Russian Language Blog

The Russians and Their Vodka Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Culture, History

Joseph Stalin once said, “We have to make a choice between… slavery and vodka.”

That was in 1925, just as Stalin was beginning his brutal ascent to power, crafting a regime that would industrialize the Soviet Union on the backs of slave labor. And cheap vodka.

Indeed, vodka and Russia have been bound together in a Gordian knot for half a millenium. Ivan the Terrible instituted a system of kabaks (reputedly imported from the Tatars) that allowed the state to reap huge revenue from intoxication. His son Fyodor tore down the kabaks in an religiously-inspired effort to purify the nation. But the reformer Boris Godunov, who succeeded Fyodor, saw the economic potential in strong drink. It has been a see-saw ever since.

Catherine the Great famously said it was easier to rule her subjects when they were dulled by the effects of vodka. Would that the twelfth (and final) Romanov ruler to succeed her, Nicholas II, had heeded her sentiments. For it could be argued that the tsars lost their empire because of vodka. Or lack thereof.

During the First World War, Nicholas II thought it was more important to keep the troops sober than sedated, and so a temperance law was instituted and vodka production all but halted. Problem was, the Russian State was heavily dependent upon vodka for tax revenue (in the nineteenth century, 40 percent of state revenue was garnered from vodka taxes). And any fool knows you don’t fight a war without thinking how you are going to pay for it…

So, in 1917, Russian soldiers were getting neither vodka nor timely salaries. Add a few factory strikes into the mix, and you have a recipe for Revolution.

The Bolsheviks originally maintained the vodka ban on ideological grounds (i.e. Stalin’s statement above, which hewed neatly to Lenin’s line). But the demands of industrialization being what they were (tax revenue, remember?), by the 1930s, Stalin was ramping up vodka production. (Just for the record, he was against it before he was for it.)

Koroche, since Ivan the Terrible established the first kabak, the Russian state has used proceeds from vodka sales to further both its foreign and domestic agendas. And the Russian public has repeatedly obliged the leadership by consuming vast amounts of vodka.

The results have been about what you would expect. In a long article I wrote for Russian Life magazine with Mikhail Ivanov in 1998, we cited Stephen White’s catalog of ills wrought by vodka in the second half of the twentieth century:

“…alcohol abuse became the single largest cause cited for divorce; by the late 1970s, life expectancy for Russian males had dropped to just 61 years; between 1960 and 1987, there was a population loss due to alcohol abuse in Russia of some 30-35 million persons; 74% of all murders committed in the early 1980s were committed under the influence of alcohol, as was the same proportion of rapes; in the early 1980s, 75-90% of absences from work were related to alcohol; economic production was said to drop by up to 30% following weekends and paydays; by one estimate, the economic losses from alcohol abuse in the 1980s were three times the amount taken in through taxes on alcohol.”

 Add to this the epidemic of alcohol poisoning in the 1990s, due to poor regulations (90,000 in 1997 alone), and there is no way but to conclude that Russia has savagely abused itself with vodka for nearly six centuries.

And yet… vodka is still a central part of Russian culture, an important part to toasting business deals, holidays and family celebrations. As a true vodka lover will tell you, vodka can be a very subtle drink, full of interesting aromas and aftertastes. As long, of course, as you don’t make yourself a slave to it.

Maybe that is what Stalin really meant.



About the author
Paul E. Richardson has been involved with all things Russian for 30 years. In his day job, he is publisher of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine on Russian culture, history, travel and life. His novel Russian Rules (a thriller of sorts about loose nukes, mistaken identity and iPhones) was released in 2011, and his tribute to the running life, Running is Flying, will be published by Rodale in 2012.

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  1. Delia:

    I recently placed a joke on Facebook about the way Americans see a typical Russian family. Many people seemed to like it. I love it! I guess I should do it again:
    Русская семья в представлении американской: — Дорогая, я дома! — Почему так поздно? — По дороге медведь ногу вывихнул — пришлось водкой отпаивать. — Садитесь все! Давайте выпьем водки. — Мам, я пойду поиграю с медведем. — Хорошо, только сначала выпей водки. — А где наш дедушка? — Он вторую неделю стоит в очереди за талонами на талоны. — Хорошо, что он перед этим выпил водки. И ты без дела не сиди — иди тоже выпей водки. — Ладно, иди, погуляй, сынок, и не забудь написать вечером отчёт в КГБ! А по пути домой не забудь купить водки — она заканчивается. — Дорогая, что-то жарко. Выключи, пожалуйста, атомный реактор. — Сейчас водку допью и выключу, а ты пока сыграй на балалайке.

  2. Delia:

    I just heard another joke: В России основной способ знакомств – это “бухали вместе”(бухать is slang for “to drink”)

  3. Delia:

    Too bad we can’t go back to our comments and either edit or delete them. I should’ve put “to drink alcohol/vodka”, not just a beverage.

  4. Tove Gleditsch Lie:

    I should very much like to subscribe to
    RUSSIAN LIFE. I live in Norway, so I hope it’s possible!

  5. Oleg:

    A beautiful post on the Russian language and culture, congratulations. I’d advise the authors of this blog to avoid being guided by their passion for alcoholism, drug addiction and brutal sex and remember what culture actually is, because I don’t share your point of view and the majority of educated people would agree with me on that. Aand I’d also be happy to see the same postsdedicated to the British alcoholic tradition, mm? On the English language blog I’ll search for it, right?

  6. Richard:

    I’ve heard a legend that Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kievian Rus rejected Islam as a religion for his people because Islam prohibits alcohol. “Drinking,” said Vladimir, “is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” I don’t know if this account is apocryphal or not, I suspect we’ll never know for certain. Makes an interesting story though.

  7. Delia:

    Yes, this is a true story. However, we should keep in mind that those times they drank МЕД, не водку which “was invented” much later, around 1430.The word itself ВОДКА was first used in 1751! Not that long ago!

  8. Richard:

    Грустная история, Делия.

    I’ve only visited Russia once, in 1999, I visited St. Petersburg and Moscow. I stayed with local Russians rather than in hotels. The vodka did flow freely and I was amazed at how common it was to find vodka for sale in kiosks at the entrances to subway stations, etc.

    I found the Russian people to be very kind and full of life, kind of like Italians, I thought. Perhaps with the rise of a true middle class in Russia drinking to excess will be seen as less socially acceptable. I sincerely hope so.

  9. Lois:

    I was disappointed in this entry. It is sort of interesting but not in the spirit of language/learning that is typical of this blog (and the reason I read it).

  10. Irvin Bitler:

    A guilty conscience needs no accuser. English Proverb