Strength, and Hope -
A Visit to
the Soviet Union
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., July 1989
message of Alcoholics Anonymous knows no language barrier,
nor do custom or cultural heritage have any meaning when
it comes to our recovery process.
were sixteen of us at the Moscow Beginners Group. We were
there celebrating their first anniversary as an AA group.
The meeting opened in Russian with the Preamble, then
a reading of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions.
The chairperson said, "This is a Second Step meeting,"
and they began to share.
member spoke up. He was an enthusiastic Moscow businessman
who was five months sober and beginning to work the Steps.
When he spoke, I heard my own alcoholism, I heard my own
history of destruction and pain.
have no history of God in my life," he said. "But
I began to do what they said to do here. And I have found
a spiritual power within me. I think that might be God."
man is now working with three other alcoholics in the
group who also had no history of God in their lives, but
who together have found a spiritual power they can rely
as AA can be official in any way, this was an "official"
visit from the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous
in the United States and Canada to some very specific
people in the Soviet Union. Over the previous year or
so, there had been a number of communications back and
forth between the Soviet and American governments concerning
alcoholism; and AA, while not affiliated with these efforts
in any way, had cooperated in full.
September 1987, the general manager of the General Service
Office in New York traveled by invitation to the Soviet
Union with sixteen other individuals related to the field
of alcoholism, as part of an exchange program between
the two governments on the topic of alcoholism and drug
abuse. Then, in May of 1988, a return visit was made by
a group of Soviets.
the course of these exchanges, it became clear that there
were quite a few people inside the Soviet Union who had
a growing interest in Alcoholics Anonymous. We began corresponding
with some of these people - Ministry of Health people,
Temperance Promotion Society (TPS) people, psychologists,
psychiatrists, narcologists, sobriety clubs - and in the
course of this ongoing dialogue, another visit was set
up which was to be independent of the previous trips.
AA members picked for the trip were the two trustees-at-large
- myself from the United States and Webb J. from Canada
- along with Sarah P., the GSO staff member assigned to
the trustees' International Committee. In addition, since
we'd be talking primarily with Soviet professionals and
doctors, it seemed appropriate to have a doctor along
with us. So Dr. John Hartley Smith, a nonalcoholic trustee
from Canada, was added to the team. Of course it wouldn't
have done much good to send us off without a voice, so
we also added a nonalcoholic fellow who is a simultaneous
first stop was Helsinki, Finland. We went there first
for two reasons: first, we wanted to take care of jet
lag and be fully adjusted to the time change; and second,
the Finns have been carrying the AA message into Russia
for some time and we wanted to coordinate our efforts
so that each of us might be as effective as possible.
I've been around drunks most of my life, but I've never
seen quality drunkenness until I saw the Finns. They were
big, they were like redwood trees, they were stoned, and
they were moving. Finnish AA members are incredible, too.
They give the same depth of love to AA that they gave
to the bottle - and then some. One of the ways in which
the Finns practice anonymity is by taking on a nickname.
And so, in Helsinki, we met "Columbus," the
fellow who first brought AA to Finland.
November 13, we took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn,
Estonia. Tallinn was one of the most beautiful cities
I'd ever seen. There were buildings there which had been
built in the 1400s and were still in use. Estonia was
in the Soviet Republic, but it is a separate culture.
carried with us a good-sized box of Russian-language AA
literature, and though I knew we'd be stopped, I had no
idea how this literature would be received. I've been
through plenty of tough customs checks before - and after
one of them, I ended up in prison - and I was getting
a little nervous. I'd brought along a pocket knife to
open up the box with, but I couldn't find it anywhere
and ended up having to open up the box with a plastic
pocket comb. The customs lady took out a piece of literature,
looked at it, and walked off to show it to a fellow in
a suit standing back in a corner. Our interpreter leaned
over and whispered to me, "It's an ideology check."
a short while, the customs lady returned with a smile
on her face. She called over a uniformed guard. I thought,
"There goes the box." As they talked together,
the interpreter leaned over. "They like it,"
another burst of conversation and a nod of the head, she
waved me, the box, and the interpreter on through. On
the other side of the check point, the interpreter translated
her last comments to the uniformed guard for me.
she had said, "they are here to help us in our struggle
with alcoholism." This seemed to set the tone for
the entire trip, and we started handing out literature
wherever we went.
one of us on this trip had a sense of the immensity of
our task, and each one of us had a real desire not to
promote anything but rather to share our experience, strength,
and hope with the professionals we came in contact with
so that they might better understand AA and perhaps allow
AA to happen in the Soviet Union. At one of our meetings
with the Sobriety Society of Estonia, the people involved
in helping alcoholics there tended to dominate and tell
us of their program and to slant the conversation politically,
but eventually we got across to them that helping alcoholics
was our only interest.
one of our conversations, a girl spoke up in English and
said, "I have read your book [the Big Book]. How
am I going to work with these AA principles if I don't
believe in God?"
I said, "that's no big deal. I didn't believe in
God either when I came to AA. It's not a requirement,
you know." With this, the girl visibly relaxed and
I heard a sigh of relief.
also met with a doctor there, a former government official,
and he kept saying how the program would have to be changed
to fit the Russian people, a people with no historical
cultural background of God. "It won't work here"
was something we heard a lot. I must admit that I did
get a bit of a chuckle out of this. Quite a few times
I heard people say, "We don't have any historical
background of God," and then in the next breath would
ask, "Would you like to see the cathedral?"
first, many of the people we talked to were reserved.
But because we talked so openly about alcoholism and about
ourselves, they too began to share openly. We discovered
that whatever else they might be doing in terms of treatment,
they were already using some of the basic principles of
Alcoholics Anonymous: admission of powerlessness, an honest
belief that some sort of recovery is possible, and the
importance of taking a personal inventory. It was rigorous,
but they were doing it. They had a thirty-question inventory
that had to be renewed every six months with a doctor
and a peer group. Treatment was a three-year process,
and if you slipped, you went to a labor camp for two years.
The official position was that after six or eight weeks
of effective treatment, the patient was no longer an alcoholic.
There was a cure, they believed, and it took about six
to eight weeks. The only catch was that they had to keep
renewing this cure or they became alcoholics again. However,
the drunks we talked to said, "We know it's important
to understand that we're alcoholics forevermore."
And they completely understood the need to pass this information
on to the next person. This, then, was the foundation
of whatever was going on in the Soviet Union, and it seemed
like fertile ground for AA principles to flourish in.
was looking forward to the trip from Estonia up to Leningrad
because we were going to be traveling by train and I hoped
it was going to be like the Orient Express. But it turned
out to be more like the milk train instead. They put the
four of us into one compartment with all our luggage,
one bunk apiece, and gave us a cup of black Russian tea.
It was an experience that I wouldn't have missed for the
world, but I certainly wouldn't want to do it again.
Leningrad, we met with a doctor who had alcoholic patients
who were trying to use the AA method, but he didn't believe
it would work because of the emphasis on God. Eventually
this man brought some of his patients to see us and it
is our hope that the sharing that went on will one day
be of some use to them. One of the excercises this doctor
has his group doing for therapy purposes is to translate
the Big Book. "It's not a very good translation,"
he said, but they don't seem to mind.
group that this doctor worked with has been using AA for
about three years, and one of the group had three years
sobriety, another had one year, and another had seven
months. These people were allowed to come and visit with
us in our hotel rooms, something unheard of just a few
years back. On our end, we were not restricted in any
way in our travels. We were allowed to just wander wherever
people of Leningrad had a pride and a spirit like I'd
never seen. At one point during our stay in Leningrad,
just prior to our scheduled meeting with the Temperance
Promotion Society, an American movie was shown on Soviet
TV - a movie about one woman's struggle with alcoholism
and her eventual sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. The
movie created quite a response from its Soviet viewers,
and the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a piece
with some of the hundreds of requests it received asking
for more information on AA. We had the article translated
and were moved by the overriding tone of the responses.
Here, translated from the Russian, is just one of the
have acquaintances but no friends. I have spent these
last ten days at home. I have not gone anywhere and will
invariably get drunk. And once I go on a binge, it lasts
a long time.
don't work anywhere. I would love to go to heaven, but
my sins won't let me. I'm twenty-four. My employment record
is like an index of available jobs. Besides which, last
summer I was released from incarceration.
should I do? I don't visit my neighborhood duty officer
because I know his crowning remark: 'If you don't have
a job in ten days, I'll send you to the Labor-Rehabilitation
Camp.' Who wants to go there? So I hide. It was better
in jail. I don't know how AA can help me, but I am writing
newspaper article also carried the comments of the first
deputy chairman of the Temperance Promotion Society (TPS),
which had recently come under fire for what appeared to
be a lack of effectiveness in supplying adequate answers
to the huge problem of alcoholism facing the Soviet Union.
Of AA, the first deputy had this to say: "We will
not forge an alliance with them. Their method is interesting,
but is only partially useful for us. And we will reject
it primarily because certain interested parties from across
the ocean are very clearly using it to promote the American
way of life. The pretext is a good one; there is nothing
to be said against it. But still I will block it."
a note of uncertainty, then - and these conflicting messages
in our minds - we went off to our scheduled meeting with
the TPS. Of course, we got lost along the way, literally,
and as things have a way of going in AA, it turned out
to be one of the greatest days I've ever had.
after wandering around the city's back streets, we found
our way. Unlike our dire predictions based on the newspaper
article, the TPS people were very cordial, very kind,
very open, very pro-AA. While we were there talking, a
television producer showed up with her camera crew asking
for permission to do some filming for a ten-minute documentary
on Alcoholics Anonymous for Soviet television. We started
to explain our Traditions, of course, and she cut us off;
she understood them quite well, she assured us, and promised
to maintain our anonymity. So, as we began to talk with
the TPS people, the cameraman went to work. Rather than
showing any faces, he focussed in on our hands as we were
the end of the meeting, the producer commented that she
didn't think ten minutes was going to be nearly enough
to give a sense of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet
public. So what they intended to do, at their own expense,
was to travel to the United States in order to prepare
a more in depth documentary on AA. We made plans to send
them copies of some of the films and video material that
AA has already produced, such as "Young People and
AA," "It Sure Beats Sitting in a Cell,"
and "AA - An Inside View," hoping that this
material would add to their understanding of AA principles
we headed up to Moscow, and on our first day there we
met with the Moscow Beginners Group. There will be debates
forevermore about which was the first AA group in Russia,
but this group had as good a claim as the next. It was
started by an Episcopal minister who was living and working
in Moscow, and it now had a number of regular attendees.
It was the first Soviet AA group registered with the General
Service Office in New York.
in Moscow we had an appointment to meet with a doctor
who had written a book about alcoholism and recovery,
and a good part of it was about AA and its principles.
The book, it seems, was a huge popular success and had
already sold out. They were going to have a public debate
about this book, and a big hall had been opened up at
one of the cultural palaces where everyone - police, antagonists,
proponents, everybody - showed up to debate the ideas
in this book. We were invited to come. It turned into
quite an afternoon-one we never could have planned.
author of the book and several other narcologists fielded
most of the questions about AA and were quite right in
their understanding of anonymity and the purpose of Alcoholics
Anonymous. These people proved to be great advocates of
AA. And by the time the debate was over, a spokesman for
TPS announced in public that they would now actively support
woman stood up in the crowd and shouted out, "How
do you think Alcoholics Anonymous will work in the Soviet
Union?" My compatriots looked at me.
I could really tell her was that it would be presumptuous
of me to pretend to be an expert. I had been in her country
only thirteen days. How could I possibly base anything
on that? But I did say that we have the experience of
114 other cultures who have used AA quite effectively,
and that the only purpose of our visit to her country
was to share our experience with them if it could be of
we were to have a meeting with the head of TPS, the man
who had made the statement in Komsomolskaya Pravda. This
fellow was a very short man with white hair - very charming,
very cordial, and tough as nails. There was no question
about who he was. The first thing he did was give us a
cup of tea and say, "Now, here are the rules for
this get together." He laid out how the meeting was
to be conducted and said, "Since you have requested
this meeting, I have asked a number of people also to
be here. They are alcoholics with another way of doing
things." This was all done very graciously, however,
and it was clear that he wasn't opposing us in any way.
off we went into another room, and sure enough there was
this other bunch of people there. These were alcoholics
from a sobriety club formed in 1978, and the founder of
the club was there. He was now twelve years sober. The
club was formed to give alcoholics something to do in
their spare time. They were responsible for forming their
own activities - staging plays, etc. Their charter stated
that members couldn't drink until death, and they told
us that only two people in the last nine years had slipped.
They wanted to demonstrate the sober life. The trade union
bosses had helped to organize this club. It was all done
through the workplace. If you were an alcoholic, your
name was on the wall at work. They knew who you were and
lots of peer pressure was brought to bear. Their idea
was to break the cycle of alcoholism. They wanted to have
a whole generation of people who were living good, healthy
lives without drinking alcohol.
of the interesting things to come out of this meeting
was our awareness of how little they really understood
of the concept of anonymity. "How can you get well
when you don't even know each other?" was the basic
question the head of TPS asked us. He said that in these
sobriety clubs, people weren't anonymous to each other
- they got together frequently and were much like a family.
last really official meeting was with the chief deputy
and chief narcologist of the Ministry of Health, the governmental
agency that oversees all alcoholism treatment in the Soviet
Union. This guy was tough - not in any antagonistic way,
but he wanted "the facts, please." He wanted
to know organizational things: how AA was set up, and
how his agency could use AA. He voiced his biggest concern,
however, by calling AA an "uncontrolled movement."
we'd been talking with this man for an hour or so, he
asked us pointblank, "What can we do to get this
thing started here?" Our response was very simple:
"Give them space. Give them rooms to meet in and
a little bit of space to grow in." We told him we'd
send him a lot of AA information, especially the organizational
stuff he was interested in.
believe that the purpose of our visit was accomplished.
More and more professionals in the Soviet Union now know
about and trust the process of Alcoholics Anonymous, and
we've seen indications that they're willing to give it
a try. We've also found that there are some necessities
that the General Service Office can provide to these people,
the greatest of which would be to provide portions of
the pamphlet "The AA Group" in Russian so that
some of the how-to questions might begin to be resolved.
They also need the pamphlet on sponsorship, and of course
the Big Book.
the businessman from the Moscow Beginners Group, I am
a fellow who had no history of God in his life. I am a
common, garden-variety drunk with all kinds of other problems,
whose very best thinking got him into a penitentiary;
a man completely without moral standards, a man you could
not trust, a man for whom the ends always justified the
means, a self centered and domineering man. And yet, because
of Alcoholics Anonymous and the grace of God I was able
to participate in this trip because I was sober. It could
happen to anybody reading this.
are no Russian alcoholics, no Estonian or Siberian or
American alcoholics. There are only alcoholics. Of this
I am now certain.
P., Aurora, Colorado
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., July 1989
practicing our Traditions, The AA Grapevine, Inc. has
neither endorsed nor are they affiliated with Silkworth.net.
The Grapevine®, and AA Grapevine® are registered
trademarks of The AA Grapevine, Inc.
others index | Grapevine