I’m Not Drunk, You’re Drunk!

2743355206_8f1b75bb13_n (Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27429206@N02/2743355206/)


One of the most prevalent stereotypes that comes to mind when thinking about Russia is that of the Russian drinker, warmed by an endless amount of vodka in a very cold country. While that is just a stereotype, alcohol still held a place of cultural and societal significance in the Soviet Union and it is no secret that the country does suffer from high rates of alcoholism. One legend asserted that way back in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir and the Russian people converted to Christianity, he chose the religion partly because, unlike Islam, it didn’t prohibit alcoholic consumption.[1] In addition, the Russian state has a long history of profiting from the sale of alcohol. Ivan the Terrible established state run Kabaks, which became profitable monopolies where alcohol was distilled, consumed and sold.[2] So profitable were they apparently, that Peter the Great stated 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.”[3] A little dramatic, but as Mikhail Gorbachev would find out, people really don’t like it when you come between them and their alcohol.

Coming to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev quickly earned a reputation as an ambitious reformer who pushed policies—the most famous of which are glasnost and perestroika—with the goal of reinvigorating and transforming the Soviet system.[4] Along with economic restructuring and a more transparent system, he also implemented a sweeping campaign against alcohol due to all the obvious negative effects associated with excessive drinking. Gorbachev’s government implemented reforms including: a widespread media campaign; the destruction of vineyards in the wine producing region of Armenia, Moldova and Georgia; the closing of vodka distilleries; and banning the sale of alcohol at certain hours and in restaurants.[5]

It is perhaps a universal fact that no one likes being told that party is over early and this is essentially what Gorbachev did. As a result, these reforms were understandably not warmly embraced by much of the Russian population. The “half prohibition” was met with bootlegging, the distilling of moonshine and an increase in organized crime.[6] And also a severe drop in revenue as legitimate alcohol sales declined. Authorities thought the decline in alcohol sold would be replaced by increased worker productivity, but this was not the case.[7] This decline in revenue exacerbated budget deficits in the Soviet Union and contributed to the growing threat of crisis in the 80’s brought on by: “slowing of economic growth, the negative effects of the standard of living, the dismal condition of agriculture, the poor quality of manufactured products, the failure to keep up with the world developments in science and technology, and the huge proportion of the gross national product devoured by military needs.”[8] At a time when Russia was facing sever challenges on many fronts, people thought it was now harder to get a drink. So unpopular were these reforms that they were abandoned just 2 years later in 1987.[9] Facing all the challenges of the 80’s, Gorbachev’s popularity though, would never recover. After the dissolution of the USSR, he was replaced by the infinitely more fun Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/how-alcohol-conquered-russia/279965/

[2] http://www.vodkamuseum.ru/en/istoriya-vodki

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/how-alcohol-conquered-russia/279965/

[4] Freeze 451

[5] http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/anti-alcohol-campaign/

[6]  http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/anti-alcohol-campaign/

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/how-alcohol-conquered-russia/279965/

[8] Steinberg, Riasanovsky 619

[9]  http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/anti-alcohol-campaign/


Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.


The Sino-Soviet Split


Mao Zedong and Stalin (BBC News http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35427926)

On February 24th, 1956 Nikita Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the assembled delegates of the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress. In it, Khrushchev harshly criticized Stalin both politically and personally for the violent nature of his government, the cult that surrounded him, and his frequent use of purges to eliminate threats both real and imagined. His speech to the Twentieth Congress marked a shift from the unfettered adoration of Stalin to one of “de-Stalinization:” an attempt to revert back to the views of Lenin, which Khrushchev and other de-Stalinizers criticized him of having strayed from. But this shift in policy created problems on the international front for the USSR, particularly with Communist China and its leader, Mao Zedong. The tension between the Soviet Union and China–two of the world’s largest Communist powers–emerged out of Kruschev and Mao’s differences on Marxist orthodoxy, as fears in Russia that their place as unquestioned leader of the Communist bloc would be challenged by a surging China.

As a strongman leader who aimed to modernize China in order to protect them from an imperialist and aggressive West, in many ways, Mao Zedong sought to emulate Stalin. Mao was incensed by the policy of de-Stalinization, viewing it as a form of historical revisionism. He also was angered by Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence with the West, believing that he was far too accommodating to hostile Western powers. In addition Khrushchev’s refusal to help China develop nuclear weapons exacerbated tensions between the two. (Freeze 428)

Mao Zedong also sought to modernize and industrialize China in a way that was unique to a Chinese brand of Communism; creating angst and distrust in a Russia that emphasized a common path to socialism for all bloc countries. One of the best primary resources we have on these developing tensions between Soviet Russia and Communist China is the CAESAR, POLO, and ESAU Papers, declassified writings from the CIA on Sino-Soviet relations. In the Esau papers, the CIA notes and analyzes these tensions in regards to Chinese policy and how it diverged from official Soviet policy. They assert in regards to China’s divergent policy:

“The appearance of Communist China’s commune program in the fall of 1958 introduced a basic source of discord into Sino-Soviet relations which persists to the present day. Conceived as the instrument for achieving rapid economic and social development leading to the early advent of the Communist society, the commune epitomized a distinctive Chinese road to socialism and Communism which diverged sharply from Soviet precedent and experience.” (pg. 92)

The CIA also noted how Chinese policy could potentially be attractive to Eastern European Countries in the Soviet bloc, intensifying tensions between Russia and China. The CIA writes that into consideration needed to be taken:

“The appeal – to Stalinist elements in Eastern Europe of China’s hard-line approach to economic development; admiration for the spectacular achievements claimed for the “great leap forward”; esteem for the apparently high level of party morale and popular enthusiasm generated by China’s unorthodox program promising the early attainment of Communism; and, perhaps, an awareness of the advantages of a second ideological center within the bloc as a counter weight to Soviet dictation and control. For our purposes, it is more important to note the existence of this phenomenon as a disruptive factor in bloc politics inviting prompt and vigorous countermeasures from Moscow.” (pg. 96)

The possibility of the Chinese version of Communism appealing to other bloc countries did worry Moscow as they viewed that it could possibly jeopardize their dominance in the Communist world. And “prompt and vigorous countermeasures” were taken. In 1960 all Soviet personnel were withdrawn from China as relations became much more antagonistic as the two countries competed with each other for leadership of world Communism. (Steinberg 583)


Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.




Sputnik Revisited


In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House announced that the United States would soon attempt to launch a satellite into space. Within a week, the chairman of the Soviet Space commission announced that Russia would as well. The space race had begun.

Then, on October 5th, 1957 Americans woke up to headlines like this one in the New York Times. The day before, Soviet scientists had launched Sputnik–Russian for “fellow traveler”–into space from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Roughly the size of a beach ball and weighing under 200 pounds, Sputnik was the first man-made satellite launched into space.

The success of Sputnik stunned Americans, many of whom could listen to the eerie beeping of the satellite as it orbited the earth every 98 minutes with only the help of an amateur radio. Sputnik intensified fears, both real and imagined of the technological gap between the Soviet Union and United States. Russia, a country traditionally perceived as hopelessly backward had suddenly sprung in front of the United States. In addition, the launch of Sputnik was not just a symbolic victory but also a military one: a missile that had the ability to launch a satellite into space could also carry a nuclear warhead anywhere on Earth. We did not handle second place well. In the aftermath of Sputnik, NASA was created and hundreds of millions of dollars in grants were earmarked for science, math, technology and innovation. (1)

Our initial quest to conquer the heavens and catch the Soviets was the launch of the doomed Vanguard TV3 which exploded spectacularly on television. The disaster was dubbed “flopnik,” “kaputnik” and “dudnik.” (2)

In the Soviet Union the state newspaper, Pravda declared “Honor and glory to the Soviet workers in science and technology” (3) as they celebrated their new-found dominance of the cosmos. Before the space race culminated in 1969 with our moon landing, the Soviets sent the first animal into space, Laika, a stray dog; the first person, Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut; and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova. (4)


The front page of the Soviet newspaper, Pravda on October 6th, 1957. (Newsweek)

This shift of attention to the stars keeps in line with my last blog post about the Soviet belief in their ability to harness nature–and in the endless potential of the Soviet people and state. It was also though, one of the most fundamental and visible elements of the cold war–where mutual distrust and rivalry pushed humanity and scientific discovery further than ever before.

In the Fall of 1957, people around the world could go outside at night and see Sputnik through a telescope, orbiting the earth like a man-made aluminum moon. What will be the next thing that draws our eyes upward and pushes us to the limits of human potential?

  1. Nasa
  2. Time
  3. Newsweek
  4. Natural History Magazine






The Magnitogorsk Experiment

5200 Inside the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works (The Guardian)



Speaking to prominent Soviet economists during the 1920’s Stalin lamented the shame that Russia had suffered at the hands of other countries. Shame brought on by “Japanese barons,” Mongol khans” and British and French capitalists.[1]  All of whom had bested Russia due to industrial, military and economic superiority. Resolving to never suffer such ignominy again, Stalin quit Lenin’s economic policy and adopted one of the most ambitious economic plans of any country in history–the 5-year plans. Designed to propel Russia to industrial and economic relevance, the first of the 5-year plans focused on development of industry and collectivization of agriculture. Uncaring about human suffering or loss of life, the first of the 5-year plans was largely successful. One of the most visible manifestations of this success was Magnitogorsk–a previously isolated, scarcely inhabited town on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains.

With an eye toward Pittsburgh and Gary, Indiana the Soviets had designs on making a similar, yet larger entirely state planned city to serve as the steel capital of the Soviet Union. The natural choice for this location was at the foothills of the “Magnetic Mountain,” located in the Urals and so full of iron that a compass could not function properly in its vicinity.[2] The Soviets brought in western experts from American firm Arthur McKee & Co to help design the steel plant that was to be the centerpiece of Soviet production.[3] Partly due to an influx of peasants–free to move after agricultural collectivization– the city quickly swelled from 25 residents in March of 1929 to a quarter of a million in 1932.[4] But Soviet planners could not possibly meet the influx; new arrivals were housed in tents and ramshackle huts, or forced to sleep in dormitories where sleeping was done in shifts.[5] Life was not easy for the workers at the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. According to one worker who arrived in 1931 after being forced to leave his farm “Special carts went around the barracks and asked, ‘Do you have any dead today?’ And every day they took bodies.”[6]

Despite the wretched conditions, the Soviet Union largely did succeed at as Stalin puts it, “becoming a country of metal.”[7] According to Freeze steel production was 3 times greater in 1937 than it was in 1932 and by 1941 Russia had closed the gap both industrially and militarily with the West.

Like much of Russian history the story of Magnitogorsk is deeply conflictual. On one hand it represented everything envisioned by Stalin when Russia set out on its first 5 year plan. A completely state planned city would emerge out of thin air, become home to a quarter of a million people and produce more steel than any other city in the world–all seemingly overnight. In that sense it is emblematic of the overall goal of the 5 years plans–thrusting Russia to global prominence immediately. No longer would it have to feel the embarrassment of defeat at the hands of khans and barons. The Magnitogorsk experiment is also reflective of the belief in Russia of the boundless potential of the Soviet State–the idea that they could harness nature and do what other industrialized countries had done in centuries in a few years.

But Magnitogorsk, like the 5-year plans came at great cost and with intense struggle. At a time when Stalin proclaimed that “life has become more joyous”[8] for many millions it was decidedly not. Forced collectivization stripped many of their homes, their assets and their families. Famine gripped Russia and was exacerbated, if not caused by the state seizure of grain and foodstuffs. In addition, Stalin’s great purge eliminated all dissent and sent the doomed to forced labor camps. Famine and purges took the lives of millions. For many residents of Magnitogorsk conditions were particularly squalid with overcrowding, pollution and disease.  In addition, Magnitogorsk would not have been possible without the help of western industrialists derided by Stalin. In this sense Magnitogorsk is subject to the same dizzying successes and failures of the 5-year plans and the Soviet Union.





[1] Freeze 372

[2] The Guardian

[3] The Guardian

[4] Freeze 352

[5] Freeze 353

[6] The Guardian

[7] The Guardian

[8] Freeze 362


Luhn, Alec. “Story of Cities #20: the Secret History of Magnitogorsk, Russia’s Steel City.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Apr. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/12/story-of-cities-20-the-secret-history-of-magnitogorsk-russias-steel-city.

“Magnetic Mountain.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 14 Oct. 2015, soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/magnetic-mountain/.

Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.


Steel Production facility in Magnitogorsk in the 1930’s (Photo from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnitogorsk)


April of Discontent


It would seem intuitive perhaps, that the revolution which led to the establishment of Communism in Russia happened with a bang, not a whimper. But when Lenin in his April Theses called for “all power to the soviets” there was no great conflagration–the Red Guards seized key government buildings and infrastructure, Kerensky fled, and the Soviets went about the business of constructing a new government–the fire that led to revolution had already been burning for decades. The provisional government, which enjoyed the recognition of the international community, and espoused liberal values like freedom of the press and popular sovereignty more or less faded away. To understand how Lenin’s dramatic plan as outlined in his April Theses was implemented, we must look at the political, societal and economic dynamics that gave the Russian people the resolve for dramatic and rapid change.

By the time the provisional government capitulated Russia had already seen the rejection of the deeply flawed October Manifesto and the abdication of an Emperor. The manifesto was passed grudgingly by Nicholas II and did little to address the massive social unrest and dissatisfaction that caused its passage in the first place. The Manifesto’s limitations included the absence of universal suffrage, equal representation and above all else the infamous article 87: which allowed the Tsar to dissolve the Duma and enact laws before new elections were held. In short, the institutions in Russia were deeply flawed, and semi-democratic at best.

Though the Tsar probably thought that the October Manifesto was an extraordinary concession, it was not nearly enough for the Russian people. For decades unrest had been growing in the countryside and in the city. Peasants demanded land reform, but the parliament was ill suited to the task. Finally, in a bid to bolster support for the Tsar, Stolypin, the Prime Minister, contrived a plan whereby land controlled by the communes would be given to individual peasants. But this also did little to placate the peasantry. Instead of giving them land belonging to the gentry, it only divided what they already had. In addition to this it drove a wedge between peasants who owned their own land and those who worked in the commune. Along with the dissatisfaction of the peasantry there was also considerable unrest in the cities. Workers felt the strain of industrialization and strikes were as frequent as the workers were underpaid, unsafe and the conditions unsanitary.

Along with the ineffectiveness of the parliament and the dissatisfaction of workers and peasants, Russian politics was also as fragmented as Russian society. At a time of frequent strikes, famines, protests and wars, there were as many ideologies as there were issues in society. Marxists, monarchists, liberals, fascists and moderates were all struggling to effect change in a system with severe limitations–only leading to more disillusionment and anger.

As if these reasons alone were not enough to pave the way for a vanguard led revolution, war was certainly enough to push people over the edge. After their embarrassing defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, the power and prestige of the imperial government—and of the Tsar himself—was seriously damaged. It was no coincidence that the revolution of 1905 happened after this war. It would seem that the stars were conspiring against the status quo in Russia during the early twentieth century, because the onset of World War I was all that was needed to doom the autocracy and provisional government. The possibility that the provisional government would stay in a “predatory imperialist war” was too much for the Russian people to stomach.

These factors, all working in concert, paved the way for the implementation of Lenin’s Theses. He had clear answers for the issues facing Russia: he condemned the war, called for nationalization of all land, placed power in the hands of the working poor and peasants, and called for the abolition of the government bureaucracy—and all of this was to be done immediately.

At a time when rapid technological and social changes could have presented exciting new possibilities, neither the Tsar, nor a provisional, moderate and coalition government could have averted crisis. Compared to Lenin they were ill equipped to address decisively the issues facing Russia. So, we see in a matter of months the end of a 300-year-old dynasty and the beginnings of one of the ideologies that would dominate the world stage for the rest of that century.


Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.




Portrait of Imperial Russia

Prokudin-Gorskii-15 “Melon Vendor” –Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

We typically do not associate the Russian Empire with images like this one. Taken in 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, this photograph depicts a man at work as a melon vendor, dressed in the traditional Central Asian attire of a turban and flowing tunic. In the waning days of the Romanov Dynasty, Prokudin-Gorskii was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to capture–through photography–the vastness, diversity and rapid modernization of the Russian Empire.

This photograph was taken in Samarkand, which has always been something of a crossroads. Located in modern-day Uzbekistan, it flourished due to its location on the Silk Road, and was the capital of Tamerlane’s powerful Islamic empire in the 14th century. It was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire and eventually the Soviet Union.

This image is representative of the fledgling modernization of the Russian Empire. At a time when advances in transportation and technology allowed this vividly colored photograph to be taken, the subject matter is decidedly unmodern and un-Russian–the melon stand looks more like something Indiana Jones would hurtle through than a depiction of life in the twlilight days of Imperial Russia.

More than anything though this photograph draws attention to the complexity of the Russian world. Russia has always suffered something of an identity crisis–touching Europe, Asia and the Middle East–it is composed of a complex amalgamation of people, religions, cultures and ideologies. On the eve of war and revolution, Russia found itself pulled in multiple directions by these competing facets. Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph lends a distinct spice of diversity to a Russia on the edge of dramatic and rapid change.

Murano, Dan. “Perspective | What Russia Looked like before 1917 … in Color.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Apr. 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2016/04/19/what-russia-looked-like-before-1914-in-color/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.d38a8d2171fa.
Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich. “The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia People at Work.” People at Work – The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia | Exhibitions – Library of Congress, 17 Apr. 2001, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/work.html.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.
“Tamerlane.” Tamerlane, autocww.colorado.edu/~toldy3/E64ContentFiles/HistoryMidEastAsiaAustralasia/Tamerlane.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Samarkand.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia
Britannica, Inc., 19 Apr. 2017, http://www.britannica.com/place/Samarkand-Uzbekistan.