Experience, Strength, and Hope –
A Visit To The Soviet Union
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 1989
The message of Alcoholics Anonymous knows no language barrier, nor do custom or cultural heritage have any meaning when it comes to our recovery process.
There were sixteen of us at the Moscow Beginners Group. We were there celebrating their first anniversary as an AA group. The meeting opened in Russian with the Preamble, then a reading of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. The chairperson said, “This is a Second Step meeting,” and they began to share.
One member spoke up. He was an enthusiastic Moscow businessman who was five months sober and beginning to work the Steps. When he spoke, I heard my own alcoholism, I heard my own history of destruction and pain.
“I have no history of God in my life,” he said. “But I began to do what they said to do here. And I have found a spiritual power within me. I think that might be God.”
This man is now working with three other alcoholics in the group who also had no history of God in their lives, but who together have found a spiritual power they can rely on.
Inasmuch as AA can be official in any way, this was an “official” visit from the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous in the United States and Canada to some very specific people in the Soviet Union. Over the previous year or so, there had been a number of communications back and forth between the Soviet and American governments concerning alcoholism; and AA, while not affiliated with these efforts in any way, had cooperated in full.
In September 1987, the general manager of the General Service Office in New York traveled by invitation to the Soviet Union with sixteen other individuals related to the field of alcoholism, as part of an exchange program between the two governments on the topic of alcoholism and drug abuse. Then, in May of 1988, a return visit was made by a group of Soviets.
Through the course of these exchanges, it became clear that there were quite a few people inside the Soviet Union who had a growing interest in Alcoholics Anonymous. We began corresponding with some of these people – Ministry of Health people, Temperance Promotion Society (TPS) people, psychologists, psychiatrists, narcologists, sobriety clubs – and in the course of this ongoing dialogue, another visit was set up which was to be independent of the previous trips.
The AA members picked for the trip were the two trustees-at-large – myself from the United States and Webb J. from Canada – along with Sarah P., the GSO staff member assigned to the trustees’ International Committee. In addition, since we’d be talking primarily with Soviet professionals and doctors, it seemed appropriate to have a doctor along with us. So Dr. John Hartley Smith, a nonalcoholic trustee from Canada, was added to the team. Of course it wouldn’t have done much good to send us off without a voice, so we also added a nonalcoholic fellow who is a simultaneous translator.
Our first stop was Helsinki, Finland. We went there first for two reasons: first, we wanted to take care of jet lag and be fully adjusted to the time change; and second, the Finns have been carrying the AA message into Russia for some time and we wanted to coordinate our efforts so that each of us might be as effective as possible.
Now, I’ve been around drunks most of my life, but I’ve never seen quality drunkenness until I saw the Finns. They were big, they were like redwood trees, they were stoned, and they were moving. Finnish AA members are incredible, too. They give the same depth of love to AA that they gave to the bottle – and then some. One of the ways in which the Finns practice anonymity is by taking on a nickname. And so, in Helsinki, we met “Columbus,” the fellow who first brought AA to Finland.
On November 13, we took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn was one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen. There were buildings there which had been built in the 1400s and were still in use. Estonia was in the Soviet Republic, but it is a separate culture.
We’d carried with us a good-sized box of Russian-language AA literature, and though I knew we’d be stopped, I had no idea how this literature would be received. I’ve been through plenty of tough customs checks before – and after one of them, I ended up in prison – and I was getting a little nervous. I’d brought along a pocket knife to open up the box with, but I couldn’t find it anywhere and ended up having to open up the box with a plastic pocket comb. The customs lady took out a piece of literature, looked at it, and walked off to show it to a fellow in a suit standing back in a corner. Our interpreter leaned over and whispered to me, “It’s an ideology check.”
In a short while, the customs lady returned with a smile on her face. She called over a uniformed guard. I thought, “There goes the box.” As they talked together, the interpreter leaned over. “They like it,” he said.
With another burst of conversation and a nod of the head, she waved me, the box, and the interpreter on through. On the other side of the check point, the interpreter translated her last comments to the uniformed guard for me.
“Look,” she had said, “they are here to help us in our struggle with alcoholism.” This seemed to set the tone for the entire trip, and we started handing out literature wherever we went.
Each one of us on this trip had a sense of the immensity of our task, and each one of us had a real desire not to promote anything but rather to share our experience, strength, and hope with the professionals we came in contact with so that they might better understand AA and perhaps allow AA to happen in the Soviet Union. At one of our meetings with the Sobriety Society of Estonia, the people involved in helping alcoholics there tended to dominate and tell us of their program and to slant the conversation politically, but eventually, we got across to them that helping alcoholics was our only interest.
During one of our conversations, a girl spoke up in English and said, “I have read your book [the Big Book]. How am I going to work with these AA principles if I don’t believe in God?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s no big deal. I didn’t believe in God either when I came to AA. It’s not a requirement, you know.” With this, the girl visibly relaxed and I heard a sigh of relief.
We also met with a doctor there, a former government official, and he kept saying how the program would have to be changed to fit the Russian people, a people with no historical cultural background of God. “It won’t work here” was something we heard a lot. I must admit that I did get a bit of a chuckle out of this. Quite a few times I heard people say, “We don’t have any historical background of God,” and then in the next breath would ask, “Would you like to see the cathedral?”
At first, many of the people we talked to were reserved. But because we talked so openly about alcoholism and about ourselves, they too began to share openly. We discovered that whatever else they might be doing in terms of treatment, they were already using some of the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous: admission of powerlessness, an honest belief that some sort of recovery is possible, and the importance of taking a personal inventory. It was rigorous, but they were doing it. They had a thirty-question inventory that had to be renewed every six months with a doctor and a peer group. Treatment was a three-year process, and if you slipped, you went to a labor camp for two years. The official position was that after six or eight weeks of effective treatment, the patient was no longer an alcoholic. There was a cure, they believed, and it took about six to eight weeks. The only catch was that they had to keep renewing this cure or they became alcoholics again. However, the drunks we talked to said, “We know it’s important to understand that we’re alcoholics forevermore.” And they completely understood the need to pass this information on to the next person. This, then, was the foundation of whatever was going on in the Soviet Union, and it seemed like fertile ground for AA principles to flourish in.
I was looking forward to the trip from Estonia up to Leningrad because we were going to be traveling by train and I hoped it was going to be like the Orient Express. But it turned out to be more like the milk train instead. They put the four of us into one compartment with all our luggage, one bunk apiece, and gave us a cup of black Russian tea. It was an experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it again.
In Leningrad, we met with a doctor who had alcoholic patients who were trying to use the AA method, but he didn’t believe it would work because of the emphasis on God. Eventually this man brought some of his patients to see us and it is our hope that the sharing that went on will one day be of some use to them. One of the excercises this doctor has his group doing for therapy purposes is to translate the Big Book. “It’s not a very good translation,” he said, but they don’t seem to mind.
The group that this doctor worked with has been using AA for about three years, and one of the group had three years sobriety, another had one year, and another had seven months. These people were allowed to come and visit with us in our hotel rooms, something unheard of just a few years back. On our end, we were not restricted in any way in our travels. We were allowed to just wander wherever we wanted.
The people of Leningrad had a pride and a spirit like I’d never seen. At one point during our stay in Leningrad, just prior to our scheduled meeting with the Temperance Promotion Society, an American movie was shown on Soviet TV – a movie about one woman’s struggle with alcoholism and her eventual sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. The movie created quite a response from its Soviet viewers, and the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a piece with some of the hundreds of requests it received asking for more information on AA. We had the article translated and were moved by the overriding tone of the responses. Here, translated from the Russian, is just one of the many responses:
“I have acquaintances but no friends. I have spent these last ten days at home. I have not gone anywhere and will invariably get drunk. And once I go on a binge, it lasts a long time.
“I don’t work anywhere. I would love to go to heaven, but my sins won’t let me. I’m twenty-four. My employment record is like an index of available jobs. Besides which, last summer I was released from incarceration.
“What should I do? I don’t visit my neighborhood duty officer because I know his crowning remark: ‘If you don’t have a job in ten days, I’ll send you to the Labor-Rehabilitation Camp.’ Who wants to go there? So I hide. It was better in jail. I don’t know how AA can help me, but I am writing nevertheless.”
The newspaper article also carried the comments of the first deputy chairman of the Temperance Promotion Society (TPS), which had recently come under fire for what appeared to be a lack of effectiveness in supplying adequate answers to the huge problem of alcoholism facing the Soviet Union. Of AA, the first deputy had this to say: “We will not forge an alliance with them. Their method is interesting, but is only partially useful for us. And we will reject it primarily because certain interested parties from across the ocean are very clearly using it to promote the American way of life. The pretext is a good one; there is nothing to be said against it. But still I will block it.”
With a note of uncertainty, then – and these conflicting messages in our minds – we went off to our scheduled meeting with the TPS. Of course, we got lost along the way, literally, and as things have a way of going in AA, it turned out to be one of the greatest days I’ve ever had.
Finally, after wandering around the city’s back streets, we found our way. Unlike our dire predictions based on the newspaper article, the TPS people were very cordial, very kind, very open, very pro-AA. While we were there talking, a television producer showed up with her camera crew asking for permission to do some filming for a ten-minute documentary on Alcoholics Anonymous for Soviet television. We started to explain our Traditions, of course, and she cut us off; she understood them quite well, she assured us, and promised to maintain our anonymity. So, as we began to talk with the TPS people, the cameraman went to work. Rather than showing any faces, he focused in on our hands as we were talking.
At the end of the meeting, the producer commented that she didn’t think ten minutes was going to be nearly enough to give a sense of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet public. So what they intended to do, at their own expense, was to travel to the United States in order to prepare a more in-depth documentary on AA. We made plans to send them copies of some of the films and video material that AA has already produced, such as “Young People and AA,” “It Sure Beats Sitting in a Cell,” and “AA – An Inside View,” hoping that this material would add to their understanding of AA principles and practices.
Eventually, we headed up to Moscow, and on our first day there we met with the Moscow Beginners Group. There will be debates forevermore about which was the first AA group in Russia, but this group had as good a claim as the next. It was started by an Episcopal minister who was living and working in Moscow, and it now had a number of regular attendees. It was the first Soviet AA group registered with the General Service Office in New York.
Also in Moscow we had an appointment to meet with a doctor who had written a book about alcoholism and recovery, and a good part of it was about AA and its principles. The book, it seems, was a huge popular success and had already sold out. They were going to have a public debate about this book, and a big hall had been opened up at one of the cultural palaces where everyone – police, antagonists, proponents, everybody – showed up to debate the ideas in this book. We were invited to come. It turned into quite an afternoon-one we never could have planned.
The author of the book and several other narcologists fielded most of the questions about AA and were quite right in their understanding of anonymity and the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous. These people proved to be great advocates of AA. And by the time the debate was over, a spokesman for TPS announced in public that they would now actively support Alcoholics Anonymous.
A woman stood up in the crowd and shouted out, “How do you think Alcoholics Anonymous will work in the Soviet Union?” My compatriots looked at me.
All I could really tell her was that it would be presumptuous of me to pretend to be an expert. I had been in her country only thirteen days. How could I possibly base anything on that? But I did say that we have the experience of 114 other cultures who have used AA quite effectively and that the only purpose of our visit to her country was to share our experience with them if it could be of any help.
Finally, we were to have a meeting with the head of TPS, the man who had made the statement in Komsomolskaya Pravda. This fellow was a very short man with white hair – very charming, very cordial, and tough as nails. There was no question about who he was. The first thing he did was give us a cup of tea and say, “Now, here are the rules for this get together.” He laid out how the meeting was to be conducted and said, “Since you have requested this meeting, I have asked a number of people also to be here. They are alcoholics with another way of doing things.” This was all done very graciously, however, and it was clear that he wasn’t opposing us in any way.
So, off we went into another room, and sure enough there was this other bunch of people there. These were alcoholics from a sobriety club formed in 1978, and the founder of the club was there. He was now twelve years sober. The club was formed to give alcoholics something to do in their spare time. They were responsible for forming their own activities – staging plays, etc. Their charter stated that members couldn’t drink until death, and they told us that only two people in the last nine years had slipped. They wanted to demonstrate the sober life. The trade union bosses had helped to organize this club. It was all done through the workplace. If you were an alcoholic, your name was on the wall at work. They knew who you were and lots of peer pressure was brought to bear. Their idea was to break the cycle of alcoholism. They wanted to have a whole generation of people who were living good, healthy lives without drinking alcohol.
One of the interesting things to come out of this meeting was our awareness of how little they really understood of the concept of anonymity. “How can you get well when you don’t even know each other?” was the basic question the head of TPS asked us. He said that in these sobriety clubs, people weren’t anonymous to each other – they got together frequently and were much like a family.
Our last really official meeting was with the chief deputy and chief narcologist of the Ministry of Health, the governmental agency that oversees all alcoholism treatment in the Soviet Union. This guy was tough – not in any antagonistic way, but he wanted “the facts, please.” He wanted to know organizational things: how AA was set up, and how his agency could use AA. He voiced his biggest concern, however, by calling AA an “uncontrolled movement.”
After we’d been talking with this man for an hour or so, he asked us pointblank, “What can we do to get this thing started here?” Our response was very simple: “Give them space. Give them rooms to meet in and a little bit of space to grow in.” We told him we’d send him a lot of AA information, especially the organizational stuff he was interested in.
I believe that the purpose of our visit was accomplished. More and more professionals in the Soviet Union now know about and trust the process of Alcoholics Anonymous, and we’ve seen indications that they’re willing to give it a try. We’ve also found that there are some necessities that the General Service Office can provide to these people, the greatest of which would be to provide portions of the pamphlet “The AA Group” in Russian so that some of the how-to questions might begin to be resolved. They also need the pamphlet on sponsorship, and of course the Big Book.
Like the businessman from the Moscow Beginners Group, I am a fellow who had no history of God in his life. I am a common, garden-variety drunk with all kinds of other problems, whose very best thinking got him into a penitentiary; a man completely without moral standards, a man you could not trust, a man for whom the ends always justified the means, a self-centered and domineering man. And yet, because of Alcoholics Anonymous and the grace of God I was able to participate in this trip because I was sober. It could happen to anybody reading this.
There are no Russian alcoholics, no Estonian or Siberian or American alcoholics. There are only alcoholics. Of this, I am now certain.
Don P., Aurora, Colorado
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 1989
In practicing our Traditions, The AA Grapevine, Inc. has neither endorsed nor are they affiliated with Silkworth.net.
The Grapevine®, and AA Grapevine® are registered trademarks of The AA Grapevine, Inc.