How Alcohol Conquered Russia
A history of the country’s struggle with alcoholism, and why the government has done so little about it.
Update: A previous version of this story gave insufficient credit to a 2011 World Policy Journal article by Heidi Brown. The story has been updated better to reflect instances where our writer relied on Brown’s work and to provide clearer attribution to other sources he consulted.
Picture the Russian alcoholic: nose rosy, face unshaven, a bottle of vodka firmly grasped in his hands. By his side he has a half-empty jar of pickles and a loaf of rye bread to help the devilish substance go down. The man is singing happily from alcohol-induced jubilation. His world may not be perfect, but the inebriation makes it seem that way.
Today, according to the World Health Organization, one-in-five men in the Russian Federation die due to alcohol-related causes, compared with 6.2 percent of all men globally. In her 2000 article “First Steps: AA and Alcoholism in Russia,” Patricia Critchlow estimated that some 20 million Russians are alcoholics in a nation of just 144 million.
The Russian alcoholic was an enduring fixture during the Tsarist times, during the times of the Russian Revolution, the times of the Soviet Union, during the transition from socialist autocracy to capitalist democracy, and he continues to be in Russian society today. As Heidi Brown described in her 2011 article for World Policy Journal, the prototypical Russian alcoholic sits on broken park benches or train station steps, smoking a cigarette and thinking about where his next drink will come from and whether he can afford it.
The Russian government has repeatedly tried to combat the problem, but to little avail: “this includes four ... reforms prior to 1917, and larger-scale measures taken during the Soviet period in 1958, 1972, and 1985. After each drastically stepped-up anti-alcohol campaign, [Russian] society found itself faced with an even greater spread of drunkenness and alcoholism,” explains G.G. Zaigraev, professor of Sociological Sciences and Head Science Associate of the Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the journal Sociological Research.
“The Kremlin’s own addiction to liquor revenues has overturned many efforts to wean Russians from the tipple,” as Mark Lawrence Schrad wrote in the The New York Times last year. “Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink their last kopecks away in state-owned taverns” to help pad the emperor’s purse.
“Before Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the 1980s, Soviet leaders welcomed alcohol sales as a source of state revenue and did not view heavy drinking as a significant social problem,” as Critchlow put it. In 2010, Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, explained that the best thing Russians can do to help, “the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.”
By facilitating alcohol sales and distribution, the Kremlin has historically had considerable sway in recent decades. But Russia’s history with alcohol goes back centuries.
In the year 988, Prince Vladimir converted his nation to Orthodox Christianity, in part because, unlike other religions, it didn’t prohibit drinking, as Brown explained in her World Policy Journal article. According to legend, monks at the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin were the first to lay their lips on vodka in the late 15th century, but as Russian writer, Victor Erofeyev notes, “Almost everything about this story seems overly symbolic: the involvement of men of God, the name of the monastery, which no longer exists (chudov means “miraculous”), and its setting in the Russian capital.” In 1223, when the Russian army suffered a devastating defeat against the invading Mongols and Tartars, it was partly because they had charged onto the battlefield drunk, Brown wrote.
Ivan the Terrible established kabaks (establishments where spirits were produced and sold) in the 1540s, and in the 1640s they had become monopolies. In 1648, tavern revolts broke out across the country, by which time a third of the male population was in debt to the taverns. In the 1700s, Russian rulers began to profit from their subjects’ alcoholism, as Brown, who spent 10 years covering Russia for Forbes magazine, explained. “[Peter the Great] decreed 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.”
Peter the Great was also, according to Brown, able to form a phalanx of unpaid workers by allowing those who had drunk themselves into debt to stay out of debtors prison by serving 25 years in the army.
“Widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was tolerated, or even encouraged, because of its scope for raising revenue,” Martin McKee wrote in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism. According to Brown, by the 1850s, vodka sales made up nearly half the Russian government’s tax revenues. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin banned vodka. After his death, however, Stalin used vodka sales to help pay for the socialist industrialization of the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, receipts from alcohol again constituted a third of government revenues. One study found that alcohol consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, to 15.2 liters per person.
Some have claimed that heavy consumption of alcohol was also used as a means of reducing political dissent and as a form of political suppression. Russian historian and dissident Zhores Medvedev argued in 1996, “This ‘opium for the masses’ [vodka] perhaps explains how Russian state property could be redistributed and state enterprises transferred into private ownership so rapidly without invoking any serious social unrest.” Vodka, always a moneymaker in Russia, may have been a regime-maker as well.
To date, there have been only two expansive anti-alcohol campaigns in Russia, both of which took place during the Soviet Union: one under Vladimir Lenin and the other under Mikhail Gorbachev. All other leaders have either ignored alcoholism or acknowledged heavy alcohol consumption but did nothing substantial about it. As Critchlow wrote, “Under the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev regimes, harsh penalties were imposed on those who committed crimes while intoxicated, but heavy drinking was not viewed as a threat to society, perhaps because the leaders, who themselves liked to indulge, saw the use of alcohol as a safety valve for low morale.”
“Gorbachev announced ... legislation in May 1985, after a large-scale media campaign publicizing the Kremlin’s new war on alcoholism—the third most common Soviet ailment after heart disease and cancer,” Nomi Morris and Jack Redden wrote in Maclean’s.
It was largely seen as the most determined and effective plan to date: The birthrate rose, life expectancy increased, wives started seeing their husbands more, and work productivity improved. However, after a spike in alcohol prices and a decrease in state alcohol production, some started hoarding sugar to make moonshine, and others poisoned themselves with substances such as antifreeze, as Erofeyev points out. The people’s displeasure with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign can be summarized by an old Soviet joke: “There was this long line for vodka, and one poor guy couldn’t stand it any longer: ‘I’m going to the Kremlin, to kill Gorbachev,’ he said. An hour later, he came back. The line was still there, and everyone asked him, ‘Did you kill him?’ ‘Kill him?!’ he responded. ‘The line for that’s even longer than this one!’”
Despite Gorbachev’s efforts, by the end of the Soviet era, alcoholism still had a stronghold in Russia. Its success ultimately lead to its failure: spending on alcohol from state outlets fell by billions of rubles between 1985 and 1987. Authorities expected that the loss in revenue would be offset by a predicted 10 percent rise in productivity, but such predictions were ultimately not met.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the state’s monopoly over alcohol was repealed in 1992, which lead to an exponential increase in alcohol supply. In 1993, alcohol consumption had reached 14.5 liters of pure alcohol per person, as the journal World Health found in 1995, making Russians some of the heaviest drinkers in the world.
To date, “taxation on alcohol remains low, with the cheapest bottles of vodka costing just 30 rubles ($1) each,” as Tom Parfitt explained in the Lancet in 2006. “There is a simple answer to why so many Russians fall prey to alcohol…it’s cheap. Between 30-60% of alcohol is clandestinely made, and therefore untaxed. A large quantity is run off on ‘night shifts’ at licensed factories where state inspectors are bribed to remove tags on production lines at the end of the working day.”
Vladimir Putin has criticized excessive drinking, and Dmitri Medvedev has called Russia’s alcoholism a “natural disaster,” but besides the rhetoric, little has been done to tighten regulations on the manufacture of liquor, and no coherent programs have been implemented to combat alcoholism. Gennady Onishchenko, Chief Public Health Inspector of the Russian Federation, has urged major spending on the treatment of alcoholism as a response to the tripling of alcohol-related mortality since 1990, arguing that prohibition and excise tax hikes are counterproductive.
Today, the dominant “treatment for alcoholism in Russia are suggestion-based methods developed by narcology—the subspecialty of Russian psychiatry which deals with addiction,” as Eugene Raikhel wrote in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Narcology, otherwise referred to as ‘coding’, is a procedure intended to create a subconscious aversion to alcohol, as Critchlow explained.
“While many aspects of addiction treatment in Russia had been radically transformed during the 1990s, the overall structure of the state-funded network had not changed significantly since the 1970s, when the Soviet narcological system was established,” wrote Eugene Raikhel of the University of Chicago. Other, less common methods that have been used to treat alcohol and drug addiction include brain “surgery” with a needle and “boiling” patients by raising their body temperatures, as Critchlow noted, which is intended to ease severe withdrawal symptoms. Conventional treatments for alcoholism, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are available in Russia, but they are not officially recognized by the Kremlin and do not receive government funds, making them scarce and very poorly funded.
The Russian Orthodox Church has met self-help programs with suspicion as well. Critchlow explained, “Despite their record of success with many alcoholics and drug addicts, the self-help programs Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous . . . have [been] met with resistance in Russia, especially from the medical profession, government officials, and the Russian Orthodox Church clergy.” She further wrote, “Members of the Russian Orthodox clergy have expressed distrust of the self-help movement, often because of the perception of it as a religious cult invading the country.”
In 2010, the Church described AA as an "effective instrument in rehabilitating drug and alcohol addicts,” while saying it would develop its own alcohol program.
Meanwhile, many Russians still prefer more traditional remedies. “I went to the AA and I couldn’t believe my ears. They have no God and they say that they conquer alcoholism themselves. That fills them with pride,” one Orthodox believer wrote on his blog. "I went back to the Church. There, they conquer it with prayer and fasting.”