Burying Alcoholism

Churches tackle subst ance abuse in western Ukraine

text by Mariya Tytarenko with photographs by Yuriy Dyachyshyn

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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.

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