The first real frosts of Moscow’s unusually warm winter had little effect on the atmosphere in the capital yesterday. Revellers were out in force in the usual watering holes; a convertible Lexus whizzed two men dressed as Father Christmas around the central streets; men stumbled along, looking for the next stop on their liquid highway.
The pretext to party this time was celebrating the Old New Year, a quirk that results from Russia’s late adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1918. For many, it was the continuation of a two-week shutdown in all but name. Official state holidays might have ended on 9 January, but much of the country will return to work only next week. The road network continues to stand empty, a major boon to anyone trying to get around the city’s usually gridlocked streets.
Russia’s extended new year break is a comparatively new thing, established by presidential decree only in 2005. At the start, the idea was to create a new family holiday, using three Soviet holidays to create a bridge between New Year and Orthodox Christmas in the second week of January. But five days soon became 10. At the time, it was argued that the change would sign into law the country’s traditionally sluggish start to the year.
The change was popular with ordinary Russians. But rising death rates and even poorer productivity have made some worry.
According to Alexandra Nemtsova, an analyst at the Serbsky State Scientific Centre, an additional 20,000 die every year as a result of the 10-day break. The majority of these deaths are alcohol-related. Some are heart attacks, some intoxication, some simply fall asleep and freeze in the snow. There is usually a marked increase in road accidents too. State news network TASS reported more than 3,000 accidents countrywide over the 10-day break, with 509 deaths and 4,500 injuries.
Russia has a long and generally unsuccessful tradition of fighting its drinking culture. As early as 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev removed draught vodka from canteens. Later, Mikhail Gorbachev made a botched attempt at bringing matters under control. His infamous anti-alcohol campaign saw official consumption fall 2.5 times. But the nation instead remembers scorched vineyards and underground alcohol production. The last Soviet leader is often mocked for his quixotic intentions in the area.
Eight years ago, the Putin government declared its own war on alcoholism. It introduced bans on adverts and drinking in public places. New taxes and curfews were increased. Sobering-up stations, a mainstay of the Soviet welfare system, were removed from the capital. The president declared Russia should be a sporting nation and set a target of reducing consumption by 55 per cent over 11 years.
Russia’s leading cities – the likes of Moscow and St Petersburg – have responded well to the challenge. Here, there has been a major shift as younger generations turn away from strong spirits and embrace sport and healthy lifestyle.
There have also been striking improvements in Russian health. According to Rospotrebnadzor, the state consumer protection agency, alcohol consumption dropped to 10 litres per head of population by 2016 – more than the world average of 6.2 litres, but 33 per cent down since 2009. Male life expectancy is also up markedly – the typical Russian man can expect to live to 67.
But the progress has not been uniform across the country. In depressed areas, heavy drinking practices prevail. One unintended side effect of the anti-alcohol campaign, for example, has been the growth of illicit alcohol production. In December 2016, the Siberian city Irkutsk was forced to declare an emergency when dozens died after consuming an alcoholic bath lotion.
These binge hotspots have made many doubt whether ordinary Russians are in fact able to cope with the extended break. This week, Gennady Onishchenko, a loyal MP and Russia’s former chief medical officer, joined calls to cancel the holiday. “January means increased death rates,” he told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. “We should be going back to returning to work by January 2.”
With presidential elections three months away, the Kremlin will think long and hard about non-essential changes. On one hand, the outcome of March’s elections is not in doubt. President Putin’s approval ratings remain above 70 per cent and the entire political space is tightly controlled. But there are concerns about the prospect of a low turnout and the possible success of a boycott proposed by Alexei Navalny, the opposition candidate who has been controversially excluded from the ballot.
For this reason, you can be reasonably certain the Kremlin will continue to offer Russians the new year tonic of an extended break from work.
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