A Brief History Of Russia’s Failed Prohibition Campaigns

Photo via EnglishRussia.com

Vladimir Putin is serious about getting his comrades to stop drinking so damn much. As part of a national push toward sobriety, beer has actually been reclassified as alcohol instead of food, which means it can’t be sold in most stores or served at night. (But what will Russians eat for dinner now?) Taxes on beer went up 200%, and vodka prices will increase 36%.

Needless to say, citizens are not thrilled–even children are reportedly protesting–while experts predict that the new regulations will put merchants out of work and drive people to drink even more. Judging from history, they might have a point. Let’s study 100 years of Eastern Europe’s failed anti-booze crusades…

1. The Pre-Soviet Era

Photo via Wikipedia

When choosing a religion back in 987 A.D., it’s said that Vladimir the Great picked Christianity over Islam for one major reason: “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” This positive attitude lasted into the late 1800s: The Tsar’s government paid for hundreds of wine distilleries, and every soldier received a vodka ration averaging 26.5 pounds, which sure beats the G.I. bill.

This arrangement worked out fine until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, when Japanese forces “found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk that they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs,” according to one historical account.

Photo via Wikipedia

A decade later, when World War I rolled around, Russia unsurprisingly made alcohol illegal. The New York Times reported in 1914:

“There is prohibition in Russia today, prohibition which means that not a drop of vodka, whisky, brandy, gin, or any other strong liquor is obtainable from one end to the other of a territory populated by 130,000,000 people and covering one-sixth of the habitable globe. On that day when the mobilization of the Russian Army began, special policemen visited every public place where vodka is sold, locked up the supply of the liquor, and placed on the shop the imperial seal. … From the day this step was taken drunkenness vanished in Russia. The results are seen at once in the peasantry; already they are beginning to look like a different race.”

This “miracle,” as the Times described it, was perhaps a wee tiny bit optimistic. Just like in America, prohibition led to a huge boom in bootleg liquor (samogon) with delicious ingredients such as cologne and nail polish. Cheers!

2. The Soviet Era

Photo via Etsy

The Communist revolutionaries, who suddenly had to control unruly drunken mobs, agreed with the Tsar on one thing, keeping alcohol prohibition in place. As Trotsky lectured, “No drinking, comrades! No one must be on the streets after eight in the evening, except the regular guards. All places suspected of having stores of liquor should be searched, and the liquor destroyed. No mercy to the sellers of liquor.” (Truly, they were the Evil Empire.)

The proletariat did not exactly go along with this. Samogon dealers ramped up production to meet the enormous demand, marketing their moonshine as “lemonade,” despite the threat of a year in jail if caught. Now that’s customer service!

The Soviet government released numerous anti-alcohol propaganda posters, all of which make fantastic dorm room decorations:

Photo via EnglishRussia.com

Photo via EnglishRussia.com

Photo via EnglishRussia.com

Ultimately the Communist Party realized that banning alcohol was not only futile, but costing them massive potential tax revenues. By 1925, vodka had been liberated. “To each according to their needs” had a brand new meaning.

3. The Gorby Era

Photo via Wikipedia

Sixty years later, Russia’s free-flowing alcohol was causing a bunch of problems–for example, countless deaths–so in 1985 Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev implemented policies such as massive price hikes, clampdowns on production, strict punishment of public drunkenness, censorship of beloved films that depicted imbibing, etc.

The spectacular results? Thousands of people died from samogon laced with brake fluid, organized crime rose to power, the government lost billions of rubles and the drinking rate skyrocketed. Oh yeah, and the USSR collapsed. Oops.

But hey, at least Gorbachev kept beer classified as food, right?

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Marty Beckerman (@martybeckerman) is the Associate Editor of Guy Code Blog