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Slava Starts Over Again
a meeting of the country's first A.A. group, alcoholics
a sort of personal perestroika, one day at a time.
name is Slava, and I am an alcoholic."
young man speaks rapidly, but every syllable reverberates.
More than 30 other men and women seated in a large drab
room at a Moscow community center listen quietly. Over the
next hour and a half, most of them, giving only their first
names, will stand under the bare fluorescent lighting and
make the same confession. It is a painful admission to make
anywhere, but especially in the Soviet Union, where drinking
is legendary and individual accountability has decayed.
This is the daily meeting of Moscow Beginners, the first
antidrink group for Soviet citizens that is registered with
A.A. is a new weapon in the country's struggle against alcoholism,
encouraging people to rebuild themselves - a sort of perestroika
of the personality, one day at a time. More poignantly,
it is an exercise in self-expression that is the essence
of glasnost, an act of standing up and discussing a shortcoming
that the state once preferred to keep quiet.
Disturbed by his countrymen's fondness for the bottle, Mikhail
Gorbachev in 1985 launched an all- out campaign against
alcohol. The Soviets raised the legal drinking age from
18 to 21, limited the hours when alcohol could be sold and
increased the price of vodka from 4.7 rubles ($7.75) to
($16.50) a liter. But popular resistance has forced Gorbachev
to ease up on his crusade, and public drunkenness is on
the rise again.
Beginners was started in 1987 by the Rev. J.W. Canty, an
Episcopal priest from New York City who came to Moscow in
1985 to help lay the groundwork for the group. Meanwhile,
Volodya, 36, a machinist, had heard about A.A. on a Canadian
radio broadcast and had written to A.A. headquarters in
New York, which in turn informed Canty that he had a taker
in Moscow. The group's first session was held in a hotel
room across from the Kremlin, was attended by Volodya and
two visiting American members of A.A. Membership grew slowly,
largely because the group did not have official recognition
and would-be members were unaware of its existence. But
radio and television programs highlighted Moscow Beginners,
and now the Ministry of Health has endorsed A.A.'s self-help
As at A.A. sessions around the world, the Moscow Beginners
tell tales of searing despair. For Sasha, a 37-year-old
engineer, the horror culminated in 1987, when he was repeatedly
hospitalized for alcoholism and his wife left him. "I
was watching my life spin out of control," he now recalls.
Sasha, almost everyone in the group has undergone compulsory
hospitalization, some as many as seven times. The hospital
stays can be as long as six months, and patients are often
treated with sulfazine, a drug that induces high fever.
The intended result: to sweat the toxins out of the body
and thus shock it into a change of behavior. The drug's
effects are not long lasting, and Western doctors refuse
to use it.
Moscow Beginners tell how they were forced to spend terms
of up to two years in prisons - reserved for those who cannot
be cured by the hospitals. There, boredom was punctuated
only occasionally by days of forced labor in understaffed
factories. Even the government has admitted that these jails
are not likely to keep alcoholics on the wagon.
By contrast, Sasha says, he is enthusiastic about A.A.'s
methods, "the beginning for me was when I learned that
the word alcoholic could be said out loud, that people would
even applaud. With alcoholism, you have to admit despair
before you can experience victory."
Volodya has known his share of despair. Having drank heavily
since his teens, he says, "I thought I would never
be able to stop. I went to clinics where I would dry out,
but I could never stay sober. I felt I did not have what
it takes to help myself. And then came the group. It was
like a miracle."
It is an interesting choice of words in an officially atheist
society, and A.A.'s teaching that members must learn to
rely on a "higher power" creates an inevitable
conflict for Moscow Beginners. Some of the members are uncomfortable
with the group's religious tone; others, understandably,
are afraid to tamper with the organizations time- tested
name is Mikhail, and I'm an alcoholic," says the next
speaker. Sober only a short while, Mikhail, 41, stayed home
from work, on his last birthday out of fear that his co-workers
would insist on celebrating the event with a bottle. "I
don't want to talk about my drinking tonight. I just want
to thank you for the chance to express myself honestly.
Until I came here, I had never done that before."
Already the group is reaching out to others. Some of Moscow
beginners spend Saturday afternoons visiting inmates in
two of the city's alcoholic prisons, and this month a clinic
using American treatment methods and run jointly by Soviets
and Americans will open for out-patients. It will be the
first alternative to the state-run program. Beyond that,
according to Volodya, "young people are writing to
us from all over the country."
though, it is 33- year-old Slava who is in trouble. "I
have to tell you something this evening that I am not proud
of," he says hesitantly. "I drank today. And my
wife left me. Please don't abandon me. You know what I am
going through. Forgive me for betraying you."
is a strong word," says Liuba, 35, a factory worker
who during her drinking days found herself waking up in
the beds of men she never remembered meeting. "It's
better not to use it. We might not have drunk today, but
only at the end of the day can any of us say that with confidence."
know," says Slava, "after being here and talking,
I feel peaceful inside. I'm sure I'll get better; with the
help of my friends, I will get better."
I joined this group, I felt isolated," says Sasha afterward.
"Now I am helped by my friends - and by my strength
and example, I can be of help to them." trying to humanize
itself. Says By helping others help them selves, Volodya:
"What I like about A.A. is Moscow Beginners is rebuilding
the that it ends our dependence on a sense of self-worth
that society cure from above. We are had stripped from them.
In a rediscovering how to help limited way, the A.A. style
could ourselves, and how to help each turn out to be just
what the doctor other. In this country we had ordered for
a society that is forgotten how to do that."
TIME, April 10, 1989)