*Vodka Politics*

by on September 22, 2013 at 3:30 am in Books, Food and Drink, History, Political Science | Permalink

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.

Recommended, and you can pre-order the book here.  Here is my earlier post, “The culture of guns, the culture of alcohol.”

William September 22, 2013 at 6:01 am

“It seems that Raymond Llull, still an underrated figure,”

Is that the right term for a person no one has ever heard of?

Yancey Ward September 22, 2013 at 11:03 am

Tyler is implying that he has heard of him.

dearieme September 22, 2013 at 7:58 am

Jeeze, I’m fed up with the “Secret History” crap.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed “Stalin’s today drunkard”.

So Much For Subtlety September 22, 2013 at 8:43 am

Especially given the Russian states reliance on alcohol taxes is hardly news. I can think of at least three books on this subject in recent times – including Patricia Herily’s Alcoholic Empire and David Christian’s Living Water.

Presumably they meant toady.

And William, it is a bit SWPL to name dropped Llull but he is hardly a nobody.

dearieme September 22, 2013 at 8:00 am

“While Stalin valorized him”: I suppose that’s OK if English is Mr Schrad’s third or fourth language, but really the editors should have caught it.

FC September 22, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Editors? Why would you think academic presses employ editors?

radical centrist blogger September 22, 2013 at 10:07 am

I have no doubt russian politics of 70 years or more was influenced by alcohol.
But so was american politics and english politics, and most western politics.

The fact is that alcohol was used far more often during that time frame than it is today. Just like the tobacco habit and industry, you have a case of an industry using high levels of propaganda to push an addictive substance on the public.

I lived out in west texas in the 1960s. 80% of the men smoked and drank. Drank pretty heavily, many of them. That was the manly thing to do. Propaganda and addictive substances. A very powerful combination.

Ryan Cousineau September 22, 2013 at 11:48 am

True enough, but how many American or British cabinet ministers have drunk themselves to death trying to keep up with the man at the head of the table? In 1927, when the USSR was still highly dependent on vodka revenue, the US was taking a rather different attitude toward booze.

Douglas Knight September 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm

The average Russian drinks a lot more than 70 years ago. Male life expectancy peaked in 1960 and has steadily fallen, except during Gorbachev’s fight against alcohol.

Sergey Kurdakov September 22, 2013 at 10:11 am

as a side note I would add, that according to some rumors Gaidar died due to heavy drinking, albeit not vodka, but whiskey. (there are some confirmations to these rumors by Boris Nemtsov who wrote in his book that Gaidar could consume 1 liter of whiskey not becoming drunk ( himself Nemtsov is known to have a bottle of wine everyday and he could not compete with Gaidar here) – such a tolerance could develop only after long time of heavy alcohol consumption )

derek September 22, 2013 at 10:15 am

So the excuse in Russia is that they were vodka soaked, drunk all the time. What is the excuse in Washington? They seem hell bent on building the apparat that didn’t work for the Soviets.

Yancey Ward September 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm

The bourbon-vodka cold war.

Viktor September 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

According to Mason lore, Dr. Cowen once considered dining out to be frivolous and wasteful. So there is hope that “An Economist Grabs a Drink” will see a future release. I can’t wait!

Steve Sailer September 22, 2013 at 6:03 pm

On my one visit to Russia in 2001, the people sleeping on the sidewalk tended to be clutching vodka bottles, but the college and grad students attending a week long scientific conference drank beer at night. Reminded me of Hogarth’s 1750s propaganda paintings Gin Alley versus Beer Street.

Jan September 22, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I met a number of men in the former Soviet Union who told me they didn’t drink, either because alcohol was such a big problem with a lot of guys, or because they were Muslim — this was 2004-2006. Turns out not drinking for them did not preclude them from grabbing a beer or three with dinner or during a soccer match. They totally abstained from vodka, which to them constituted real drinking.

Llull's compatriot September 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

It’s Ramon Llull, not Raymond Llull.

samotar September 24, 2013 at 2:47 am

The very relevant Russian saying here is (perhaps poorly remembered and transliterated): Pivo bez vodky kak dengi na vitr. Beer without vodka is like money to the wind.

Zach September 24, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Stalin’s joyless drinking bouts feature pretty prominently in _Court of the Red Tsar_.

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