Vodka Politics

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of the American Spectator.

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State
Mark Lawrence Schrad
Oxford University Press, 2014
512 pages, $35

“A wager on the strong and sober” was the tagline given by Russian prime minister Peter Stolypin to his sweeping land reforms of 1906, which were the last serious attempt by the tsarist regime to forestall a revolt through liberalization. Leaving aside the strong for the moment, it is regrettable that history’s most crucial bulwark against Communism should have chosen at that moment to wager its entire stake on such a long-odds runner as the sober Russian peasant. In the land of vodka, such individuals have always been few in number and regarded with suspicion by their countrymen. As Boris Yeltsin put it—admittedly in a context of self-exculpation—“People will say, ‘What kind of Russian man are you if you don’t drink?’”

Russia’s reputation as a drinking nation dates at least to the tenth century, when, according to legend, Prince Vladimir of Kiev hosted delegations from the major monotheistic faiths in order to help him decide which one to choose as the successor to his people’s increasingly anachronistic paganism. The emissary from Islam was sent away after revealing the prophet’s prohibition on alcohol, with the famous response from the prince: “Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without it.”

These famous words resurface several times in Vodka Politics. Across all ten centuries covered in the book, Prince Vladimir’s phrases seem always to be the nearest to hand any time the subject of national drinking habits is addressed. The tragic heroine of Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? echoes them (“How could we not drink? We cannot exist without it”). Even Leonid Brezhnev repeated them in response to Gromyko’s suggestion that the general secretary ought to take steps to address the Soviet people’s collective alcoholism, or, failing that, at least his own individual case. “He particularly emphasized the words ‘They can’t get by without it,’” recalled Gromyko in his memoirs. Over time, Vladimir’s statement passed from a quotation into a folk saying, and thence into the kind of automatic truism that is the mark of a genuine national characteristic.

Alas, the author of Vodka Politics does not believe in national characteristics. Mark Lawrence Schrad, right-thinking modern that he is, does not recognize any distinction between fair cultural description and crude stereotyping. His refusal to generalize is, in fact, the basis of his entire thesis:

The conventional explanation is that it is just part of being Russian . . . That’s wrong: What we assume today are essential cultural traits can often be traced to political and economic sources. Accordingly, I argue that the widespread problematic drinking habits of today are actually the product of political decisions made during the formation of the modern Russian state.

This willful blindness to cultural factors may put the reader in mind of Chesterton’s sharp line on Carlyle, that he “understood everything about the French Revolution except that it was a French revolution.” On the other hand, easy recourse to the cultural explanation has kept many Western writers from moving beyond a superficial grasp of what Russia’s drinking problem means and where it comes from. A materialist account like Schrad’s is in that sense a useful corrective.

For example, there is the vodka tax, which was a pillar of the imperial budget from the time of Catherine the Great to that of Nicholas II. In 1795 it brought in a third of all state revenue, and that percentage proceeded to grow during most of the following century. By 1839 it was the treasury’s single biggest money-maker, surpassing even the poll tax. Schrad concludes from this that the tsarist government had an interest in keeping its subjects as sozzled as possible—and not only had such an interest, but acted on it. This may sound like typical left-historian cant, attributing social problems entirely to ruling class oppression, but the facts bear him out to a surprising extent.

In 1858, when changes to the state vodka monopoly had the effect of driving prices up, several villages staged temperance campaigns in protest. The regime responded by sending troops into affected areas with order to crush the abstainers. “The teetotalers were flogged into drinking; some who doggedly held out had liquor poured into their mouths through funnels … At the same time the clergy were ordered to preach in their churches against the new form of sedition,” recorded a British journalist present in Russia at the time. Incidentally, it should be made clear that the Russian teetotalers, unlike their British counterparts did not intend to swear off drinking indefinitely, just until prices were brought back down.

Coercion was no less common at the other end of the social spectrum. Most Russian rulers have pressured their inner circles to drink copiously in order to keep them off balance and to prevent them from keeping any secrets. One advantage of Schrad’s staunchly rationalist approach is how clearly it enables him to describe how this pressure could cross over into outright force. Most readers probably know that drinking was mandatory at the court of Peter the Great in the sense that it was the done thing, but Schrad does not leave it there.

He relates the story of how a court favorite, when caught substituting a light Rhenish for a strong Hungarian wine, was made to chug two bottles of the strong stuff from an enormous goblet, “at which point [he] collapsed into a drunken stupor and had to be carried home, while his wife and sister wept uncontrollably.” A Dutch emissary tried to excuse himself from one of Peter’s drunken revels by claiming to be ill, but the tsar turned up at the man’s home and personally dragged him outside, with no regard for his protests or for his status as a guest. Stalin would employ similar methods, and Schrad’s chapter on those nightmarish evenings at the tyrant’s dacha is his best, especially in its detailed attention to the many strategies his subordinates used in an attempt to save their livers—none of them, alas, successful. The nefarious Beria, for example, buttered up the waitstaff so they would water down his glasses but was ratted out by the equally nefarious Shcherbakov.

Nevertheless, when the reader steps back from single chapters and considers the book as a whole, the absence of any remotely poetic angle still emerges as the book’s greatest flaw. This need not have involved vague effusions on the Slavic soul. Schrad could easily have kept it sensible and concrete. For example, the book includes several stories of coups in which the perpetrators were deep in their cups, and without Schrad’s pointing it out, a pattern to their behavior emerges. A co-conspirator of Valentin Pavlov, who participated in the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev, said that during the crucial hours, “I saw him two or three times and each time he was dead drunk. I think he was doing this purposefully, to get out of the game.” Ninety years earlier in Russia’s protectorate of Serbia, the night watchman of King Aleksandar Obrenović’s palace agreed to go into league with a team of assassins and then almost immediately repented of his treachery. Instead of alerting his superiors to the plot, he drank until he passed out on the night in question, allowing the killers to enter the palace just as if he had let them in himself. Perhaps citizens of a totalitarian state are driven to drink for analogous reasons—to avoid complicity in a general atmosphere of political depravity rather than a specific instance of it: it would, anyway, be interesting to see an author of a book about vodka argue so.

It was Lenin who wrote, “The proletariat does not need drunkenness … They need only clarity, clarity, and again clarity.” This is Schrad’s solution also. He believes that if Russia’s rulers manage to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding their country’s drinking problem—an effort in which his book is clearly intended to play a role—they will finally be able to make progress toward remedying it. Vodka is probably the leading cause of Russia’s demographic collapse, so a solution would certainly be welcome. But if Schrad believes that this will come from something so simple as historical and statistical accuracy, he is making a bet at least as long as Stolypin’s.