If all you knew about Russia came from the likes of the Washington Post and the Guardian, you’d be forgiven for thinking Russian streets were teeming with balalaika-playing bears, AK-47-wielding communists, and KGB officers Cossack-dancing in the snow. By now, you’d have thought such caricatures would have gotten old, yet despite the current trend towards wokeness, lazy and hackneyed stereotypes are back in fashion.
In recent weeks, Anglo-American news outlets have resorted to exploiting the most famous and lazy Russian trope of all: alcohol.
On March 30, the Times of London published a piece written by Marc Bennetts, titled ‘Alcohol deaths tumble as warmer winter weans Russians off vodka’. The author is accredited in Moscow to the Washington Times, the right-wing US newspaper known for Obama ‘born in Kenya’ truthism and, recently, claims that Covid-19 is a China-produced biological weapon.
With a healthy dose of xenophobia and misinformation (including the claim that Putin doesn’t drink alcohol), Bennetts’ article was the quintessential stereotype-baiting piece – which, admittedly, is known to get clicks. But of course, most other countries report extra consumption in the winter, and it is an established fact that people living in colder nations drink more than those in warmer climes. A 2018 study from the University of Pittsburgh systematically demonstrated “that worldwide, and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.” This is not merely a Russian issue.
Since 2003, alcohol consumption in Russia has dropped by over 40%, according to the World Health Organization. A 2019 report argues that Russia’s ever-decreasing appetite for drink has led to a fall in cardiovascular-related fatalities, as well as alcohol poisonings, alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic psychosis, and violent and accidental deaths.
Perhaps a much more balanced article would be titled ‘Warm winter contributes to a 20-year sustained decline in Russian alcohol consumption’.
Then came Covid-19. In the third week of March, Nielson reported that US sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55%, with online purchases increasing by 243%.
In the same month, according to consumer analysts Kantar, UK alcohol sales in supermarkets and corner shops rose by 22%. Any rise in the sale of alcohol is, of course, expected. With bars, pubs, and restaurants closed, and very little entertainment available, it’s no surprise the world is inclined to have an extra tipple. Also, many of the additional store sales compensate for the lack of consumption in licensed premises.
On April 14, the New York Times reported that vodka sales in Russia shot up by 65% in the last week of March, citing market research firm GfK. In the frenzied uncertainty of a government-designated non-working week, it is no surprise that Russians ran to panic buy everything they’d need for the foreseeable future – and naturally, a beverage was on the shopping list.
With fears of stores closing and long nights spent at home, it is no surprise that some people picked up a few extra units. However, America’s newspaper of record might have jumped the gun a little on Russia’s alcohol sales.
On Monday, Moscow daily Izvestia published figures from fiscal data operator Taxcom showing that, in the first week of April (March 30 to April 5), vodka sales dropped 41% compared to the previous month’s first week. Beer sales were down by 26%.
“During the period of excess demand, consumers began to stockpile, which includes alcohol,” said Vadim Drobiz, the head of the Center for Research on Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets.
Speaking to Izvestia, Nielsen Russia’s retailer director Konstantin Loktev noted that the closure of cafes and restaurants also led to an increase in sales of alcohol in stores. Furthermore, alcohol is prohibited from being sold on the internet in Russia. It isn’t in the US, which has seen a 243% rise in online orders.
With the worldwide numbers put in the picture, perhaps it’s time we all agreed to let go of the ‘Russians are all alcoholics’ stereotype. With WHO research now showing that Russians drink less than the Germans and the French, let us retire the vodka-worship myth and focus on the country’s real problems, instead of repeating a trite, vapid caricature of a Russia which nowadays only exists at the margins.
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