The Soviet Union's campaign against alcoholism officially starts Saturday, but the much-publicized crackdown is well under way already.
No sooner was the package of new laws against drinking announced in the papers two weeks ago than the country swung into action. Tougher sanctions are being enforced everywhere, even in Central Asia, where alcoholism is not supposed to be the problem it is in European Russia.
According to travelers from Uzbekistan, the subject of the new campaign against drinking is as much the number one topic of conversation in Bukhara as it in Moscow. Arrests for drunkenness there have picked up, and bars are more careful about the amount they serve patrons.
In Moscow, local Commuist Party committees reportedly adopted the program four days after it was announced, giving the population an early taste of the push for sobriety.
Liquor counters and bars have stopped selling wine and hard liquor before 2 p.m., three hours later than before. The drinking age rose from 18 to 21 without further ado or any debate, and in parks and on beaches, where picnickers gather to enjoy Moscow's recent hot spell, there is a new nervousness about drinking in public.
As of Saturday, other rules go into effect. Only one shop will be allowed to sell liquor in each of Moscow's 50 regions, the liquor counters in shops will be shut down, and gradually barmatukha, a sweet and potent fruit wine, will start disappearing from the stores, heading for extinction by 1988.
The eagerness to comply with the "struggle against drunkenness" -- one of the first visible elements of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's drive for discipline and accountability in the workplace -- was apparent soon after the new laws were published. Waiters at restaurants told customers the next day that only juice and water were available, unless, of course, they wanted to wait until 2 p.m.
Just as quickly, liquor vanished altogether from Moscow's prestigious clubs.
And, as expected, the Kremlin (where Gorbachev is reputed never to drink at all) set the new tone by stopping the serving of hard liquor at official banquets. At one recent signing ceremony with foreign trade groups, only juice and mineral water were available. At this week's official banquets, wine was served, but no vodka.
The new consciousness about drinking is brought home by fear of the harsh new penalties -- fines starting at 20 rubles (about $27) for public drunkenness and rising after repeated offenses to include a 100-ruble fine, two months in a labor camp and a 20 percent salary deduction.
A salesgirl at the liquor counter in a food store was asked if she couldn't just sell a small bottle of cognac at 11 a.m. "Can't risk it," came the answer.
In case anyone missed the May 17 announcement of the new laws -- which had been getting a big buildup on the Moscow rumor mill before then -- the press has been keeping up its end of the campaign.
Long articles debating the origins of excessive drinking have appeared. One article concluded that boredom was the culprit, while another put it this way: "Spiritual requirements [of Soviet society] have lagged behind material capabilities."
Other writers have launched attacks on favorite Russian myths about the health benefits of a swig of vodka. Alcohol, said one author, is not a painkiller, does not help cure infectious diseases, is useless against cold (in fact it causes body temperature to drop) and has insidious social consequences, leading to a "loss of morality."
Another theme in the press debunks the notion that drinking is an ages-old Russian habit, something ingrained -- and therefore ineradicable -- in the Russian character.
One author concluded that the notion of drunkenness as tradition was bunk. In 1750, he said, Russia consumed less alcohol than any major country in the world largely because fighting wars and finding food kept people too busy to drink. "Moreoever," the author concluded, "only the princes and barons could afford strong spirits in those days."
Another author, however, took exception to articles in western newspapers describing the Soviet drinking problem as "catastrophic," a portrait, he said, drawn for "purely propaganda purposes."
In the course of the press campaign, Soviet journalists have produced more hard facts on the drinking problem here: one noted that the average annual hard liquor consumption in the Soviet Union is 11 liters, another that Soviets use more than 1 million tons of sugar a year making samogan (moonshine) and homemade wine, a third that last year in Moscow 51,000 industrial workers and 22,500 construction workers missed work because of drunkenness.
Some people say they expect that after a certain period, the novelty of the strict new regimen will wear off and old habits will reappear, as they did after other antidrinking campaigns. But this time, given the acknowledged seriousness of the problem, they say the drive will be more effective -- because it is what the country needs and what people want.
That perhaps is why now in the evening when people here gather with friends, one of the first toasts is made "to the struggle against drunkenness."