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 Valdai-The Effects of Drinking

The road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
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At breakfast the other guests were also bleary eyed but their problem wasn't mice. A number of men and women wash down their eggs with shots of vodka to work off their visible hangovers.

Later outside the hotel, Kostya, our driver, points to two men staggering along the sidewalk with something in their arms.

"They've got the back part of a television set and they're taking it to sell as scrap metal to get some money for vodka" He explains with disgust. "They stripped it from their apartment. Look at them they're all blue under the eyes."

The men, somewhere in their late '30s are in rags—their faces puffy and disfigured by years of drinking. Kostya says he's seen it a million times. Essentially you tear down your apartment bit by bit until there's nothing left, all for a bottle of vodka.

Just as it was in Radishchev's time, alcoholism is Russia's curse—sociologists speculate its roots are frustration and despair—serfdom, socialism and the social upheaval of the past 10 years have all played their parts. It's estimated a Russian is six times more likely to die from alcohol-related illness or accidents than an American.

At a children's home in Valdai, most of the kids have been abandoned or removed from their families because of the effects of drinking.

There are 50 kids here, ranging in age from three to 18. Thirteen-year-old Yana softly sings along to the tape of a pop tune called "You Will Forget Me."

At a children's home. Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
These children are the casualties on the front line of Russia's decade-long effort to create a market economy. Officials estimate there are as many as half a million kids now living in orphanages. The bare living room is sparkling clean. The kids are well fed and adequately clothed, but, like Yana, they have one wish.

As Yana tells me how much she wants to go back home, the deputy director, Ludmilla Petrovna sadly shakes her head. There is no chance.

The children are all from the Valdai region. Until four years ago they would have been shipped somewhere else, but those facilities are now overburdened for the same reasons. Valdai has had to build its own orphanage.

"I would like many things for these children," says Petrovna, who works there. "Good books, so when kids come home from school they would be something to read; we need sports equipment, and of course computers. Also, we have no transportation to take them anywhere."

Though desperately short of funds, the underpaid staff is devoted.

"It's like a narcotic." Says Petrovna. "I can't leave these kids. I know each of them. Even in some cases what they are thinking and what they dream about."

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