Fools, Drunks, And Americans

Fools, Drunks, And Americans November 5, 2013

As much as I love the idea of a ballet about alcoholism, this article on “Why Russia’s drinkers resist AA” seems to rely on unstated, wrong assumptions not only about addiction and recovery, but about the diversity of spirituality. Although the title is neutral–resistance can be heroic as well as bullheaded–the article itself seems pretty clearly slanted toward the conclusion that Russia needs to get with the Program.

As you know, Dr. Bob, I have immense respect for the 12 Steps and my own recovery has been influenced by them. But they are a spiritual path, and if there’s one thing we should remember in this month of honoring all the faithful departed, it’s the wild diversity of the saints. If Russian drinkers often “resist” AA (like some American subcultures), maybe it would be better to look for paths to recovery which come from within Russian culture rather than just importing an American invention.

I went to grab the (lone!) paragraph where the author describes actual Russian attitudes of mercy or acceptance toward people destroyed by drinking–the one place where we glimpse a homegrown Russian spiritual understanding of addiction–but the article has been paywalled since I first read it, so I apologize if I’m misrepresenting anything. That description was used to argue that Russians need some way of understanding alcohol abuse as a problem before it reduces someone to shambling penury, which is true enough; but it seems like the article is also hinting at an area where the common Russian attitude has a lot to teach Americans in terms of accepting those who are living on their rock bottom. Why not work from the strengths the culture already has?

From the very little I know, one problem with Russian addiction treatment is that it can be really harshly punitive. (Not an approach unknown on these shores.) What this suggests to me is that Russian approaches to addiction could stand to become more Christian–not necessarily more American.

Having written the above, I see that I’m conflating “American” and “AA” more than I should. Obviously the latter culture comes from the former, but AA actually works against many of the typical American spiritual ills, from success fetishism to spiritual DIY. In the case of this particular article, however, I think the perspective is primarily American even when that American-ness would seem to conflict with AA ideas.

For example, for an article pushing AA this piece was weirdly readier to accept materialistic explanations for addiction than spiritual ones. Again, I wish I could quote it, but there’s a bit about the “supposed” Russian tendency toward existential longing or angst*, while the use of alcohol to suppress political revolt is treated as a much more plausible explanation for Russian alcoholism. Alcohol can produce ecstasy even for addicts, and even poor or oppressed people long for ecstasy. Part of the reason AA “works,” when it works, is that it acknowledges that addiction is at least sometimes driven by a spiritual thirst. All people and cultures experience spiritual thirst, and some–the drunken nations, God bless them–are more prone to working out that spiritual need through actual alcohol.

* exact quote: “the supposedly essential melancholy of the Russian soul.” Good for these supposed Russians.

Let me lay my cards on the table here: I am pretty sure that Russia would be better off with more AA than it has right now. The program provides immense hope and release for many. But the worst way to present it–in the USA, as well as in Russia–is to assume that it’s the One Best Way for everyone. This breeds defensiveness (“Reject your lousy culture and take ours instead!”) and for-your-own-good coercion; and, you know, it isn’t actually true. AA isn’t necessarily the One Best Way even for those (like me) whose problem is primarily spiritual, let alone those whose addiction has other roots.

Everything I know about Russian alcoholism I learned from Dostoevsky, but I know I have readers who know much more of the history and culture here, and I’d really love to hear from them.

ETA: I’ve now been able to re-read the article. It’s not as one-note as I remembered: It points out, for example, that “Some solutions, even successful ones, may not be nearly as universal as the problems they are supposed to solve.” Here’s the paragraph I alluded to above, with my emphasis added:

The reasons why [AA hasn’t taken off], according to people who have devoted years to understanding alcoholism in Russia, are multiple and complex. The most important, perhaps, is that the Russian idea of “alcoholism” is very different from the American one: According to medical anthropologist Eugene Raikhel, the popular definition of a “drinking problem” in Russia is what happens at “the endpoint of chronic alcohol use,” not the drinking itself, which is considered perfectly normal. “They think alcoholism is when a person is homeless, lying in a ditch,” said Moseeva. “That’s an alcoholic. That a person can be more or less successful and still be an alcoholic doesn’t really register.” Even those who utterly destroy their lives through drinking tend to be regarded with understanding and sympathy: “A drunk man,” said Yanni Kotsonis, a Russian historian at New York University, “invites the pity and support of the community.” For Kotsonis, the idea of AA flourishing in Russia is a nonstarter until this attitude changes: “My sense is it cannot take root because of the general understanding that drinking alcohol is not wrong,” he said.

The article is definitely worth a read if you can; there’s lots of interesting stuff in it which I haven’t quoted. I admit that it isn’t as pushily American as I remembered it, although there’s a definite strain of that; you can tell where the underlying assumptions are.

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