How Alcohol Conquered Russia

A history of the country’s struggle with alcoholism, and why the government has done so little about it.
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A group of men enjoy vodka near the remote mountain village of Tsovkra-1 in Russia's Caucasus region of Dagestan. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Update: A previous version of this story gave insufficient credit to a 2011 World Policy Journal article by Heidi Brown. The story has been updated better to reflect instances where our writer relied on Brown's work and to provide clearer attribution to other sources he consulted.

Picture the Russian alcoholic: nose rosy, face unshaven, a bottle of vodka firmly grasped in his hands. By his side he has a half-empty jar of pickles and a loaf of rye bread to help the devilish substance go down. The man is singing happily from alcohol-induced jubilation. His world may not be perfect, but the inebriation makes it seem that way.

Today, according to the World Health Organization, one-in-five men in the Russian Federation die due to alcohol-related causes, compared with 6.2 percent of all men globally. In her 2000 article “First Steps: AA and Alcoholism in Russia,” Patricia Critchlow estimated that some 20 million Russians are alcoholics in a nation of just 144 million.

 The Russian alcoholic was an enduring fixture during the Tsarist times, during the times of the Russian Revolution, the times of the Soviet Union, during the transition from socialist autocracy to capitalist democracy, and he continues to be in Russian society today. As Heidi Brown described in her 2011 article for World Policy Journal, the prototypical Russian alcoholic sits on broken park benches or train station steps, smoking a cigarette and thinking about where his next drink will come from and whether he can afford it.

The Russian government has repeatedly tried to combat the problem, but to little avail: “this includes four ... reforms prior to 1917, and larger-scale measures taken during the Soviet period in 1958, 1972, and 1985. After each drastically stepped-up anti-alcohol campaign, [Russian] society found itself faced with an even greater spread of drunkenness and alcoholism,” explains G.G. Zaigraev, professor of Sociological Sciences and Head Science Associate of the Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the journal Sociological Research.

“The Kremlin’s own addiction to liquor revenues has overturned many efforts to wean Russians from the tipple,” as Mark Lawrence Schrad wrote in the The New York Times last year. “Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink their last kopecks away in state-owned taverns” to help pad the emperor’s purse.

“Before Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the 1980s, Soviet leaders welcomed alcohol sales as a source of state revenue and did not view heavy drinking as a significant social problem,” as Critchlow put it. In 2010, Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, explained that the best thing Russians can do to help, “the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.”

By facilitating alcohol sales and distribution, the Kremlin has historically had considerable sway in recent decades. But Russia’s history with alcohol goes back centuries.

In the year 988, Prince Vladimir converted his nation to Orthodox Christianity, in part because, unlike other religions, it didn’t prohibit drinking, as Brown explained in her World Policy Journal article. According to legend, monks at the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin were the first to lay their lips on vodka in the late 15th century, but as Russian writer, Victor Erofeyev notes, “Almost everything about this story seems overly symbolic: the involvement of men of God, the name of the monastery, which no longer exists (chudov means “miraculous”), and its setting in the Russian capital.” In 1223, when the Russian army suffered a devastating defeat against the invading Mongols and Tartars, it was partly because they had charged onto the battlefield drunk, Brown wrote.

Ivan the Terrible established kabaks (establishments where spirits were produced and sold) in the 1540s, and in the 1640s they had become monopolies. In 1648, tavern revolts broke out across the country, by which time a third of the male population was in debt to the taverns. In the 1700s, Russian rulers began to profit from their subjects’ alcoholism, as Brown, who spent 10 years covering Russia for Forbes magazine, explained. “[Peter the Great] decreed that the wives of peasants should be whipped if they dared attempt to drag their imbibing husbands out of taverns before the men were ready to leave.”

Peter the Great was also, according to Brown, able to form a phalanx of unpaid workers by allowing those who had drunk themselves into debt to stay out of debtors prison by serving 25 years in the army.

“Widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was tolerated, or even encouraged, because of its scope for raising revenue,” Martin McKee wrote in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism. According to Brown, by the 1850s, vodka sales made up nearly half the Russian government’s tax revenues. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin banned vodka. After his death, however, Stalin used vodka sales to help pay for the socialist industrialization of the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, receipts from alcohol again constituted a third of government revenues. One study found that alcohol consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, to 15.2 liters per person.

Some have claimed that heavy consumption of alcohol was also used as a means of reducing political dissent and as a form of political suppression. Russian historian and dissident Zhores Medvedev argued in 1996, “This ‘opium for the masses’ [vodka] perhaps explains how Russian state property could be redistributed and state enterprises transferred into private ownership so rapidly without invoking any serious social unrest.” Vodka, always a moneymaker in Russia, may have been a regime-maker as well.

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Stan Fedun is a masters student in political science at the University of Toronto.

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