Two weeks ago while speaking to my grandfather, who had just arrived from Moscow for his annual six-month stay stateside, I asked him about the current sanctions ravaging the Russian economy. Sensing the question was too broad, I asked about the price of groceries, about decreasing pensions, and if he had noticed any discontent amongst his neighbors. After a short pause, my grandfather responded exactly how I expected. “We’re Russians,” he said. “We’ve gotten through worse before, and we’ll get through this.” In his short, yet poignant response, my grandfather embodied a part of the Russian psyche conditioned by the Soviet regime — a psyche that considers suffering not as an outlier of the human condition, but as a normal occurrence.
While the atrocities of the Soviet regime are numerous, none targeted its own society in a more inhumane, ruthless manner than the Gulag prison camp system. Short for “Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements (Glavnoye upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey i koloniy),” the Gulag system dotted the USSR and, between 1917 and1986, affected the lives of nearly 30 million people. Within these camps, especially between 1937 and Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, people were whittled down to their most primitive state, existing only within a desolate reality of abusive guards, punishing weather, and the ever-present notion they were nothing more than a cheap, inexhaustible resource.
In such circumstances, the desire to escape — if only mentally and for a finite period of time — was ruthless, and alcohol was only too obliging. Notably, this desire existed within every strata touched by the system, making alcohol a steadfast characteristic of life for prisoners, prison guards, and inhabitants of villages within a prison’s footprint.
Alcohol consumption amongst the prisoner population fell into two categories: alcohol provided by prison guards and alcohol produced (or smuggled) by the prisoners themselves. For the latter, prisoners resorted to some truly heinous methods to acquire alcohol. In some instances, prisoners lucky enough to leave prison and work offsite used contraceptives to smuggle alcohol inside their bodies into the camp. The graphic nature of this method — similar to cocaine mules — was only matched by its ineffectiveness. While this is perhaps the most sensational example of the illicit smuggling of alcohol, the majority of prisoners chose instead to attempt to produce their own poisonous concoctions.
Prisoners working in camp kitchens stole yeast, sugar, and some form of grain base (rice or peas were popular) to create their own home brew. In addition to rudimentary beer, prisoners also resorted to brewing narcotic-strength tea dubbed Chifir. Resembling a highly potent loose-leaf black tea, Chifir was rumored to have hallucinogenic qualities once the loose-leaf base was allowed to ferment under constant heat. Unfortunately, if all else failed, prisoners would often turn to drinking poisonous substances such as paint and varnish, which almost always resulted in death.
In addition to smuggling and making alcohol, prisoners were also given alcohol by prison guards, albeit on a much smaller scale. According to a document from February 2, 1934 entitled “On the prohibition of the issuance of vodka to campers,” the Joint State Political Directorate (the precursor to the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or “NKVD”) noted that, in some Gulags, prison guards provided vodka to prisoners engaged in heavy work. The prohibition was issued after it was observed that the practice of providing prisoners with vodka resulted in increased violence and rioting.
In other cases, such as in the Norillag Corrective Labor Camp located near the city of Norilsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai, alcohol prisoner rations correlated with higher production. In the first half of 1945, Norillag received 68,000 decaliters of vodka, coinciding with a production increase of 40–50 percent compared to normal figures. While this is likely an example in which correlation does not imply causation, it is not a stretch to imagine vodka consumption numbing the pain of working in a part of Russia that, on average, has a daily winter temperature of around five degrees Fahrenheit.
For prison guards, access to alcohol was inconsequential and frequent, and served as a means of reinforcing their self-perceived notions of power within the camps. The ability to obtain items such as cognac, vodka, or wine (and the conviviality that comes with them) not only underpinned their place in the prison hierarchy, but also contributed to an illusion held by some former guards that their service in the Gulags represented “the good old days.”
While the above-mentioned example of Norillag indicates that the state provided camps with alcohol, in many instances prison guards, helped by the fact that Gulag borders were notoriously porous, took it upon themselves to obtain their own supply from surrounding villages. Part of a greater black market that developed between camps and surrounding populations, alcohol and tobacco were routinely exchanged for camp goods. If one is to believe historian Vladimir Dukelsky’s description of prison guards as “men who had seriously blotted their copybook, were alcoholics, and/or thieves,” then the enormity of the black market for alcohol, described by Wilson Bell as being facilitated by camp officials, is not difficult to grasp.
Within the Gulag system that peppered the remote regions of the Soviet Union, the influence of alcohol was as inescapable as the camps themselves. As it does for so many now, alcohol provided an escape, albeit a fleeting one. Its use as a tool of subjugation, a symbol of power, and a bargaining chip for other goods entrenched alcohol in the psyche of all of those affected by the system. And while its role in the Gulag system was minor compared to the atrocities committed in the camps, within this context, alcohol remains a fundamental part of a chapter in Russian history still not fully understood or rectified.
Ruben Gzirian is a pursuer of fine whiskeys, with Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey currently his favorite. He holds an MA from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and enjoys reading World War II history, with a focus on the Eastern Front.