Russia's Poisons

Russia is in the midst of a poison vodka epidemic, with over 1,600 deaths this year. Moscow's TV newscasters have reported on the steady stream of poisonings. Poison vodka warnings are now posted throughout Russia. Local radio announcements are accompanied by funeral music.

Choosing your poison – "Vodka, please"

One Russian journalist explained the fondness for drink as follows: "When going to certain towns in Russia, you immediately understand that if you don't drink, you don't survive. Pskov is, if its inhabitants will excuse me, just one such town."

Vodka drinking has recently killed many seeking to survive their dreary existence in Pskov and elsewhere. In late October the hospitals in Pskov, a mid-sized provincial town, admitted over 20 poisoning victims daily. "Let’s share a bottle and see what happens," one Russian was quoted as saying to a friend in Pskov.

A flourishing Russian cottage industry buys illegal industrial alcohol, cuts it with water, flavors it with a few drops of iodine or instant coffee and sells it out the backdoor. The evening news regularly shows the police breaking down the doors to squalid apartments, with the camera floodlights shining on puffy-faced, glassy-eyed Russians protesting with slurred speech that the mayonnaise jars and old bottles are filled with legal brew.

Why do Russians continue to drink under-the-counter hooch? Moonshine is less than half the price of legal alcohol, an important factor for Russia's poor who hardly scrape by. Doing without is not an option for many of them. But poison vodka is reported to have entered into some provincial retail distribution chains and been sold as legal drink.

One rumor links today's poison vodka epidemic to an especially toxic disinfectant the federal government made last year to combat the avian flu. The government's difficulty in identifying the toxin points to a cover-up according to the believers in this rumor. After all, only government officials would have had access to that special disinfectant. Furthermore, only the small fry get pinched, never the crime bosses. That's further evidence of government involvement for some. Others point to changes in the tax laws that have made bootlegging more profitable. Nobody knows for sure.

Ensuring public health is a basic function of government and, judging by Russian press accounts, government officials are trying to take strong action. After all, for better or worse, vodka is Russia's national drink and politicians know the importance of a safe supply. But judging from the number of victims, the government appears largely impotent.

Russia's inability to identify the source of its alcohol poisonings and shut down illegal alcohol sales contrasts starkly with how quickly U.S. government and business officials tracked down and ended the recent U.S. E. Coli outbreak that caused far fewer deaths than the numbers poisoned in Russia by vodka.

Polonium –another poison

While over a thousand Russians have died from vodka poisoning this year, the polonium poisoning of one Russian, Alexander Litvinenko, has captured more Western press attention.

Litvinenko was an ex-KGB officer, or least that’s what he said. In the world of espionage, up quickly becomes down. We on the outside have no way of knowing if he really left the KGB, or FSB as it’s known today. We do know that Litvinenko, while living in London, was associated with an exiled Russian billionaire. Further, while on his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian president Putin of ordering his murder.

What are we to make of this murder? Did Putin order it? What might this poisoning tell us about today's Russia?

For starters, the murder reveals that some veteran cold war hawks are easily provoked into anti-Russian, anti-Putin diatribes. With no solid inside information to go on, pundits such as Charles Krauthammer and Edward Luttwak leaned back in their office easy chairs, pointed their fingers and shouted "J'accuse" at President Putin. They revealed themselves as anti-Russian Johnny One-Notes. Other press commentaries, while subtler, jumped to a similar conclusion.

Probably our only chance for discovering the truth will come from some quirks of science that help investigators establish more facts regarding the murder.

The Putin administration's PR might have unwittingly contributed to these hawkish reactions as it assiduously cultivates a public image of strong presidential power. The TV news Putin is Tsar-like, tough, decisive, and carries himself with a military bearing. He is often shown publicly admonishing his ministers. Is this an accurate reflection of his power?

Some of the Putin administration's actions are admissions of weakness. It pushed through legislation ending the direct election of regional governors, making them Kremlin appointees. There is now talk of the Kremlin appointing some mayors, too. Much of Moscow's power is ultimately tied to provincial natural resources and top Moscow officials fear the competition that comes from provincial power centers.

Stalin's Soviet Union also projected an image of total control at the top, but historical research has shown the reality to more complicated. Merle Fainsod's Smolensk Under Soviet Rule, an analysis of the Smolensk Communist Party archives captured during World War II, paints a somewhat chaotic picture of Soviet political life under Stalin, one dominated by squabbling factions, petty jealousies, corruption, and the personal ambition of individual Party officials.

Similar chaos appears in the memoirs of General Grigorenko, a top Soviet military official who later became a leading dissident. He recounts the story of a Colonel Kutsner who, having learned that he was to be arrested in Minsk, evades the secret police, flushes his uniform down the railroad station toilet, jumps on the next train to Moscow, bribes the conductor and gets a teaching position at a Moscow military academy. Moscow officials were evidently unaware that he had just escaped the firing squad in Minsk.

Litvinenko's murder makes the Putin administration 0 for 4 in solving recent high-profile political assassinations. That's another sign of weakness. In August a prominent journalist and Putin critic, Anna Politkovskaya, was fatally shot in front of her apartment. In the next month one of Putin's high-level officials, Andrei Kozlov, the purportedly honest and quite likeable Deputy Head of the State Bank, was gunned down in Moscow. In October Dmitry Fotyanov, a candidate for mayor and member of Putin's party, was shot just before the local elections.

Textbook flowcharts make political authority seem quite simple, flowing neatly from box to box, upwards and downwards. But is it so simple? Might not these pictograms exaggerate the real power of the people at the top? In looking at the pictogram of the U.S. government, should we not be asking why President Bush still hasn’t solved September 2001's anthrax attack in Washington DC that killed five and injured 17? After all, he's stated that fighting terrorism is his major priority.

The vodka-poisoning epidemic continues in Russia and no criminal kingpins have been arrested. The Kremlin seems almost powerless to end the problem. Quite possibly Litvinenko's assassination is just another piece of evidence pointing to the Kremlin's limited power.

While our sense of justice might be offended by not catching the Washington anthrax terrorist or Litvinenko's assassin, do we really want to give our governments greater powers to do so every time and everywhere?

16 December 2006