SCORES of Russians have died and more than 900 have been treated in hospital after drinking home-brewed spirits and illicit substances, following the introduction of a new tax on vodka.
Rising prices of legitimate spirits have created a booming market in illegal vodka and a range of substitutes including lighter fluid, cleaning fluid and industrial alcohol.
The authorities imposed a state of emergency in one region to try to control the substances, as hospitals filled up with people suffering agonising stomach complaints.
Contaminated illicit vodka has killed 45 in the towns of Stary Oskol and Gubkin in western Russia. Another 27 died in the Irkutsk region, and 15 in Pskov, leading the authorities to declare the state of emergency. Three people reportedly died in the Saratov region after consuming unidentified liquids used for servicing car engines.
Across Siberia, police have set up roadblocks to help detect illegal alcohol.
In the city of Voronezh, several hundred tonnes of industrial liquids have been seized as a temporary precaution against their being sold as liquor substitutes.
Meanwhile, there is concern about the tens of thousands of farmers who have revived the ancient and sometimes hazardous practice of brewing vodka.
But the authorities are bedeviled by the sheer scale of the problem. Russia is one of the hardest drinking nations on Earth, consuming 38 litres of vodka for every man, woman and child per year.
In Moscow, roadside kiosks typically sell 20 or more brands, ranging from the leading names down to a bottle that costs 60p. The sight of alcoholics comatose in the gutter is common, and beer is regarded as harmless.
The moonshine epidemic is the most serious since the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev banned vodka during the last years of the Communist regime. Now, as then, the result has been an explosion of illicit liquor.
Meanwhile, police are trying to track down secret distilleries producing contaminated vodka, but admit that in a country as vast as Russia, the task is formidable.
The Union of Alcohol Producers has called for a rethink, saying that if the tax is lowered, legitimate brands can compete with contraband in the shops.
However, Moscow insists it has to press ahead with the new tax laws. Russia's illegal brewing industry is reckoned to be worth 1.5 billion, accounting for a fifth of its vodka consumption.
Critics of the new laws say they are also designed to bring independent producers back under the state vodka monopoly, part of Vladimir Putin's alleged wider programme of renationalisation taking place in the oil and gas industries.
A HISTORY OF THE HARD STUFF
DISTILLING Samogon, or moonshine liquor, is a proud Russian tradition kept alive by poverty, plenty of raw material, and a land so vast it is impossible to police.
In the 1700s Ivan the Terrible made vodka a state monopoly.
Ever since then, Russia's governments, be they Tsarist, Communist or Democratic, have fought a losing battle against the moonshiners. Mikhail Gorbachev banned vodka altogether, nearly causing a riot. The move saw an explosion in home brewing.
In recent years home brew has tailed off, but on the evidence from Saratov, the moonshiners are now back.