The short history of drunk tanks – sobering centers

Militsiya arrests a drunken citizen to transport him to a local detoxification center. USSR. 1970s

In 1904, the first drunk tank (sobering center for drunks) was opened in Tula. It was called very romantically “Shelter for intoxicated”. Drunk tanks were widespread all over the Soviet Union.

From Wikipedia:

Such institutions, known as Vytrezvitel (Russian: Вытрезвитель, literally a “soberator”), were introduced in 1904 in Tula, Russia, by Fedor Archangelskiy, a surgeon. The reason that Tula pioneered the issue, not St. Petersburg or Moscow, was because Tula Arms Plant weaponmakers were freezing to death in snowbanks on the backstreets of the city on a daily basis right after the salary was paid. The plant’s management could not afford to lose their best and most skilled craftsmen, it took them a lot of time to substitute the departed, so they supported the effort. The Tsar’s government didn’t pay much attention to the Vytrezvitels, they were locally managed by municipal authorities and volunteers on their own discretion, because the unskilled workforce was so cheap that nobody really cared much about frozen and drowned drunks.

One of the early ones, St. Petersburg, 1914. The newly delivered clients are piled up on the floor, while sobering men are sitting or standing up against the walls.

The Bolsheviks focused on their labour force and paid much attention to institutionalize the sobering procedures and all the people involved, to prevent drunk workers from freezing or drowning somewhere unsupervised, or causing other troubles. In 1940 the Vytrezvitels became state-run facilities, they were detached as separate units within the NKVD and later MVD structure, police patrols and DNDs, dispatched for their routine raids, collected drunks from the streets to police vans, moving them to Vytrezvitels and holding them in custody until they sober up, employing force if necessary. Rampant and disorderly drunks or otherwise inappropriately behaving persons, as well as DTs and alcohol- or narcotics-triggered mental cases were handed over to medical authorities, who had then and have now specially detailed medical personnel, whose primary mission is to neutralize, or subdue into submission, and drag disorderly drunks into a ward, and forcibly administer medications if required.

In the USSR, the first drunk tank was opened on November 14, 1931 in Leningrad. Later, in response to requests from local law enforcement agencies on, what to do with alcoholic beverages taken from alcoholics during their detention, a memo was issued, which stated: “These alcoholic beverages must be returned to their owners, upon sobering up”.

On March 4, 1940, sobering centers were under control of NKVD, which later became known as KGB. According to one version, NKVD took over the drunk tanks to make it easier to deal with violent drunks.

In the sobering center, an examination and medical care was provided to arrested citizens.  A report was compiled based on the results of a medical examination and a whatever found during the search of arrested drunks. Then, men were separated form women and placed in cells.

Female sobering center, 1997, St. Petersburg

After the person sobered up and his identity and place of work were established, he (or she) was fined (and if he was unable to pay, on spot, he was given a ticket) and released.

An important point was the note to the workplace, about employees stay in the sobering center. The Soviet blue collar management took this rather calmly, since some of the workers were regular visitors of drunk tanks.  However, such a note for an intellectual laborer, meant a shade on a career and even firing. Managers would gather co workers and collectively shame an alcoholic.

In the USSR and Russia there were many cases, when police officers just for filling the quota, arrested tipsy people who were calmly going home. Then, they sent a shameful note about detention to their workplace.

By the end of the 90s, the loyal attitude of the Russian factories’ management towards alcoholic workers reached the point, where they were allowed (unofficially) workers to sleep right on the factory floor. Thus, from morning till lunch, the worker could still do some work, but after lunch he slept drunk. Later after sobering up, he could go home. Everyone knew this and the management never entered the workshop after lunch.

As the saying goes “Everything new is well forgotten old”, history is repeating itself and the State Duma decided to bring back the sobering centers.

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