This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
At the beginning of 2010, there were 545 police-run drunk tanks, or sobering-up stations, across Russia. In 2009, the facilities were used more than 2.5 million times. Yet by the autumn of 2011, all of them had been liquidated as part of a broad police reform process undertaken by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
A new law that came into force at the end of December, however, will bring back a version of the drunk tank. But it remains to be seen exactly how the measure will be implemented.
“By no means can policing functions and health-care functions be intermixed,” said Oleg Zykov, director of the Institute of National Narcological Health.
“As soon as they get mixed up, a sort of gray zone appears in which a person — especially if he is not able to protect himself — can become a victim of violence,” Zykov said. “In essence, the entire history of Soviet and Russian drunk tanks is only about this — about beatings, about murder, about rape. I have worked in this field a long time and those are the facts.”
“If you recall how drunk tanks were working when they were liquidated, you know that many rights violations were committed there,” said Moscow-based human rights activist Natalya Taubina. “That is why the system was shut down 10 years ago. How they are going to function now that they are being resurrected remains a huge question.
“It is unclear how big their medical function and how big their law enforcement function will be,” she added.
Eliminating the drunk tanks was a controversial move, despite their notorious reputation. After they were shut down, responsibility for keeping people from dying in the streets fell to ambulance services and hospitals.
“This is very difficult, dangerous, and thankless work,” said Alisa Shimkus, who works as an ambulance medic in Moscow. “They aren’t in any shape to communicate with you in a human way. They can be aggressive. They don’t only act aggressively, but they can ruin your ambulance with their vomiting and urinating.”
Gradually, drunk tanks began to reappear in various guises in many Russian regions. In Tatarstan, for instance, they are called “detoxification centers” and are affiliated with hospitals or medical clinics. When Russia hosted the World Cup soccer championship in 2018, most of the 11 host cities set up drunk tanks to help maintain public decorum.
In 2018, a parliamentary commission recommended the resurrection of drunk tanks, arguing that alcohol-related crimes had increased by nearly 50 percent since 2011. Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said at the time that about one-third of all crimes in 2017 involved alcohol and as many as 10,000 people froze to death on the streets each year while drunk.
Under the new law, regions will be authorized — but not required — to create drunk tanks under the guidance of regulations to be adopted by the Interior, Health, and Labor ministries. The new facilities will be “private-public” partnerships. People brought to them will undergo mandatory medical examinations — against their will if necessary — to make sure they have no conditions that require hospitalization.
“At present, some federal subjects of our country have medical sobering-up stations, but the process of setting them up on the initiative of regional or municipal authorities is not regulated under the law,” said Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinstein, a co-author of the new law. “This legislation will correct that error.”
The new law also authorizes drunk tanks to charge people for their stays. Duma Deputy Aleksei Didenko estimated that fees would be around 1,500 rubles ($20) a night, but other estimates run much higher. Some rights activists have argued this could foster corruption, with police officers offering drunken citizens the chance to pay a smaller fee on the spot in exchange for release.
“The law is written vaguely and any vaguely written law creates the opportunity for various interpretations and manipulation,” said activist Taubina. “It creates the possibility and scope for [unethical] actions by law enforcement officers and by medical workers assigned to such facilities. There is a risk of corruption, extortion, and so on.”
Vadim Drobiz, head of the Center for the Study of Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, said Russia needs sobering-up stations because of its “street culture” of alcohol consumption.
“The Western culture of alcohol use centers on consumption in bars, cafes, and restaurants,” Drobiz told RFE/RL. “There, people in a civilized environment consume alcohol that is about 80 proof. They can do this because alcohol there is relatively affordable compared to incomes. It can be about one-quarter of the price here in Russia.
“In Russia, bars, cafes, and restaurants add about 200 or 300 percent to the price of alcohol, and wages are low,” he added. “So only about 4 or 5 percent of all alcohol in Russia is consumed in bars, cafes, and restaurants…. In Russia, people frequently drink on the streets, unfortunately. To a large extent, we have a street culture of alcohol consumption.”
Drobiz argues that drunk people should not be in public places and that it is appropriate for police to detain them and take them to drunk tanks.
“I don’t care what such facilities are called — drunk tanks or ‘shelters for weary travelers,’ as [Duma Deputy Vladimir] Zhirinovsky proposed,” Drobiz said. “But drunk people should not be in public places. They present a danger to those around them, to their relatives, friends, and so on.”