How Vodka Shaped The Course Of Russian History

Published December 20, 2016
Updated April 4, 2017

The surprising ways in which the "water of life" has helped determine Russia's religious, political, and economic fate for hundreds of years.

Vodka Case Glass

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty ImagesRussians look at the different kinds of vodka sold in a street kiosk in Moscow.

In 1223, when a Mongol and Tartar expeditionary force annihilated a Russian army multiple times their size, they realized it was partly because the Russians had charged the battlefield drunk.

Taking no sympathy for their drunken conquered, the Mongols took dozens of princes and lords and rolled them up in rugs, which sat beneath a table used for a massive banquet.

The Mongols, who enjoyed a good drink themselves, had zero sympathy for the Russian royals. They took dozens of princes and lords and rolled them up into rugs. Then, placing planks of wood on top, they set up a banquet table above them fit for hundreds.

Their screams and groans punctuated the Mongol’s celebration feast until the last Russian departed from hangover to hell itself.

This would not be the last time alcohol shaped political outcomes, or the actions of the Russian state. In fact, the Kremlin is built upon a land and history soaked through with vodka.

And when you look at the numbers, it’s not that hard to see why: Among all the world’s countries, Russia currently ranks fourth in alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organization, with the top three all Russia’s neighbors and former Soviet republics.

And as author Mark Schrad lays out in Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, alcohol — vodka in particular — has time and again proven to be a pivotal force in sculpting Russian religion, society, politics, and economics.

Alcohol Helped Decide Russia’s Official Religion

Ilya Repin Sadko Copy

Wikimedia CommonsSadko in the Underwater Kingdom by Ilya Repin, 1876. This famous painting depicts a symbolic scene from the Russian epic Bylina in which Sadko (right) rejects a pagan bride (front left) offered to him.

Fed up with paganism by the end of the 10th century, Vladimir the Great went about determining the religion to which his people, living in what is now western Russia, should convert.

So, he sent envoys out to research neighboring states and invited religious representatives to his palace.

Vladimir immediately struck down Judaism, and considered Islam next. However, he didn’t like that the religion prescribed circumcision, and that it forbade pork and, most of all, alcohol.

And when his envoys reported there was no joy among the alcohol-less Muslim Bulgarians, he famously said — in words that are better remembered in Russia than most other historical moments and achievements even today — “Drinking is the joy of the Rus.”

In the end, Vladimir ended up going with the most festive religion he could find: The Eastern Orthodox Church (the Germans’ version of Christianity had been too gloomy).

“We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it,” his emissaries reported back after traveling to the Hagia Sophia church in Turkey during an Orthodox festival.

Vladimir was sold. And to this day, the last vestige of the Orthodox Church lies with Russia.

It’s Easier To Rule If All Of Your Opposition Is Drunk

Painting Ivan The Terrible

Wikimedia CommonsIvan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 by Ilya Repin, 1885. Ivan was the first Russian leader to truly use alcohol to his advantage.

Legend has it that Kremlin monks first distilled vodka in the late 15th century. However, historians widely consider this to be a myth; it’s just too rich that vodka would be invented in the Kremlin, the very seat of Russian power.

The Kremlin — a castle-palace compound nestled in the heart of Moscow — remains the seat of Russian power today, and the name of the Chudov Monastery, the place where vodka was supposedly invented, translates to “miraculous.”

What’s more, vodka gained a certain spiritual credibility because, as the story goes, it was invented by monks, men of God. There’s a reason that Russians initially referred to vodka as “aqua vitae,” or water of life.

For centuries after its invention, this water of life was a major player in the highest levels of Russian government.

Ivan the Terrible was the first Russian leader to harness the power of vodka. He created government-run taverns to serve the drink and funnel the entirety of the profits into his coffers. By 1648, a third of the country’s adult male population was in debt to these state pubs.

Not only did this fund Ivan’s warmongering, but — unlike the United States — the state-run pubs stifled public revolt. America’s founders, for example, hashed out much of the Revolutionary War in candlelit pubs. In Russia, however, government barmen would instead lead toasts to the tsar’s good health, with patrons raising their drinks to the royal portrait hanging on the wall.

Furthermore, Ivan kept his own royal court (and often himself) constantly inebriated in order to quash dissent. Ivan took this drinking to the extreme after his wife suddenly died, which plunged him into a deep, lonely depression filled with drunkenness and brutality.

According to French historian Henri Troyat, as Ivan’s armies expanded Russian borders from afar, Ivan turned his court into a pit of torture, drunken debauchery, and demented prayer. He writes:

“The spurts of blood, the cracking of bones, the screams and rattles of drooling mouths — this rough cookery smelling of pus, excrement, sweat, and burnt flesh was pleasing to his nostrils. He took such joy in the bloodbath that he had no doubt, in these moments of horror and ecstasy, that the Lord was at his side… To him, prayer and torture were but two aspects of piety.”

Vodka Fueled The Rise And Fall Of The Tsars

Nikolaus Ii Copy

Library of CongressThe former Tsar Nicholas II, showing him at Tsarskoye Selo after his abdication in March 1917.

As Russian leaders came and went, one thing remained constant: Alcohol revenues. At the 19th century height of Russia’s royal empire, revenue from alcohol and accompanying taxes accounted for more than a third of the country’s entire operating budget, enough to maintain the largest standing army in Europe.

And while harnessing alcohol’s revenue potential allowed Russia to fund its expansion, the empire became dependent on those profits.

In order to maximize revenue, the royal family auctioned the regional rights to sell vodka to the highest bidder, allowing total monopolies to develop piecemeal countrywide and essentially creating a country of vodka-fueled fiefdoms.

Higher-ups looked the other way when this system began to froth with abuse; as long as the vodka profits, or bribes, made their way back to Moscow, corrupt local governments could operate with a certain degree of impunity.

This system was perhaps never stronger than it was under the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, who ordered the construction of more than 100 distilleries. A rise in alcohol consumption soon followed this dramatic rise in production: By the time World War I started in 1914, your average Russian was drinking 14 liters of pure alcohol every year.

It should come as little surprise then that the destruction of the tsarist empire with the Russian Revolution coincided with an attempt by Nicholas II to force temperance on the Russian population. Indeed, the prohibition of vodka went hand-in-hand with the 1917 revolution.

The Stalinist Drunkards In Power, And The Cracks In The Iron Curtain

Stalin Ribbentrop Copy

OFF/AFP/Getty ImagesFrom left, German Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, German Under State Secretary Friedrich Gaus, Soviet head of state Joseph Stalin, and his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov pose in 1939 at the Kremlin after signing the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact. After the ceremony, Stalin proposed a toast: “I know how much the German people love their Fuehrer. I should therefore like to drink to his health.”

When a Nazi delegation paid a visit to Joseph Stalin, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, reported that the drinks were “so potent it almost took your breath away.” Once he pulled Stalin aside to express “admiration for Russian throats compared with those of us Germans,” Stalin chuckled, revealing a cup full of Crimean wine.

Stalin employed this strategy — get guests drunk while remaining relatively sober — with his underlings as well. Over time, Stalin became notorious for hosting dinner parties where ministers felt compelled to drink excessively into the night.

Of course, Stalin did so at least in some respects for the fun of it. But he also did it to keep anyone capable of threatening Stalin’s power inebriated and therefore incapable of defying him. Ministers would barely be able to work the next day, and midday naps were a necessity — they had another night of forced heavy drinking to look forward to.

The USSR under Stalin maintained the same sort of monopolies on vodka as the tsars, and Stalin encouraged his citizens to drink government vodka in order to prevent national bankruptcy. As Stalin saw it, vodka kept the Russians drunk, divided, and unable to pose any serious threat to his rule.

Vodka also helped Stalin develop a friend in Winston Churchill. A heavy drinker himself, Churchill abhorred communism until Stalin invited him over for a private banquet in 1942. They drank into the night, forming the foundation of the Allied partnership that took down the Third Reich.

Still, alcohol continued to trouble Russia over the long-term. Tsarist or Communist, no form of power seemed capable — or willing — to address the numerous health problems vodka imposed on residents.

Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to remedy this deleterious relationship Russians had developed with vodka. In 1985, Gorbachev reigned in alcohol consumption by making distilleries produce fruit juice and mineral water instead of vodka.

As a result, alcohol prices skyrocketed, and both vodka sales and government revenues plummeted. For a short while, however, Gorbachev’s plan worked: The average life expectancy for a Russian man briefly increased by three years, from 62 to 65.

As happens when the state prohibits just about anything, however, vodka seekers began to sell and purchase their booze via the black market. Life expectancy fell again, and Gorbachev’s efforts were for naught.

To make matters worse, even though Russians kept drinking, the government no longer received any revenue from it. Vodka revenues had made up 20 percent of the country’s budget, and Gorbachev’s alcohol cutbacks contributed to the destruction of the Soviet economy. Soon enough, the USSR collapsed — and as with many other critical moments in Russian history, alcohol may have played a significant role in that.

And so Gorbachev, the last Soviet general secretary, fell into the same trap as the last tsar of the Russian empire. Both tried to fight the Russian thirst by imposing temperance, and both were ousted as their country fell to pieces.

Which brings us to Vladimir Putin, who picked up those pieces and put Russia back together.

Vladimir Putin’s Vodka Politics And Russia’s Future

Putin On Tv

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty ImagesPatrons watch broadcast of President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference in a vodka bar in Saint-Petersburg on December 19, 2013.

In 1994, three years after Gorbachev’s fall from power, Russia lost 55,000 people to alcohol and male life expectancy cratered at 57.6.

Furthermore, health studies found that Russia’s vodka problem caused more than half of all premature deaths in the 1990s. Even today, Russians have a one-in-four chance of dying from an alcohol-related issue.

All of this has contributed to a demographic crisis that current Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the “the most acute problem facing our country today.”

In response, Putin introduced alcohol policy reforms in 2006 that imposed tighter regulations on the production and sale of alcohol. While changing tastes and economic fluctuations may have also had a major hand in lowering the Russians’ appreciation for vodka, Putin’s regulations may have worked: Vodka consumption fell by a third and lowered the risk of death before 55 as well.

David Zaridze, of the Russian Cancer Research Center in Moscow, told Reuters that, “The significant decline in Russian mortality rates following the introduction of moderate alcohol controls in 2006 demonstrates the reversibility [of the public health problem].”

He went on to add that although the relationship between vodka and deaths still constituted a “health crisis” for Russia, “people who drink spirits in hazardous ways greatly reduce their risk of premature death as soon as they stop.”

In 2009, Putin built on his 2006 measures by outlining a dramatic plan to halve alcohol consumption within the ensuing decade.

Still, with continued global sanctions and plummeting oil revenues, the Russian economy could see a short-term boost if it made another push for vodka sales. But who knows, perhaps a Trump presidency could make it such that Putin doesn’t need to rely on vodka addiction to make Russia great again.

Next, check out what happened when Russia went without vodka for a day, as well as some vintage Soviet anti-alcoholism propaganda, before seeing this map that ranks all the world’s countries in terms of alcohol consumption.

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Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.