Monday 28 February 2011

Beer and squirrels

I always keep a look out for the more unusual news items and one of the most unusual came recently from Russia. Beer, it seems, is to be classified as alcohol. Beer is to be classified as alcohol?! What was it before: apple juice, perhaps? No, it was food. Seriously, Russians quaffing a glass or several were just having a jolly good meal!

This comes as part of the Kremlin’s latest anti-alcohol campaign, the toughest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians have long had a serious problem here. In communist days a combination of cheap vodka and personal despair over the frustrations of life in the Soviet paradise led to a huge upsurge in alcoholism. The last serious attempt to tackle the issue was in the time of Gorbachev, an anti-alcohol drive that caused the last of the communist puritans to be nicknamed Lemonade Joe.

Now the special status of beer is to be ended, a special status that has given many Russians the impression that it’s actually a soft drink - apple juice with attitude! Actually, they may not be quite alone here. I remember reading that F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer, in battling with his own alcoholism gave up spirits in favour of beer, consuming the latter by the crate load! But when Russian teenagers can be seen during school intervals downing a can or two in the local park something really has to be done.

President Dmitry Medvedev recently declared that Russia’s drinking problem was a “national disaster.” There is really nothing new here; it always was a national disaster in a country where people are estimated to consume thirty-two pints of pure alcohol per capita per year, more than double the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit, and where some 500,000 die annually form alcohol-related diseases.

But there is an added dimension, an added worry; for Russia is dying, the Russian people are dying. Between 1991 and 2009 the population of ethnic Slavs fell by over six million. Federal estimates suggest that it could fall by a further fifteen million between now and 2031.

So something has to be done, but what? The reclassification of beer is one solution; the other is to warn Russians of the adverse effects of overconsumption, no matter that they have resisted the message in the past. They didn’t respond to the lectures of Lemonade Joe. Perhaps a squirrel might serve better. A squirrel?! Yes, that’s right, a drunken squirrel, which made its way into the television screens last December.

I’m not quite sure if it’s managing to achieve the ends the Kremlin intends, but the said squirrel has acquired a huge cult following across the world, now with well over three million hits on YouTube, my own included! I don’t speak Russian but I’ve been told that he’s ranting on about chasing spiders up the wall and offering to kill his neighbour’s wife because she is the devil.

The mad squirrel was not chosen by chance. The Russian slang word for delirium tremens, that condition of deep alcoholism where people start to hallucinate, is belochka, meaning little squirrel. It’s now to be seen if Little Squirrel is any more effective than Lemonade Joe, who was mad for other reasons altogether. God save Russia, because Russia may not be capable of saving itself.


  1. Why did this make me think of Nicola Sarkozy? To paraphrase former VP Dan Quayle: "A wasted mind is a terrible thing."

    I'm fortunate that alcohol and other drugs never seemed to have power over me, but I can understand why some seek bottled oblivion. I dislike, intensely the puritan fashion of recent years, arising not out of concern for individual welfare, but bureaucratic pettiness and spite.

    I tend to side with Humphrey Bogart, who contended that most of humanity is 'a couple of drinks behind.'

  2. What is the average life expectancy of a Russian Man, 45 yr.?

  3. I like that Bogart quote! Is it from one of his movies, Calvin?

  4. Don't know, Ana. I heard it a long time ago, and it stuck in my mind.

  5. Anthony, it's higher than that at 63 for men. But that's for all ethic groups. I don't know about the Slavs specifically.

  6. Compared with vodka, beer IS a soft drink...

    Looking through the 2010 life expectancy figures (which are published for each of the administrative regions, but not, publically, as far as I know, for ethnic groups) I'd guess the average male figure for ethnic Russians would be in the early 60s (and more probably in the range 60-61 than 61-63). And possibly lower than that in Siberia and the Far East.

    Though it's very noticable that one predominately Slavic region in the west (Belgorod), which placed strict restrictions on the sale of spirits, has a significantly higher male life expectancy (over 65 years) than almost anywhere else in the Slavic parts of Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg excepted).

    Life expectancy in the Muslim regions of the Caucausus is markedly higher. And is low as 54 in (non-Slavic) Tyva (home of throat-singing) and lower still in Abramovich's Chukotka.

  7. Dominic, thank you very much for this useful information. I have the impression that you live in Russia, or have lived there. Am I correct? Do you speak the language? Perhaps you can translate the mad squirrel? :-)

  8. Ana, "da", as they say, well at least as regards speaking the language (and formerly living in Russian-speaking lands. Well, southern Ukraine, anyway)

    But for now I live in Essex, where the dialect is somewhat different and the accent arguably more incomprehensible ;)

    (Have been in the Low Countries for a long carnivalesque weekend. I'll try and translate the squirrel sometime, but my home internet was down when I got back last night, so there may be a further delay... Watch this space...)