DURAKOVO, RUSSIA — Here in the Russian countryside, far from the temptations of addiction, Constantine knows that the lambkin he cradles may be what keeps him from returning to alcohol and drugs.
His life was at a dead end after a decade of substance abuse and nine years in prison, so he joined a volunteer rehabilitation program, unique in Russia, that is changing lives by combining work, religion, and sobriety.
"It's too early to say that I will not return [to drinking]. I am at the crossroads," says Constantine, who would only give his first name. He is one of 50 Russians in this village 60 miles south of Moscow who are trying to break the grip of alcoholism that has long been a national epidemic.
"It's difficult to come here, and more difficult to leave. When you work with animals, your heart melts. How can I leave them?" he asks, as the lamb noses up to his bearded face. He pauses. "I didn't believe it could be possible that there is someone who spends time with people like us, with empty souls," he says.
That person is Mikhail Morozov, a former alcoholic himself who began more than a decade ago to build a community at Durakovo - "Village of Fools" - to help alcoholics recover.
Mr. Morozov found redemption in the Russian Orthodox Church, beat booze using the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and has invested his personal fortune, earned by producing religious icons, to help others do the same.
In Russia, there is no shortage of candidates. Alcohol consumption tops four gallons per year - one of the highest levels in the world. One-third of all deaths are alcohol-related, health officials say, and alcohol has helped lower the life expectancy of Russian men to just 57 years, some two decades shorter than levels in Western Europe.
At his state-of-the-union address last week, President Vladimir Putin decried the fact that 40,000 Russians die each year from alcohol poisoning, and that "most of these people are young men, the breadwinners for their families."
At Durakovo, treatment is free, but rules are strict. Residents must put in a full day of work to sustain the village - doing everything from woodworking to caring for animals. Every night, there are AA-style sessions where participants applaud another day of staying sober.
Mr. Morozov credits a higher power for bringing him together with the people he is helping. "God leads them to me," says Morozov, who each week helps run an AA meeting at a Moscow monastery. The toughest cases are invited to Durakovo, Morozov says, where they "can either open the door of the church or not; it depends on them."
Most of the men and the few women here do turn to religion; in buildings designed to have an "enchanted forest" quality, rudimentary beds are surrounded by icons.
Roman Myagkov, a former racketeer who went to prison four times for a total of 25 years, credits the responsibility and trust he has been given in Durakovo for drying him out and allowing him to become the village's program administrator. "I tried everything to give up drinking, but here it is quite different - God is here," says Mr. Myagkov, a trace of emotion in his face. "I have a chance to [secretly] drink here, and no one will know about it. But I don't want to fail Morozov. He trusts me."
Myagkov says recovery at the village begins with small steps - taking care of cattle or the horses. "I can deceive anybody, but I can't deceive myself. The measure of sobriety depends on the measure of responsibility," he says.
Typically, he says, residents stay about a year. By the day they leave, "their eyes have changed," he adds. "They become brighter, lighter."
Not all stories end in success. In the chapel's entrance hall, Artyom Nechaev points to photos in a montage of past Durakovo residents.
"This one is in prison. This one died - he was a drug addict," says the young former heroin addict who has been here four years. "This is a professor. Here is a mechanic who often comes to stay sober. Many people stay sober, but every case is different."
Of the 500 or so people who have been at Durakovo since 1994, 28 later died of substance abuse or other complications of their addiction. The large property of rolling fields, thick forests, and sturdy dwellings that contrast sharply with nearby poverty-stricken houses, is dotted with the occasional empty vodka or beer bottle.
But after the initial shock of Durakovo's strict rules, residents embrace them. Nechaev first came for a few days, then said he had to go to the hospital - an excuse to go get a heroin fix.
"I lied to everyone to get what I wanted," recalls Nechaev, who then returned for a couple months, thought he kicked the habit, and left. "I was feeling euphoric because of my sobriety. I went home for a few days and could see my life from a different angle. But it changed me too much, and I realized I was not ready for this life."
Nechaev says he has thought about joining the priesthood, but he is also aware of how much strength would be required. "An alcoholic or drug addict is always one glass away, even after 10 years of sobriety, if he stops listening to his heart and stops working on being sober," he says.
To Morozov, his village is a refuge - both physical and spiritual - in which to hone that skill. "A person who [depends upon] alcohol or drugs is a slave to his bad habits," he says. "There is the same Russian root for the words 'spirit' and 'spirits,' and a false spirit sometimes fills in the soul. When you make it leave, the spirit of God's love, Christ's love, fills in the hole. Nothing else will do."
Cost of Russian drinking
• Half of hospitalizations are alcohol-related
• 1 in 5 crimes is committed by someone drunk
• 2.5 million alcoholics were registered in 2004
• In villages, per capita alcohol consumption is 4.5 gallons per capita per year.
Sources: Russian Health Ministry, Russian Press Reports
Top five countries for consumption of spirits in 2004
Russian figure does not include alcohol obtained illegally or through home production, which can double the official number, according to the Russian Health Ministry (in gallons; does not include beer or wine).
Republic of Moldova: 2.85
Reunion (island near Madagascar): 2.25
Russian Federation: 1.99
Saint Lucia: 1.89
Source: World Health Organization