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.
To date, there have been only two expansive anti-alcohol campaigns in Russia, both of which took place during the Soviet Union: one under Vladimir Lenin and the other under Mikhail Gorbachev. All other leaders have either ignored alcoholism or acknowledged heavy alcohol consumption but did nothing substantial about it. As Critchlow wrote, “Under the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev regimes, harsh penalties were imposed on those who committed crimes while intoxicated, but heavy drinking was not viewed as a threat to society, perhaps because the leaders, who themselves liked to indulge, saw the use of alcohol as a safety valve for low morale.”
“Gorbachev announced ... legislation in May 1985, after a large-scale media campaign publicizing the Kremlin’s new war on alcoholism—the third most common Soviet ailment after heart disease and cancer,” Nomi Morris and Jack Redden wrote in Maclean’s.
It was largely seen as the most determined and effective plan to date: The birthrate rose, life expectancy increased, wives started seeing their husbands more, and work productivity improved. However, after a spike in alcohol prices and a decrease in state alcohol production, some started hoarding sugar to make moonshine, and others poisoned themselves with substances such as antifreeze, as Erofeyev points out. The people’s displeasure with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign can be summarized by an old Soviet joke: “There was this long line for vodka, and one poor guy couldn’t stand it any longer: ‘I’m going to the Kremlin, to kill Gorbachev,’ he said. An hour later, he came back. The line was still there, and everyone asked him, ‘Did you kill him?’ ‘Kill him?!’ he responded. ‘The line for that’s even longer than this one!’”