To purloin a description from Prince Charles, they looked like waxworks. Puffy, purple, splodgy ancient faces beamed at us as we entered the president’s office of the Vladivostok State Maritime University. It was 10am on a crisp, but by Russian standards, manageable day in February and we were close to finishing a tiring but highly hospitable junket by French hosts, Total.
Regardless of the time a bottle of French cognac was plonked on the table. Three generous shots each later, and those less accustomed to such morning spirit consumption were eagerly consuming coffee to try and help assuage the burning sensation trickling down to our bellies.
Of all the demographic statistics I’ve read about Russia surely the most alarming one is the disparity between male and female life expectancy – an incredible 13 years, roughly three times the global average. Why? Severe alcohol abuse.
Come 11am we found ourselves in a cramped office for another round of meetings. The cognac from Armenia (pictured) was met with a glower of disapproval by our bon viveur French hosts but in the spirit of maintaining an entente cordiale we all slurped down another three healthy glasses before toddering back to the airport. Even the hardiest of drinking journos was taken aback by this half bottle of cognac each before midday.
Apparently many Russians have inherited Mongol genes that make them absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream and break it down at a slower rate than most Europeans.
That means that they get more drunk and have worse hangovers, and are more likely to become addicted to alcohol, given Russia’s taste for vodka and its harsh climate.
The Mongols swept across Asia and Russia and into Europe in the 13th century and ruled Russia for two centuries. Inter-marriage with the Slavs and other ethnic groups was common.
Scientists have long known that people of Mongol extraction, including Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, have an enzyme for metabolising alcohol that is different from that of Caucasian Europeans.
Russians drink about 15 litres of pure alcohol a head each year, one of the highest rates in the world, and by some estimates one in seven Russians are alcoholics. At least though they’ve nixed the old raping and pillaging routine of their Mongol forebears.