What About Alcohol?

Lenin-and-Friend-225x300Are All Russians Alcoholics?


The question is of course rhetorical and no doubt, insulting to the majority of Russian people. Of course not all Russians are alcoholics, certainly not even a majority. But, the question, and problem of alcohol is an issue here. The average life expectancy for a male Russian is about 59 years old. Fully 18 years less than his American counterpart and one of the major contributing factors to this statistic is alcoholism. This doesn’t mean that you won’t see any 60 year old men on the streets of Russia, just proportionately less than in other western countries.

Why is this?

How would I know? I’m not Russian. It seems that the further north a country is located that the larger the problem with alcohol is, but I think a lot of it is cultural.
When the first rulers of Russia were shopping around for an official religion, they chose Orthodoxy because this religion allowed the consumption of alcohol.
During my business day, I see no sign of this problem, but as I walk the streets of the city and my neighborhood, it becomes apparent.
In the States I walk into a drugstore and buy rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol). Every home has a bottle of this in their medicine cabinet. Here in Russia, you need a prescription from a doctor to get this. This is because in order to save money, many alcoholics here drink this stuff and of course eventually die from this. Happy is the alcoholic that knows someone who works at an airport because he will have an endless supply of the alcohol that is used to de-ice planes during the winter. I kid you not, this is true. In addition, cheap cologne sold at kiosks is also consumed for a cheap buzz. The government here has recently, in the past few years, started to closely regulate these “cheap high” substances. Imagine what a pain in the neck this is for the average “non-isopropyl alcohol guzzling” person.


One might say that this may just be a transitional problem with the change from socialism to capitalism, but they are not entirely right.
I work with a lot of young people here at local universities and also at a large private language school. I find that in terms of young Russians, I’m more than likely exposed to the “cream of the crop”. As I walk the streets I see something different quite frequently. Here, beer and wine are not really considered “alcoholic drinks”. Although against the law, it’s not unusual to see a 13 year old buying beer at a kiosk and drinking it as he is walking. This is as often a young girl as it is a young boy. The problem isn’t with the law here, but rather enforcement of the existing laws.
Russia is one of the largest growth markets in the world in terms of beer consumption. This bodes ill for the next generation of young Russians. In spite of their belief; beer and wine are alcoholic beverages.
My point, up to now is that alcohol is a problem here; at least from my perspective and also the perspective of statistics.
What About Drinking Amongst “Non-Alcoholics”?

By far, the vast majority of drinking falls into this category, and here I hope to give you some interesting pointers that may help you out.
Typically, when a Russian invites you to their home, or to some sort of party, you can expect to do some drinking and I’m happy to say, this will not be cologne. The national drink here is of course vodka, and you should be warned that what you will be drinking is much better and smoother than what you have been used to drinking in the west. In addition, in my six years here, I’ve never yet seen a Russian mix their vodka with orange juice or for that matter anything. Vodka here is consumed straight. It’s good enough so that it needs nothing else.
The following is some “drinking etiquette”:

Almost any Russian party or gathering involves all of those present to be sitting around a large table. None of this “wandering around cocktail party” stuff for Russians. Your glass, of whatever you are drinking, will always be magically full.
The first thing you should know is that by nature, Russians are great at offering toasts. I don’t know whether or not this is taught at school, or is simply genetic, but they are truly and seriously talented in this respect.
Do not drink from your glass until a toast is given. Being an American, I’ve messed up with this on many occasions because the toast, or lack thereof, does not play such a big role in our gatherings. Well, it’s not as if someone asked me to leave when I did this, but it does make you look a bit uncouth.
Russians are by and large very civilized drinkers. They understand that one must eat while they drink so as not to get too drunk, too fast. So, the table will be spread with various very delicious appetizers (in Russian; zakuzky), which you will eat after each “shot” of vodka. Well, not only after, but whenever the fancy strikes you. In a Russian home you should eat plenty because this shows that you like it.
Before the evening starts, you should decide what your goal is; to get really wasted, a little “happy”, something in between or else abstain completely from alcohol. This is important to know because it will affect the way you drink.
Remember earlier I mentioned the glass that “magically” remains full? This is because your host is making sure that you are not wanting for anything. If your goal is to get wasted, don’t worry; just keep emptying that glass at each toast. There will be enough toasts that you will obtain your goal. If you don’t want to get to drunk; don’t empty your glass at each toast. Your host will fill an empty glass; not one that is half empty. If you don’t care to drink at all; have your glass filled with juice (there is always juice present), but you should raise your glass and drink from it at each toast.
On the clinking of glasses after the toast; you should try to clink your glass with all of those present. This sometimes calls for a long reach, but to do otherwise might appear rude. The exception to the “clinking” rule is: if people are gathered to mark the death or anniversary of a death; don’t clink glasses.
You know, if you don’t mind getting a bit drunk, you’ll more than likely have a really good time at a Russian gathering. Russians like to sing and dance and sometimes it takes a little “alcohol lubrication” for a westerner to become uninhibited enough to really have a good time.
When the party is over, Russian are good hosts in the respect that they won’t just turn loose a drunken guest to their own devices on the street. If you fall into this condition, your host will typically walk you to the street and make sure that you make it into a taxi with the proper delivery instructions being given to the cab driver. If you are having trouble standing; the host, or someone from the party, will actually deliver you right to your door.
Before I came to live in Russia I felt it necessary to practice drinking straight vodka so that I wouldn’t look like a wimp when I got here. I practiced with my brother and what we used was some really crappy vodka, made in New Hampshire and priced at $9 for a 1.5 liter bottle. By the time I got to Russia I was pretty proficient and pleasantly surprised at how smooth the vodka was here. Believe me; what we drink in America in terms of imported Russian vodka; usually Stolichnaya brand vodka, is not by a long shot a true premium Russian Vodka. They keep the best stuff here.

Well, I hope that I’ve shed some light on the subject of alcohol in Russia. I’ve really only scratched the surface, but hope that it’s enough of a base to start your understanding in the right direction.

8 thoughts on “What About Alcohol?

  1. First shed some light on subject of alcohol in USA . Than go to other country. You have more drinking people in your country than in russia.

    • Well, we also have twice as many people in our country and even at that, I doubt that we have more drinking people. Russia ranks #4 in the world in alcohol consumption as opposed to the USA at #57, with the average Russian drinking nearly twice as much alcohol as the average American. Rather than just spout B.S. non-facts like you, I’ll cite my info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_alcohol_consumption and the same info can be found many other places. In this case the info comes from the World Health Organization.
      The name of the blog is, “An American in Russia”, not “An American in America”, so why would I be speaking about America here?

  2. Thanks very much for writing this. I was wondering if you have any information for non-alcoholics? I hear lots of different things. Some go there and just drink (but hate it), some don’t drink alcohol at all, some moderate.

    I ask because I will be spending about 6 months in Russia and I don’t wish to appear unfriendly.

    • Hi Nick,

      I would just recommend that you don’t drink if you don’t want to. You can still participate in the toasts (important), but drink juice instead. If you are worried about offending someone, just tell them that you have an allergy to alcohol. There may be times that you’ll want to drink, just remember that you can always switch back to juice after a few shots. Shots are what you’ll drink also, typically vodka and sometimes brandy.

        • Hello Your right to drink or not to drink, no one is forcing you by force. Can only persuade a friendly, do not give it. This is not a problem, we have a lot of non-drinking). Просто вежливо откажите, оскорбление вы не нанесете)

  3. I am czech and enjoying quite a few business trips in Russia, I must say, this post is 100% true 🙂 also I would like to emphisize the smoothness of vodka in Russia, it is an absolutely different drink from what is called vodka in the rest of the world

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