It’s almost exactly nine years since Boris Nemtsov was shot in the back as he strolled across a bridge near the Kremlin.

Russian’s leading liberal - a man once tipped for the presidency - was to die in the dark, right in the heart of Moscow. 

CCTV cameras, it later emerged, were turned off that night. For maintenance, said local authorities.

The February 2015 assassination of Mr Nemtsov was a real turning point in what the politician himself called the “metastasis of authoritarianism” in his country.

The one-time deputy prime minister of Russia had a weakness for such medical language. 

A physicist by training, he often attributed this quirk - and a long-standing interest in his nation’s terrible health record - to his doctor mother. 

Three years before his murder, Mr Nemtsov was asked about the prospect of civil war. 

The Herald: Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in MoscowBoris Nemtsov was shot dead on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow

His reply - given all the other problems his country has faced in recent decades - might sound strange to outsiders. 

He said his country had a bigger problem than political violence. With booze.

“We have super mortality,” the liberal said in 2012. “We have young men aged 35 to 55 dying from alcoholism. We have a genocide caused by alcohol, not by civil war.

He added: “Seven hundred thousand people die from alcohol. 

“That is far more than from murder, car accidents and drugs put together. Believe me, alcohol is the main drug of the country. Or, specifically, vodka.

“Vodka is killing Russia.”

In truth, calculating deaths from alcohol, especially indirect ones, in Russia is pretty hard. 

Read more in the series, Scotland & Alcohol:

So scientists have looked at a wider measure: the number of men who do not make it to the age 55.

Experts, writing in The Lancet in 2014, mapped the premature deaths of males aged 15-54 over decades. 

They fluctuated, dramatically, along with flip-flopping policies on alcohol. But the scientists worked out that an increase in alcohol consumption between 1990 and 2001 had cost three million lives. 

There are those who blame this horrific toll on Mr Nemtsov’s former boss, Mr Yeltsin. 

Russia - in fact the entire Soviet Union - had endured what was dubbed a “dry law” under another reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the USSR.

This policy hugely restricted the availability of alcohol - and its production. It had a devastating effect on quality distilleries and wineries in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Yeltsin’s reversed the “dry law” - but unleashed a flood of low-quality hard liquor on to his country, just when it was on its economic knees. 

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Experts stress Russia suffered far higher mortality during the transition away from Communism than other countries in the eastern bloc. Why? Because of Yeltsin’s irresponsible booze policy.

Moscow’s prestigious Blokhin cancer research centre studied the autopsies of 25,000 Russian men who died aged between 15 and 54 over three decades. They concluded that alcohol had contributed to 59% of all such premature deaths.

By 2009, Russian authorities were claiming alcohol-related deaths were hitting half a million a year.

These are unimaginably high numbers. They even dwarf the toll of death since Mr Putin escalated his war of conquest against Ukraine two years ago.

It seems back in 2012 Mr Nemtsov, an opponent of both the attack on Russia’s neighbour  and binge-drinking, had a point, even if there will be those who quibble with his statistics.

But something has been changing in Russia, for the better. People are drinking - and dying - less.

The country, like Scotland and a number of other northern European countries, has a reputation for a problematic relationship with alcohol. 

Of course, far from all Russians, like Scots, ever lived up to the stereotype. And in Russia, as in Scotland, the latest generations seem far more abstemious than their parents and grandparents.

And like Holyrood, the Kremlin has experimented with different wholesale or partial fixes.

The Herald: Vladimir Putin has delivered mixed messages on Russia's relationship with alcoholVladimir Putin has delivered mixed messages on Russia's relationship with alcohol

Three years before Mr Nemtsov’s talk of a booze genocide, the Russian Government introduced minimum pricing for vodka and other spirits.

They did this before Scotland. But using a slightly different mechanism. The Russians set a floor for the cost of a half-bottle of 40% vodka, rather than for a unit of alcohol. The price doubled in four years.

The Russians later added minimums for wine and other beverages too - but not for beer. 

Mr Nemtsov, for example, had long called for efforts to encourage Russian men to drink booze than was brewed rather than distilled. He even - again citing his mother - he said a little drop of wine was good for you.

Though, with his characteristic bonhomie and in the interests of balance, Mr Nemtsov did warn men that beer bellies might scare off women.

This policy has sometimes sparked mockery outside Russia - because it means beer is sometimes counted as a soft drink. 

That is particularly important when it comes to how alcohol is sold, marketed and advertised. 

The push is - or was - to wean Russians off strong spirits and on to lighter products. 

Read every article in the series, Scotland & Alcohol

Some brewers boomed. This included Baltika, a St Petersburg beer maker bought by Scottish and Newcastle.

It looks like a suite of anti-booze policies - including stricter controls on bottles for sale - worked. Per capita consumption of alcohol fell from 13.7 litres to 9.13 litres.

Deaths by alcohol poisonings - a different measure than the high guesstimates on excel mortalities - more than halved in the same period.

The big picture changed too. The number of deaths among 15-54-year-old men halved too - from 1000 for every 100,000 to 450. 

“This saved 3.5m lives,” said the Russian Health Ministry  in a 2020 statement to Vedomosti, a newspaper.

Oksana Drapkina, the ministry’s chief external advisor, attributed the decline to higher excise duties, minimum pricing, reduced hours of sale and a ban on advertising. The expert also highlighted a niche measure to product the most problematic drinkers: a ban on cosmetic products containing alcohol.

There is another nuance. Younger Russians are also turning off beer. Consumption of the beverage halved in a decade among 20-30-year-olds, according to Vadim Drobiz, the country’s best known alcohol market analyst.

There are also concerns that Covid - followed by the horrors of war - may be reversing some of the downward trends in drinking and booze-related deaths.

But is hard booze going underground in response to official efforts to raise prices. Drobiz is among those who believe so. 

So, it seems does Vladimir Putin. The president, who makes a virtue of his healthy, clean-living image, has insisted Russia needs to battle alcoholism. But he has also cautioned against pushing the price of hard liquor up again, saying he is concerned problem drinkers will turn to “surrogates”.

This remark came long after the late Mr Nemtsov had another warning: big alcohol firms are close to the Kremlin. 

Speaking in 2012, he said: “Unfortunately the vodka industry is owned by friends of Putin, the Rotenbergs. It is thanks to them that Putin did not put up duty on vodka so that a bottle costs as little as five trips on the metro. It is catastrophe. Vodka should not be accessible.”

Mr Nemtsov was talking about billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, two now sanctioned oligarchs. 

Arkady is the sport-loving Russian president’s judo partner. So how easy is it for the Kremlin to grapple with the country’s booze lobby?