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Heroin addiction spreads like wildfire in Russia

As the drug has poured into the country from Afghanistan in recent years, Russians' relative ignorance about its dangers has taken a huge toll, especially on the young.

September 25, 2009|Megan K. Stack

PODOLSK, RUSSIA — The young man named Anton is a member of Russia's "lost generation."

He's the son of middle-class, college-educated engineers; he studied at a good university and became a truck sales manager in Moscow. He's also a 28-year-old heroin addict.

In the years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan triggered a sharp increase in poppy cultivation, Russia has been flooded with heroin. The drug has crept along a trail stretching from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and other Central Asian nations and over the Russian border, turning this country into the world's top consumer of heroin, the government says.

The drug has spread like fire through a country uniquely unqualified to cope with its dangers: Narcotics were largely absent during Soviet times, and most people are still unaware of the risk of heroin addiction, even as an estimated 83 Russians a day die by overdosing on the drug, government figures show.

"It's a catastrophe for us. We were completely unprepared for this turn of events," says Evgeny Bryun, Moscow's chief drug addiction specialist. "We have our own lost generation."

The transition from a Soviet state largely free from heroin to a booming nation awash in the drug has been painful and dark, marked by widespread public ignorance of the risks and symptoms of addiction, lingering shame and stigma, and muddled government efforts at treatment.

Methadone, which is widely used in the West to wean people off heroin, is illegal in Russia, and rehabilitation programs are unavailable in many parts of the country. In 2007, Human Rights Watch concluded that the treatment at state drug clinics was "so poor as to constitute a violation of the right to health."

Meanwhile, at private clinics, all manner of experimental treatments -- including shock therapy and the removal of parts of the brain -- are in vogue. In Bryun's government-run clinic, addicts take turns sleeping hooked up to machines that send gentle electrical impulses through their brains, or lying encased in a full-body relaxation therapy machine.

Heroin has also emerged as a thorn in U.S.-Russian relations, as officials in Moscow have grown increasingly angry over what they describe as American indifference to the booming heroin trade.

On the margins of the grinding war in Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy fields -- and to come up with persuasive incentives to wean farmers from the crop -- have remained largely ineffective for years.

In a nod of cooperation to the Obama administration, Russia recently agreed to allow cargo planes carrying U.S. troops and weapons to pass through the country en route to Afghanistan. But at the same time, it's lobbying noisily for tougher crackdowns on the cultivation of opium poppies, which are used in the production of heroin. Early this month, President Dmitry Medvedev called rampant heroin addiction "a threat to the country's national security."

Russia has called on the United Nations to link the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan to an obligation to destroy poppy plantations.

"The question is, why is this happening in front of the coalition troops' eyes?" Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov said this year. In remarks to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, Ivanov called Afghanistan "our soft, low underbelly" and compared the "tsunami" of heroin into Russia to China's opium wars.

The link between Afghanistan and drugs is nothing new to the Kremlin. Some of Russia's first heroin addicts were soldiers who got hooked during the disastrous 1980s Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. But with overdoses now gripping the country, Moscow appears to be running out of patience, and eager to throw much of the blame overseas.

"If the situation in Afghanistan is not reversed, we will have a drug addict in every family in five or 10 years," Ivanov said. "This is not a fantasy. This is a real forecast."

After a boom that reached its peak in 2007, Afghan opium production dropped by 10% last year, according to U.N. figures. But in Russia, some fear it may be too late. Addiction is already eating away at the country, especially among the young. And officials say heroin use is still rising.

Anton is fighting the drug now; he's trying to stay clean. It left scars on his skin and his soul, and now he sits in a barren room with all the other young, middle-class, shellshocked junkies, trying to pick his way from one day to the next in a private rehab center tucked among the scrubby hills outside Moscow.

"The general notion is that a drug addict is badly dressed, begging on the street," he says. "But there are so many people you can't even suspect of taking drugs."

The patients at this center, called the Land of the Living, are all 19 to 34. They are men and women, grown children of families who can afford as much as $1,000 a month for the private treatment facility, where they sleep stacked together in big, dormitory-style rooms and pin stars onto posters to represent their ascent to health.

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