Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sobriety as Spectacle

There's a touching Soviet film called "Autumn Marathon", in which a random Dane gets thrown into a Glorious Socialist drunk tank. He returns to his Leningrad hosts the next morning with the sort of look in his eyes that you'd get after a particularly invasive bout of alien abduction. "There were many new words there," he muttered into his kvass.

That Mr Putin is a ghastly man by any standards. When not punching bears or switching off Belarus, he's throwing away the good bits of the Soviet legacy and hanging on to the rotten ones.

So Stalinism and screwing up the Middle East are ok again, but the cosy violence of your local yokel bobby is not. Instead the Russians have to put up with armour-plated sacks of steroids with guns that work and a licence to park their giant motorbikes in the crack of your arse.

Most shameful of all is Putin's decision to close the drunk tanks. The вытрезвитель (sobering-up station) predates the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks gave it the lacquer of pseudo-science, priggishness and theft that helped it endure to this day.

The Soviets scorned the sentimental, bourgeois practice of encouraging doctors to shelter alcoholics and their families until they were fit to return to serfdom. Instead they handed over the drunk tanks to the the police and let them:

  • hose down random drunks, not necessarily with water,

  • steal their remaining shoe,

  • show them a graph correlating the impact of drinking "Natasha" perfume on the output of self-combusting television sets,

  • kick them in the danglers; and

  • dump them in a snow drift
but not before billing them two kopecks for the trouble. One minute you're warming up for a midnight Stockhausen serenade outside the ex-wife's flat, and the next some single-cell Siberian soaks are trying to use you as a wind sock. Once you manage to stagger home the first thing you need is a stiff drink and a fight, and back to the tank you go.

This may sound reactionary, but in fact it displays Scientific Socialism at its most exquisite. Capitalists require a professional police force to repress the workers and their annoying middle-class representatives, while feudal rulers intimidated, entertained and sometimes fed the cowled masses with spectacular public punishments.

A Socialist society, requires no such agencies of doom. The Soviet police simply brought members of the drinking classes together and allowed them to exchange teeth, fluids and experimental impregnation techniques in the seclusion of a basement urinal until their anti-people manifestations were spent.

The police then put the given parasite's actions in their socio-economic context, provided "look-no-hands" washing facilities and returned him to society. Seizing items of the visitor's clothing provided him with a tantalising glimpse of the Victory of Communism, when money is abolished and goods and services are simply exchanged.

The two-kopeck fee was a reminder that this dazzling future when, to quote Engels, "state interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself" (Anti-Dühring), had not yet arrived.

The kick in the nuts was free.

President Gorbachev, like all busy little reformers, had no time to sit back with a glass of horseradish vodka and a crackling pipeful of perique to peruse the lessons of history. That's why he thought Prohibition would sort out the problems of alcoholism, falling output and commodity fetishism, just like it didn't in America.

The result was tumbling mortality rates as the man in the stalling trolleybus took to drinking flight fuel, the total collapse of the economy as everyone spent all their time making, procuring and drinking red-eye, and the rise of the Russian Mafia. Oh, and the Soviet Union shrank from super-power status to the back of Gorbachev's limo, which had had its hub caps stolen and fashioned into rather fetching earrings by the eternally drunk President Yeltsin. Cheers!

Putin is so busy that he can't even be bothered to learn from Gorbachev's mistakes, which is why his new big idea is to shut down the drunk tanks and shunt their clients off to the Accident & Emergency ward of the nearest hospital.

Perhaps he's trying to return to the medical as opposed to dialectical approach to sobriety pioneered in Tsarist Russia. If so then he, above all, should know what happened to the Romanovs. Another country that adopts this approach is Britain, whose record on public drunkeness is admired only by dead Vikings.

From a strictly Marxist point of view, there may be some benefits to this. Even if you have never been to Russia, you should be able to conduct the following thought experiment:

  • Imagine a British hospital that was last equipped and cleaned in 1964
  • Imagine it staffed by angry, underpaid medics
  • Imagine it full of know-all hypochondriac grannies.

Now imagine this happy scene flooded with bellowing men in piss-stained brown flares, waving pickled gherkins about their bandaged heads, and draw your own conclusions about Mr Putin's chances of completing his third presidential term.

I never made it to a Soviet drunk tank, despite the best efforts of friends and colleagues, but a couple of my fellow students in Voronezh were once called upon to bail out "Major" Farid Bouaouni, an Algerian Situationist shepherd who looked like Major Easy.

He had refused to pay his bill at the Hotel Brno, prompting a visit from the police. They were minded to let him go with the standard clout and shake-down, but he insisted that he only wanted to "converse with socialists". So off to the tank with him.

The desk sergeant was delighted to deliver The Major into the custody of Her Britannic Majesty's student corps, as the boy had caused major delerium tremens among his cellmates by enacting Berkoff's "Metamorphosis" while swinging from the ceiling with his unusually adhesive palms.

This made Farid the only man to have emerged from a Soviet drunk tank drier than when he went in, and with his genitals largely in the same location and configuration.

He celebrated his release by stealing the wreath from the Tomb of the Unburied Soldier, placing it on his chest and trying to ignite it through an act of gastric acrobatics on Red Army Day. He was deported to Algiers on two separate flights.

The Russians were proud of their drunk tanks, and sought to share their cultural wealth with other, meaner nations. While holidaying in Soviet Armenia I read in the local paper that the first drunk tank had opened in the capital, Yerevan.

I asked my hosts what the point was, as Armenians drink in the Mediterranean style - wine with meals - rather than in the Slavonic traditions - turps with knives. Tigran the Jeans-Wrangler flipped the paper over to the Stop Press column, which noted "Yerevan Police Dogs Congratulate Man From Omsk On Becoming First Drunk Tank Customer".

Readers dismayed at Russia's abandoning its worthy Soviet heritage need not despair, for there is always Ukraine. With their Neapolitan attitude to public service and legal mildew, Ukrainians continue to bask in the Soviet glories of nepotism, unregulated shed building and policing as a form of improvisatory street theatre.

A friend has a wooden summer house in a village outside Kiev, where his good lady wife was spending a pleasant morning grinding chillis into her baby food. A drunk approached, demanding 7.35 hryvnyas for a bottle of monkey juice. She demurred, as had a number of neighbours already. The drunk declared that he would burn the village down, and was still trying to drop lit matches onto his amber stream of urine when the police arrived.

As the coppers dragged the drunk away, the lady of the house asked how long he would get in jail - attempted arson being a serious crime in Ukraine.

"Jail?! D'you think we're going to feed this git for five years? Don't worry ma'am, we'll just take him to those woods, macerate him thoroughly with the help of these excellent new Polish truncheons, point what's left towards Obukhiv District and tell him never to come back again. All in a day's work. A couple of chillis? Why, thank you - they'll come in handy if his attention drifts! Mornin' all!"

British stag parties must have tired of using the Baltic States as lavabos by now, so drunk-tank tourism is one of the many income funnels that Ukraine may yet drain. Russia misses the boat once again. But then Putin reserves the right to sink it any time he chooses.

It's good to be the Tsar.


Anonymous said...

I did not find Russian medics so bad - I tried getting a day off to shag Irina thoroughly when I was near the Chechen border (fortunately she was too).

No Good Boyo said...

Russian medics are helpful in the sense that $20 will buy you a death certificate or some seriously enhanced vodka. And near Chechnya is as good a place as any to start a doomed romance.

Jon said...

I've never been in a drunk tank either, but in my travels through Russia I have seen many of the graduates of the institution left out to freeze to death, which is one way of dealing with the drink problem, I suppose.

I shamelessly attach a link to a post I once made which included observations on this:


No Good Boyo said...

Excellent post, Jon. I remember the Ukraina well. It has a little sister in Kiev, also called the Ukraina (formerly the Moskva). It hosts the country's most incompetent prostitutes, who spent a night trying to offer a middle-aged lady of my acquaintance "gryoup seks".

No Good Boyo said...

Away from the computer for a week, so behave y'all!

Gadjo Dilo said...

In Romania they deal with the drink problem in the countryside by banning all forms of street lighting in the evenings. Driving in the dark is already the most dangerous activity you can engage in here, especially when you've got paralytic farmhands bouncing off your Dacia's bonnet as you plough through Târlișua-on-the-Wold at 90km/h.

No Good Boyo said...

As ever, Gadj, the Transylvanians put darkness to good use. Returning from Gatwick on Saturday I realised that the M3 management has the same policy.

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