It's harder for Soviets to get booze -- just ask the guys in line. But they wonder how far leaders' anti-alcohol campaign can go
Moscow — The chill rain that hit Moscow did not cut the lines outside liquor stores. As usual, people started to queue one to two hours before one downtown shop opened. When business started, a pair of policemen controlled the flow into the shop and shooed away the more obvious drunks who hovered outside, trying to buy a bottle from customers as they left.
There were about 100 people waiting one day recently. Most were working-aged men, friendly but reticent when approached by a journalist. Asked why they were lining up in the rain to buy vodka, several said with varying degrees of conviction that it was their birthday. A woman passing by the line heard one man say this and laughed scornfully.
``Ask them why they're not at work,'' she said. ``Look, it's half past 3:00 in the afternoon.''
Such scenes are common throughout Moscow these days.
In one way, the lines testify to the government's success in its anti-alcohol campaign. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to make it harder, more expensive, and perhaps more embarrassing for people to buy liquor.
In July, the Soviet government raised liquor prices by 20 percent to 25 percent and reduced them on children's clothing and some other consumer items. A bottle of vodka now costs between 10 and 15 rubles ($15 to $22), easily one-tenth of a manual laborer's average monthly salary.
Muscovites say the situation has improved visibly in the 16 months since the goverment brought in new measures to combat alcoholism.
The question is: How far will the campaign go, and how long will it be sustained?
The Soviet leader's commitment cannot be doubted. But in the anti-alcohol campaign, as in the struggle to restructure the country's economic system, an observer has the impression of a single will pulling against the deadweight of tradition.
The government's commitment to the campaign is underscored by a dramatic decline in alcohol revenues. A 35 percent drop in the first six months of this year has cost the government about 5 billion rubles ($7.5 billion), officials say.
The government hopes that the losses will eventually be offset by significant savings. Earlier calculations estimated that for every ruble gained in liquor revenues, 1.4 rubles were lost through a decline in economic output or increased social expenditures. The gains, however, will depend partly on the government's success in its economic reforms.
But the revenue figures also show that the campaign is being far from evenly applied. The Moscow area, with about 4 percent of the nation's population, has accounted for 20 percent of the revenue drop. The success of the campaign here partially hides the fact that it has clearly been pursued much less actively in other parts of the country. The dramatic drop in Moscow can be partly ascribed to the city's party leader, Boris Yeltsin, and to the fact that Mr. Gorbachev is also here most of the time.
And, as with the economic reforms, many officials are more enthusiastic about the campaign in word than in deed.
Armed with the right pass, for example, a government or party official can go to comfortable, discreet caf'es in official buildings.
One of these, visited early one evening, was packed. Under a large color television men stood at the bar, ordering canap'es, beer, espresso -- and vodka. With a flourish, a barman poured a generous slug into a tumbler. A small bottle of vodka did not go far. As I waited, the barman used up three bottles.
At the other end of the campaign spectrum, some specialists are arguing the merits of an all-out ``dry law.'' This has its precedents in recent Russian history.
At the outbreak of World War I, alcohol was banned, at least to the working class, a recent article in Sociological Research journal noted.
Then as now, the privileged members of society could enjoy their alcohol with minimal inconvenience. After the 1917 revolution, the young Soviet government continued the law for several years, with mixed results. And even now, Sociological Research notes, liquor sales are banned during harvest time in some parts of the country.
Although sympathetic to prohibition, the article finally decided that its chances of success in the new future were not good. There simply is not enough public support for it.
In fact, even Gorbachev has had direct experience of popular unhappiness with the campaign. During his July visit to the Soviet Far East, television viewers were treated to the unusual spectacle of a worker complaining to the Soviet leader about the three-hour lines outside liquor stores. Gorbachev was unmoved. ``So don't stand in line,'' he replied. ``Why are you making yourself so miserable?''