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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.
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Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.