How Vodka Shaped The Course Of Russian History

Vodka Fueled The Rise And Fall Of The Tsars

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Library of CongressThe former Tsar Nicholas II, showing him at Tsarskoye Selo after his abdication in March 1917.

As Russian leaders came and went, one thing remained constant: Alcohol revenues. At the 19th century height of Russia’s royal empire, revenue from alcohol and accompanying taxes accounted for more than a third of the country’s entire operating budget, enough to maintain the largest standing army in Europe.

And while harnessing alcohol’s revenue potential allowed Russia to fund its expansion, the empire became dependent on those profits.

In order to maximize revenue, the royal family auctioned the regional rights to sell vodka to the highest bidder, allowing total monopolies to develop piecemeal countrywide and essentially creating a country of vodka-fueled fiefdoms.

Higher-ups looked the other way when this system began to froth with abuse; as long as the vodka profits, or bribes, made their way back to Moscow, corrupt local governments could operate with a certain degree of impunity.

This system was perhaps never stronger than it was under the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, who ordered the construction of more than 100 distilleries. A rise in alcohol consumption soon followed this dramatic rise in production: By the time World War I started in 1914, your average Russian was drinking 14 liters of pure alcohol every year.

It should come as little surprise then that the destruction of the tsarist empire with the Russian Revolution coincided with an attempt by Nicholas II to force temperance on the Russian population. Indeed, the prohibition of vodka went hand-in-hand with the 1917 revolution.

The Stalinist Drunkards In Power, And The Cracks In The Iron Curtain

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OFF/AFP/Getty ImagesFrom left, German Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, German Under State Secretary Friedrich Gaus, Soviet head of state Joseph Stalin, and his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov pose in 1939 at the Kremlin after signing the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact. After the ceremony, Stalin proposed a toast: “I know how much the German people love their Fuehrer. I should therefore like to drink to his health.”

When a Nazi delegation paid a visit to Joseph Stalin, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, reported that the drinks were “so potent it almost took your breath away.” Once he pulled Stalin aside to express “admiration for Russian throats compared with those of us Germans,” Stalin chuckled, revealing a cup full of Crimean wine.

Stalin employed this strategy — get guests drunk while remaining relatively sober — with his underlings as well. Over time, Stalin became notorious for hosting dinner parties where ministers felt compelled to drink excessively into the night.

Of course, Stalin did so at least in some respects for the fun of it. But he also did it to keep anyone capable of threatening Stalin’s power inebriated and therefore incapable of defying him. Ministers would barely be able to work the next day, and midday naps were a necessity — they had another night of forced heavy drinking to look forward to.

The USSR under Stalin maintained the same sort of monopolies on vodka as the tsars, and Stalin encouraged his citizens to drink government vodka in order to prevent national bankruptcy. As Stalin saw it, vodka kept the Russians drunk, divided, and unable to pose any serious threat to his rule.

Vodka also helped Stalin develop a friend in Winston Churchill. A heavy drinker himself, Churchill abhorred communism until Stalin invited him over for a private banquet in 1942. They drank into the night, forming the foundation of the Allied partnership that took down the Third Reich.

Still, alcohol continued to trouble Russia over the long-term. Tsarist or Communist, no form of power seemed capable — or willing — to address the numerous health problems vodka imposed on residents.

Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to remedy this deleterious relationship Russians had developed with vodka. In 1985, Gorbachev reigned in alcohol consumption by making distilleries produce fruit juice and mineral water instead of vodka.

As a result, alcohol prices skyrocketed, and both vodka sales and government revenues plummeted. For a short while, however, Gorbachev’s plan worked: The average life expectancy for a Russian man briefly increased by three years, from 62 to 65.

As happens when the state prohibits just about anything, however, vodka seekers began to sell and purchase their booze via the black market. Life expectancy fell again, and Gorbachev’s efforts were for naught.

To make matters worse, even though Russians kept drinking, the government no longer received any revenue from it. Vodka revenues had made up 20 percent of the country’s budget, and Gorbachev’s alcohol cutbacks contributed to the destruction of the Soviet economy. Soon enough, the USSR collapsed — and as with many other critical moments in Russian history, alcohol may have played a significant role in that.

And so Gorbachev, the last Soviet general secretary, fell into the same trap as the last tsar of the Russian empire. Both tried to fight the Russian thirst by imposing temperance, and both were ousted as their country fell to pieces.

Which brings us to Vladimir Putin, who picked up those pieces and put Russia back together.

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