A Royal a day keeps Russian woes away

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The Independent Online
AT 11am on a busy road outside St Petersburg, a man lies as if dead on the dual carriageway, forcing the traffic to weave round him. 'Dead? No, he's just drunk,' says a woman bystander. 'People here have been legless 24 hours a day since the French started sending us Royal.'

She is referring to a brand of 96 per cent proof alcohol whose import has, at a stroke, undone all former President Gorbachev's hard work to make Russians sober. The 'good old times' of constant inebriation are back.

Under Brezhnev, the streets used to be littered with collapsed drunks who were only following the example of their leader, who fell downstairs at Kremlin banquets and slurred his speech in television addresses. As Communist Party General Secretary, Mr Gorbachev tried to end the national degradation with his unpopular anti-alcoholism campaign which earned him the nickname 'Mineral Water Secretary'. Now the Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, a tippler himself, has restored the drinking tradition by allowing the free sale of alcohol in the little kiosks springing up under his market reforms.

All along the St Petersburg- Moscow highway, traders sell beer, champagne and vodka from their car boots. Which, on reflection, makes one wonder whether the lorries really are weaving only to avoid the prostrated victim of the Royal. Of all the beverages now available, this spirit, used only as a raw material in the West, is the most popular because it is dirt cheap at 350 roubles (just over pounds 1) a litre. Dilute it and you get the equivalent of five bottles of standard Russian vodka which would cost 140 roubles each.

The Royal is a godsend to the average worker, struggling to live on around 5,000 roubles a month, but has upset the domestic vodka industry which complains of unfair foreign competition. In St Petersburg this summer, the intellectuals sit around discussing the future of theatre while they knock back home-made liqueurs based on Royal.

You can achieve a good imitation of an Irish coffee liqueur by adding instant coffee, sugar and an egg to the diluted spirit. Even more delicious is Royal with forest raspberries or cloudberries from the nearby countryside. 'This spirit is so pure you will have no headache afterwards,' my friend Sasha assured me. He was right. The next day I felt as if I had no head at all.

But the problem is that Russians, weighed down by their economic worries, are seeking this oblivion every day. Russians seem incapable of drinking moderately for pleasure. Instead they must, like Sergei, a piano tuner, drink enough to end up in intensive care in hospital. Or like Oleg, a usually mild-mannered artist, be charged with assault after getting into a drunken brawl.

This state of affairs hardly strikes them as tragic, as the latest Moscow joke illustrates. 'Daddy,' says the little boy, 'now that the price of vodka has gone up, does that mean that you will drink less?' 'No son,' says the father, 'it means that you will eat less.' For some reason, Russians find that screamingly funny.