The author is Mark Lawrence Schrad and the subtitle is Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State. This is a gripping and original book, even if it overstates its conclusions sometimes. Here is one bit:
Shcherbakov — Stalin’s today drunkard — died from a heart attack two days after the Nazi surrender…at the ripe old age of 44. While Stalin valorized him, Khrushchev and the rest of the circle “knew that he died from drinking too much in an effort to please Stalin and not because of any insatiable urge of his own.” Likewise, Andrei Zhdanov — once thought of as Stalin’s heir apparent — died less than three years later at 52, to the end ignoring his doctors’ frequent warnings to stop drinking. It was clear to all that this situation was disastrous both for their work and their physical health. “People were literally becoming drunkards, and the more a person became a drunkard, the more pleasure Stalin got from it.”
…the use and abuse of alcohol is crucial to understanding the dynamics of autocratic rule in Russia.
What else do you learn from this book? It seems that Raymond Llull, still an underrated figure, is the one who spread vodka-making techniques to much of Europe (he also discovered an early version of social choice theory in the 13th century, not to mention he advanced the theory of computation).
I liked this bit:
The financial needs of the early Russian state dictated pushing the more potent and more profitable distilled vodka over less lucrative beers and meads. To maximize its revenue, the state not only benefited from its subjects’ alcoholism, but actively encouraged it.
As late as 1927, the state’s vodka monopoly accounted for ten percent of government revenue.
Gorbachev, by the way, was known as “Mineral Water Secretary,” because he did not drink like the others did. Here is a joke from the book:
Q: What is Soviet business?
A: Soviet business is when you steal a wagonload of vodka, sell it, and spend the money on vodka.
From the Yeltsin years to the Putin years, the average Russian boy lost a measured eighteen percent of his muscle mass.