooch, and mumbling ‘Na Zdorovie‘ – this has been the stereotype of Russian men abroad for many years.
People there already consumed more than citizens of most other countries, but Russia had been sobering up since the early 2000s – until now.
Under former president Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin had repeatedly tried to fix the nation’s alcohol issues.
Alcohol-control measures were introduced, including a ban on street drinking and advertising restrictions – and they were largely successful until the war.
Rosstat recorded that in 2022, more than 54,000 patients were newly diagnosed with alcohol dependence, an increase from 53,000 the year before.
A survey conducted by the Scientific Research Institute of the Family, 29% of people responding to the question “Why are children beaten in families with which you are acquainted?” reported that drunks and alcoholics carried out the violence.
Experts attribute this rollback to the Covid pandemic, socio-economic upheavals and ‘intensifying geopolitical confrontations’.
‘There is nothing to be surprised at here,’ Svetlana Gordeeva, associate professor of the Department of Sociology at Perm University, told Sibreal.
‘Alcohol consumption increases during any crisis, be it a pandemic or another global economic crisis, and at the same time the number of alcoholic psychoses increases.’
Putin’s masculinity agenda and Domestic violence
Because traditional values emphasize clear gender roles for men and women, perhaps the more subtle way in which Putin’s emphasis on traditional values has enabled the rise in domestic violence is through his use of masculinity. Putin’s use of masculinity, a subset of these traditional values, models a dangerous and violent type of masculinity to a receptive Russian male audience.
Liberalization in the mid-1980s under Gorbachev’s perestroika gave life to the nascent women’s rights movement in Russia. Between 1993 and 1997, the first 14 crisis centres for women appeared in Russia, distributing literature and providing safe locations to those facing violence. By 1996, an estimated 400 civil society groups were focused on advancing women’s rights. Economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union thrust many Russian women into the workforce to make up for declining incomes as their husbands lost work.
Consequently, many households no longer had a man as the primary breadwinner, a phenomenon that scholars now believe may have emasculated millions of Russian men as their status parallelled that of their country. The wounded masculinity of these men led to a swift change in state policy regarding women: what limited talk of equality existed was replaced by the language of “protection.” Under a 1996 labor law, women were prevented from working in “dangerous” jobs out of caution for women’s health, particularly their reproductive health. Consequently, women were formally taken out of running for certain jobs, putting men in a position to become the breadwinner again.
As Putin rose to power, he capitalized on this emasculation of the country and adopted a more masculine, physical, and even sexual public persona. Much like how the downfall of Russian masculinity mirrored the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s masculinity became emblematic of the resurgence of Russian power. At political rallies, he played songs like “A Man Like Putin,” in which a young pop band sings about how they want to date a man like Putin. He has also insulted the masculinity of his opponents by comparing them to women and commissioned shirtless pictures of himself riding horses and fishing in the Russian taiga.
Putin’s shirtless expressions of masculinity would be comical if they were not so damaging. A robust body of social research suggests that domestic violence is highly correlated with harmful or “toxic” masculinity, an attitude characterized by male, physical domination and its emphasis on traditional gender roles. Putin’s toxic masculinity has, whether intentionally or not, condoned violence against women. In 2006, after Israel’s President, Moshe Katsav, was accused of rape by 10 women, Putin remarked that Katsav was a “mighty man” and that “we all envy him.” More recently, Putin partially quoted a lyric from Soviet-era punk rock band Red Mold about rape in criticizing Ukrainian President Vlodomir Zelenskyy. It is perhaps little surprise that feminism has not flourished in an environment laden with victim-blaming, rape jokes, and hypermasculine politicians.
Today, Putin is often seen as the pinnacle of manliness in Russia, which is why his vulgar, dismissive comments about women’s bodies may be particularly dangerous. More than 44 percent of Russians named Putin when asked to name a “real man.” Importantly, there is no sign Putin will stop his approach anytime soon, as his hypermasculinity has been hugely beneficial to his political strategy. Professor Valerie Sperling of Clark University attributes Putin’s political victories to his unique position in politics, noting that even as early as 2004, the voters either liked Putin and saw him as capable, or simply could not imagine anyone other than him occupying the position and handling its demands as well as Putin had “because of his monopoly on masculinity.” She adds that Putin’s image of masculinity had served to reinforce this idea so well that even by 2015 “Putin was painted as the only possible leader for Russia.” As of November 2017, when Russian survey participants were asked what they liked about Putin, 19 percent of Russians offered up the fact that Putin was a “real man,” “manly,” or similar phrases. As long as Putin, who seems to define what it means to be a man in Russia, implicitly or explicitly condones violence against women, a major cultural shift is unlikely.
Public health issues
Alcohol consumption, particularly at hazardous drinking levels, is highly prevalent in Russia. The estimates based on 2001-2023 data revealed that, on average, each Russian aged 15 years and older consumed 15.2 L of pure ethanol alcohol per year, among the highest rates in the world.
Another study conducted in a western city of Russia between 1999-2023 showed that 75% of male and 47% of female workers were classified as misusing alcohol according to the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) criteria.
Alcohol misuse causes serious public health problems in Russia. It has been reported that more than half of all deaths at ages 15-54 years in Russia were alcohol-related during the period from 1990 to 2023.
The consequences of war
A narcologist who wishes to remain anonymous said Putin’s war has also made a huge contribution to the increase in alcohol consumption.
‘When mobilisation was announced, the sharpest increase in the number of alcoholic psychoses was observed in those places where those mobilised were kept for three to six months while waiting to be sent to the front,’ he said.
‘Relatives of those who were mobilised came to me and told me that vodka was brought there in boxes, no one controlled the sale, and people drank themselves into psychosis there.
‘I don’t think that these cases were reflected in official statistics, but it cannot be ruled out that they were found.
‘If this is so, then we probably received about a thousand new cases from these mobilised camps.’
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