Vodka as a Political Lever: Little Water Part II

August 11, 2015

During the aftermath of World War II, it was common for the Politburo of the Soviet Union to conduct its affairs at resplendent dachas situated throughout the Russian countryside. On such occasions, Nikita Khrushchev and Alexander Poskrebyshev (a Red Army major general) would habitually seize Grigory Kulik (deputy people’s commissar for defense), and fling him into a pond on their estate. Kulik was an easy target — poor performance during the war pushed him out of favor with Stalin. Other elites were also the victim of this prank, so often that the guards feared one of the leadership might drown and subsequently drained the pond. Occasionally, Khrushchev bore the brunt of the torment; his comrades once pinned the word “prick” to the back of his coat, and sometimes slipped rotten tomatoes on his chair as he sat. What fueled these antics, which were rather unbecoming of the top military and political leaders of a global superpower? In a word, vodka.

As one might expect, ranking party members often assembled after a day of work to dine together. This well-documented routine featured a recurring order of business that was dreaded by all participants but one. At the forceful behest of Stalin, attendants were required to imbibe alcohol so copiously that they lost all semblance of self-control. Reduced to witless incompetence on a near nightly basis, the Soviet inner circle and its personal politics became Stalin’s own puppet theater. These sessions, a mix of sport and dominance for the Soviet leader, became a staple of his control over his subordinates. However, enthusiastic as he was for coercing the intoxication of his underlings, Stalin did not invent the practice.

Alcoholism, particularly consumption of vodka, is a heavy burden on the Russian people. It is well documented that the Russian state, under three different models of government, has played an important role in promoting alcohol consumption among its people. Less well known are the ways such “promotion” has manifested among the top levels of Russian government. For centuries now, the intrigues of the Russian court have prominently featured the use of alcohol as an instrument of control. Not the classist control of aristocrats placating the faceless masses, but the intimate control of state leaders frightening courtiers into submission. The practice goes back to Russia’s imperial era, but like many underlying conventions of central rule in Russia, this one outlived the tsarist empire that created it. Exploiting intoxication in this fashion is unsurprisingly consistent with autocratic psychology —paranoia towards one’s most “trusted” confidants, a keen sense of human fallibility, and a willingness to turn weakness into terror and humiliation for expedience’s sake. Besides a genuinely sociopathic schadenfreude (which was certainly a factor for some of the Russian rulers who employed this tactic), the object was likely to create an atmosphere of distrust and division that made conspiracy or disobedience extremely risky.

This practice of intoxicating one’s subordinates manifests in strikingly similar ways throughout the years, and one of the earliest records of the practice names none other than Ivan the Terrible. Raised without parents by elites violently feuding for control of crown regency, Ivan the Terrible had a taste for violence that grew as he did. His thirst for torturing and killing small animals developed into a lust for homicidal rampages against peasants, typically while drunk. At court these urges took on a more menacing bent. He constantly obliged attending nobles to drink to his honor, so much that they often had to be carried from the hall. When the drunken spectacle attracted public or private criticism, Ivan was tenacious in his retribution. Ivan’s chancellor was overheard claiming that the excesses of the tsar’s inebriation were unbecoming of the leader of Russia. The following Sunday at church, the tsar’s guards found the chancellor at prayer and hacked him to death on the spot. Another nobleman once forcefully refused an order to drink from Ivan, and the latter seized a spear and ran the nobleman through. Subtlety rarely prevailed. Ultimately his subjects became so paranoid that none dared resist their nightly obligation to drink at Ivan’s bidding, though it didn’t necessarily spare them. As master of ceremonies, the tsar often had the careless and unfiltered conversing of his subjects recorded in transcript so he could confront them about it the next day. Eventually Ivan found kindred souls who reveled in the mayhem of drink and bloodshed as much as he did, and abandoned Moscow to create a new capital to govern from. This band of bon vivants ultimately grew to something roughly akin to a medieval secret police, a force above the law that spread across the country purging suspected enemies of the tsar. In the end, abstaining in absence wasn’t even an option to stay safe from drink-fueled rampages.

If the court of Ivan the Terrible belonged to Joffrey Baratheon, then the court of Peter the Great would undoubtedly be Robert Baratheon’s. Though the two tsars shared a common love of drink and the company of drunks, Peter’s revelry tended to be far less sadistic and a good deal bawdier. In keeping with his reformist legacy, he rejected and mocked many of Russia’s traditional institutions. Also raised without parents, he learned to drink in the company of lowborn soldiers and foreign travelers, coming to prefer their company to that of his noble peers. In time he established a mock court of his chosen family, calling them the “Jolly Company.” Ridiculing the stiff ceremonies of the world he was born to, Peter devised a mock code of conduct and titles for his new court. The most infamous penalty for violating his rules at this second court was to drink a full serving of vodka from the “Great Eagle,” an ornate, 1.5-liter goblet. Fatal alcohol poisoning was not an uncommon occurrence. As for the Jolly Company’s drunken debauchery, no Russian convention was sacred. In a mockery of the sacrament of marriage, a wedding was staged for the tsar’s “Royal Dwarf.”

Conscribed drinking may have been a lighter affair in Peter’s court than Ivan’s, but it was no less enforced. A Danish ambassador once tearfully pleaded on his knees for respite from the required tippling, to which Peter responded by getting on his knees and refusing to let either stand before drinking five or six cups of wine. A French embassy dispatch reports one ambassador being stopped by armed guards when trying to quit a banquet sober. Whether such play was entirely carefree or not, Peter did manage to benefit as others before and since have done. He was capable of extracting information from drunken subjects, allegedly removing many disloyal followers in this fashion. He also exploited drink in foreign policy, as happened at a festival for his niece’s arranged marriage, when he forced her frail husband to drink himself to death. The fatality resulted in the transfer of his duchy to Russia’s growing borders.

Stalin’s constant use of vodka as a political tool was different still. Less violent than Ivan, more calculated than Peter’s, unlike either of the tsars he did not partake in drinking to excess. As with both of his predecessors in this tradition, numerous accounts exist that make one thing clear: Participation was not optional. While you might be speared in Ivan’s court or jovially forced to drink in Peter’s, you faced political exile if you failed to meet the expectations of Stalin’s. Political exile of course could be quiet rejection by your former colleagues or quiet execution by the NKVD, so the stakes were still quite high. According to Khrushchev, the tone of the dinners where these bacchanals took place changed dramatically under the specter of Nazi Germany and the appointment of Lavrentiy Beria to the NKVD. Once Beria began attending the Politburo dinners, his apparent position as sadistic lackey challenged other attendants to gain more favor with Stalin. The best way to do this was to play into Stalin’s love of drunken spectacle. While he enjoyed the humiliation on one level, according to Khrushchev it also eased his paranoia. Distrustful of his partners, Stalin knew if they were too drunk to control themselves, they couldn’t harbor secret plans against him. It was a parallel of the totalitarian state, where fear of doing or saying the wrong thing was supposed to keep someone from thinking the wrong thing.

Obviously Russian state leaders are not the only people in history to use alcohol to manage personal politics. Some politics are well served with such lubricant. What is striking, and worthy of consideration, is why so many Russians have used alcohol to manage politics in this particular fashion. Boris Yeltsin carried the tradition on after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin is known for his temperance where drinking is concerned, although why is open to speculation. What’s not open to speculation is this: Regularly forcing people to over-imbibe in venues of high-level politics is simply not normal, and yet it happened during the rule of three prominent Russian leaders. For those who understand the social effects of drinking that much alcohol, it raises the question: What advantage did those in power stand to gain, or for that matter their followers stand to lose in those settings? The answer is elusive, but one thing is certain — it probably wasn’t worth the hangover.


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: nathan17