Book Review: Russia’s “Vodka Politics” — An Inseparable Duo
What about today? Has Russia finally hit bottom and recovered? Is the political economy of vodka a thing of the past? Mark Lawrence Schrad leaves that question open.
Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, by Mark Lawrence Schrad. Oxford University Press, USA, 512 pages, $35.
By Harvey Blume
Early on in this bracing account of the role of vodka in Russian history, the author tells compelling tales about dinner parties Stalin hosted for top comrades. To refuse to attend was unthinkable; to abstain from imbibing the copious amounts of vodka proffered by the host no less so. Nor was escape into stupor advisable. As Khrushchev put in his memoir: “Things went badly for people who dozed off at Stalin’s table.”
Khrushchev had particular reason to dread these affairs, since he was often a butt of Stalin’s humor. On some nights, according to Schrad, drawing on Khrushchev’s account: “Stalin cleaned his burning pipe by knocking it against Khrushchev’s bald head before forcing the rotund, aging former peasant-turned-court-jester to drink glass after glass of vodka and perform the gapak, the traditional knees-bent Ukrainian folk dance, which caused him excruciating pain.” Khrushchev recalled that “there were no dinners with Stalin at which people did not drink heavily, whether they wanted to or not. . . He never left the table sober and still less did he allow any of those close to him to leave sober.”
Stalin was not using these occasions merely to indulge his sadism, which, with the Great Purge in full swing, had no lack of outlets; he employed vodka as a kind of truth serum. When he got enough vodka into his guests — neither wine nor beer being sufficient to the task — they could not help, what with his prodding and his bullying, from babbling forth schemes and notions they never meant to divulge.
Nor was Stalin himself always as far gone as he led others to suppose. When German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop visited the Kremlin in 1939 to celebrate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he recorded that the vodka downed in toast after toast was “so potent it almost took your breath away.” How, he wondered, did Stalin manage to remain coherent while all others slurred, staggered and slobbered? Stalin, that sly dog, confided to the Foreign Minister that the trick was to drink only white wine — easily mistaken for vodka — while everyone else downed the hard stuff.
Schrad’s Stalin stories can’t but get your attention and are supplemented by many other tales of besotted Russian rulers from the tsars through the commissars and beyond. One such tale concerns the young leader of an elite regiment of Cossacks who regularly drank so hard night after night he became convinced he was really a werewolf. This fellow was none other than Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov, known to history as Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of all the Russias. Closer to our own time there are any number of anecdotes featuring a sodden and befuddled Boris Yeltsin. It’s worth noting that during Yeltsin’s proudest moment, when he stood outside the Russian Parliament in defiance of the hardliners launching a coup against Gorbachev, he was stone cold sober. The leaders of the coup, however, “stammered through [it] in a drunk stupor.” And as we know, Yeltsin didn’t manage to teetotal for long; much of his stint as Russian President devolved into episodes of drunken buffoonery, such as the time, during his 1984 trip to Washington, he was found outside the White House in his underpants trying to hail a cab. About stunts like this, the Russian masses, far from teetotaling though they were, ceased to be amused.
Not that teetotaling was ever given a chance to get a grip on Russia. Under the tsars, temperance movements were discouraged, sometimes at gunpoint. One nineteenth-century British observer was shocked to see determined teetotalers “flogged into drinking; some who doggedly held out had liquor poured into their mouths through funnels” The critic Aleksandr Herzen asked, from London, his place of exile: “Is it true that the crime of sobriety has become so common in Tambov province that governor Danas has sent army units to suppress non-drinkers?”
Herzen was not alone in inveighing against the effects of drink. Dostoevsky named his best known novel The Drunkard. The fact that it was published as Crime and Punishment did not prevent Tolstoy from reading it more as “as a temperance parable than psycho-thriller.” The main character of Turgenev’s novel Virgin Soil took up the same theme, saying: “That’s what’s killing the Russian peasant, vodka.” Tolstoy, Schrad writes, “went to great lengths to underscore how vodka was both the source of the peasant’s poverty and the autocracy’s wealth.”
What was it, Schrad asks, that gave vodka pride of place in Russia long after “virtually every developed country on earth put their so-called liquor question to bed?” Schrad refuses, by way of answer, to invoke genetic disposition or national character flaw. His argument, in brief, is that revenues from vodka sustained previous Russian autocracies much as revenues from oil and gas now sustain Putin. The tsars — not just the many sodden individuals but the institution itself — were so dependent on vodka, whether derived from state monopoly on liquor or on taxes from its sale, that attempts to break the habit cold turkey led to disaster.
When Tsar Nicholas II — he who in his youth drank himself into delusions of lycanthropy — attempted, at last, to impose prohibition he picked exactly the wrong time to do it, namely the outbreak of World War I. To fill the hole in the treasury created by absence of vodka revenues, the government printed enough paper money to cause hyperinflation, which, in turn, undermined the Romanov dynasty and helped bring on the Russia Revolution. Not that abstinence took hold among Russian troops. Germany and Austria used vodka as a weapon: “In an effort to incapacitate the army and stymie Russian advances [German and Austrian forces] deliberately left bottles of vodka in the trenches and stocked houses near the battlefields to encourage drunkenness and insubordination in the ranks of the enemy.”
The Bolsheviks had no more success than Tsar Nicholas II in weaning Russia from the bottle. Lenin upheld prohibition, declaring: “Whatever the peasant wants in the way of material things we will give him,. . . But if he asks for ikons or booze — these things we will not make for him.” The response to the ban on official vodka was that homebrew, rotgut — samogon — sometimes lethal, filled the void. And when Stalin succeeded Lenin, he restored vodka to traditional pride of place in Russian political economy, though he might, when it suited him, quaff white wine instead.
After Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev was the longest reigning general secretary — from 1964 to his death in 1982 — and his alcoholism was an open secret, attested to by Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the United States and Andrei Gromyko, Brezhnev’s foreign minister. In 1973, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to Brezhnev protesting that: “So long as vodka is an important item of state revenue nothing will change, and we shall simply go on ravaging people’s vitals.” Andrei Sakharov said much the same, in his letter to Brezhnev, where he argued that society “is sinking ever deeper into a state of chronic alcohol poisoning.”
Solzhenitsyn, of course, after a sojourn in the Gulag, wound up exiled to Vermont, before returning, in his last years, to post-Communist Russia. Sakharov was sentenced to inner exile, in Nizhny Novgorod, under supervision by the KGB. That ended in 1986, when Gorbachev, a year after coming to power, placed a phone call to Sakharov inviting him back to Moscow. Gorbachev agreed with Russia’s premier dissident about a number of things, not least of them, alcohol. Schrad writes that in the debate in the Soviet leadership that led to Gorbachev’s ascension, the key issue “was not simply whether the next general secretary would be old or young but also whether he would be drunk or sober.”
Gorbachev was dry with a vengeance, avowing: “If we don’t solve this problem, we can forget about communism.” His severe restrictions on the sale of vodka led to long queues in Moscow that threatened riot, necessitating “four hundred police officers and dozens of additional patrols every day”. Naturally, samogon prospered under Gorbachev’s restrictions. When Communism fell, vodka really came into its own. With the ruble nearly worthless, it doubled as currency.
What about today? Has Russia finally hit bottom and recovered? Is the political economy of vodka a thing of the past? Schrad leaves no room for doubt about the devastating effects, on Russia, of vodka politics, ranging from criminalism, to inordinately low life-expectancy, and, of late, a scourge of alcoholism among children. Russia has been debilitated, and even, to use his term, “demodernized” by vodka.
But Schrad is not clear about where vodka politics is going. Yes, Putin, the new autocrat of Russia, depends on oil and gas and not on distilled liquor. But it’s worth mentioning that one hot new brand of vodka is called Putinka — little Putin.
Schrad succeeds in shedding new light on Russian history. Unfortunately, his book is marred by repetitiveness. He feels the need to reiterate the point — vodka and Russian autocracy are joined at the hip, the umbilical cord — at every turn. There’s no need. The evidence he provides suffices. One grisly example: in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the first lost by a European power, the Japanese, in one key engagement, “found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk that they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs.”
A personal note: in the part of Brooklyn I come from Russians are the major immigrant group. A liquor store I dropped in on from time featured dozens, if not scores of vodkas: pepper, wheat, cherry, potato, rye. I was looking for a vodka promoted online as the smoothest and the best. When I asked the proprietor if he carried it, he scoffed: “Vudka is vudka.” No, he didn’t carry it.
And in a statement the full political import of which I didn’t grasp at the time, he added: “I don’t drink vudka.” Not that he didn’t drink, but that he didn’t drink vudka.
Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.