Long-standing tradition and the cheap and widespread availability of alcohol have made drinking to excess common in Russian culture. Because of your status as an American, particularly at the beginning of your stay, you may find yourself the guest of honor at gatherings. As a result, you will be exposed to more excessive drinking than you would normally witness, even on your college campus at home.
Many people in Russia partake in an old tradition of drinking hard liquor in rounds of toasts. Many toasts are offered and it can become increasingly difficult to refuse. Often it is easier not to begin drinking than it is to stop drinking once the ritual has begun. Unless you are confident that you will be able to bow out assertively after a few toasts, it is safer not to start.
Vodka and other strong alcohols are always consumed with food. It is considered extremely bad not to have a bite to eat (“закусить”/”закуска”). If you wish to learn to “drink like a Russian,” you should stick to this rule strictly.
Russian society is very traditional and it is uncommon that women drink full toasts along with men. While male drunkenness is generally looked upon with a strange level of tolerance and almost inevitability, female drunkenness is very seriously frowned upon. In almost all situations, women should avoid keeping up with the men. Drunken women are also looked upon as easy targets, and intoxication can lead to a variety of unwanted and potentially dangerous advances from Russian men.
Public drunkenness is still considered to be a crime and the authorities are not sympathetic in handling drunken people. Drunks are often forced to spend some time in the вытрезвитель (sobering-up station); a ghastly, vomit-covered institution to be avoided at all costs.
From one region of Russia to the next, homemade alcohol, or moonshine, can be found in many varieties. Самогон is the generic Russian equivalent of moonshine. The strength (крепость) of самогон varies, but it is always higher than store-bought alcohol and is often 100% pure alcohol. Because it is produced at home and susceptible to contamination, many cases of blindness and even death have been reported from drinking even small amounts. Always use your common sense. Also be aware that there have been more and more instances of alcohol substitutes (суррогат) which are bottled as legal alcohol but cause jaundice, kidney failure, and often death. NEVER buy cheap vodka or vodka from anywhere except licensed stores.
Although drinking together is the ultimate sign of camaraderie among males in Russia, they do generally respect medical reasons for avoiding alcohol. “Язва” is the word for ulcer and is a good excuse to give if you do not wish to imbibe.
Drinking and driving laws in Russia are very strict, but while many Russians will cut back on their consumption if they will be driving, they will still drink more than most Americans would in a similar situation. More than 25% of traffic accidents in Russia involve alcohol and you should be careful about getting into cars with friends after drinking. Better to make excuses and insist on calling a cab or taking a bus than to trust assurances that they didn’t have “much.”
Students should keep in mind that drinking heavily in Russia can be dangerous because no matter how well you adapt to the host society, you are still a foreigner and less adept at sensing a dangerous situation. In “the old days,” foreigners always had a KGB escort when traveling in Russia and they were automatically protected from random attacks when intoxicated. Today, this is not the case, and drunken foreigners are viewed as very easy targets for theft and violence. With the exception of random pick-pocketings, practically all of the safety incidents that students at the School in Russia have experienced (robberies, accidents requiring medical attention, etc.) have occurred when the students were intoxicated.
Drinking in public is forbidden by the federal law and is punishable with a fine of 500 to 1500 rubles.
The School in Russia also forbids alcohol consumption during program-sponsored events like travel, city excursions, etc. Student alcohol consumption and related intoxicated behavior can compromise the safety of the entire group and could result in your dismissal from the program.