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The International Writers Magazine: RUSSIA

Beer for Breakfast: An Eye-Opener in Russia
• Jonathon Engels
There is no better declaration of freedom than rolling out of bed too late for a complimentary continental breakfast, putting on yesterday’s clothes, and hunkering down at a bar, the sun streaming in from odd angles as you hide behind a tall pint glass, the condensation dripping away like the day’s itinerary.


There is only that which ales and another round for afterwards. Few parts of traveling, few things a tour guide might bestow, can outdo the next-morning beer. Nothing, or so I once believed, could ever cheapen that experience. However, residential Moscow seems to wake-up and use beer as mouthwash, gurgling itself into the next blustery day. There is no need for beach cabanas or lazy cafes on the river. This city doesn’t need an occasion and lacks the students on break anyway. Moscow simply invites its citizens to walk bottle-in-hand through the streets, congregate in its parks for a drink, and set the latter half of the day off right: with an afternoon buzz.

I daily pass droves of drinkers littering ledges with empty cans and bottles, average folk akin to the twelve o’clock drop of dew. While the cliché tramp at the bus stop, the drunk huddled under the eaves of the metro station, is no different than anywhere else, here these characters seem more omnipresent and unrestrained by time than anywhere I’ve ever been. What’s more is businessmen and old-aged pensioners, women heading out on shopping trips, are opting for the noonday beer. In some sense, at least for me and my great Declaration of Freedom, after arriving in Moscow, it seemed the revolution was over: The daily life in Russia was making me look at things a little differently.

As a teacher of Russian teenagers, my insiders to the tough beats of this city, in my first month, students bombarded me with Russian stereotypes, anticipating pokes about bears on unicycles, borsch, and vodka. They hated the thought of a world believing them, their country, to be this way, and unbeknownst to me, both grounded in reality and in satirical representation, they had reason to worry. They were aware of their own country’s faults, and budding into their political consciousnesses, they were angst-y about them, ready to defend the truth: They aren’t alcoholics! I won’t say that the same students didn’t also pigeon-hole Americans (me) into couch potatoes with McDonald’s IVs, but they had some sense of the irony in what they were doing. Being from one of the world’s fattest (We aren’t first!), most consumptive, and arguably most aggressive nations on earth, I understood their pain. For the better part of seven years I’ve defended the good people of my country as the U.S. has mismanaged its junk food, gas-guzzling, unsanctioned wars, natural disasters, Wall Street protests, and world-collapsing economic crises. Together, we were able to laugh at the farcical realities of our countries and wince in regards to one another’s more serious complaints.

They see the same drunks I do every day, but it’s a part of life they’d rather not promote as ideally Russian. No place is perfect, after all, nor is an outsider’s perception of it. We all hate to be stereotyped, but sometimes there are inescapable truths that we must own up to: Collective America did elect George W. Bush, to a second term no less, even if most of us would prefer to forget it ever happened and that the world would, too. Russia, as a country, has a drinking problem. ***

Russia has been hip to the buzz scene for ages. The country rejected Islam as a national religion in the tenth century, largely because of a ban on alcohol, and has been running with the devil ever since. Unfortunately, Russia is infamous for its addiction to the medicine and the tendency to overindulge, so much so that Alcoholism in Russia has its own Wikipedia page (the only country to hold this honor). Even before World War I, the government was battling citizens’ fire for the fuel, but eventually, the government also collapsed and became dependent on the sauce. In 1860, forty percent of the government’s revenue was from the sale of vodka. When the Bolsheviks, Lenin, and the communist experiment came into power, they attempted to reduce the nation’s consumption, but within only a few years, vodka was back in state-run stores in order to help finance the USSR. Later, in the years following Stalin, the nation’s leaders attempted to alter laws, encouraging societal sobriety to increase productivity, but the efforts resulted in decreased popularity and more drinking. Still, labors to this cause have never stopped.

Say no to booze Russia’s current leadership duo, the oft bare-chested Vladimir Putin and his sidekick Dmitri Medvedev, have also enacted laws to try to discourage the use of vodka: By decree, no bottle can be priced at less than eighty-nine rubles (roughly three dollars). Most doubt this will slow down the inebriation. According to a recent Russian document declaring war on alcohol, the average consumption for Russians stands at about 18 liters a year, over doubling the WHO’s critical stage, and the Russia Public Chamber put 2009s alcohol-related death toll at 500,000.

When battling national alcoholism, clearing the liquor cabinets of one choice (or making that choice slightly more expensive) is hardly going to quell the hard drinker. Moreover, making samogon, or self-distilled booze, is still a widely practiced art in this country. Bootleg liquor is easy to find and half the price. Not to mention, homemade wines are very popular, and beer (as high as 11% alcohol) is cheaper than water here. Probably more relevant is a change in mindset rather than costs. While a nation keen on revolution, Russia has loved its liquor throughout.

Whether my students like it or not, Moscow certainly lives up to the fleet-fisted drinking reputation. Unlike other liquor-enthused nations, pubs and bars aren’t the thing here, at least not for the drinker. Most people aren’t geared up to drop the six, eight, ten dollars a beer that the ridiculously capitalist bars call for, so they take to the streets, failing to conceal what local watering holes are able to sweep under the beer mat in other countries. Here, the would-be bar regulars stumble around the parks, amongst stoops, through the Metro, for all to see and endure.
Russian drinkers

In many respects, both its past and present, Moscow is a place that calls for depressive inebriation. The winter is horribly cold. The community bundles into heavy coats and ushankas (those furry hats), keeping their faces down to avoid the wind. It’s a city of over ten million people, cramming into Metro wagons, fighting for a place to be during today’s commute. Even at nine a.m., some professionals smell like vodka. People work long hours, make low wages in a high-priced city, and lack the time for pleasantries. But, I’ve learned it isn’t always that way. As I’ve said about the States, time and again, the world over, a lot of people overindulge on milkshakes and burgers, watch too much TV, don’t know their own politics, but a lot people are the exact contrast to this.

See: Portland, the eat local movement, the hybrid SUV, gay marriage. Check out The Onion, The Daily Show, the entire Pacific Northwest. At times, I’ve somehow managed to be impulsively identified as a vote-conservative mid-Westerner with a vat of oil awaiting a battered Snickers, and I didn’t want to do the same thing to Moscow, to my students. Admittedly, for a while, I thought the mystique of the breakfast pint might have been tarnished in Russia, too riddled with guilt, but when spring green replaced the muddy brown that had replaced the months of stark white winter, Muscovites hit the parks. People spend the afternoon in the sunshine, a cool breeze swaying everything, the grind of the workweek washed away with tall cans of pivo. It’s not of drunken debauchery, not of gruesome statistics, but rather a return to those early beers of holiday yore, the way the world was meant to be. And, Russia has only taught me to appreciate this more, and perhaps, though I doubt it, more responsibly.

# # # Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jengels78/sets/72157630329708358/
Author Profile Jonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.

© J Engels December 2012

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