"My mother is a good woman, raised a good family. Three brothers and me. All workers, Not a drunk among us."
The young woman smiled, basking in the knowledge that her siblings could be described as hardworking, not hard-drinking. They are moving against the current.
Alcoholism, Russia's hereditary plague, has surged ahead in the 15 years of Leonid Brezhev's leadership. Even as social welfare statistics and industrial production move upward for this nation of 263 million, the disorders that can pour from a bottle also are rising. Crime and hooliganism are increasing, family breakdown is rising -- and so is the consumption of alcohol.
Soviet statistics show that while the population rose 9 percent in 1970-79, production of "spirits" rose 33 percent and of wine 49 percent. Higher Soviet exports of quality vodka and cognac do not account for the rise.
The state has combatted drinking by preaching, social work, stiffer law enforcement, and raising the price of a half-liter of vodka to 5.77 rubles, or almost $8. Nothing has had much effect.
"It's not so convenient as the good old days of three rubles a bottle," observed a drinker recently. "Then it was simply a ruble a man to share one. But we get by just the same." The sight of three hardened tipplers gathered around a freshly opened bottle outside the "spirit" store is a fixture of life.
Vodka (a diminutive of the Russian word for water) is an indispensable part of Soviet life. Drunk neat from small glasses, it can be a powerful warming friend at a traditional Moscow kitchen table loaded with cold snacks and surrounded by genial companions.
Over centuries of use, the Slavs have perfected delicious variants to suit almost any palate or occasion: pepper, lemon, pear, cranberry, and caraway are some vodka flavors. But in the complex industrial society that Soviet power has forged in one of the northern hemisphere's most backward countries, vodka of whatever flavor is a stronger and stronger instrument of social destruction.
The Soviet journal Nedelya, one of the most active and thoughtful participants in the fight against domestic breakdown, has reported as an example that more than half the divorces in the 30-35 age group of Krasnoyarsk territory resulted because wives "couldn't stand their husband's heavy drinking."
The Literary Gazette said last December that while only one in 10 alcoholics here is a woman, well below the ratio of most wealth Western countries, "the rate of increase in female alcoholism is higher than for men. Many cities have had to open women's sobering-up stations . . ."
Nedelya also reported that the rate of premature births in Moscow is above 8 percent, with a mortality rate 30 times higher than full-term infants. It pointed the finger at alcohol abuse as well as the common Soviet use of abortion.
Among women alcoholics, according to Literary Gazette, most are widows, divorcees and single women. In the 12 years between 1966 and 1978, this group became the largest segment of female drunks "who visited the sobering-up stations."
Authors of that account, economics researchers B. and M. Levin declared in interpretation of their findings: "It remains unclear why men have been able to get women interested in liquor in the 20th century, but were unsuccessful earlier. Have today's men become more crafty? No, if anyone has changed it's the women . . . Apparently, women's realization of their social equality with men has not only positive aspects but certain minuses as well . . ."
After proposing "a real system of struggle" including education, punishment, prevention and indoctrination, the two gingerly conclude: "An extremely important role belongs to raising the population's cultural level, increasing cultural requirements and spiritual needs and improving the structure of leisure time. All these are quite powerful tools in the struggle against drunkenness."
As the researchers cautiously suggest, the mass of information about alcohol abuse as a cause of social disorder here points at much deeper symptoms of trouble in Soviet life. The loneliness and depression inherent in urbanized life elsewhere in the northern industrial hemisphere envelops hundreds of grimy Soviet factory towns as well. i
For ideological reasons, frank discussion of these problems is muzzled by a bureaucracy and party intent upon presenting Soviet life as a world ideal.
An Oct. 29 Tass News agency dispatch underscores the disparity.
It reported that "prominent Soviet sociologist Zoya Yankova last week told a Japanese-Soviet women's conference hos "the Soviet family has a structure that allows parents to give all their free time to their children . . . The prestige of the mother is ever-growing in the Soviet family . . . largely attributable to the mother's economic independence, her educational level and an interest in the social and political life."
Yet Pravda, in a description of the alarming rise of teenage drunkenness, blamed "family conflicts, constant patrental quarrels and drinking bouts and street gangs" for aggravating the problem.
Within these two presentations of the light and dark sides of Soviet reality stands the fact that family incomes in the past 15 years have risen enormously and now stand officially at about 180 rubles -- $250 at the official exchange rate -- per worker per month. The base living standard is higher and millions are better off, know it and show it.
At the same time, rising consumer demands and an inefficient economy force both parents to work in most Soviet households, tugging family ties apart.
Harried Muscovites frequently cite as a classic evocation of their predication a gritty short story of some years ago called "Week After Week." pIt tells the tale of a loving couple and their children who are dragged into recrimination and soulless bickering by the pressures of job, queuine and exhaustion.
In recent years, the search for restorative spiritual values has led the more daring and disaffected segments of Soviet youth in Moscow, Leningrad and other major trend-setting cities to cautious religious studies and the wearing of Christian crosses. The official press has repeatedly denounced cross-wearing as a corrupting fad, but it spreads.
Others are delving into the occult and Eastern religions.Western exhibitors at the Moscow book fair in September reported that their books on Buddhism, Taoism and other mystical theologies of the Orient disappeared first from their racks, spirited away by eager young Soviets.
Russophiles, who extol the virtues of ancient Mother Russia, with its close-knit rural families, xenophobia and mystical belief in the spirituality of Slavic Russia, have emerged in recent years as well.
Anti-Semitic and autocratic, they want a renaissance of the ancient values to bolster family life and discipline. Disputes in Moscow and other cities between historic preservationists seeking to save old buildings and churches and Soviet modernists who dream of efficient high-rise have become focal points for these people.
Many more such episodes, which may have some impact on Soviet life in the 1980s occur out of sight of virtually and resident Westerner, as well as most Soviets themselves. But these occurrences resemble underground rumblings that leave fresh lines on a seismographic chart: much can be inferred, but little can be known with absolute precision.