Beer In Russia Wasn't Considered Alcohol Until 2011
We know you're hungover, barely alive, just hanging in there like a kitten on a motivational poster. That's why, today, we're bringing you a story about what is no doubt your favorite thing right now: Alcohol!
Before 2013, anyone with a hangover in Russia could just pop over to a street kiosk and crack open everyone's favorite nonalcoholic drink. We're talking, of course, about beer. Specifically, any beer with less than 10% alcohol by volume. For all the yankees out there, that's pretty much all beer except the very strongest selections at your local craft brewery.
It all started changing in 2011, when then-president Dmitry Medvedev signed a bill that declared all beer technically alcohol. The law didn't come to life until 2013, but most Russians weren't happy about it. Not only is Russia a hard-drinking country, they take two weeks off to celebrate around Christmas and the new year. That time of year is one long party punctuated with deep, drunk sleeps. To keep yourself in that festive spirit, you definitely needed to keep a low-key buzz going, but thanks to Medvedev, that became easier said than done.
But don't Russians drink vodka?
Russians will always be tied to their love of vodka. Nothing's going to change that. In the early aughts, however, beer moved up the ranks of Russia's favorite drinks thanks to some clever marketing. At the time, beer was advertised as a healthy alternative to vodka and other strong spirits, pushing its sales up 40%.
During that time, vodka fell out of favor. Oh, sure, people continued to drink it, but they couldn't buy it on the street the way they could buy beer. In the 2000s, vodka sales fell almost 30% as Russians cracked open cans of Baltika, Ochakovo, and Klinskoe Light (for when you're trying to slim down for those famously balmy Moscow summers). Both beer and vodka are easy to knock back for hours on end, but the advantage of beer over vodka was its all-day availability.
Beer was everywhere in Russia in the 2000s
Technically, you can drink beer wherever you want if you're sneaky enough, but legally, it's a bit of a gray area. You can usually get it in even the most family-friendly restaurants, for example, but you had better not walk out the door with it. Russia was on the very light side of that area until 2011: In the early 2000s, Russians could legally drink as much beer as they wanted anywhere in public because it was considered a foodstuff and not alcohol. It was sold around the clock in stores, at parks, and even on the metro. If you could get a bottle of water, you could buy a bottle of beer. If a comrade wanted to pop down to the семь-одиннадцать (that's 7-Eleven for everyone too hungover to plug that into Bing) for a Zhigulevskoye or two during their lunch break, it was totally cool. There probably wasn't a lot of work getting finished after lunch if this was case, but still, it was totally within a Russian's rights to do so up until the law went into effect on the morning of January 1, 2013.
This wasn't the first attack on Russia's beer industry
A year prior to Medvedev's law, the Russian legislature tried another tactic to discourage people from buying so much of the hoppy delight. In 2010, the Russian beer industry faced a 200% tax hike on their products in the name of keeping public consumption down. Even as prices went up, however, Russians continued drinking. Officials came to the conclusion that it wasn't the cost of beer that was the issue, it was the availability.
In 2011, Medvedev signed the bill that classified beer as alcohol. The bill outlawed the sale of beer in street kiosks, the metro, and gas stations, which accounted for about 30% of total beer sales in Russia. On top of its prohibition from specific vendors, beer advertisements were removed from television, and beer can no longer be sold anywhere between 11:00 P.M. and 8:00 A.M..
Medvedev wanted to curtail a national tragedy
It's not that Medvedev wanted to be a buzzkill. He was just worried about the national health, and with good reason. According to a 2012 report from The Telegraph, around 500,000 deaths in Russia were thought to be alcohol-related, with the average Russian drinking about 32 pints of pure alcohol per year. Most of that alcohol is vodka, but after beer climbed the list of things that Russians loved to drink, its 24/7 availability was potentially deadly.
Opposition to the law claimed that the lack of availability of beer would actually lead to more health problems than less because Russians would just swing back to drinking vodka at home. Isaac Sheps, the chairman of the Union of Russian Brewers, stated:
It will be tougher if you want to buy a beer on the way home from work, or pop down from your apartment. So you have to stock at home. And stocking beer is more problematic than stocking vodka. It's bulky, it's big, there's no room for it in small homes. It's much easier to buy two bottles of vodka and manage for your instant need for alcohol. So it's quite ironic that this attempt to improve health and lower alcoholism could have the opposite effect and cause people to drink more harmful spirits.
Thanks to the law, drinking in Russia has been Americanized
Anyone taking a trip to Russia will find that the drinking culture, while amped up, is similar to grabbing a drink in the United States. Regulations on drinking that have been implemented since 2011 have moved drinking out of public spaces and solidified the minimum drinking age for strong spirits at 21. While you can still drink beer at the age of 18, it's possible that further restrictions may be placed on the drinking age.
That being said, if you're of age, you can always pop into a bar and enjoy as many drinks as you like for as long as it's open for business. Russia may have been the wild west for alcohol in the early aughts, but now, drinking in the former Soviet Union is practically the same as drinking in the midwest, just (very) slightly colder.
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