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Pickled Babies Drafted to Battle Alcoholism




LYUBERTSY, Moscow Region -- Peter the Great would have been proud.

The schoolchildren huddled together in silence, eyes goggling at the collection of deformed human fetuses started by the tsar almost 300 years ago.

"You see, kids," whispered Tatyana Borisova in the soft tones of a children's storyteller as she pointed to the "Cyclops" -- a stillborn baby with a single eye in the middle of its forehead.

"This is what can happen if you mess around with drugs and alcohol."

For one young girl, it was all too much. She asked for permission to leave but passed out as she headed for the door.

The stomach-churning collection of preserved mutant babies and pickled body parts is part of the Kunstkammer, Russia's first museum, which the tsar founded in 1714 to combat superstition and promote scientific education.

Three centuries later, the "anatomical rarities" exhibition -- part freak show, part medical study -- is being used in a "shock tactics" campaign to combat drug and alcohol abuse.

Russians drink some 15 liters of pure alcohol per head each year, one of the highest rates in the world, and by some estimates one in seven Russians are alcoholics, experts say.

Male life expectancy has plunged to under 59 since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And a country where drug abuse was virtually unknown in Soviet times now has 3 million drug users -- about 2 percent of the population.

Borisova, the administrator of the exhibition, says desperate times call for desperate measures.

"Unfortunately, so many children are surrounded by drunks on the street or even in their homes," she said.

"We should show this to children and show them what organs look like and what happens to our body if we use certain substances."

The Kunstkammer is based in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg. But 40 exhibits are touring Russian cities to promote health education, much in the spirit of Peter the Great, Borisova said.

Captivated by all things European, the tsar started the collection after visiting the museum of a Dutch anatomist, Frederik Ruysch, in Amsterdam in 1697.

He bought Ruysch's entire collection of pickled body parts and encouraged Russians to contribute human and animal abnormalities, determined to show visitors such phenomena were not the work of the devil, but of nature.

The result is one of the most bizarre museums in the world -- its German name reflecting the European influence on Peter.

As well as the Cyclops, it includes Siamese twins, a two-faced baby known as a "Janus," a "mermaid" with a fleshy tail instead of legs, and a double-headed calf.

Another highlight is the skeleton of a giant named Bourgeois, whom Peter brought back to Russia from the French port of Calais.

This month, the exhibition was in Lyubertsy, a town of concrete high-rise buildings and simple wooden houses just outside Moscow, with a poor record of substance abuse.

The poster outside the Lyubertsy House of Culture has an unashamedly "Roll-up! Roll-up!" ring.

"You will see the Siamese twins, the Cyclops, the mermaid, the two-faced baby and other anatomical rarities!" it proclaims.

But once inside, the 300 schoolchildren and dozens of curious adults who visit every day listen to Borisova patiently preaching the virtues of temperance.

"You should talk with them not to scare them, but to let them draw their own conclusions," she said. "You should tell them about our ecology and about unhealthy lifestyles."

Judging by their reactions, her unorthodox approach -- P.T. Barnum meets Betty Ford -- is getting the message through.

"Well, this shows me that you should never smoke, use drugs or drink if you want to have a normal child or a normal career," said Natasha, a third-grade student.

Even a couple of swaggering teenage boys said they would think twice before lighting up a cigarette or cracking open a beer after seeing the disintegrated lungs of a smoker and the bloated liver of an alcoholic floating in formaldehyde.

"We already smoke and drink," said Yevgeny Ganin, 14. "It's normal for kids our age. But I think vodka can be dangerous and I stay away from drugs."

Police in Lyubertsy say most addicts are aged between 16 and 30, and 80 percent of cases involve heroin.

President Vladimir Putin last year called drug addiction a social disaster and created a national agency to lead a crackdown on drug trafficking.

But tackling alcoholism is more problematic given the enduring popularity of vodka.

Alcohol is sold 24 hours a day from kiosks around Lyubertsy -- as in most of Russia -- and a liter costs just over $1. Beer is regarded by many as a soft drink.

The Moscow city government is considering ending round-the-clock alcohol sales because boozing is draining the economy and driving away tourists, a Moscow newspaper said this month.

But such moves are fraught with political risk in Russia -- especially with a presidential election set for early 2004.

In the 1980s, attempts by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to curb alcoholism by slashing vodka output and destroying vineyards only caused widespread derision and a surge in production of moonshine.

Shocking as the Kunstkammer exhibition may be, pessimists argue that drinking has always been part of Russian culture and always will be. After all, legend has it that when Peter the Great opened the museum, he had to entice visitors by offering them a free shot of vodka.

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  • Alcohol Facts
  • Certain driving skills can be impaired by blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) as low as 0.02 percent.
  • Adult drivers ages 35 and older who have been arrested for impaired driving are 11 to 12 times more likely than those who have never been arrested to die eventually in crashes involving alcohol.
  • From 1993 to 1999, national alcohol treatment admission rates declined by 24 percent. Alcohol admissions included admissions for both abuse of alcohol alone and admissions for the primary abuse of alcohol with secondary abuse of another drug.
  • Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone every 30 minutes and nonfatally injure someone every two minutes.