Volume 38, No.4 - Winter 1992
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1992 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Boris M. Segal. The Drunken Society Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the Soviet Union. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990. 618 pages. Hard cover. $40.00

Boris M. Segal presents a very comprehensive study of the alcohol problem in the Soviet Union. In the preface, he states that he hopes the book, which is a result of his studies from the 1950s to the 1970s, will enhance the understanding of causes and consequences of alcohol misuse. The author considers drinking to be a phenomenon that is part and parcel of the whole system including cultural, psychosocial, economic, political and biomedical factors. He uses a wealth of information making the work credible and valuable.

The book's journey, from its inception to its publication, speaks to the dedication and perseverance of the author who had to flee the Soviet Union and work against many odds, here in the United States, to bring it to fruition. The influences of the Soviet state and its machinations to control all aspects of peoples lives permeates the book and the background in which it was created and published. To Lithuanians, this book opens yet another window into the tragedy of the Soviet occupation. The actual references to the country are very limited, still the book has value and interest in so far as it discloses many political, cultural, economic and psychosocial dynamics that affected it. The pages validate and resonate with the Lithuanian experience and understanding of the USSR As the issue of alcoholism is very much in the foreground in Lithuania at the present time, the book serves as a vehicle to understanding the problem by looking at a system into which the country was dragged into by political circumstances.

The author describes the political upheaval, the dictatorial system and the character of the Russian masses, willing to be led, to be enslaved and to use alcohol as their source of joy. A good example of this is a quote from the provisional governor Maliantovich, speaking about the conditions after the Bolshevik coup-d'etat, "... the common people are the same deeply ignorant, having lived in slavery and drunkenness." By incorporating the writings of individuals who experienced the particular events as they occurred, the author provides snap shots of the reality and places the phenomenon of Soviet drinking within a broader context of life in the USSR. This makes his book interesting and understandable to a wide range of readers.

He makes the case that under the Soviet regime, the problems connected to alcohol abuse were covered up as a matter of policy. The official propaganda line was to lame the Czar's bourgeois capitalist for fostering alcohol abuse among the Russian peasants and for establishing State alcohol monopoly to get the needed revenue for the decadent life style and their wars. The propaganda was that any present alcohol related problem could be traced back to the prerevolutionary times. The author negates this by giving detailed information about how alcohol grew under the Soviet regime. From 1922 to 1924, the number of stills increased from 22,000 to 73,000. "Samagon" or moonshine produced by people mainly for their own consumption, grew five times in six years and the alcohol expenditures among working class families increased more than 10 times in those early years. Stalin chose to institute a vodka monopoly to "... secure the operating capital which we need for developing our industry..." Alcohol was a source of revenue during the Czars' time and so it became once again for the Soviets.

The only direct reference to Lithuania is made on pg. 154, where the author quotes from a 1975 article of Literaturnaya Gazeta which contains excerpts from a speech delivered by A. Likas, Chairman of the Lithuanian Supreme Court at a Plenum of the Supreme Court of the USSR. He was expressing concern about the increase of drinking and used a region in Lithuania, that had a threefold growth in the ten years, to underscore this. The country ranked fifth among the 15 republics in capita consumption of alcohol, thus the figures were quite representative for the whole of the USSR.

The author makes the case that the social consequences of alcoholism typical in prerevolution days intensified in the Soviet society. He delves into the effects of alcohol on sex and marriage, quoting Andrei Sinyavsky, a Russian writer, "Vodka is the white magic of the Russian man, he definitely prefers it to the black magic of sex." The author contends that the majority of men and women cannot imagine initiating sex without alcohol. Drinking, having sex and then beating up the female is very much accepted in Russia, especially among the poorly educated working classes. Often drinking is involved in hetero and homosexual assaults and child molestation, and since homosexuality is a crime in the USSR, many gay men use the opportunity of intoxication to express it.

The book is over 500 pages of text with a long, comprehensive bibliography of 68 pages. It is organized logically and progresses from giving an overview of the Czarist's Russia to the evolution of the USSR and the development of overwhelming problems related to alcohol. The author adds a twist to his discussion by including comparison studies to contrast alcohol issues between the USSR and the USA. The book has twelve chapters. The first two give the historical background for the present situation, and can be read alone, as a short history of the evolution of the USSR. The third chapter describes Soviet drinking behavior, specifically Russian social drinking, types of drinkers, drinking styles of different social groups and cultural and ethnic differences. Chapter four discusses alcohol as a commodity in the USSR, including production, sales and consumption. Chapter five presents statistical information regarding the prevalence of alcoholism as reported by out-patient clinics, mental hospitals, regional surveys and national surveys. Chapter six addresses the issue of alcohol's impact on family, marriage and the use of alcohol among women and youth. It includes a study of drinking among teenagers and looks at the social impact. Chapters seven, eight nine and ten focus on the psychosocial, economic, health as well as life and death issues related to alcohol use. Chapter eleven discusses the biological, psychological and sociological research, and then looks at the treatment and prevention. The part on Gorbachev's anti-drinking campaign is very interesting in light of the recent events. Chapter twelve focuses on the causes of alcoholism and its implications.

Mr. Segal has produced a valuable work that will serve as a beacon of light in the darkness of seventy years of the USSR. It is valuable as much for its information on the Soviet alcohol patterns as for the context within which it is presented. With the political changes, this book might well become a valuable instrument for the future treatment of alcoholism in that part of the world.

Aldona A. Malcanas-Gaska PhD, Psychologist, Houston, TX.