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AA still a novelty in Russia

Published Oct. 7, 2005

As they settled into chairs in a dingy room on the city's eastern outskirts, the leader pounded on the table and brought the group to order with words that remain extraordinary in this country.

"My name is Vera," she said, "and I am an alcoholic."

More than half a century after it was founded in the United States and seven years after its tentative introduction here, Alcoholics Anonymous is slowly taking root in Russia, a country whose alcohol problem is seen by health experts as among the worst in the world.

"The state doesn't support us, and there are still very few doctors who work with us," said Vera, who spoke about her involvement in the group on the condition that only her first name be used. "There's still relatively little information available even among specialists about alcoholism. But we can provide what official treatments never have, which is to help alcoholics learn to live as healthy people."

When the first group was formed here in 1987, a newspaper article suggested it was a CIA front. The paranoia has faded, and there are now 70 AA groups meeting regularly across Russia and Ukraine, the movement's organizers said. But it is still very much a novelty in Russia.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the nation's best-known teetotaler, ran a temperance campaign while he was leader of the Soviet Union. It failed.

Recent tax increases on vodka have had little effect but to drive drinkers to moonshine, chemicals and any other substances containing alcohol, causing the rate of death from alcohol poisoning to double in the past two years.

Traditional treatment for alcoholism has been the police drunk tank or medical "cures" of dubious value. Public debate about the drinking habits of President Boris Yeltsin has given the issue increased visibility, but counselors said that even private acknowledgment of alcoholism, much less a public pronouncement, remains anathema to most Russians.

Nonetheless, on this night, the cross-section of Muscovites attending the open AA meeting in the basement of an apartment building in the Novogireyevo neighborhood welcomed one another warmly and, one by one, gave their first names and identified themselves as alcoholics.

The group's 35 members ranged from teenage girls to retired men, from entrepreneurs in sharp clothes to down-and-outers. Some said they had been sent by clinics. Others said they had heard of AA on the radio or in newspaper articles. Some said they were sober. Some were clearly drunk.

Sasha said he had been having a bad day and provoked howls of sympathetic laughter when he said it had been made much worse by the recent plunge in the value of the ruble.

Nikolai, swaying, reeking of alcohol and with an open cut on his forehead, stood up and boasted that he had been sober for two months. The group hooted and told him to sit down.

Igor said that his sister and brother-in-law had asked him to leave the room they were providing him, and that he feared ending up sleeping on the street again in the rain and the mud.

"I feel I need a drink," he said. "I want a drink. But coming here I feel much better."

The movement's organizers in Russia said AA had been introduced into the country by representatives from the United States and Europe who came here in the mid-1980s, during Gorbachev's unsuccessful anti-alcohol campaign.

Felix, who works at a research institute, said he was officially registered by the authorities as an alcoholic during the Brezhnev era. His name was kept on a list by the local police. Occasionally he would have to go to a hospital, where he was given injections or pills that were supposed to keep him from drinking.

"I was controlled only by fear," Felix said. "Now, coming here to AA, I feel no fear at all. This way is much better."

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