A grizzled man, his fur hat askew, his dark gray coat unbuttoned despite the chill of a Moscow winter afternoon, ambles unsteadily down the sidewalk and pauses at the curb. Struggling to focus, he lurches forward, missteps, and blunders into the oncoming traffic. He stumbles backward scant seconds before a large green truck rumbles past. The truck does not slow, and none of the nearby pedestrians blink an eye.
Sadly, Soviet citizens have become inured to the hazards of alcohol abuse in this country -- despite its devastating effects on the economy and the social fabric.
The problem is growing, and the statistics read like a catalog of horrors. A government report recently concluded that chronic, widespread alcoholism was leading to nothing less than ``a progressive degeneration of the nation.''
The report, by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, revealed that in 1980 some 40 million Soviet citizens -- or 1 out of every 6 -- were habitual drunkards or alcoholics, and the figure appears to be growing. If present trends continue, it said, the figure will double by the end of the century.
The Soviet government seems increasingly worried by the problem, although it has yet to take decisive moves to combat alcoholism.
Over the two decades ending in 1980, the mortality rate in Russia climbed by almost 50 percent (while it dropped in Western countries). Physicians cite alcohol abuse as a major factor. Male life expectancy also dropped five years over the same period. It now stands at 62 years, according to some Western estimates.
Vodka consumption is a factor in the death of more than a million Russians a year, the Academy of Sciences report says. Another report suggests that 1 in 3 Russian male workers abuses alcohol. The rate of arrest for public drunkenness, according to one unpublished study, could be 20 times that of the United States.
Even more tragic is the spread of alcoholism among women and children. Some articles and reports indicate alcoholism is rising more rapidly among women than among men. Various estimates indicate that from 10 to 15 percent of Soviet alcoholics are women.
A pediatrician quoted by the Academy of Sciences says 1 in 6 children born in 1982 was frail or ailing -- and alcohol abuse by mothers was a major contributing factor. Some infants are said to be suffering from alcoholism at birth, inherited from their drinking mothers.
Alcoholism is also cited as the leading factor in the failure of marriages and the breakup of households in this country. On a visit to a children's home in Volgograd, a reporter for the newspaper Teachers' Gazette found that nearly all of the children had been taken away from alcoholic mothers.
The problem is passed from one generation to the next. Another newspaper, Rural Life, said the average age of alcoholics has dropped by five to seven years during the past decade, and that one-third of all alcoholics who have registered with the government had been drinking compulsively by the age of 10.
That, in turn, contributes to juvenile deliquency and, eventually, to adult crime. A report in the government newspaper, Izvestia, flatly stated, ``Drunkenness is directly connected with crime,'' and said that 60 percent of thefts, 75 percent of murders and rapes, 80 percent of robberies, and 90 percent of ``hooligan deeds'' (vandalism) are committed by drunken people.
Yet the government appears to be doing far less than it could to combat the problem. One reason is that the state has a monopoly on alcohol production; it makes about $56 billion a year on vodka sales alone. Western experts say that liquor taxes account for some 40 percent of the government's income from taxes.
But that appears to be a poor reason for continuing to meet the nation's growing thirst for alcohol. The Academy of Sciences estimates the state loses $225 billion yearly through slack production, absenteeism, and treatment for alcoholism. Izvestia says that in some sections of the country, after paydays and holidays, drunkenness soars and labor productivity plummets as much as 15 to 30 percent.
Changing societal attitudes about alcohol promises to be exceedingly difficult, however. Different segments of the population have different reasons for drinking, but it appears the most common one is boredom. Life in the Soviet Union, with its stress on collectivism and uniformity, can be unremittingly boring, especially in small provincial towns. Consequently, many people turn to liquor to relieve the tedium.
Excessive drinking practice has become so ingrained here that abstinence is considered almost aberrant.
One woman wrote to a newspaper that nondrinkers are treated like ``a white crow, an alien. . . .''
``It's considered very rude in our country not to drink,'' a young man agrees.
``You should drink,'' he says, asking, ``Why not?''
Indeed, many Russian males seem to assess one another's manhood in terms of their capacity for alcohol. According to the Academy of Sciences' report, Russians drink some 32 quarts of vodka per person per year, and the figure is soaring.
Their drinking habits apparently make many Soviet men unsuitable marriage partners. And loneliness is cited as the greatest reason for alcoholism among women. Indeed, alcoholism among Soviet women seems particularly insidious. While the newspaper said that men take some 10 to 15 years of steady drinking to become an alcoholic, women may become alcoholics in only three or four years.
The government periodically makes stabs at solving the problem, but so far without notable success.
In many cities, police officers run sobering-up stations, where intoxicated people are locked up for the night, then charged a fee for the stay. Schoolchildren, from the age of 7, are lectured on the dangers of vodka.
There seems to be growing recognition that the situation is out of hand -- and that strong measures are called for.
Indeed, the report by the Soviet Academy of Sciences concluded that drunkenness posed a far greater threat to the Soviet Union than do external forces.
``Why [should a foreign power] make war'' against the Soviet Union, it asked, ``if in 12 or 15 years we literally collapse as a sovereign nation, a state in which half the adult population is made up of alcoholics and drunks incapable or working or defending themselves?''