Thursday, May 25, 2006

Chico State University historian on Russia's vodka culture


"Russians have an almost mystical relationship to drink in general and vodka in particular," writes Kate Transchel, associate professor of history at Chico State University. "Legend has it that a thousand years ago, when Grand Prince Vladimir ... pondered over which faith to adopt, he rejected Islam because it imposed restrictions on the consumption of hard liquor." So, in 986, Vladimir made Christianity the official religion of Russia. Transchel quotes a commentator as saying that "God, bread, water and vodka were the mainstays of Russia."

She writes that "the word 'vodka' historically referred to all common drinks based on spirits. In 19th-century Russian usage, the word 'vino' was more common than 'vodka' but still meant grain alcohol."

Just how ingrained (pardon the pun) vodka consumption is in Russia is the subject of Transchel's new book, "Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1895-1932" ($35 in hardcover from University of Pittsburgh Press). Transchel's study is an engaging and accessible look at the culture of vodka in Russia and how even the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, in its forceful effort at building the "new worker," was no match against the "liquid assets" of the working class.

"Under the Influence" is a model of clear writing. Though it is a scholarly work -- the author traveled to Russia to study the archives of the industrial cities Moscow, Kharkov, Saratov and Tomsk -- the book presents telling details of the real life of the industrial worker.

The new Soviet state in the first decade-and-a-half after the Revolution tried "to craft a new society and a new type of citizen" by controlling education, getting rid of "bourgeois culture" and putting an end to "illiteracy, prostitution, religion and drunkenness." But in the 1920s "the Bolsheviks came face to face with their number one quandary: Workers did not act right. The proletariat was the new ruling class, but still it was stamped with the attributes of an oppressed class. Further, the behavior of the new working class, especially those fresh from the village, did not meet Bolshevik expectations: They came late to work, if at all; they broke their machines; they ignored the authority of bosses; and above all, they drank themselves into oblivion."

An attempt at imposing prohibition from 1914-1925 proved disastrous. Transchel reports that "urban workers resorted to drinking anything containing alcohol, including denatured spirits, cologne, lacquer and varnish. For example, in 1915 production of lacquer rose by 600 percent and varnish by 1,575 percent in Moscow. ... One can assume that in the absence of a concurrent surge in wood sales, the Russian populace had not turned to furniture refinishing for solace: A significant amount of these alcohol-based substances was being consumed."

The Bolsheviks were working not only against 500-year old Russian vodka culture but against the traditional state liquor monopoly (which Lenin reinstituted in 1925) and the use of grain for illegal samogon (home brew). Eventually alcoholism was redefined from a social disease "resulting from poor living and working conditions" to an "individual mental illness" (stemming from "believing in God or not learning to read") and official talk of workers' drunkenness ceased.

Stalin declared victory in 1933, urging workers "to reward themselves for a job well done with a 'little glass of champagne'." Just after World War II alcohol sales rebounded ("comprising approximately 29 percent of all state revenues") and a popular poster in the Khrushchev era said: "Delicious, cheap and nutritious -- drink vodka. Absolutely!"

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.


Anonymous said...

Lenin died in 1924.

Dan Barnett said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

Apparently I misread a crucial passage in the book and attributed to Lenin something he could not have instituted (since he was no longer alive). For clarification, the passage appears below.

"In August 1921 the new government reversed its policy and legalized the sale of wine. Six months later it legalized the sale of beer, thereby beginning the slow retreat from prohibition that coincided with the party's retreat form the harsh practices of War Communism to the more benign social and economic policies of the New Economic Policy (NEP), 1921-1927. Lenin called the NEP a step backward into capitalism in order to prepare the way for a surge forward toward socialism. In the same way, the party justified reintroducing the state's liquor monopoly. Once the revenues needed for economic recovery were acquired, the state would stop producing alcohol. Therefore in January 1923 the state legalized the production and sale of 20 percent liquor, and by October 1925 it began making and selling 40 percent vodka, marking the end of prohibition and the reintroduction of the state liquor monopoly." (pp. 72-73)