Little Water: Vodka and the Russian Sociopolitical Realm

July 17, 2015

Let’s get one thing straight. The Russian love affair with vodka is not a joke. It is not hyperbole foisted upon popular culture by rank amateur drinkers, nor is it a stereotype brought to you by Hollywood producers who have never set foot in Russia. “Vodkaphilia” — over-fondness for flavorless poison — is a real force in this world that exacts a staggering toll.

Some 20 million Russians love vodka arguably more than they like living long enough to retire. Accounting for the rate at which Russians die in alcohol-related fatalities by the age of 55, their economy and society is effectively fighting a small war against the excesses of alcoholism. Fourteen thousand Soviet troops died in a 10-year campaign in Afghanistan, but by contrast more than 400,000 men have been victims in alcohol-related deaths every year since the collapse of the USSR. Something like that doesn’t happen without reason, and it turns out the origins of this fatalistic chemical romance are quite tragic: For centuries of centralized and strongman rule, alcohol broadly (and vodka specifically) has been an instrument of power, policy, and state finance in Russia, with the country’s populace paying the price.

Throughout history, oligarchies the world over have understood the merits of alcohol as an outlet for insurrectionist sentiments amongst the subjugated classes. Frederick Douglass explored the concept at length in his accounts of American slavery, a theme that would be taken up later by abolitionists. Deriving state revenue from the sale of alcohol puts Russia in the distinguished company of just about every other sovereign state ever on the map. However, Russia truly is in a league of its own; its history of so-called “vodka politics” stretches back centuries and consistently features authoritarian leaders who very deliberately used alcohol to control either their inner circles or their population as a whole. Intermittent attempts have been made to curb excess consumption with prohibitionist policies, but every effort has failed within a few years, for reasons worthy of consideration.

Ivan the Terrible created a state monopoly for the sale of alcohol when he “nationalized” taverns throughout the Russian state in 1553. The revenue generated by the sale of alcohol has been substantial ever since. At the height of the czarist empire, alcohol accounted for a third of the Russian state budget, a figure that funded the largest standing army in Europe. This act more than any other condemned Russia to a future of alcoholism it would find difficult to escape. It inextricably linked revenue and social policy to the most prolific and accessible drug in human history. One historian writes:

[The government] could not escape the dilemma that in encouraging the nobility to produce and the masses to consume liquor, it contributed to the spread of drunkenness and moral turpitude in town and countryside alike. This dilemma remained with the Imperial government until its demise in 1917.

Many commentators throughout Russia’s Imperial history remarked on the pervasiveness of drinking among the serfs and its contribution to their complacency with, or at least forgetfulness of, their harsh serfdom to Russian nobility. The only way to maintain the economic system and the state budget was to promote a substance that corroded the wellness and competitiveness of society, making Russia a ripe target for prohibitionist sentiment, which it experienced for the first time in 1858.

By way of the recently possessed territories of Poland and Lithuania, word of the American temperance movement came to Russia. The Catholic population of Russia’s latest conquests adopted the cause of abstinence; only they limited it to the vodka that the Russian Orthodox Church had a heavy hand in promoting. The temperance of vodka took on dimensions of resistance to political colonization, and within a year the sale of vodka was notably deflated in the lower Baltics and Poland. When the imperial government stepped in to resolve the crisis, the implications were clear: Temperance in any serious form would devastate the budget. Successive generations of Russian autocrats were faced with the same dilemma and with a few (literally) short-lived exceptions they chose the same thing: “drink up, boys.” This temperance effort demonstrates some of the tragic lengths to which agents of the state were permitted to go, and often went, in the interest of propping up alcohol consumption. One tax farmer with close ties to local authorities enlisted the police captain to help enforce his economic rights. The local prosecutor launched an investigation into the conspiracy “to not drink vodka.” In another case, a British journalist reported on measures taken against abstainers, saying:

The teetotalers were flogged into drinking; some who doggedly held out had liquor poured into their mouths through funnels, and were afterward hauled off to prison as rebels; at the same time the clergy were ordered to preach in their churches against the new form of sedation, and the press-censorship thenceforth laid its veto upon all publications in which the immorality of the liquor traffic was denounced.

Following Alexander II’s repeal of the serf system, the persecution of temperance advocates (many of whom were newly released serfs) became less violent, more covert, but equally repressive. Quiet supporters of more regulated consumption stayed quiet, for hardship and misfortune befell opponents of the status quo. Frankly, this cycle never ended. Time and again, agents of temperance were thwarted and or punished with extreme prejudice. Nicholas II banned the sale of alcohol at the outset of the Great War shortly before rebellion ended the Romanov dynasty. When the champion of that revolution, Vladimir Lenin, tried to maintain prohibition to exorcise all vestiges of the Russian peasant and clear a path for communist modernization, a political rival answering to the surname Stalin subverted those efforts. The latter used the entrenched preference for alcohol as an opiate of the masses to gain leverage over his adversary. Gorbachev’s attempts at prohibition ran aground after the dissolution of the USSR, with alcohol consumption skyrocketing again. And the most recent effort to curb consumption, ushered in by Vladimir Putin in 2009, was rolled back in December in response to the dual drag of collapsing oil prices and Western economic sanctions. Though the official reason was to cut demand for black-market supply, the FOUO memo on that subject must have held some interesting insights.

Today, Russian health experts estimate that a Russian male has about a one-in-four chance (23.4 percent) that his death will be alcohol-related. However intentional or accidental support for vodka politics may have been throughout history, vodka is inextricably linked to the Russia’s sociopolitical environment. It is a nation of people drinking themselves to an early grave because economic momentum has kept them on that path for longer than the United States has been a sovereign nation. In many respects, Russian politics seem to echo the words of the great philosopher Homer Simpson: “…Alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

 

Jacob Hall is a bartender at the Gibson and the recent founder of a cocktail delivery startup. He lives in Washington, D.C., and endorses the Boulevardier as the best cocktail there is.

 

Photo credit: Yuri Samoilov