Why Hasn’t AA Caught On In Russia?

Leon Neyfakh addresses the question:

[I]n Russia, despite the passionate efforts of its proponents, [Alcoholics Anonymous] has struggled for acceptance as a legitimate treatment method and has largely failed to catch on. Since 1987, when an Episcopal priest from New York convened some of Russia’s very first AA meetings, only about 400 groups have formed in the entire country – a tiny number, when you consider that there are about 1,600 such groups in the Boston metropolitan area alone.

Why has Russia proven so inhospitable to AA’s ideas? Certainly, the history of distrust between our two countries hasn’t helped. But there have been other obstacles as well – some religious, some medical, some cultural.

At a basic level, its premise of sobriety through mutual support just doesn’t make sense to a lot of Russians. In the past, this has taken the form of anti-Western suspicion – “What are the Americans trying to get out of this?” is a question Moseeva used to hear regularly. But more fundamentally, the group-therapy dynamic collides with a skepticism about the possibility of ordinary people curing each other of anything. “The idea that another drunk can help you is asinine to most Russians,” said Alexandre Laudet, a social psychologist who has researched Russian alcoholism.

Then there’s the problem of opening up to strangers. The AA method works in part through trust in people you’ve never met before, and coming clean to them about one’s most shameful secrets. “It is much harder for a Russian person to talk about himself than it is for an American,” said a Russian AA member named Mikhail. “And there are a lot of reasons why, including that the generation of my parents – and my own, I’m 55 – couldn’t speak the truth at all, because it was possible to get arrested for it.”