How Vodka Shaped The Course Of Russian History

The surprising ways in which the "water of life" has helped determine Russia's religious, political, and economic fate for hundreds of years.
Vodka Case Glass

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty ImagesRussians look at the different kinds of vodka sold in a street kiosk in Moscow.

In 1223, a Mongol and Tartar expeditionary force did the unthinkable when they annihilated a Russian army many times their size. They soon discovered that one device truly served as their deus ex machina: alcohol.

Indeed, the Russians charged the battlefield drunk.

Taking no sympathy for their drunken conquered, the Mongols took dozens of princes and lords and rolled them up in rugs, which sat beneath a table used for a massive banquet.

The Russian royals’ screams and groans punctuated the Mongols’ celebration until the last Russian met his end.

This wouldn’t be the last time that alcohol contributed to a major moment in Russian history. In fact, the Kremlin is built upon a land and a history soaked through with vodka.

And when you look at the numbers, it’s not that hard to see why: Among all the world’s countries, Russia currently ranks fourth in alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organization, with the top three all Russia’s neighbors and former Soviet republics.

And as author Mark Schrad lays out in Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, alcohol — vodka in particular — has time and again proven to be a pivotal force in sculpting Russian religion, society, politics, and economics.

Alcohol Helped Decide Russia’s Official Religion

Ilya Repin Sadko Copy

Wikimedia CommonsSadko in the Underwater Kingdom by Ilya Repin, 1876. This famous painting depicts a symbolic scene from the Russian epic Bylina in which Sadko (right) rejects a pagan bride (front left) offered to him.

Fed up with paganism by the end of the 10th century, Vladimir the Great went about determining the religion to which his people, living in what is now western Russia, should convert.

So, he sent envoys out to research neighboring states and invited religious representatives to his palace.

Vladimir immediately struck down Judaism, and considered Islam next. However, he didn’t like that the religion prescribed circumcision, and that it forbade pork and, most of all, alcohol.

And when his envoys reported there was no joy among the alcohol-less Muslim Bulgarians, he famously said — in words that are better remembered in Russia than most other historical moments and achievements even today — “Drinking is the joy of the Rus.”

In the end, Vladimir ended up going with the most festive religion he could find: The Eastern Orthodox Church (the Germans’ version of Christianity had been too gloomy).

“We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it,” his emissaries reported back after traveling to the Hagia Sophia church in Turkey during an Orthodox festival.

Vladimir was sold. And to this day, the last vestige of the Orthodox Church lies with Russia.

It’s Easier To Rule If All Of Your Opposition Is Drunk

Painting Ivan The Terrible

Wikimedia CommonsIvan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 by Ilya Repin, 1885. Ivan was the first Russian leader to truly use alcohol to his advantage.

Legend has it that Kremlin monks first distilled vodka in the late 15th century. However, historians widely consider this to be a myth; it’s just too rich that vodka would be invented in the Kremlin, the very seat of Russian power.

The Kremlin — a castle-palace compound nestled in the heart of Moscow — remains the seat of Russian power today, and the name of the Chudov Monastery, the place where vodka was supposedly invented, translates to “miraculous.”

What’s more, vodka gained a certain spiritual credibility because, as the story goes, it was invented by monks, men of God. There’s a reason that Russians initially referred to vodka as “aqua vitae,” or water of life.

For centuries after its invention, this water of life was a major player in the highest levels of Russian government.

Ivan the Terrible was the first Russian leader to harness the power of vodka. He created government-run taverns to serve the drink and funnel the entirety of the profits into his coffers. By 1648, a third of the country’s adult male population was in debt to these state pubs.

Not only did this fund Ivan’s warmongering, but — unlike the United States — the state-run pubs stifled public revolt. America’s founders, for example, hashed out much of the Revolutionary War in candlelit pubs. In Russia, however, government barmen would instead lead toasts to the tsar’s good health, with patrons raising their drinks to the royal portrait hanging on the wall.

Furthermore, Ivan kept his own royal court (and often himself) constantly inebriated in order to quash dissent. Ivan took this drinking to the extreme after his wife suddenly died, which plunged him into a deep, lonely depression filled with drunkenness and brutality.

According to French historian Henri Troyat, as Ivan’s armies expanded Russian borders from afar, Ivan turned his court into a pit of torture, drunken debauchery, and demented prayer. He writes:

“The spurts of blood, the cracking of bones, the screams and rattles of drooling mouths — this rough cookery smelling of pus, excrement, sweat, and burnt flesh was pleasing to his nostrils. He took such joy in the bloodbath that he had no doubt, in these moments of horror and ecstasy, that the Lord was at his side… To him, prayer and torture were but two aspects of piety.”

Michael Gardiner
Staff Writer for All That Is Interesting based in Brooklyn. Send tips and hints to [email protected]
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