MOSCOW -- With 4.5 million officially registered alcoholics in the Soviet Union, a 20-member branch of Alcoholics Anonymous appears to be only a drop in a sea of booze.
But it is a beginning -- and that is the message of a campaign brought to the Soviet Union by American movie and television star Carol Burnett.
Burnett, whose parents died young as alcoholics, and her daughter Carrie Hamilton, 23, a recovered alcoholic and drug addict, spent three hours on telephone calls organized by a Soviet newspaper recently to spur interest in AA, whose program has benefited millions of alcoholics around the globe.
A feature film about alcohol abuse, starring Burnett, was shown in prime time on Soviet television about the same time.
'We spoke on two phones for three hours,' Burnett said in an interview after the telephone marathon. 'With the average call lasting three minutes, we must have spoken to more than 100 people.'
The problems of Soviet problem drinkers and their families are the same as in the United States, she said.
'Only the language is different.
'The world has many heart-rending problems that we wish could be solved. Alcoholism, and addiction in general, are fortunately problems with a solution,' Burnett said.
Alcoholics Anonymous, the program of self-help through group discussion, could prove a boon to President Mikhail Gorbachev who has made alcoholism a top priority item.
Shortly after assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev cut sharply back on alcohol production, a move that resulted only in huge lines at liquor shops and a shortage of sugar, snapped up by people to make the illegal liquor known as samogon.
The campaign to establish AA in the Soviet Union was begun by Rev. J.W. Canty, chairman of the Soviet-U.S. Joint Conference on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.
The Soviet Union has acknowledged for years that alcoholism is a serious problem, but has only recently admitted that drug abuse is widespread.
The Joint Conference invited Burnett to spend a week in Moscow to publicize the plight of alcoholics. Canty said Elizabeth Taylor has been invited to come next year to share her battle against alcohol and drugs.
Besides the radio phone-in, Burnett and her daughter, who became addicted to drugs and alcohol at 15, held private meetings with 'recovering' alcoholics and shared their experiences in a 15-minute interview on national television before the showing of the American film 'Life of the Party: the Story of Beatrice,' the story of an alcoholic actress.
'In a country where 99 percent of the people have never heard of AA, we reached millions of viewers,' Burnett said. Soviet television officials estimated that 90 million viewers got the anti-alcohol message.
The AA idea is a new concept for the Soviet Union, with only one branch, known as 'Moscow Beginners,' being authorized so far. Canty said that because of lack of public knowledge it only has 20 members.
'Only two Communist countries, the U.S.S.R., and Poland, have registered AA groups, although the AA recovery program has saved millions of lives in the West,' he said.
Burnett said she and her daughter came to Moscow 'to share our experience, open up new communications with the Soviet people and introduce the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous.'
Canty, an Episcopal priest, said sobriety could benefit bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
'A sober world is certainly a safer world,' he said. 'Finally our countries are working side by side, with peace and cooperation in the alcoholism struggle.'
Twenty A.A. members in a nation of 4.5 million registered alcoholics and an unknown number of other sufferers is a humble beginning, Canty said, but the program 'is already enormously successful if it has only saved one life and healed one family.
'One life is the greatest resource any culture has,' he said.