Reeling as he walks along a busy street in central Moscow, Alexei Biloshchuk doesn’t look like a natural supporter of a new law making it harder to buy beer.
But he says he supports the Russian authorities’ efforts to fight the alcohol abuse that kills hundreds of thousands of his countrymen every year.
Biloshchuk is on his way to a post office, where he hopes to receive a humble sum of money transferred to Moscow by his mother from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
“I was going to Ukraine to meet my father,” Biloshchuk explains. “But I got drunk on the way and was robbed when I got here.”
Having covered the 3,500 kilometers separating Novosibirsk and Moscow, Biloshchuk was more than halfway to his destination, but he cut short his trip after an argument with his father – the former military communications officer was not impressed with his son’s hard-luck story. So the 34-year-old decided to stay in Moscow and make the most of his first visit to his country’s capital.
His white classic shirt and grey trousers are no longer fresh, and his sports shoes are dusty after three nights at the train station and three days of wandering around Moscow.
“I don’t have friends here,” he giggles, revealing an empty space from a missing front tooth. “I had hardly arrived here – I got lost in the subway.”
Biloshchuk’s mother took her four year-old son to Siberia back in the 1980s, fleeing his father’s frequent binges. Biloshchuk believes he has inherited his dad’s drinking problem, following the pattern of millions of his countrymen whose lives have been ruined by their love of vodka.
Every fifth Russian drinks alcohol to excess, according to official figures that report some 200,000 alcohol-related deaths every year. The real figure is much higher, up to half a million, experts say.
In recent years, the government has moved to curb alcohol abuse by introducing restrictions on alcohol production and sales. The latest step came last week, when President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law banning beer sales from street kiosks and at night starting from 2013.
Biloshchuk welcomes the ban – “there will be no empty bottles making a mess everywhere” – but he seems unsure if it would help him and others like him change their lives for the better.
“The country loses itself to drink because people cannot find their way in life,” he says. “You need to feel useful. If you don’t, you stumble and find yourself in a bottle of vodka.”
If only he had the opportunity to study at university, Biloshchuk says, he would “probably” have built a better life.
But now, he is where he is.
His major concern for the moment is to get his mother’s money transfer. Then, his immediate plans include going to a concert of Soviet-era pop icon Alla Pugachyova, who is now in her 60s, getting a job at a factory, marrying a beautiful woman, and then – if everything goes really well – enrolling in a management school.
In order to achieve this, Biloshchuk says he has decided to stop drinking alcohol every week and only raise a glass or two on important holidays.
But after several unsuccessful job interviews in his three days in the capital, the hopes are fading and the old habits seem to be back.
“Moscow is for those who know how to survive. It’s like that reality show – Survivor, you know?”
He no longer giggles. He feels offended that hundreds of thousands of Central Asian guest workers in low-paying unskilled jobs manage to survive in the capital, while his prospects remain unclear.
A small silver Orthodox cross shines on Biloshchuk’s chest. “When I feel very bad, I pray,” he confesses. “It helps.”
And, haltingly, he recites the Ave Maria, struggling to get his tongue around the sinuous Church Slavonic verses.
MOSCOW, July 26 (RIA Novosti, Maria Kuchma)