Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

Through a Glass, Very Darkly

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, by Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford, 512 pp., $35)

If you cannot face going to Russia to see the real thing — in a dank Moscow underpass perhaps, or a broken attempt at a village — the best introduction to that nation’s drinking culture is to meet up with Venya, the narrator of Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, a strange, bleakly comic, forbidden masterpiece of the early Brezhnev era. In the course of its first page, he drinks four vodkas, two beers, port “straight from the bottle,” and then, more vaguely, “something else.” It’s downhill from there.

In meandering, chaotic prose, Erofeev describes a drink-sodden, phantasmagoric train journey, punctuated by depictions of decay, echoes of Russia’s past, and recipes for cocktails that would make Appalachia blanch. With luck, no Russians ever drank “The Spirit of Geneva” (White Lilac, athlete’s foot remedy, Zhiguli beer, and alcohol varnish), but, as Mark Schrad, an assistant professor at Villanova University, notes in his absorbing, no less drink-sodden, not much less meandering, and even more horrifying Vodka Politics, they came close, not least during the time when Mikhail Gorbachev was cracking down on alcohol production:

The most hard-up drinkers turned to alcohol surrogates: from mouthwash, eau de cologne, and perfume to gasoline, cockroach poison, brake fluid, medical adhesives, and even shoe polish on a slice of bread [a recipe that requires some additional preparation]. In the city of Volgodonsk, five died from drinking ethylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze. In the military, some set their thirsty sights on the Soviet MiG-25, which — due to the large quantities of alcohol in its hydraulic systems and fuel stores — was affectionately dubbed the “flying restaurant.”

It’s difficult not to smile at that, but then thoughts turn to those five dead in Volgodonsk, just a tiny fraction of a death toll from alcohol poisoning that ran into the tens of thousands, casualties of the burgeoning zapoi (a binge that lasts days or weeks) that finally lurched out of control during the economic implosion that followed the Soviet collapse. Post-Soviet Russia had little realistic alternative to the principle of shock therapy (how it was carried out is a different matter), but Schrad is right to stress the depths to which the country sank. The bottle, often filled with dubious black-market hooch, was one of the few sources of solace left. This, rather literally, added further fuel to the fire already raging through Russia’s demographics: “Average life expectancy for men — 65 at the height of [Gorbachev’s] anti-alcohol campaign in 1987 — plummeted to only 62 in 1992. Two years later, it dipped below 58.”

According to Schrad, “the best estimates are that in the 1990s, Russians quaffed some 15 to 16 liters of pure alcohol annually,” a figure that, tellingly, does not appear to be so different today, and is well above the “eight-liter maximum the World Health Organization deems safe.” These are per capita data, kindly averages that mask the extent to which it is mainly men who are drinking to excess, a fact that helps explain why Ivan can expect to live some ten years less than Natasha.

All those liters might alarm even skeptics legitimately suspicious of the WHO’s nannyish side, but the results for other nations offer context, if not reassurance. According to the WHO, Russia’s alcohol consumption in 2011 was near the top of the international  range, but it was far from the only country to cross the eight-liter threshold (the U.S. clocked in at 9.44 liters, the U.K. at 13.37). Beyond obvious differences in standards of health care, Russia’s catastrophe was clearly due to something subtler than the overall volume of alcohol consumed. What may have mattered more is that so much (6.88 liters) of the Russian tally was accounted for by spirits (the U.K., no stranger to the binge, came in at 2.41). That suggests that what is drunk (and, more specifically, how it is drunk) counts. Schrad quotes another Erofeev, the contemporary writer Viktor: “The result, not the process, is what’s important. You might as well inject vodka into your bloodstream as drink it.”

A disaster of this magnitude — on some estimates as many as half a million Russians each year are dying as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of alcohol abuse — was not the product of economic implosion alone. Other hard-drinking countries in the former Soviet space went through comparable traumas in the 1990s. But none, with the possible exception of Ukraine, a land long exposed to the worst pathologies of Russian rule, tippled quite so far over the edge. There was something that singled Russia out, and it predated the collapse of Communism by a very long time. As early as 1967, the rapid growth of alcohol consumption in the post-war years — something helped along by growing prosperity and a state that had replaced the anti-alcohol militancy of the earlier Soviet period with a sharp appreciation for the revenues that vodka brought in — had taken annual per capita consumption of pure alcohol (exclusive of bootleg samogon) to 9.1 liters. Drinking was an accessible pleasure for a society that had cash, but — in a still-austere Soviet Union — not much to spend it on. There was also something else: Vodka may have been used to soothe the pain associated with the collapse of Communism, but it had also been a way of anaesthetizing people through the dreary decades that preceded that long-overdue change, decades in which aspiration was stifled, life was hard, and futility was the norm. Under the circumstances, why not drink up?

#page#But boozing one’s way through Brezhnev was also a reversion to older patterns of behavior that the early Bolsheviks — in some respects a puritanical bunch — believed they had swept away for good. In 1913, the wicked old empire’s per capita consumption stood at just under that perilous eight liters, and that was less of a gulp than the swigging that had preceded it a few years before. Vodka was not only a familiar presence in the Russian troika, it had also become one of its drivers, a wild, erratic, and destructive driver, to be sure, but one so powerful that attempts to unseat it contributed to the fall of both Gorbachev and (Schrad makes the case well) quite possibly the last czar too.

How demon drink grabbed the reins is the question that lies at the heart of Vodka Politics, which comes with the subtitle “Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.” That “secret” is something of an overstatement (as Schrad acknowledges, this is far from being the first work on this topic), but it is a claim not inconsistent with his occasionally excitable style (“While the cold wind howled beyond the Kremlin walls . . . ”). As told by a chatty and engaging author, this is Russia’s past seen, one might say, through the bottom of a glass, a perspective that is certainly skewed (sometimes too much so — the liberal Decembrist rebels of 1825 were rather more than an “inebriated Petersburg mob”) but is undeniably fascinating and often enlightening.

Schrad’s central thesis is simple enough: It is the tale of vodka as a “dramatic technological leap” (like a cannon, it has been said, compared with the “bows and arrows” of wine, beer, and more traditional drinks) that was adopted by Russia’s rulers (and how — if it’s epics of alcoholic excess that you are after, this is the book for you) and then ruthlessly exploited by them, a story that, with brief interruptions, has continued essentially unchanged for more than half a millennium.

Ivan III (reigned 1462–1505) was the first to establish a state monopoly on distillation, but Schrad prefers to credit his grandson, a rather more terrible Ivan, with “being perhaps the first to realize the tremendous potential of the liquor trade.” In between debauches and atrocities (if you are on the hunt for Grand Guignol, chronicled with faintly unseemly relish, this is also the book for you), he outlawed privately held taverns and replaced them with state-run kabaks. This was the next stage in, as Schrad describes it, the evolution of a system of “macabre beauty” under which the state built itself up by using mechanisms designed to increase the dependence of its subjects on a product — cheap to produce, profitable to sell, potent to consume — that gave them the illusion of release only to enslave them still further.

The catch was that the state itself became dependent on this dependency. At the height of the Russian empire, vodka funded a third of what became known as the state’s “drunken budget.” Toward the end of Soviet rule, vodka’s contribution was roughly a quarter. And vodka was a pleasure too tempting to be confined to those at the bottom of the heap. It seeped through all social classes, high and low, at immense cost to the country’s progress then and now, its spread facilitated by the unwillingness of the czarist and Soviet regimes to allow room for a civil society strong enough to push back, not to speak of their failure to nurture a nation in which the bottle would not seem like quite such an attractive escape.

So what now? With Russia’s economy in somewhat better shape and (thanks, primarily, to higher oil prices) vodka’s percentage contribution to the state’s income having shrunk to comparatively modest mid single digits, the chances — one might think — ought to be good that something serious could be done to address a public-health cataclysm that has not gone away. After all, the ostentatiously sober Vladimir Putin is at the helm. Some measures have indeed been taken, but this is still Russia, a top-down place where the people come last, where vodka profits accrue to the state and to the well-connected, a country where outside, maybe, some metropolitan centers, hope remains in short supply.

Moscow to the End of the Line draws to a close with the drunken Venya missing his stop and returning to the point at which he began.

And then things get worse.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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