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Boris Yeltsin and the Deadly Vodka Crisis

Boris Yeltsin will be remembered for orchestrating Russia’s transition from communism, but his fondness of vodka will forever be a part of his legacy. While Yeltsin’s admitted alcohol problems provided plenty of comedic opportunities, his impact on the Russian vodka industry has made a crisis in Russia that continues to cripple the country today. A crisis that started with Yeltsin selling the Russian soul to Pernod-Ricard, one of a few company that continue to collect independent spirit producers like Soviet paraphernalia. Yeltsin died of heart failure, but his elixir of choice continues to devastate the people of his country daily.

To start, Yeltsin’s favorite vodka was reportedly Stolichnaya, but Yeltsin chose to share his prefered vodka and 42 other brands. In 1992, Yeltsin led a governmental effort which freed the vodka industry from state distribution restrictions. Unfortunately, this early act against communist ideology led to skyrocketing consumption because of the availability of numerous affordable vodkas. Amid decreased regulation, thousands of Russians died from inferior, formerly bootleg, vodkas, and the looming problem of alcoholism threatened the fragile economy.

Recognizing this problem, the Russian government was forced to start regulating vodka production and importation. Unfortunately, the bootleg market emerged greater than ever, making a wave of health risks that has poisoned the Russian populace since the mid-1990s. Last November, the Russian government was even forced to declare a state of emergency in several regions because of hospitals inability to handle the large waves of individuals consuming contaminated vodka. To quantify the problem, the Russian government estimates that 42,000 Russian die from inferior vodkas every year! This situation represents the greatest threat to Russia’s future at a time when the country is expected to lose nearly a third of its population by 2050. While part of this problem is related to the fact that abortions exceed births 13 to 10, the leading cause of death in Russia remains alcohol poisoning.

So why don’t Russians just stop drinking vodka right? Uhm…because they’re Russians.

Russians drink vodka like Italians drink wine. Even the Russian military is given a ration of two shots of vodka a day. Stopping the consumption of vodka simply isn’t a possibility; unfortunately, Russia cannot simply reverse the 1992 disaster of vodka deregulation. This unexpected development occurred because during the reforms, the Russian government sold Stoli along with over 40 other companies to SPI, a partner to the massive corporation Pernod-Ricard. The price was only $300,000, less than the combined cost that Stoli spent on its Blueberry Vodka ad campaign! Russia tried to stake claim to the companies, but has been unable to find any loopholes in the legal agreements. Instead, Stoli and other companies are allowed to distill their product in Russia, but internationally distributed bottles must bottle outside of the country (now Latvia), a sort of punishment for disloyalty.

Other companies have begun to produce vodka in Russia with government support, but they are focused on the international market, not domestic consumers. These companies include Russian Standard, who produces Imperia. Vodka companies that do focus on the Russian market can be found mostly in Ukraine, and these companies frequently confront poor cooperation from the Russian government and still do not represent a cost-effective alternative to the bootleg vodkas being consumed by the poorer citizens of Russia.

Normally, I would start discussing some activist solution to help save the Russian people from these horrible vodkas, but to be honest, no solution appears in sight. Contaminated vodkas killed thousands of Russians during the period of deregulation and through bootlegging so potential government regulation shifts seem hopeless. We could blame Pernod-Ricard for taking the only affordable vodka sources from Russian, but $300,000 for Stoli and 42 other companies was a steal anyone would have taken. Additionally, the Russian government continues to disrupt any attempts made by these companies to return vodkas like Stoli to the everyday Russian.

Instead, the Russian government needs to promote cheap, domestic production to ensure the safety of its citizens. Russian governmental support has focused on companies like Russian Standard, but their focus on the international market does nothing for Russians. Help to Russian companies focused on international distribution and those that would be targeting a domestic consumer are not mutually exclusive, a fact that needs to be realized by the Russian government.

Reflecting on these issues, I feel nearly compelled to buy alternative vodkas with less deadly histories, but doing so would only further harm the Russian populace by adversely affecting Russian jobs at companies like Stoli. Remember, even though these companies no longer target the Russian populace as a customer base, the citizenry remains as a valuable source of employees. In a country with already low job potential, disrupting even the smallest sources for employment is anything but beneficial.
Mankind’s greatest tragedies are the most incomprehensible. The vodka epidemic devastating Russia is one of the saddest because of the complex oppositions between monetary pursuits and human life or culture and the risks of vodka consumption. In such situations, the most viable alternative for those of us fortunate enough to be outside of the crisis is to gather what lessons exist.

This situation serves as warning about the effects that large corporations can have on the alcohol industry. Pernod-Ricard could not have predicted the implications of its takeover, and future buys are unlikely to have any remotely similar results. But, there is something to be said for supporting the smaller, independent company to avoid disrupting the demand and cultural practices of where our spirits come from. One needs to only look south of the border (or south in this blog if you want to read my article on the tequila industry) to find other examples of how corporate takeovers and American demand can have detrimental results.

Also, the next time you drink your Russian vodka, consider the privileged opportunity that rests in your glass. Unlike those focused on smoothness through repetitive distillation, Russia vodka has always carried a certain burn and harshness, which while providing a preferable, distinct flavor, now exhibits a symbolic memorial. Yeltsin always appreciated his.

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References
-Canbera Times. (2006, Nov. 19). Cheap ‘vodka’ poisons thousands of Russians.
-Rosenberg, M. (2006, May 31). Population decline in Russia. geography.about.com/od/obtainpopulationdata/a/russiapop.htm geography.about.com/od/obtainpopulationdata/a/russiapop.htm
-Ryan, R. (2006, Nov. 24). From Russia with Like? Financial Times. ft.com ft.com

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