"Hi, My Name Is Boris"
October 15, 2007
Lou Bantle, a former tobacco executive and alcoholic, battled apathy, corruption and the mob to bring Alcoholics Anonymous to Russia.
Igor B., a Russian married father of two, could drink for a month straight but wanted to quit. Repeated injections of a powerful anti-alcohol drug at a Russian clinic didn't help. Vyacheslav O., a former boxer from St. Petersburg, got detox treatments in eight different hospitals in as many cities. Not much good there, either. When he didn't drink, he did heroin.
Russia remains an alcohol-sodden country, its common treatments too often ineffective or downright bizarre. But now Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12-step meetings program that sprang up in America in 1935, is taking root in Russia, with 300 groups across the country. And behind the spread of AA in Russia is an American, Louis Bantle, 79, who grappled with alcoholism while chief executive of U.S. Tobacco (now UST) from 1973 to 1993.
Ten years ago, overriding Russian resistance, he established a 30-bed center called House of Hope on the Hill, situated in a rural setting45 minutes outside of St. Petersburg. It is today Russia's only free alcoholism-treatment center that uses the principles of AA in a 28-day program. As patients finished and went home, they started up AA meetings in their own towns. The center has treated 2,500 people from 110 cities across the country and some former Soviet states. When visited this summer, Igor and Vyacheslav were nearing the end of their stay. "Every day I uncover something new about myself," says Vyacheslav, the boxer, who has scars on his face and stocky, muscular arms. "I want to keep talking."
Bantle says he first sought help for alcoholism in 1968, attending a two-week treatment program. But he avoided the necessary group meetings and fell back into drinking excessively. One morning ten years later, now chief executive of UST, he woke up so hungover that he took a drink. That shook him up enough that he began attending AA meetings at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut and now considers himself a recovering alcoholic.
He got a taste of alcoholism treatment in Russia on his first trip there in 1988. He visited a 3,500-patient addiction-treatment center in Moscow and was horrified. People were treated like prisoners, he says, forced to work for free for an auto factory. They received bizarre treatments such as blood transfusions, all the while living behind barred windows. "It was ghastly -- really slavery," Bantle says.
In the old Soviet Union one-third of premature deaths were alcohol-related. But AA was unofficially banned: It was defined as a religious sect, since it requires members to believe in a higher power that heals. Western medical literature was mostly unavailable, and the idea of self-help didn't exist in a regime where educated higher-ups knew best.
The transition to a free market hasn't squelched Russians' taste for vodka. While statistics on alcoholism's prevalence are hard to come by, there are a few indicators. Russian male life expectancy, at 59, is the lowest of any developed country. A study published recently in the Lancet found nearly half of premature male deaths in one Russian city were attributed to habitual binge drinking and consuming "nonbeverage alcohol" such as cologne. "Russia is drowning in alcoholism," despairs Svetlana Moseeva, the director of House of Hope.
Doctors in Russia still don't endorse AA. Instead, "narcologists" in expensive private clinics administer quasimedical treatments such as a detox drip of saline and vitamins, and a hypnosis system developed in the Crimea in the mid-20th century. Also used are aversion therapy -- which trains the patient to become nauseous in the presence of alcohol -- and antabuse, a drug that causes headaches, nausea and even death if alcohol is consumed while taking it. Both are used in the West but are considered insufficient without therapy and supervision.
Bantle's first step was to try to introduce AA to Russians through educational conferences he organized there and in the U.S. He also paid to bring hundreds of Russian officials, doctors and artists over for free treatment at U.S. clinics. But the Russians, he says, saw the trips as a free vacation and spent much of their time drinking. It was also costly, and donations from UST dried up by 1996. He then decided to establish a permanent AA center in Russia.
A psychiatrist named Evgeny Zubkov, who was a visiting professor at New York University, became Bantle's Russian point man. Politicallyconnected and known in the artistic community of St. Petersburg, Zubkov helped Bantle buy a house for $25,000 in 1997 in the tiny settlement of Pericula, outside of St. Petersburg.
Renovation headaches in America pale next to Bantle's travails. A Russian contractor hired to restore the house embezzled $17,000 of the$25,000 he was paid, and that first winter in the house "everyone almost froze to death," growls Bantle, still livid. Later, sanitationinspectors briefly shut down the house, claiming overcrowding. Fire inspectors wanted the small chapel next to the house moved. "They heard we were supported by an American and thought we would pay anything to deal with it," Zubkov scoffs.
Even the mob wanted in on the action. Gangsters drove up in a huge Mercedes and demanded $10,000 monthly protection payments. The staff showed them the house's $6,500 monthly budget. "Then they realized what we were about," recalls Zubkov. "They gave us $1,000 and sent one of their own to get treated." In 2000 sanitation authorities returned, insisting the wells provided insufficient water. So Bantle ponied up $140,000 to lay pipe and bring water from the village to the home. Nowthe water pressure is nearly nonexistent, he says, thanks to new developments tapping into the pipe.
At the home recently, overlooking a serene valley, patients stand outside, smoking and chatting quietly, when they are not in intensive classes, group therapy or individual counseling. Homemade meals are served in a cozy dining room with handwrought wooden benches. The 20 staffers include a doctor and two nurses, as well as social workers and counselors -- almost all with histories of alcoholism. It's a tough disease. The house doesn't keep recidivism rates, but AA generally has at best a 25% success rate.
Bantle continues to provide half of the home's $125,000-a-year budget, but the staff worries about what will happen after he's gone. Plus, a recent strengthening of the ruble is making his dollars count less. After decades of communism Russians don't give much to charity (the lack of tax writeoffs for donations doesn't help). Zubkov persuaded a Kremlin official to donate $100,000 of his and other officials' money. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, a friend of Putin's and a potential candidate for president in 2008, recently agreed to put some municipal funds toward renovating the house.
Bantle has spent $2.5 million over the years on the home. His son and daughter oversee a foundation he endowed with $10 million that could take over a good portion of the house's expenses after he dies, he says.
There is a clear dependence on the grandfatherly American at the home. Photos of him are everywhere. "Everyone looks on him as a paternal figure--it's almost mystical," says Zubkov.
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