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A city in shock

Nick Connolly
December 25, 2016

Aftershave, anti-freeze, window cleaner and now bath lotion - just some of the things people in Russia turn to when vodka is too expensive. But when the bath lotion people drink is bootlegged, the consequences are dire.

Russland Irkutsk Alkoholvergiftungen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Shipitsyn

More than 70 people in the Siberian city of Irkutsk have died so far as a result of drinking counterfeit "boyarishnik," a hawthorn-infused bath lotion. That figure is expected to rise even further.

But how could this happen and who are these people? This particular bath lotion has been around for some time and while drinking it was never going to be anything but damaging for its consumers' health in the long run, these deaths have shocked Russia.

An unremarkable shed amid a colony of dachas on the fringes of Irkutsk is now thought to be the epicenter of this tragedy. It is here that local reporters believe the counterfeit bath lotion was produced.

Deadly consequences

The crucial and deadly difference was that this time the bootleggers used methanol instead of the normal ethyl alcohol. Once consumed, methanol is broken down to formaldehyde and formic acid - both of them nerve toxins. Blindness is among the first symptoms, soon followed by paralysis and coma. Many victims appear to have lost consciousness before even getting a chance to call for help.

Russland Irkutsk Alkoholvergiftungen
The bootlegged alcohol has dire consequencesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Smirnov

But it's not just the enormous death toll that has taken people in Irkutsk by surprise. It's also the kind of people who have fallen victim to it. When the news first spread, most locals assumed it was a problem affecting only the city's rough sleepers and chronic alcoholics. And while that's true for many of the victims, it's not the full story.

The "Komsomolskaya Pravda" newspaper tells the story of 34-year-old Oksana Travnikova. A packer at a warehouse, she was the sole breadwinner for her unemployed husband and 18-year-old son. Her immaculate dacha earned her the family nickname "bulldozer" - a tribute to her work ethic. Unable to afford vodka, she and her husband bought a bottle of the lotion to drink diluted with their Saturday night dinner. Just two shots of it put her in hospital, surviving her husband by just two days.

In a region where pay checks of just 15,000 rubles (235 euros, $246) are nothing out of the ordinary and huge distances mean groceries are often more expensive than in Moscow or St. Petersburg, every ruble counts. For now at least, surrogate products like "boyarishnik" are unbeatably cheap. A 250ml bottle of the 93 percent proof liquid costs just 40 rubles - a little more than 60 cents. The cheapest vodka on the market costs at least double that.

Public health disaster

But even when the bath lotion is genuine, its widespread consumption is a public health disaster that's not only restricted to Russia's neglected Siberian provinces.

"Excellent prospects - in these difficult times demand is growing by the day": That is the extraordinary slogan used to promote vending machines selling bath lotion 24 hours a day to anyone with a few rubles to spare. The brochure for potential investors was spotted in the prosperous central Russian city of Kaluga. The machines are "100 percent legal" and "pay for themselves in just one month," the brochure boasts. And the figures seem to back that up. Experts estimate that 550 million liters of pseudo-medical and "dual use" alcoholic substances are sold in Russia every year. It's a market that's worth some 2.5 billion euros and continues to grow apace.

Russland Sibirien Stadtansicht Irkutsk
Pay checks in Irkutsk can be meager, and the prices highImage: Imago/Zuma Press

Searching for a solution

But what of the government response? The Irkutsk region is currently the scene of a flurry of government activity. Police have raided a number of underground distilleries, confiscating thousands of liters of alcohol. A regional state of emergency has been introduced, allowing authorities to temporarily ban the sale of such "cosmetic" products. President Vladimir Putin has asked the government to raise taxes on cosmetics and household products that contain alcohol. But not all observers are convinced. They fear a boom in the consumption of homemade moonshine if the last affordable alcoholic highs disappear from the shops.

More likely is a drop in the price of vodka - thanks to a reduction in government duties. For all of Putin's demonstrative promotion of healthy living and sports - either on the judo mat or as supporter-in-chief to Russia's athletes - he's unlikely to clamp down on alcohol altogether. As the writer Mikhail Butov has pointed out - both Tsarist Russia's World War I-era ban on vodka and Mikhail Gorbachev's 1980s sobriety campaign led to massive public discontent, arguably even contributing to the fall of their respective systems.

Schnaps Wodka Alkohol
Even "safe" alcolhol takes a huge toll in RussiaImage: fotolia/Storm Flash

But as Russians settle down for their long New Year holiday season, traditionally a time for heavy eating and more than a few vodka toasts, it's time to take stock of the depressing public health statistics. Male life expectancy in Russia lags a full 15 years behind that of their peers in Spain or Italy. A quarter of Russian men don't make it past the age of 55 - a fact which doctors say is attributable in large part to vodka. Russia is a country with a massive drinking problem, and these tragic deaths in Irkutsk are just the most recent and egregious chapter of a much bigger story.

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