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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #86

A temperance movement has emerged in Ukraine, particularly amongst the country's women. This is not uncommon; temperance movements in the early twentieth century in both the United Kingdom and in the United States were also led disproportionately by women. In wartime Ukraine, I have seen evidence of a renewed temperance movement as the social evils caused by alcohol have become increasingly widely recognised across the country and an active stigma has become associated with being drunk.

I will give a few examples both of the problem and of the stigma now increasingly associated with the consumption of alcohol. I have heard a number of people comment that in Ukraine it is socially acceptable to drink alcohol at any time of the day, including one colleague who told me that it is fine to drink from about 10am onwards. Most of this drinking seems to go on behind closed doors. Save in Lviv, where a lot of students and foreigners congregate, I have not seen anything that might be described as a bar as full of people. Ukraine is full of bars; every city seems jam packed with them. But since the beginning of the war, at least, they are mostly empty and this is not just a matter of the curfew. It is most probably linked to the fact that people have far less disposable income.

Alcohol is extremely cheap in Ukraine. In those simple bars that do exist, half a litre of beer may cost one Euro or less. (In places frequented by foreigners, prices may be higher.) Locally produced vodka may be virtually free if you are drinking something else in the bar at the same time (for example coffee or beer). In a supermarket, a bottle of vodka may cost as little as 2 Euros. There are of course expensive bars but they are empty; supermarkets sell expensive foreign spirits but nobody is buying them. People are buying and drinking very cheap alcohol and in many cases it is cheaper than food.

Some shocking statistics exist. Ukrainians drink, it is estimated, approximately 10.5 litres of pure alcohol per year. This is the highest in Europe. The National Institute of Health, in a US federal government agency responsible for public health research, has published a paper reaching the following conclusions:

According to estimates, the average annual recorded consumption of the equivalent of pure alcohol per capita among the population aged 15 and over is about 5 litres; however, unrecorded per capita alcohol consumption for this population is double that figure (10.5 litres) and is the highest among European countries …; the overall alcohol consumption in Ukraine ranks among the top 5% of all countries globally … The preferred beverage in Ukraine is spirits. The Ukraine 2002 World Mental Health Survey revealed that ‘lifetime alcohol use’ was reported by 97% of the respondents … That was the highest consumption in the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Survey of 17 countries … more than 39% of young adults in Ukraine have started to drink by age 15 and almost all (99%) by age 21. One out of every three men and one out of every 12 women consume alcohol heavily (for men, over 80 g of ethanol in a typical drinking day, or either over 60 g every 3–4 days per week or over 40 g nearly every day; for women, these dose criteria were reduced by 25%) (Webb et al, 2005). Over 90% of the male heavy alcohol users had consumed at least 80 g of ethanol in one day at least once per month in the past year.

About one-third of the Ukrainian population has experienced at least one mental disorder in their lifetime … About one person in six (17.6%) has experienced an episode in the past year, and 10.6% are diagnosed with a current disorder … There is no gender difference in the overall prevalence rates, but the prevalence of individual diagnoses varies markedly by gender. The most common lifetime diagnoses among men are alcohol-related disorders (26.5%). These comprise alcohol misuse without dependence (19.7%) and alcohol misuse with dependence (6.7%). In contrast, women more commonly experience mood disorders (20.8%) and anxiety disorders (7.9%) …

Amidst these truly shocking statistics, it is no surprise that Ukraine has an alcohol problem or a temperance movement. It is common to see people obviously drunk wondering around the streets in the middle of the day in both major conurbations and smaller settlements. Drunk people can be aggressive, and it is normal to witness violent or potentially violent incidents involving alcohol (as I did last night). I understand that domestic violence is a significant problem in Ukraine, although I have not researched the issue. I imagine that high rates of domestic violence in Ukraine may be associated with alcohol use in the home.

The curfews imposed across the countries may have helped the problem. But in part it may just have driven people indoors to drink alcohol, and in part it may have caused them to start drinking during the day. I have experienced drunk, aggressive people approach me during the day in the street and also in shopping malls, as well as in bars and restaurants. These incidents have not in any cases ended up in violence but they have involved several threats of violence, including one that I experienced last night in the bar of a relatively decent hotel by wartime Ukrainian standards. Some of the people acting abusively under the influence of alcohol are male but not all of them. As the National Institute of Health observes, alcoholism is also prevalent amongst Ukrainian women and I have experienced aggressive behaviour on the part of women as well who have appeared to be intoxicated. I have also experienced widespread drunkenness, both in professional contexts and outside work, on the part of foreigners present in Ukraine. In Ukraine, a clear distinction does not seem to exist - which is a strong social taboo in my country - between drinking during working hours and drinking after work. The idea of having a “boozy lunch” and then going back to work in the afternoon is something that disappeared in my country’s culture in the 1980’s.

This may explain why the Police are so very strict about drink driving. There is a zero tolerance policy. The Ukrainian roads remain the most dangerous places in Ukraine, even during war, and the risk is not of one’s car being blown up by military fire but instead of a car accident caused by a person driving under the influence of alcohol. This may also explain why some city centres have a heavy police presence, in particular during the evening and close to curfew: to deter alcoholics and to ensure they get home without breaching the peace. Controlling alcohol use and its adverse effects seems to absorb a significant part of the work of the Ukrainian Police.

Supermarkets will now not sell alcohol before Midday or after 9pm, and that may be an attempt to restrict anti-social drinking hours. You cannot bribe the Police or courts if you are caught drink driving. If the Police smell alcohol in the car, they will breathalyse the driver and if they are found to have been drinking then the full force of law will be applied without exception. Severe bans will be applied. Drink driving turns out to be one of the most serious crimes that is enforced in wartime Ukraine, and I can see why, having watched a lot of the driving in Ukraine and concluded that a number of drivers may be drunk behind the wheel.

Alcohol is totally unavailable in what are sometimes called the “red zones”, i.e. the areas in close proximity to the front line which are occupied predominantly by the military, as I have discovered and as regular readers of my diaries will be aware. The fear is that Ukrainian soldiers will not perform their duties on the front line because they are drunk all the time. On the Russian side of the front line, I have heard rumours that the conscripts have taken to eating boot polish because it has alcohol in it.

Alcohol consumption is clearly a major public health problem in Ukraine and I know that it was always a public health problem in Russia. The war may further encourage a culture of abstinence but of course what is really needed is temperance. Outright bans seldom work, because people find ways around them. Ukrainians should learn to enjoy alcohol responsibly, and not to become so slaughtered that they are unable to do their jobs or they are becoming a public nuisance. I enjoy having a beer or two, and I make it a pleasant evening ritual. I occasionally drink too much, but I make this a rare piece of fun and I do it only when I am in a good mood. By contrast, as Tolstoy said of the peasants, Ukrainians seem to drink to forget. When a person is in a dark mood, alcohol amplifies their demons and in the middle of a war, the Ukrainians have a lot of demons to emerge.

Psychiatric care is entirely wanting in contemporary Ukraine, but alcoholics do need psychiatric attention to overcome their addictions and the negative professional and personal consequences and public health dangers that the addiction can cause. Interestingly, Ukraine is very conservative about other recreational narcotics and I have received many questions from astonished and even horrified Ukrainians about the legalisation marijuana elsewhere in Europe and in North America, and about programmes to legalise other narcotics. I am not necessarily in favour of many of these programmes, but I do think there ought to be research and open debate about them. In Ukraine there is none. There is just the culture of the vodka bottle. Anything, surely, is better than that.

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