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/

Sources:

Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

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

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6 thoughts on “I’m Not Drunk, You’re Drunk!

  1. Great post! I like how you talked about the prevalence of alcohol in Russian history and culture, which helps explain why this policy was so poorly received. I think it’s interesting that the government thought that reducing alcohol would increase worker productivity, when in reality it just increased illicit activities. What do you think this showed about Soviet power at the time?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like this post! I can’t imagine what would have happened if Gorbachev had tried an even more drastic reform, like complete prohibition of alcohol. That would have made for the historical event of the century.

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    1. Agree! The Tsar briefly tried something like this during WWI, but with terrible results.I really like the way you (Anderson) discuss the anti-alcohol campaign as a social and economic challenge. And great reference to the conversion of Rus’!

      Like

  3. Interesting Post, I think its funny that the government tried very hard, to prevent the people from drinking, but Russians being Russians they still found a way to get alcohol and drink. Especially since the economy was so bad, and alcohol is one of those substances, that can, unfortunately, helps one get through the hard times. Its no wonder that the public outcry and negative effect resulted in the campaign being cancelled only two years later.

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  4. It seems like the alcohol polices resembled the roaring 20’s in the US. I loved the fact that you started your post with the history of alcohol in Russia.

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  5. The stereotype about Russians enjoying Vodka in the cold is interesting because I wonder how they typically stereotype Americans? “Gorbachev deciding that the party was over” was definitely a factor that caused alot of his popularity to be lost among the people of the Soviet Union.

    Like

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