‘They’ve taken to the bottle’ The war in Ukraine has caused Russian officials to start drinking more than ever — and Putin’s not pleased
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
In the last two months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought up Russia’s alcoholism problem in multiple public meetings with regional governors — after largely ignoring the topic for years. But according to sources close to the Kremlin, Putin, a famously abstemious drinker, is less concerned about public health than about the drinking habits of Kremlin officials and other members of the ruling class. Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev explains how the president has started signaling to his subordinates that it’s time to make a change.
In mid-August, Russian President Vladimir Putin met via video link with Alexander Avdeyev, the acting governor of Russia’s Vladimir region. One of the issues Putin raised was the region’s growing struggle with alcoholism. He was clear about how he wants Avdeyev to address the problem:
Putin added that in the fight against alcohol addiction, “you can’t ban anything, you can’t just raise prices excessively, [and you can’t just impose] excise taxes.” The correct approach, he said, is to put out “healthy lifestyle propaganda,” as well as to “develop infrastructure for people to exercise and give cultural institutions the attention they deserve.”
Several days earlier, Putin had met with another regional head: Acting Governor of the Kirov region Alexander Sokolov. That time, too, Putin brought up the “high level of alcoholization of the population” in the region. “It’s not the time to sweep things under the rug or try to whitewash anything — it’s time to deal with our most pressing problems,” Putin told Sokolov. “I urge you to devote some attention to this.”
Never has Putin spoken about Russia’s alcoholism problem so frequently. One of the few times he did mention it in the past was at a press conference in 2016, when a journalist asked him about efforts to crack down on the sale of denatured alcohol after 77 people were poisoned in Irkutsk. Putin responded that while “alcoholization” is a real problem in Russia, Russians drink no more than northern Europeans (this isn’t true).
Odder still, neither the Vladimir region nor the Kirov region have particularly high alcoholism rates by Russian standards. Russia’s Health Ministry doesn’t publish statistics on alcohol addiction for all federal subjects, but it has reported that the numbers are worst in the Far East, the north, and the Penza region. For some reason, however, Putin hasn’t spoken publicly about the problem with governors from those areas.
A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that both Avdeyev and Sokolov were puzzled when Putin brought up the topic; on the list of things their constituents are worried about, he said, alcoholism “isn’t even in the top ten.” Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Meduza that Putin raised the issue because the Vladimir and Kirov regions “are exceptions to the overall trend” of Russia’s declining alcohol use in recent years.
Two sources close to the Putin administration, however, told Meduza that Putin’s statements weren’t, in fact, motivated by statistics. According to the sources, the president has begun paying extra attention to the problem of alcoholism in recent months because amidst the war in Ukraine, Russian officials have begun drinking significantly more. Putin is especially troubled by “certain people from his inner circle,” said the sources.
“People have been relieving their stress this way since February. Ministers, their subordinates, and even some deputy prime ministers, presidential administration and Security Council members, state corporation heads, and governors [have begun to drink more],” said one source. He said that the main reason for the stress is the domestic damage caused by Russia's war in Ukraine and the sanctions that followed — and that Putin believes the bureaucrats should have an easier time coping. As Meduza has previously reported, almost no Russian officials knew of Putin’s plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine before February 24, and many of them spent the subsequent months in shock and confusion.
“They took to the bottle [in February]. And some of them don’t want to stop,” said one source.
At the same time, two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that as far as they can tell, Russia’s recent military failures in Ukraine have had no effect on Kremlin officials’ and state corporation heads’ drinking habits: “They have their own war, their own problems.”
Meduza’s sources said they believe Russian officials’ increased alcohol consumption is so troubling to Putin because “discipline has started to suffer”: “Some [officials] have missed important events; others have slurred their words and said things that don’t make sense in official settings. The general public has already started to notice.”
The sources predict that for now, Putin will simply continue to “hint” that he wants the offenders’ behavior to change rather than firing them. But if things don’t improve, they said, that could change.