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Burying Alcoholism

Ukrainians tackle a longstanding social ill

In 1957, 4-year-old Viktor Proskuriakov stood in the door of his home in Boryslav, a small town in western Ukraine, and shouted, “Mom, I was in heaven!” When Mrs. Proskuriakov asked her son to show her this heaven, he led her to an old church, which the Soviet authorities had closed and converted into a museum of atheism.

Now, as the elderly woman recounts the story, she is convinced her son stumbled upon a secret Divine Liturgy celebrated by members of the then underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

That 4-year-old is now a happily married father of two adult children and a prominent member of Ukraine’s educated elite. An accomplished architect, Mr. Proskuriakov has executed more than 150 projects. And as a distinguished professor and scholar of architecture at the Lviv Polytechnic National University, he has published some 200 articles, essays and monographs, many of which have been translated into Bulgarian, French, German, Italian, Polish and Russian.

Viktor Proskuriakov is also a recovering alcoholic, having struggled with the disease for most of his adult life. He began drinking at the age of 14 — an activity that quickly became a habit and later a serious problem.

“While I was a [university] student in Lviv and Moscow, I used to drink almost every day, just as any other typical student in Soviet dormitories,” says Mr. Proskuriakov, who discusses his alcoholism with candor.

Back in those days, staying sober among tipsy colleagues was viewed with suspicion — the sober person might be a K.G.B. agent.

“Because of that reality,” he continues, “the Soviet system encouraged people to drink heavily to make them more obedient and weak-willed. For this purpose, the regime created many pseudo holidays [that were] celebrated with vodka, among them the Day of the Miner, of the Teacher, of Medical Personnel, of the Doctor, etc.

“In independent Ukraine, we still have this sad post-Soviet heritage, but no one usually battles against it. Drinking has become something of a national pastime.”

According to a 2008 study on alcoholism conducted by the World Health Organization, Ukraine ranked at the top of the list of countries with the highest rates of alcohol consumption among children and young people. With a population of 2.5 million people, the Lviv Oblast (or province) falls within the mean of Ukraine’s 24 oblasts with respect to substance abuse, which includes alcoholism and drug use. Last year, between 1 January and 1 July, public health authorities registered 428 cases of alcoholism and drug addiction among people under the age of 18, and 35,248 cases among adults.

“That is only the official data,” says Dr. Myroslava Kabanchyk, the chief physician at the Lviv State Clinical Pharmacological Dispensary. “There are many more people like that, a great number of whom fear seeking medical treatment. If they did they would not be able to work or go abroad for five years. Many others have just not been officially registered, such as those over 60 or those who live deep in the Carpathian Mountains.” She estimates the real number of addicts and alcoholics far surpasses the official numbers.

Statistics on substance abuse among Ukraine’s youth are especially inaccurate. Most often, officials become aware of a youth’s addiction only after he has been reprimanded by police. Rarely have parents taken the initiative to seek appropriate treatment for their children.

“The situation is getting worse,” says Dr. Kabanchyk, who listed the prevalence of violence in mass media, the world’s economic crises and the emigration of women as primary factors in the rise of substance abuse in Ukraine. The emigration of women serving as guest workers abroad “is certainly the main reason for the rise in the use of drugs among youth,” she adds.

“They’re given ‘easy’ money from their mothers and no one controls how they spend it. When their parents return from abroad, if it is not too late, they arrange for treatment for their children and take them away later to Spain, Italy, Portugal or Greece.”

Dr. Kabanchyk believes substance abuse in Ukraine has taken on a pandemic character in recent decades. She has noticed an increase in the number of cases of delirium tremens among young people. The illness is most often associated with alcohol poisoning among veteran alcoholics. But these days, the symptom has become common among young adults. Part of the reason is the widespread consumption of poor quality alcohol. During Soviet times, alcohol was cheaper, but of higher quality.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, neither the national nor local government has allocated enough funds to address it. Nowhere in Lviv Oblast, for instance, is equipment available to conduct the tests that identify chronic alcoholism and drug addiction in patients. Hospitals simply cannot afford the $59,000 expense. Doctors often must diagnose comatose addicts by superficial examination alone.

Alcoholism is not new in Ukraine, especially in its rural communities, where it has long plagued family life. For centuries, the elite of the various ruling empires and regimes (e.g., Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Soviet Russia) encouraged drinking among Ukraine’s rural poor to better subjugate them. A well-known Ukrainian proverb speaks to this legacy of oppression: “a tipsy ear does not hear the clanking of shackles.”

Today, alcoholism affects rural and urban populations equally. Similarly, drug use once disproportionately impacted Ukraine’s urban areas, but it is now a major problem in rural communities, too. In the villages surrounding Lviv, drug use is a serious problem among youth. Usually, they begin using narcotics derived from poppies, then marijuana and then more serious substances. Drug use is particularly severe in central and eastern Ukraine, where narcotics are trafficked across the nearby border with Russia and are thus more readily available to local communities.

Despite more than four decades of suppression, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has long taken on substance abuse — especially alcohol — as a social ill. As early as the 1930’s, parishes staged plays and held workshops addressing alcohol’s dangers. February became a month of alcohol abstinence, in part because the number of fatal cases of alcohol-related hypothermia spiked in February. And today, at the center of many villages, “crosses of sobriety” have been erected to remind residents to drink with moderation.

Throughout western Ukraine, parish communities have organized support groups for recovering alcoholics and chapters of the “Brotherhood of Abstinence,” an advocacy group committed to raising awareness about the risks of substance abuse. Notably, the brotherhood publishes the “Golden Book of Sobriety,” a compilation of prayers intended to help those struggling with addiction. Chapters of the brotherhood regularly hold prayer vigils to strengthen those affected by addiction.

For many addicts, a renewed faith in God helps them find the will to kick the habit and reclaim control of their lives.

One recovering alcoholic is Stepan Kovpak, a 61-year-old farmer from the small village of Turycha. For many years, Mr. Kovpak had been a seemingly hopeless alcoholic. But one April afternoon nine years ago, his life took a new path. That day, he had gone to the market with the intention of purchasing potatoes for planting on his farm. Instead, he succumbed to temptation. With the little money he had, he purchased a bottle of vodka, draining it that afternoon. Soon after, this married father of two daughters and grandfather of two passed out and nearly died of alcohol poisoning.

After some days, Mr. Kovpak regained consciousness at his home on what happened to be Palm Sunday. Immediately, he began to crave alcohol. His wife, Ivanka, was at church. With no alcohol in the home, he approached a neighbor and asked for a shot of vodka. The neighbor refused and Mr. Kovpak returned home deeply ashamed. He knelt before an icon in his home and prayed, reciting some 50 prayers repeatedly.

When his wife returned, she was astonished to see her husband awake and deep in prayer. She brushed him with the blessed willow branches she received during the Divine Liturgy, which according to Ukrainian tradition brings good health. Mr. Kovpak has not touched a drop of alcohol since that fateful day. He and his family are convinced his recovery is nothing short of a miracle.

Though Viktor Proskuriakov does not attribute his recovery to any sort of miracle, he does believe his renewed faith inspired him above all else to quit drinking. For years, his wife, Halya, and their children tried everything to help him recognize his problem and seek the appropriate help — but to no avail. And despite a handful of earnest but failed attempts to stay sober, Mr. Proskuriakov continued drinking, sinking deeper and deeper into an “alco-hell.”

It was not until 1995, when the architect became acquainted with Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, the former head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, that he gave up alcohol once and for all. At the time, Mr. Proskuriakov was writing his doctoral thesis on architecture and the Ukrainian theater.

“The archbishop’s life, his exploits, his writings and letters, turned my inner nature on its head,” Mr. Proskuriakov recalls.

In 1999, Viktor Proskuriakov requested baptism in the Greek Catholic Church. (As a baby, his grandmother probably baptized him. But since she died many years ago, the family never knew for sure if the baptism had been performed.) The architect’s two adult children joined him at his side, deciding that the time was right for them to enter the church as well. According to Father Theodosii Iankiv, the Basilian abbot who received the family into the church, it was the first of its kind in Ukraine in recent history.

From that moment on, Viktor Proskuriakov has described himself as a committed Christian. “Since that time he prays before the icon every morning.” says his son, Oleksii.

Overjoyed by his newly found spirituality and sobriety, Mr. Proskuriakov wrote a letter to his dying father in Russia, who had always discouraged drinking. But before he could drop it in the mail, he received word his father had died. At the funeral, he instead placed the sealed letter in his father’s coffin.

Viktor Proskuriakov often remembers his father’s words: “Staying sober is much more complicated than quitting drinking.” Indeed, there is considerable pressure within Ukrainian society to drink. Most Ukrainians drink socially, especially on holidays and special occasions, and many perceive an individual’s refusal to drink with the group as a sign of disrespect.

A cheerful and sociable man, Viktor Proskuriakov no longer gives into this social pressure. Once at a banquet he was asked why he was not drinking. After a long pause, he replied, “I don’t drink on principle. As long as Ukraine is on its knees, I will not drink alcohol.” His words resonated and no one has questioned his abstinence since.

Mr. Proskuriakov’s spirituality has also led him to reevaluate his academic and professional goals. As he pursued his thesis, he realized he no longer found the subject of his work as fulfilling as he once did. His scholarly interests began to shift to theology and church history. Accordingly, he changed the focus of his doctoral thesis so that it dealt with, in part, theological questions and the existence of God. In 2002, he successfully defended his thesis, earning a doctorate. He also designed Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches and began to participate in alcohol awareness activities.

In 2003, Viktor Proskuriakov took part in “The Burial of Alcoholism,” a ritual in which parishioners from the Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in the village of Stankiv joined together and took an oath to give up drinking and end alcohol dependency. The crowd gathered around an open grave, which was filled with liquor bottles, to pray and symbolically bury the disease. Marked with a tombstone to remind villagers of their oaths, the grave can be seen from the road leading to the church and rectory.

Father Ihor Hiletsky, who serves as the church’s pastor as well as the coordinator of youth programs for the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Stryj, organized the burial.

“The idea to conduct a series of events exposing alcoholism as a sinister evil occurred in 2001 just after I had come to Stankiv,” says Father Hiletsky.

“I was astonished by the alcohol abuse in the parish — 30 out of 289 farms were making and distributing liquor. You may not believe it, but when I asked the folks to help me, the first thing they told me early in the morning was, ‘Father, pour us something to warm us up.’”

The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was an incident in March 2002. A parishioner and mother asked him to lend her some of the church’s money for her dying daughter. He lent her the money without reservation. The following day, the woman’s daughter, Lilia, came to speak with the priest. She assured him she was healthy, but explained that her mother on the other hand was not; she had a serious drinking problem and had lied to him in order to get money for vodka. Lilia asked Father Hiletsky for his and the parish’s support while she and her family sought the appropriate professional help for her mother.

From that moment onward, Father Hiletsky declared a war on alcoholism. Initially, village authorities denied the priest’s requests to allow his parish to stage awareness-raising events on the dangers of alcoholism. But once he received a letter of approval from the office of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, local authorities gave Father Hiletsky and his parish the green light. Soon after, the village’s Orthodox parish joined forces with Holy Trinity.

“At first, I planned to do what Cardinal Yosyp Sembratovych [the metropolitan archbishop of Galicia] did in the 19th century,” recalls Father Hiletsky, holding his son — one of his five children — on his knees. “He gathered together people from all over the village to identify a dead alcoholic laid out in a coffin, which stood on a pedestal. One by one, the villagers stepped up to the coffin and silently walked away. What they saw instead of the face of a deceased man was a mirror.”

In the end, Father Hiletsky decided that such a production might offend more than enlighten today’s parishioners, choosing instead to stage the burial. And while the Catholic and Orthodox parishes have organized numerous anti-alcoholism events in recent years, the Burial of Alcoholism had the most profound affect on the community. Since it took place, authorities have cracked down on the illegal distribution of alcohol in the village, shutting down all such rackets.

Recently, the local Catholic and Orthodox parish communities, Viktor Proskuriakov and the ecumenical organization, Christian Ukraine, have been working together to establish a free or low-cost rehabilitation center for individuals struggling with addictions in Lviv Oblast.

“After medical treatment in a dispensary, these people definitely need to cure their minds and souls; otherwise, it is ineffective,” explains Myroslav Danylkiv, a founding member of Christian Ukraine.

The few rehabilitation centers in the Ukraine are generally expensive. Monthly fees at such centers range from $250 to $1,850 — far out of reach for most residents in western Ukraine, where the average monthly salary hovers around $200.

“They need the therapy of love,” says Father Oleksandr Koroliuk, pastor of the Orthodox Church of St. Dmitri Solunski.

Father Koroliuk works closely with Father Hiletsky, Viktor Proskuriakov and Christian Ukraine on issues related to substance abuse. “We need to stop arguing among ourselves since we have one mutual goal — to heal the nation.”

Father Koroliuk blames overwork as one of the underlying causes of alcoholism. According to the priest, after a hard day, many workers have little else other than vodka to help them unwind. “We need to offer them something instead: religious movies, books, volunteer work.”

A man of his word, Father Koroliuk once offered a seemingly hopeless villager the position of sexton at the church. Entrusted with these responsibilities, he has since attained sobriety.

In this regional but ecumenical effort to defeat alcoholism, Viktor Proskuriakov, however, stands out as the leader.“We do everything we can,” he says, adding humbly, “with God’s help.”

First-time contributors Mariya Tytarenko and Yuriy Dyachyshyn are based in Lviv.

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