Written by Laura Lyytikäinen
My recent study on Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) in Russia is now published in the Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (NAD) journal (link to journal homepage). In the article I study Russian online AA community and its members’ conceptions of alcoholism and recovery. In this blog post I will briefly introduce some of the findings of the research.
Russian drinking culture
Russia has is among the top countries in alcohol consumption. Drinking in social gatherings is a norm in Russian culture, while alcoholism is seen as a source of personal shame and it is kept inside the family. Even though some physicians and psychiatrists have started to promote the paradigm of alcoholism as a disease, this is still in contrast to the general perception of alcoholics as being weak-willed. This creates an interesting context for studying people’s struggle to quit drinking and adopting a new non-drinking lifestyle, which is the focus of my article ‘Alcoholism and Recovery in the Russian Online AA Community’.
Alcohol is one of the main causes of premature deaths in Russia. According to the 2014 WHO report, on an annual basis, Russians consume about 22.3 litres of pure alcohol per person. Additionally, Russian drinking patterns are considered to be the most risky (a score of 5 on a scale of 1 to 5), because of the pattern of heavy episodic drinking and binge drinking, as well as the use of high volume spirits, such as vodka instead of milder drinks. Hazardous drinking is most common among working-age men and especially among men with a low level of education and unstable employment. Furthermore, only 25.2 percent of Russian men and 38 percent of women reported that they did not drink alcohol at all during the past 12 months, while only 6.5 percent of men and 18.5 percent of women are lifetime abstainers.
Alcoholics Anonymous in Russia
One of the well-known proponents of the disease model of alcoholism is the AA movement, which can be joined by anyone who wishes to stop drinking. The roots of AA can be traced back to the Protestant Oxford Group in the USA of the 1930s, when the group introduced a formula of self-improvement, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions programs, that were based on self-inventory, admitting wrongs, prayer, meditation and spreading the word to others. In many countries, such as in the USA, and in the Nordic countries, AA is well known among health professionals who often refer patients to AA. However, in Russia, AA has not succeeded in establishing its status as a legitimate after-care provider but, instead, has been rejected or overlooked by health care officials and practitioners. Nevertheless, my article shows that despite the public health care practitioners’ disregard of the 12-Step program, AA philosophy is disseminated on the Russian language Internet by recovering alcoholics themselves. Russian translations of the main AA texts are available through n various online resources, and local AA members have established online support groups to provide peer support for people struggling with drinking problems. I studied one Russian online AA community to trace how alcoholism is understood by its Russian members and how they came to incorporate a non-drinking alcoholic identity in the Russian context, where openly talking about alcoholism is not encouraged and alcoholics are seen as weak-willed instead of ill.
New understanding of alcohol and alcoholism
Many of the Russian forum members struggling with alcohol problems start to adapt the philosophy of AA and the model of the AA life story and to acquire a new self-understanding of a sick person with a chronic disease. Often this understanding is contradictory to the general Russian understanding and their own prior understanding of alcoholism, as in the following citations from the forum:
“I want to remind all (and myself too) that our disease is chronic and progressive… And everyday hundreds of alcoholics die of it. I do not get tired of thanking my VS (Vyshaia Sila, Higher Power) for the fact that today I’m among the alive and sober ones.”
“Still some time ago, people from AA were in my view a sort of drunks (sinyaki) with zero intelligence. In my everyday life, except homeless people (bomzhi) on the streets, there were no other examples [of alcoholics].”
With this understanding comes also a new conception of alcohol, which gives it almost a personalised character:
“But it is not me who does bad for me – it is the illness, dependency, all scheming (proiski) of alcohol, which is cunning, powerful, confusing.”
“Cravings can be very concealed, people recovering in the program understand: Alcohol is sly, powerful, confusing, and without help, we cannot cope with it.”
For many recovering alcoholics AA and the online forum become an important parts of their lives, of which they often talk with great gratefulness:
“Now I have medicine for my disease – AA groups, our literature, program, sponsor-mentor and so on. Life started to get organized. And today I’m grateful to God that I got to the Anonymous.”
AA’s therapeutic mechanisms are easily translated to different contexts
The article shows that the Russian online group is an important form of support for people who have previously felt alone in their struggle with alcohol problems. In the cultural setting of Russia, where non-drinkers are sort of an anomaly, the Internet forum provides people with a community of like-minded people and positive examples of living a sober life in ‘a wet country’, as one of the forum members described Russia. By engaging in forum discussions, participants acquire a sense of agency, of being in charge of their own lives. The online community creates a space where people collectively act according to the AA values of a sober life and spirituality, which often supports them to do so in the outside world as well. Furthermore, the forum provides a space to engage with AA’s service work of spreading the AA message to other alcoholics, in a situation where face-to-face groups are scarce.
Even if the organizational details and societal status of AA varies between different countries, the wide-spread therapeutic mechanisms of AA – mutual support, disease model of alcoholism, and the ‘AA lifestyle’– are easily translated to fit to the experiences and hopes of recovering alcoholics in Russia. The Russian health care system suffers from a lack of resources and cannot provide quality care to people suffering from alcoholism and, thus, Internet support forums can become an important part of recovery and maintaining abstinence. When the state cannot deliver the needed services for problem drinkers or recovering alcoholics, people turn to the Internet to find alternative information and social support. However, it should be noted that access to this type of support is restricted and often unavailable to the most vulnerable groups in society.
Why are women more active in recovery?
Alcoholism and mortality related to hazardous alcohol use are primarily associated with working-age men in Russia. However, in the discussion forum, women were the most active participants. This is an interesting result, which I interpret to support the already established notion of women being more prone to look for help for their social and mental problems but it can also tell us something about the gendered drinking culture of Russia. Due to the traditional Russian gender and family roles, drinking might be an issue, which is even more degrading and stigmatizing for women than for men. In this case, anonymity and shared experiences are important for these female problem drinkers, who might have even less societal support and understanding than their male peers. The gendered nature or socio-economic background of help-seeking are important questions for future research.
Read the article online here
Laura Lyytikäinen 2016: Mutual Support and Recovery in the Russian Alcoholics Anonymous Online Community, Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 33(2), 151–172.