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Leaders Try To Cap Russia's Vodka Habit ... Again

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Leaders Try To Cap Russia's Vodka Habit ... Again

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Leaders Try To Cap Russia's Vodka Habit ... Again

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. There's a long tradition of Russian leaders trying to confront the country's addiction to alcohol. It's mostly a tradition of failed efforts. Still, Russia's president is taking a shot. His government has declared war on cheap vodka.

Since the first of the year, vendors must charge at least 89 rubles - or about $3 - for a small bottle of Russia's favorite drink. To see how it's going, we turn to NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE: This machine stamps labels on bottles of Russian vodka. It's one of the many attractions you can check out at the museum that's attached to the Cristall vodka distillery in Moscow.

Mr. NIKOLAI KAMALETDINOV (Guide, Cristall vodka distillery museum): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Guides like Nikolai Kamaletdinov get to the heart of the Russian vodka tradition.

Mr. KAMALETDINOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: It goes back centuries, he says. There's a debate, but the word vodka, he says, might come from the Russian word for its main ingredient: water.

Mr. KAMALETDINOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: But sometimes Russians drink it like it's water. They've had this love affair with vodka. They're convinced it helps them survive Russia's bitter cold, and it's become their national drink, just like other countries have wine or beer. But vodka's a much stronger drink, which explains the problem Russian leaders have been tackling for centuries.

Mr. KAMALETDINOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Kamaletdinov told me all about the 18th century Russian czar Peter the Great. The czar liked to drink. Legend has it, he'd throw these lavish parties drenched in vodka. But people drank so much, some of his guests actually died.

According to my guide, one of the Czar Peter's ideas to get things under control: force people to drink more, until they're truly embarrassed and learn a lesson.

Mr. KAMALETDINOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Fast forward 300 years, and alcoholism remains a serious problem, one at the top of President Dmitry Medvedev's agenda. The president addressed the topic in a speech last year, saying that when he saw new government data on how much Russians drink, it took his breath away.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Eighteen liters - or nearly five gallons - of pure alcohol is what the average Russian drinks each year.

Pres. MEDVEDEV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Russians, he said, are drinking twice the amount the World Health Organization considers dangerous. It's not just vodka, but that is the president's target for now. On January 1st, the government forced up the minimum price for a half liter of vodka. Last year, you could grab a half liter in Russia for $1.70. Now, the law says stores must charge at least $3.

(Soundbite of bell)

GREENE: This has mostly affected the cheaper places, like produkti�stores, which are Russian versions of convenience stores. Cashier Olga Shibitova said her store is keeping vodka prices within the law - so far, Shibitova said, no drop in business. The idea of Russians not purchasing vodka...

Ms. OLGA SHIBITOVA (Cashier at Convenience Store): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: That's Russian for ain't going to happen.

Ms. SHIBITOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Russians will keep drinking, she said, including one of her regulars who came by.

Ms. SHIBITOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Oleg Mikhailov is 43 and drives one of the city's public trolleys. It's been a cold winter, he said, and he likes nothing more than a few gulps of vodka when he gets home.

Mr. OLEG MIKHAILOV (Trolley Driver): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Mikhailov usually spends more than $3 on a half-liter, because he said he wants the good stuff. He said he hopes Medvedev's new law will close the market on cheaper vodka, which he said can be so bad it damages your vision. He suggested checking out the scene around some of Moscow's train stations. So I did.

This is Leningradsky station. The paths around the terminal are lined with seedy stores and kiosks. The ones selling vodka say they're following the new law, though I got a different story when I chatted up two men who were trying to keep warm in an underpass.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Gerasim Kim said when he buys vodka - and it's often...

Mr. GERASIM KIM: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: ...he goes to a place still selling for $2 a half-liter. He and his friend, Vladimir Malugin, said they had not been drinking yet on this day, though I didn't totally believe them.

As for Medvedev's new policy...

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Yes, they'd heard about it. They don't like it, because they struggle as it is to buy vodka.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Malugin added that if he had a job, he'd probably buy vodka more often.

Mr. VLADIMIR MALUGIN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Just a window into the problem Russian leaders have with vodka.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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