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Russian Bootleggers Challenge Crackdown

May 17, 1995

MOSCOW (AP) _ Ten years after Mikhail Gorbachev launched his abortive battle against booze, officials say Russians are drinking more than ever and increasingly die from poisonous moonshine.

Bootlegged vodka, usually made of synthetic spirits, makes Russians ``increasingly aggressive″ and causes illness, said Grigory Zaigrayev, of the Interior Ministry’s Research Institute.

The number of crimes committed by drunken offenders increased from 316,000 in 1985 to 600,000 in 1994.

Gorbachev’s anti-drinking campaign was one of his most unpopular reforms. Russians stood in mile-long lines to buy vodka, hundreds of thousands of acres of vineyards were plowed under and the government lost millions from lucrative liquor sales.

The campaign quickly fizzled, but gave rise to moonshining.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the Russian government abandoned its monopoly on alcohol. Over the next two years it did next to nothing to combat moonshining, which quickly acquired an industrial scale.

In June 1993, President Boris Yeltsin restored the state monopoly and ordered a crackdown on bootleggers.

But, ``the genie had been let out of his bottle and has continued his destructive activities,″ Interior Ministry Col. Boris Tereshchenko, who coordinates the government’s campaign against moonshiners, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The number of fatalities caused by bootlegged alcohol rose from 16,600 in 1991 to 29,600 in 1993 and some 53,000 last year, Zaigrayev said.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recognize bootlegged liquor at first glance.

Col. Alexei Alexeyev, the chief police expert on moonshine, suggested checking the label’s reverse side for the production date and the quality of the glue used, as well as the bottlecap. That’s often misleading, however, since bootleggers use recycled bottles and caps that are indistinguishable from genuine ones.

``Buying alcohol in Russia is now a deadly risk, even in a big store,″ said Sergei Konyayev, a 33-year-old businessman.

Last year, police spotted more than 1,500 moonshine distilleries and confiscated almost 800,000 gallons of spirits, but that appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.

It remains fairly easy to start a moonshining business, since all the necessary equipment and ingredients are cheap and easily available.

``Energiya (spacecraft-making) company and other defense plants now produce and openly advertise distilling equipment, making it easy for everyone to become a bootlegger,″ said Tereshchenko.

Yegor Ligachev, the architect of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, says a new crackdown is needed. ``Russia is drinking hard and will, evidently, get drunk under the table if anti-alcohol measures are not used anew,″ he said Monday.

Others disagree.

``Any attempt at banning alcohol is utterly silly and contradicts the national culture and traditions,″ retorted Zaigrayev, the Interior Ministry researcher.

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