Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to welcome back Mark Lawrence Schrad, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. Schrad last talked to Points about The Political Power of Bad Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2010). This time, he’s here to reflect on his 400-year history of alcohol and Russia, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State (Oxford University Press, 2014).
This should come in handy, since in a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a book talk at my favorite bar. So, here goes:
Walt—my bartender’s name is Walt—you’ve been slingin’ booze here for umpteen years. Have you ever wondered why all the Russians who come in here pass on the wine list and skip past your world-class beer selection just to choke down shot after shot of vodka until they pass out on the floor? There’s a reason—and it’s not that drinking vodka is hard-wired into Russian DNA. Russia’s societal alcoholism has its roots in political and economic decisions made by the autocrats in the Kremlin over the past 400 years.
Imagine that you were a bartender in imperial Russia a few hundred years ago, Walt. First of all, you’d be a state employee, since the alcohol trade was a state monopoly. Your training on day one began with taking an oath—kissing the Orthodox cross—dutifully swearing to maximize the revenue to your sovereign, the tsar. Also, you’d be a pretty ruthless pawnbroker—if some drunk ran out of money while drinking at your tavern, you could easily convince him to sell his shirt, pants or any other worldly possessions to you in exchange for another drink. You were kind of a dick, Walt—why would you do that?
Anyway, back in the seventeenth century, the imperial tavern had all sorts of drinks: fermented wines, beers, ales, porters, and meads, in addition to this new, distilled beverage that the locals called vodka—or “little water.” But since the cost of distilling and selling vodka were just pennies on the dollar—or kopecks on the ruble—it was far more profitable to sell distilled vodka to the local drunks than milder, fermented beverages. Over decades and generations, vodka elbowed-out all of the competition in the taverns, because it had the greatest profit margin for the state. Plus, Walt, your local drunks couldn’t really tell if you watered it down, so you could easily siphon off some of the vodka, sell it on the side, and pocket the dough. But you’d never do that, right?
So since vodka was so central to the state and its finances, any attempt to reduce consumption of vodka—from tsarist Russia straight through the 1980s in the Soviet Union—was seen as an unpatriotic political attack against the state itself, and ruthlessly suppressed. That’s why your Russian customers drink that industrial chemical, Walt, rather than anything more palatable.
Since alcohol plays such a major role in Russian culture, politics, and history, the book then gives you an overview of Russian history—from Ivan the Terrible through the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin—through the lens of vodka. Think of them as beer goggles for Russian history—but when viewed through this lens, even some of the most confusing historical developments actually come into sharper view.