Postmedia Russians and their vodka: a brief history

With the Sochi winter Olympics underway, many will decide to celebrate their nations’ victories as the Russians do – with plenty of vodka. Excessive drinking has become the West’s favourite stereotype of the former Soviet republic, and its historical context provides good reason for this. So while you enjoy that fifth vodka soda and cheer on Team Canada, consider the long and complex history booze has played in Russian history.

Russians have considered drinking part of their culture for over a millennium. In 986, Grand Prince Vladimir chose Christianity as the official religion of Kievan Rus because, unlike Islam, it accepted the consumption of alcohol – a decisive move that foreshadowed a nation of drinkers. Over time the distilling process improved, and the first refined vodka was introduced in the 1400s. Vodka became a staple of Russian culture, and with it carried many norms and customs.

A guest who refused to drink with their host was seen as offensive and refusing their hospitality – and when a bottle was opened, it was customary to finish it. Like modern day frat houses, Russian men who could drink the strongest alcohol also inspired the most respect, while a low tolerance for the hard stuff garnered ridicule and accusations of unmanliness.

As documented in Kate Transchel’s 2006 book Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia, Russians have been aware of this national propensity for drink for many years and have lamented it for almost as long.

Speaking at the 1912 All-Russian Congress on the Struggle Against Alcoholism, an unidentified speaker highlighted how enmeshed alcohol was in the culture:

“When the Russian is born, when he marries or dies, when he goes to court or is reconciled, when he makes a new acquaintance or parts from an old friend, when he negotiates a purchase or sale, realizes a profit or suffers a loss – every activity is copiously baptized with vodka. … The Russian spends his entire life from cradle to grave, bathing and swimming in this drunken sea.”

While swimming in a drunken sea may be overstating the case a bit, vodka is certainly ever-present in Russian history, occasionally even serving as a currency for peasants in rural areas. A defendant could buy off judges and village elders for more lenient sentences, and in many cases workers in the service sector would refuse cash payments for their time, demanding compensation in vodka. This feudal practice persisted in the Soviet Union with cases of repairmen, plumbers and electricians demanding Stolichnaya instead of rubles.

The path for the Soviet Union itself was built on vodka. At the beginning of the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II prohibited the production and consumption of alcohol in order to mobilize his population for total war, but the act resulted in the loss of a third of the government’s revenue and caused an economic crisis – which opened the gates for Vladimir Lenin’s revolution.

With the Bolsheviks in power, heavy drinking took on a new role – it became a way to overcome distrust in a police state where anyone could be secretly working for the government. Getting a new acquaintance drunk out of their minds was a way to disarm them and get to know the real person.

Drinking intensified under Stalinism as peasants from the rural areas moved into cities for work — and with nothing to do in their leisure time, they drank. It wasn’t uncommon for factory workers to be inebriated 24 hours a day.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to curb drinking with a number of reforms, including reducing the supply of vodka, increasing its price, and prosecuting people who showed up to work inebriated. This was well intentioned, but like other attempts at prohibition, it did more harm than good. People turned instead to drugs and unregulated alcohols like cologne, antiseptics, and samogon — a homemade concoction made by distilling anything from sugar, window-cleaners, and even stolen aircraft de-icing fluids. As can be expected with de-icing fluid, drinkers of the poison would often hallucinate, go blind, or die. The anti-alcohol campaign was officially abandoned in 1988.

Even Vladimir Putin, who usually doesn’t take no for an answer, has struggled on this front. Before the 2000 election, Putin vowed to impose a minimum price for vodka but was forced to abandon the unpopular proposal in the face of widespread opposition. It took another decade before he felt confident enough to raise prices, although officially the measure is meant to combat counterfeit alcohol.

Today, the average Russian adult drinks 20 litres of vodka a year, according to researchers, while the average Brit drinks just 3 litres of spirits. The researchers found that prolonged habits of excessive drinking are directly linked to 35 per cent of deaths of men under the age of 55 – a number five per cent higher than it was in the USSR. Some studies push that number to 40 per cent when considering the other unregulated alcohols mentioned earlier.

Drinking has been a way of life for Russians for over a thousand years, and it is used to celebrate and enjoy every occasion – even the most mundane. So here’s a toast to Sochi: another reason for Russians – and the world – to get hammered.

Originally posted HERE


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