Russia’s Heroin Epidemic

In 1976 as Russia was in the midst of the Cold War— a state of tension and conflict between the western and communist worlds—heroin use was making waves in the United States with President Richard Nixon declaring a war on drugs. As drug were at the forefront of concern in the United States, American Jerry Amster, the focus of Locked Up Abroad: Escape from Gulag, found himself accepting an offer to smuggle heroin in an attempt to make some fast cash.

Jerry and his associates, Darrell and Pete, only made it to the Moscow airport before they were busted with 62 pounds of heroin. The three men were sentenced to up to ten years in the gulag—a hard labor camp—where they were forced to worked various factory jobs. The original Soviet Union gulag operated from 1930 to 1960 during Stalin’s ruling, several years before the men were sentenced. However the term is still used by many western authors when referring to the prison and internment camps in the Soviet Union.

Exhausted physically and emotionally Jerry was unable to handle life as a prisoner. After serving four of the eight years he was sentenced, Jerry Amster successfully scaled the prison walls during a power outage. On the run he returned to Moscow where he claims to have contacted the US Embassy for help. In December of 1980 Jerry made it back to the United States. His troubles with heroin were over but for the rest of the world the battle against the deadly drug had just begun.

As the Cold War ended a growing market of illicit drug trafficking began to sweep the world. In the mid-90s Russia’s border control was insufficient making it a point of interest for drug trafficking. It quickly became one of world’s biggest transit routes for drugs. As a result, Russia soon found itself with a heroin problem, a vast difference from the psychoactive substances that were popular during Soviet times.

Today Russia’s heroin use is at an all time high. An estimated three million individuals are addicted to the narcotic with 70% of registered addicts being under the age of 25. Efforts to combat heroin abuse have been futile with drug officials blaming the United States for not doing enough to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy fields. Afghanistan produces over 85% of the world’s opium, the dried latex from which heroin is derived. Russia is the leading consumer of Afghan heroin.

As Russia’s overwhelming population of heroin addicts continues to increase so does the number of individuals who have contracted HIV. Nearly one million people in Russia are believed to be infected with HIV and half of those contracted the disease through intravenous drug use. Russia’s HIV epidemic is the fastest growing in the world and the country has received criticism over their lack of attempt to combat the issue.

Countries like Switzerland, China and the United States have developed harm reduction policies like needle exchange programmes and safe injection sites. These programmes are designed to reduce the negative consequences that come with intravenous drug use, such as HIV. Despite UN agencies and other countries confirming harm reduction does decrease the spread of HIV, Russia still refuses to participate.  Russian drug officials are convinced harm reduction only encourages drug abuse and increase HIV infections.

Many drug officials continue to strive for the end of opium production as others are exploring new ways to fight drug trafficking such as the most recent suggestion investing in Central Asian economies. As the country continues to debate with the United States over efforts to stop drug trafficking the current issue of drug related illnesses, like HIV, are in need of immediate attention

Since Russia refuses to provide harm reduction services, unofficial volunteers are taking matters into their own hands and setting up designated areas to provide clean needles and medication to addicts. Though the government has made attempts at creating roadblocks for the volunteers, such as shutting down their websites, they remain hopeful that one day the country will take notice of the positive impact of these programmes and make them readily available.



Don’t miss Locked Up Abroad: Escape from the Gulag tonight at 10P et/pt


  1. Kevin L Bock
    September 4, 2012, 11:54 am

    Escape from the Gulag: I think this story is all fiction. No where on the web can you find his 2 friends names. If you read his biography he talks about going on secret missions to East Berlin to try and infiltrate a group of German terrorists. Read “Gerald Amster Biography” I don’t think Natgeo believes his story either judging from all the disclaimers they make during the TV showing. Why does everyone, russian govnt, U.S Embassy all deny this story. If he traveled to communist countries as much as he claims while on “secret missions” he would have been familiar with airport security. He never contacted the girl either after Soviet collapse because there was no girl. I call Bull s**t on this one. Shame on you Nat geo!

  2. Dot Spencer
    North Carolina
    September 4, 2012, 6:34 pm

    I lived in Moscow during the 70s and 80s and traveled extensively thru the Soviet Union. This episode is very unbelievable because 1) a single woman would not have had her own house – communism means you share, 2) she would never have given a map to her house to a prisoner who is subject to constant search, 3) he could not spend the night since her house would be the first to be searched, 4) you needed travel permission to buy a train ticket which takes days to obtain, you must apply in person, and have personal identification, 5) the guards would have searched the train, not just the station, 6) the US Embassy would not have harbored a convicted drug smuggler. Those are the MOST implausible events and there are several smaller ones. However, it made a good story!

  3. pooty
    September 8, 2012, 4:48 pm

    who was the actress that played Marinka?

  4. Audrey
    North Vancouver, BC
    November 27, 2012, 2:23 am

    I would prefer to continue to believe it’s true just the same.


  5. arnold grant
    March 9, 2013, 11:45 am

    everything is true. i know the gerald amster today and he did not make up such a story to get any kind of fame or anything. i have seen the scars from the barb wire.

    Kevin l bock.* there was a girl that helped him escape. he would not have escaped by him self if it wasnt for her. although you are entitled to your opinion.

  6. Josh Lynch
    October 28, 2013, 5:01 am

    Who was the actress who played Marinka? Does anyone know?

  7. tchoumi baden
    montee london
    October 28, 2013, 10:07 am

    Aime visionner national geographie