Vladimir Putin has clearly learned the lesson some of his predecessors did not: when times are tough, boosting alcohol prices is a good way to trigger a social explosion. But his decision to cut the price of the cheapest vodka — which goes into effect today — is a recipe for a longer term disaster.
And that is all the more so because it comes at exactly the same moment that thanks to the Kremlin leader’s policies and decisions, regions have run out of money to maintain the electric train routes on which many Russians outside of the cities rely. As a result, Russian Railways is ending service, and the regions and their people have no good way to compensate.
There has already been a great deal of discussion about the direct impact of cheaper vodka prices: they will lead both to greater consumption of hard liquor and they will also lead Russians to turn to surrogates which will now be harder to distinguish from “official” production.
Both of those things will have a negative impact on public health, driving up alcohol-related illnesses like diabetes and alcohol poisoning even as they keep an inebriated public from protesting against the policies of the Kremlin which increasingly appear directed against the Russian people.
And there has been some discussion of the budgetary shortfalls in the regions that are leading to an end to government-subsidized electric train service in many of them, a service that is often the only reliable link people outside of rural areas have to cities where they can gain access to many services, including pharmacies and hospitals.
Ending electric train service to rural areas is creating conditions which some Russian observers are already calling “a real genocide” of the Russian people. (See ‘A Real Genocide’ – Trains to Stop Running in Most Russian of Russia’s Regions and Russian Regions Increasingly Hollowing Out Demographically, Statistics Show.)
But the coming together of these two policies, a reduction in the price of vodka and the end of rural train service, a development that will exacerbate public health more than either on its own has only begun to be the subject of concern – and first of all in Pskov oblast where the trains stopped running today.
To save money, the Pskov oblast authorities had already cut bus service to rural areas and ended the plowing of many roads outside of the cities, steps that cut off many rural residents from medical services and sent live expectancies in rural areas plummeting over the last two decades.
Indeed, the situation there is so dire already that as Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, has suggested, in five to seven years, there will only be four cities left in Pskov oblast “and nothing else.” The cities will be Pskov, Velikiye Luky, Pechora, and Dno because of its railway junction.
Putin’s latest twin decisions will only accelerate that trend: more than 12,000 Pskov residents are currently suffering from alcohol dependency of one kind or another. Many of them live in rural areas. They will now be able to get vodka for less, but they won’t be able to get into the cities for medical help. As a result, as local officials concede, many will die prematurely.