Russian regimes complicit in people's vodka addiction

A new book shows Russia through the centuries has found profit in turning its people into alcoholics, writes Cameron Dueck

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 6:14pm

Vodka Politics
by Mark Lawrence Schrad
Oxford University Press
3.5 stars

Everything you've heard about Russians and their consumption of copious amounts of vodka is true. Not only that, but Russia has lurched - physically and figuratively - from one government to the next, from war to peace and economic boom to bust, all while well and truly sauced on the lethal clear liquor.

That's the argument Mark Lawrence Schrad makes in Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State. His case is amply sprinkled with the juicy details that emerge after any good p***-up, such as how Stalin used to push his deputies into a pond when he got drunk. Schrad does an excellent job of compiling such anecdotes, and delivering a steady stream of statistics to support his theory that vodka played a central role in all of Russia's woes for hundreds of years.

Russia's society-wide addiction to alcohol is ... symptomatic of a deeper political illness, an autocratic state that benefits from alcoholic excess

"Russia's society-wide addiction to alcohol is not only a social and cultural problem in its own right, but is also symptomatic of a deeper political illness, an autocratic state that benefits from alcoholic excess and is consequently hostile to grass-roots activism that promotes the interests and welfare of society," Schrad writes.

Key to the Russian addiction was the shift from drinking traditional meads, kavas, wines and beers to guzzling the far cheaper and more potent vodka, a shift that began in the 15th and 16th centuries. Rather than pubs being a hotbed of political debate, the alcohol trade was controlled by the state, including the local kabak, or tavern, which meant the state could better keep an eye on its people. It gave the authorities a cheap, powerful way to keep the masses drunk, divided and often poor, but it was also very lucrative for the government.

"The macabre beauty of building such a system on a foundation of vodka was that the peasant did not see vodka as the source of his bondage but, rather, as an escape to freedom," Schrad writes.

At the height of Russia's tsarist empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the three main sources of revenue were the poll tax, salt tax and vodka tax. Alcohol revenues made up one third of the state operating budget.

One of the themes that emerges repeatedly is the simple coarseness of Russia's vodka drinking. This was no elegant tippling. The French will praise the scent of their wine and Scots laud the flavour of their whisky, but the Russian gulps his vodka down without paying attention to anything but its effects. Peter the Great, a drunken lout who reportedly drank 30 to 40 glasses of wine a day and even as a child began his days with vodka and sherry, threw a wedding for dwarfs where he forced everyone to drink until they were ill. Stalin repeatedly forced his staff and cohorts to drink until they were comatose, allowing him to tap their secret opinions while causing many of them to become dependent on alcohol.

And just like a real bender may leave you with mysterious bruises, Russia also woke up the loser after taking a few drinks too many. Drunkenness was a big factor in the country getting beaten by Japan in 1905, and Schrad records cases of Russian navy ships lurching about the sea picking fights in a drunken state, with commanders appearing shamefaced and hungover when the smoke had cleared.

Russia has tried going dry. In 1914, Nicholas II declared Russia would be sober, becoming the first country to adopt prohibition. But instead of raising an entire people from the tavern floor he drove them to home-made drink, the deadly samogon which could reach 70 per cent alcohol, and in the process kicked a massive hole in the state budget. His ban interrupted urban-rural trade as peasants traded vodka for manufactured goods, and encouraged the hyper-inflationary spiral that unseated the tsar in 1917 and his successors, the provisional government, shortly thereafter in the Bolshevik revolution.

Lenin disdained alcohol and derided it as a tool of capitalist domination of working classes. He nationalised all alcohol production, which again led to rampant bootlegging and home distilling. Russians died in droves as they guzzled methylated spirits, varnish and eau de cologne, desperate for a buzz.

By the early 1920s, the rules on booze were being relaxed, and in 1925, with Stalin in power, the Soviets returned vodka to its legal state. The legalisation of vodka resulted in a nationwide party that saw citywide drunken brawls, and an orgy of intoxication that left scores of people dead from alcohol poisoning.

Stalin nationalised the production of vodka, again making it a key state economic tool. He also brought back the Red Army tradition of vodka rations, which had been banned by Nicholas' prohibition. Stalin poured each soldier one glass of vodka a day for the entire four years of their service, ensuring another generation of drunks.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a non-drinker, and the first statistics that came out under his watch, for 1985, showed Soviets were dying 10 years younger than in the industrialised West, and that alcohol accounted for a full quarter of all retail trade in the Soviet Union. He tried to shed some light on the problems, but few inside Russia were listening.

The effects of his temperance were quickly lost when Boris Yeltsin came on the scene, setting a new low for public embarrassment. Yeltsin spent much of his term as president blind drunk, tottering, leaning against the wall of some back room, too sloshed to meet dignitaries or hold a conversation. The trunk of his presidential limousine was stocked with booze, shot glasses and snacks to keep him fuelled while on the road.

By 1992, the old vodka monopolies were abolished, but all booze was taxed at 80 per cent, once again leading to rampant bootlegging and smuggling. Yelstin played along by giving a handful of charitable organisations, including a war veteran group, the national hockey federation, national sports federation and the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church the right to import booze tax-free.

Needless to say, sports and religion were no longer the associations' main businesses after that.

While Schrad attempts to push his argument into present-day Russia, he runs out of steam towards the end of the book. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has made a show of trying to change things, dropping the legal blood alcohol level for driving to 0.0, encouraging the drinking of wine rather than vodka, and expanding control over sales, but the state's reliance on the bottle is still there.

In 2012, the treasury received US$8 billion in liquor taxes, more than twice the amount in 2007.

The statistics continue to point to overindulging in drink, but Schrad isn't able to make the same strong connections between diplomatic, economic and military bumbling and simple drunkenness that he can when he looks further back in Russian history.

Vladimir Putin isn't quite free of the stench of booze. In 2003 a new vodka named Putinka hit the shelves, and he has put the vodka trade into the hands of his buddies, in the same way most state industries have been privatised.

Schrad says drinking habits, as well as corruption habits, can take generations to change, which is true. And with Putin bullying his way into Crimea and turning a deaf ear to the international community, it shows a leader doesn't have to be drunk to act drunk. But while the strong connection between vodka and state strategy is harder to make, if Schrad's book is any sign, that doesn't mean Russia is done with the bottle.

"So long as sobriety and health conflict with the economic interests of the autocratic system, they will be kicked to the side," Schrad writes.