NR Digital

Through a Glass, Very Darkly

by Andrew Stuttaford
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.”