Christian Werkmeister
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‘A society that is sinking ever deeper into a state of chronic alcohol poisoning’
Medical and moral treatment of alcoholics in the Soviet Union, c. 1970–1991
in Alcohol, psychiatry and society
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This chapter highlights the punitive and segregationist measures enforced on alcoholics in the Soviet Union. The focus is on the two decades preceding Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, in the Soviet Union. Heavy drinking has been widely considered to be characteristic of Russian culture. However, it was not until the establishment of the Soviet Union that the state condemned the ‘drinker’s disease’ of the Tsarist era as a crime, considering it backward, anti-Soviet and alien to an enlightened and liberated society. Like the criminalisation of drinkers, the establishment of a biologically focused clinical psychiatry under the Soviet regime had grave consequences for people diagnosed as alcoholics. People were often institutionalised, criminalised on the exhibition of alcohol-related disorderly behaviour and forced to undergo treatment. Alcoholics were sent for harsh treatment to various types of institutions, such as psychiatric hospitals, prisons and work colonies, and even after their release remained subject to surveillance and involuntary treatment. This chapter shows the interrelationship between the Soviet project of ideologically streamlining the population and the role of psychiatry in forcefully readjusting those who were perceived to deviate from the politically prescribed social norms.

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Alcohol, psychiatry and society

Comparative and transnational perspectives, c. 1700–1990s

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