Two guys walk into a bar in Moscow…


Mark H. Teeter

Heard any good cancer jokes lately? Strange, neither have I. Oh, that's right - cancer isn't funny.

But wait. If this insidious and often fatal disease isn't amusing, why is another one, one that kills people just as dead and enjoys epidemic status in Russia?

Somehow, the abuse of alcohol - which now takes a half-million Russian lives per year - remains a subject of general amusement. Indeed, it's impossible to imagine the Russian humour repertoire, popular or professional, without drunk jokes. And let's face it, they're often funny: you laugh, I laugh, everybody laughs, as we always have.

We can laugh because we look at the abuse selectively. We choose to see alcohol, the appealing agent, not alcoholism, the appalling disease. When applied in limited doses, the agent is often a cause of merriment: it makes people happier, better looking, more fluent in foreign languages and, yes, funnier than they would be otherwise - or makes them feel that they are, in any case.

But when the doses are not limited - and the disease is defined by inability to limit the dosage - then the agent becomes a virus. Nobody wants to look at the result of this virus, at alcoholism proper. But it's time to look at it again; and without the laughs.

Important people have started looking. In the three weeks since new data on Russian alcoholism were published, the president, the prime minister and the former president of the USSR have all spoken out on the nation's fate if the disease is left unchecked. Their warnings have ranged from the serious to the apocalyptic.

Vladimir Putin told the World Health Organization that Russians "need to drink less alcohol" to "dramatically improve the health of the nation". Well, yes, agreed Mikhail Gorbachev, putting things rather more starkly: "We are destroying ourselves," Gorbachev told a Channel One audience, heading for "catastrophe" unless the nation starts "an extensive new campaign to cut drinking". President Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, admitted he was "astonished" to learn that "we now drink more than we did even in the very tough times of the 1990's".

Medvedev, in fact, described Russian alcohol consumption today as "colossal" - which means exactly what? In a country legendary for its love of strong drink, how much is too much? Using the new figure of 18 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, Medvedev did the math and described the result: "This is about 50 bottles of vodka for each resident of the country, including infants," he said. "That is a monstrous number. After 9 to 10 litres, gene pool problems arise, and degradation begins."

"Colossal", in other words, may be defined as the point where a nation's drinking approaches twice the level at which its genetic stock has begun to deteriorate. Think about that. Then ask yourself if there's a good joke in there somewhere.

Americans, of course, are just as guilty as anyone of making light of the symptoms while overlooking the disease. Although the entire US joke repertoire changed thanks to the 1960s, with traditional stereotypes of racial minorities, women, ethnic heritage and sexual orientation moving out of bounds, the alcoholic remained one of a very few targets that all comedians could comfortably shoot at. He couldn't shoot back.

Plus, he was having fun! Who wouldn't want to enjoy himself as Dean Martin obviously did, or make cracks like the great Foster Brooks ("I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy")? Drunks were comedy's win-win scapegoats, people you could safely laugh at and laugh with. The fact that many of them were - are - killing themselves is something that Americans have implicitly and collectively decided to ignore.

But not all Americans. An alcoholic named Bill Wilson started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1934, during America's own "very tough times". International since the 1950's, AA was first registered in Russia in 1987, late in Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign; it now reportedly has over 300 groups in 120 Russian localities - a too-modest presence in a vast and proud G8 country where male life expectancy, thanks largely to alcohol, is shorter than in Bangladesh.

AA has never been a silver bullet cure for alcoholism. But it is cheap, apolitical and community-based - which suit Russia very well. And it can produce remarkable results.

President Medvedev would do well to include robust support for AA's efforts among his anti-alcoholism initiatives, since any results at all in the nation's uneven struggle with the disease would be a very welcome change. Seriously, folks...

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.

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