Aimar Ventsel is a Senior Researcher at the UT Department of Ethnology. His research interests include economic and legal anthropology, music cultures, and identity politics.
During the last day of May and the first day of June, a conference entitled “Drinking and Driving Is So Much Fun” took place at the UT Department of Ethnology. The title of the conference was borrowed from a relatively famous tune by the 80s British punk band The Business. In the song, the British punks sing about how cool it is to booze and do all kind of stupid things, including driving under the influence.
This choice of name wasn’t random. The conference centred around the role of alcohol in the Arctics, especially Siberia, a region notably problematic in this area. We decided to look at the other side of the coin: Why do people drink when the results can often be catastrophic? To put it briefly, the focus was on the cultural and social significance of drinking alcohol.
It might come as a surprise that social sciences do study alcohol consumption quite heavily. But this is mostly done from the viewpoint of analysing a problem. Drinking alcohol is a deviation, a malady in need of a cure. This is particularly so in research on Siberia. It is indeed true that people drink a lot in Siberia, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and entire regional economies. Both Russians and natives drink, and both tend to develop violent behaviour; however, for the natives alcoholism is also accompanied by suicides, as well as cultural and moral degradation.
People in Siberia and elsewhere discuss widely a ‘gene deficiency’ — most have probably heard that Asian people don’t tolerate alcohol because they lack a certain gene or enzyme. I won’t go into medical details here, as what people believe about themselves is at least as important.
At the same time, Siberia is not a region where everyone is boozing from early morning until late night and no one is able to drink in a civilised way. It is just that researchers and public figures in general tend to present a very one-sided picture.
Our gathering, on the other hand, came to a conclusion that could lead every health freak to migraines and sleep disorders: It seems that alcohol is dearly needed. As much as over-indulging in booze, abstaining leads to uncomfortable situations, too.
This is because during hundreds (if not thousands) of years alcohol has pervaded the patterns of our social interactions, all kinds of rituals, and everyday activities to such an extent that on many occasions one simply couldn’t imagine communication between humans without it (‘Ritual’ does not have to signify something extraordinarily exclusive or solemn; when it comes to a simple anniversary party, the average person will put a bottle on the table, be it Estonia or Siberia).
This was shown by two presentations about giving up alcohol. Tatyana Argounova Low and Yuri Zegutin (both Yakuts, but working at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and at the Institute of Humanitarian Studies in Yakutsk, respectively) had a joint presentation about ‘coding’. ‘Coding’ is a Soviet practice that started in the 70s, which involved making people believe (in most cases through hypnosis) that one had been ‘coded’ against consuming alcohol, and that from now on, any kind of boozing would only end up badly.
Mostly, that’s how it ends: When the ‘coded’ person touches alcohol, it leads to sleep disorders, vomiting, even suicidal thoughts. Usually, the coded person starts to avoid alcohol, as well as people who use it and places where it is used. As a result, the coded former boozer often loses contact with almost all of the people in his or her life — who would want a suffering sober person at their party? In Russia (and especially in Siberia), where most business is done in the sauna with vodka shots, this can lead to catastrophic economical consequences.
Another presentation about abstaining was by Laur Vallikivi of the University of Tartu, and it was about the traditional Nenets people, converted to Baptism, and their complicated relationship with the traditional culture and relatives. The born-again don’t drink, but to Nenets it is inseparable from birthday parties, as well as many rituals.
This leads to alienation from the descendants’ culture and their people in general, as in most traditional cultures, the tribal bounds are made and strengthened through rituals. Thus, comrades, it seems as though there’s no apparent escape from drinking!
There were many interesting presentations at this alcohol conference and it would be impossible to write about all of them here. Still, here are some more intriguing points from some of the speeches.
Art Leete, UT Professor of Ethnology, compared the pictures painted of Northern peoples works by many philosophers and historians from the Antique period to the Enlightenment. It turned out that all of them, over the centuries, have been certain that in the Far North, one not only drinks much — one must drink much, too.
The explanations were very different. It was thought that alcohol is needed because it is so cold in the north that otherwise the blood would freeze. Darkness and desperation caused by it were also mentioned, as well as the need for energy, or the extraordinary wildness or barbarity of the ‘Northern race’ that wouldn’t let them use alcohol in a sophisticated, aesthetic way, like civilised people. At the end of the presentation, we were shown a map of alcohol consumption that proved all these previous authors right — the more towards the north we look, the more per capita alcohol consumption could be seen.
UT Professor of Psychophysiology Jaanus Harro explained another interesting fact about the physiological side of alcohol consumption: Neurophysiological surveys have shown that humans gain the biggest pleasure before the drinking, not from it: The anticipation of pleasure gives drinking its most enjoyable effect.
Last but not least, I’d like to mention that alcohol consumption in Siberia is shrinking a great deal.