“Drinking and Driving is so much Fun” – Arctic Workshop at the University of Tartu in Estonia May 31 – June 1, 2013

“Drinking and driving is so much fun” is an unusual title for an anthropological workshop. It was just the right provocation to induce serious reflections on something that anthropologists usually reserve for the famous “corridor talk” during conferences, when they discuss ambivalent fieldwork experiences difficult to integrate into the success stories of anthropological research.

The drunken native is such a powerful stereotype in the Russian North serving mostly disrespect and marginalisation that it is quite a risky endeavour for outsiders to discuss drinking in Siberia. The theme is such a blind spot in the anthropology of Siberia that it is high time to skip the superficial and stereotypical images and develop some deeper understanding of the manifold aspects linked to alcohol.

Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason - from Russia with irony
Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason – from Russia with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

The presentations of the workshop took up the task of challenging these stereotypes by careful ethnographic description and analysis, but also to understand the powerful role stereotypes play in the public discourse. Art Leete traced them back to antiquity where the northern barbarian neighbours of the Greeks where already believed to be heavy drinkers of undiluted wine. He followed this image of drinking northerners through Montesquieu up to the ethnographic literature of the 19th and early 20th century. Explanations for this north-south distinction in drinking changed over time but were always linked to some kind of “nature” of the North or the northerners. The nowadays most popular and widespread of these “natural” reasons of deviant drinking habits of northern people was taken up by Aimar Ventsel. His presentation shed light on the belief that the lack of an enzyme or gene dooms the indigenous peoples of Siberia to suffer from serious alcohol problems. He was not the only one during the workshop who made the important point, that stereotypes are not only used to marginalise indigenous groups. They serve as well the arguments of ethnic movements that criticise alcohol by declaring it to be foreign to their groups and an instrument of colonial domination. Genes that influence the ability to metabolise alcohol were mentioned also in the keynote speech of Jaanus Harro. He revealed that in certain populations in Asia the percentage of people having a genetically determined lack of particular enzymes is higher than in Europe. This slows down metabolising and let these people feel the effects of alcohol stronger. Substances that block the same enzymes are used in therapies of alcohol addiction to cause an aversion effect. One could therefore conclude quite opposite to the public belief that people genetically lacking the described enzymes are naturally protected from the long-time effects of excessive drinking.

Anna Stammler Gossmann investigated the role of stereotypes in national self-stylisation. She used the term “alcoholity” to describe how self-images but also state regulations are determining different conventions linked to alcohol consume in nation states. One of the main insights of anthropology in the human consumption of alcohol is that even the most uncontrolled and deviant drunken behaviour is framed by expectations and conventions in the respecting social environment. The “alcoholities” of nations like the Russians or the Finns are setting the reference point that the drinking habits of minority groups are judged from.

Most of the presented research centred either on the Khanty and Nenets of Western Siberia and the Northern Russian tundra or on cases from the Republic of Sakha/Yakutia. Ina Schröder, Karina Lukin, Kirill Istomin, Laur Vallikivi and I described drinking cultures from the first mentioned region. It became obvious that practices reaching from excessive or almost self-destructive drinking (described by Ina, Karina, Kirill and myself) to temperance of women (described by myself) or protestant converts (described by Laur) structure the internal distinctions of gender-, age-, and local groups as well as the differences to the mainstream society. They determine even settlement geography and movements of the nomadic reindeer herders as Kirill Istomin exemplified. Drunkenness enables dangerous contacts with the dead and is a source of humour as Ina Schröder reported. It produces persistent negative images that influenced seriously ethnographic fieldwork in the case of Karina Lukin. I focussed on the impact of transgressive behaviour that aims at the joint losing of face.

Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov
Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov (photo by Laura Siragusa)

For Yakutia Tatiana Argunova-Low and Yuri Zhegusov used sociological and anthropological methods to describe the ethnic differences in drinking and how concepts of agency and responsibility for alcohol related problems are influenced by the dominant therapy of alcoholism in the Russian Federation called “coding”.  Norman Prell and Eleanor Peers described very different social contexts in which alcohol and the absence of alcohol play an important role. Norman Prell discussed communities of migrant workers on a construction site and Russian settlers on the road from Yakutsk to Magadan. Eleanor focussed on the role of drinking in the main Sakha ritual, the Yhyakh festival, and how the nationalist revival promoted an alcohol ban during the festival.

Only Laura Siragusa presented an exclusion of these two regional foci with her talk about the Veps minority of the Russian North. Drinking problems are often considered to be the result of assimilation processes. Laura’s future research will test this hypothesis by exploring the link of language and alcohol in a broader sense going beyond the focus on language shift and the negative consequences of heavy drinking.

Otto Habeck's presentation - from the US with irony
Otto Habeck’s presentation – from the US with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

Joachim Otto Habeck’s presentation touched again an overarching but often neglected theme connected with drinking practices – hangover. Like Jaanus Harro he provided important insides from medical research that provide the background for a better understanding of the rich folklore and popular practices how to evaluate and treat the hangover. Hangover is probably also connected to a very specific drinking pattern called “zapoi” in Russian. The periodic and episodic drinking formerly associated with the medical concept of dipsomania was mentioned several times as a common and even accepted drinking phenomenon. Another current theme was the link of feelings of guilt, inferiority, and shame associated with drinking but also appearing with the hangover. Shame as a guardian of behavioural borders linked to social reputation and respect is often involved in drinking that transgresses these borders. The phrase “Do you respect me?” as a mean to force ones vis-à-vis to keep up with drinking is well known to all (male) researchers in Russia. It prevents the invited person to induce a shameful situation of unequal drunkenness. I observed this pressure to join excessive drinking mostly among young males that suffer from the feeling of status insecurity that rises while consuming alcohol. Shame serves also to keep information about drinking practices and the practices itself hidden inside narrow social groups. This way it helps to maintain the borders of the drinking groups as collectives of complicity and enables the ritual inclusion of outsiders by drinking into these collectives.

Does alcohol as a potent drink have itself agency? And if so what kind of agency? This was another important question raised during the discussion. Alcohol has obviously the ability to influence the possibilities and responsibilities of human action severely. My impression is that the allocation of power to alcohol itself is only obscuring the agency of social relationships that are at work when people engage in drinking. I would consider alcohol only the catalyst for these relationships to reinforce their power or deprive other social relationships of their agency. In the same way in which agency attributed to money hides the power of economic relationships that define the monetary system, social relationships are hiding behind the agency of alcohol or of the treatment of alcoholism. It will be the future task of anthropological research in Siberia to investigate the correlation of alcohol and agency more deeply.

The discussion revealed a lot of other themes that where not or only superficially touched in the papers and would deserve to be discussed in detail in a following workshop. Such peculiar places for drinking parties as the Russian sweat bath “bania” as well as the summerhouse “datcha” where not discussed. Characteristic drinking traditions like the practice of otmyvat’ (wash) achievements and acquisitions and the episodic “zapoi” where touched only shortly in the discussion. The eminent influence of the drinking habits of settlers and migrant workers, which is so influential for the local drinking cultures in Siberia, was only touched in Norman Prell’s paper. Aimar Ventsel discussed shortly the present changes in gendered drinking practices, the on-going switch from vodka to beer, and the diversification process in drinking habits. Tatiana Argunova-Low pointed on the methodological difficulties that research and writing about alcohol constitute for anthropologist working in Siberia. Stereotypes about marginalised social groups and the morally charged discourse about alcohol make it difficult to write about drinking. The physical and social effects of alcohol and personal security make it difficult to engage in participant observation of drinking.

The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu
The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu (photo by Laura Siragusa)

There is a lot to do in the research on drinking in Siberia and I hope that the ambivalence of fun and hangover and the moral taboos will not prevent anthropologists to focus on this topic. The workshop in Tartu was a wonderful opportunity to get an impression how huge and unexplored is the field of alcohol studies in Siberia. The anthropology of drinking in Siberia was taken out of its niche of „corridor talk“, but Tartu was also the perfect place to discuss very personal experiences of Siberian fieldwork with good friends under the influence of the one or the other glass of vodka or alcohol free beverages in the evenings. As the majority of participants I am very much looking for a follow up of “Drinking and Driving is so much Fun”!

One thought on ““Drinking and Driving is so much Fun” – Arctic Workshop at the University of Tartu in Estonia May 31 – June 1, 2013

  1. Stephan Dudeck

    Would like to add this poem of Diane Burns (1957—2006) that fits perfectly. (Thanks to Andrew Wiget for the hint)

    Sure, You Can Ask Me A Personal Question

    How do you do?
    No, I am not Chinese.
    No, not Spanish.
    No, I am American Indi-uh, Native American.

    No, not from India.
    No, not Apache.
    No, not Navajo.
    No, not Sioux.
    No, we are not extinct.
    Yes, Indian.

    So, that’s where you got those high cheekbones.
    Your great grandmother, huh?
    An Indian Princess, huh?
    Hair down to there?
    Let me guess. Cherokee?

    Oh, so you’ve had an Indian friend?
    That close?

    Oh, so you’ve had an Indian lover?
    That tight?

    Oh, so you’ve had an Indian servant?
    That much?

    Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
    It’s real decent of you to apologize.
    No, I don’t know where you can get peyote.
    No, I don’t know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
    No, I didn’t make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.

    Thank you. I like your hair too.
    I don’t know if anyone knows whether or not Cher is really Indian.
    No, I didn’t make it rain tonight.

    Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
    Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
    Earth. Yeah Uh’huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.

    No, I didn’t major in archery.
    Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
    Some of us can’t drink enough.

    This ain’t no stoic look.
    This is my face.

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