War On….. Alcohol?

“Soviet society revealed signs of acute stress. One was hyper-alcoholism” (Freeze, 444).

When we picture someone from Russia, I think many of us see a beer-bellied man with a 5 o’clock shadow, rosy cheeks, hazy eyes, and a half empty bottle of vodka next to him. At least that’s what I see. So I was curious to learn that the Soviet government had recognized society’s alcoholic tendencies and attempted to change them.

Rferl-alcoholics

Economically, alcohol raised revenue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Alcohol sales jumped to 77% in the 70s, and consumption had doubled from 1955 to 1979 (Freeze, 444 and The Atlantic). However, it also raised infant mortality because babies were dying of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and that was very bad. Even today, most cases of FAS come from babies born in the Balkans region of Europe. On top of that, people weren’t having many children, so the birth rate was lower than the death rate, and that sparked the government’s need to change something about the alcoholism throughout the state.

Similarly to the way we see anti-drug posters/campaigns here in the US, the Soviet government attempted to limit alcohol consumption by creating posters to show what a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Russian looks like. The picture below is one example, but you can find many more here.

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Aside from the government, civilians saw the need for laws against alcoholism due to the harmful affect it had on society.  People pressed for anti-alcoholism laws to be made official and unified. Many of those were well-educated and wealthy citizens who made attempts to ‘cleanse’ Soviet society during the 1960s. Professor Gertsenzon called drunkenness “incompatible with socialist social relations” and talked about how drunkenness and alcoholism were poisoning the workplace and resident life of many Soviets. Business owners even thought to reduce alcoholism to embarrassment by giving out wages in something shaped like a bottle of Russian vodka.

{During the 80s in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev will institute a “dry law” and other anti-alcohol campaigns, but we can talk about that when we get there!}

Alcoholism is still a major problem in Russia today despite all of the anti-alcohol campaign throughout the Soviet Union. More than 30% of all deaths in Russia were alcohol related in 2012. Here is a pdf from the World Health Organization from 2014 that does a good job of breaking the alcohol use and misuse in the Russian Federation.

Images: here and here

Freeze, Gregory. “Russia A History” 3rd Edition.

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15 thoughts on “War On….. Alcohol?

  1. This post was fantastic! Really interesting to read about this common trait seen in Russia, and how it has become a stereotype is really interesting. The hyperlinking done made the read very smooth, and I appreciated your commentary and perspective on the issue. The connection to the US “War on Drugs” is a wonderful one. The chart on the deaths due to alcoholism brought the severity of alcoholism into perspective. I found it interesting that Russian’s were not large wine drinkers, but I am sure that is due to their love for Vodka!

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  2. First off, excellent images, specifically the one at the top! I like how you exposed the state’s conflict over alcohol, as it raised revenue but also was a health risk for the people. Additionally, I find it interesting that many citizens supported alcohol reforms, whether it was influenced by the propaganda or not. Nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also love that image at the top — and the quote — nicely done! I hope you will write about Gorbachev’s anti-alchohol campaign when we get to that part of the course.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! I love how you talked about alcoholism and how it relates to population and birth rate. As I have written about Soviet control over abortion in my past posts, I find it so interesting that controlling alcohol was another social issue that was seen as a way to control population.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting read, it’s surprising to see just how much of a problem alcoholism and alcohol abuse were in the Soviet Union and how these problems remain today. I have an adopted cousin from Russia, she was orphaned after her mother died from alcohol poisoning and suffers some of the effects of FAS. It’s sad to think that the circumstances that led to her coming here are so prevalent even today in Russia.

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  6. I really liked this post! I think it’s interesting how something that was so culturally pervasive, such as alcohol, became such an issue at this time. It sort of mirrors sentiments about other substances around the world at this time, which is an interesting connection.

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  7. I must admit that I do sometimes imagine a dude drinking Vodka straight up when I think of Russian men. It seems like it would be hard for a society to be successful if there is a raging alcohol problem. I liked how you looked at Fetal Alcohol Syndrome while keeping in mind the low birth rate.

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  8. Your opening description of a Russian man is what I believe to be spot on with many peoples stereotypical description of a Russian. The staggering statistic that more than 30% of all deaths in 2012 were alcohol related in Russia truly exemplify the problem it has been and is today. Great post!

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  9. Katelin,

    This was in awesome post. I too often think of Russians as vodka-drinking machines, and I think this is a very widespread image even today. So, it’s very interesting to imagine the Russian government making such an effort to defeat this behavior amongst the society. It is also interesting to me because of the moral standards being pushed by the Communist regime at the time, and this value definitely aligns with the others in terms of how controlling and invasive they are into the private life of the citizens

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  10. I really like that you show how societies views on alcohol changed over time, but ultimately still remain the same. One of the things that I found most interesting was the pdf you included when discussing this still relevant problem. It made me wonder if they were only referencing deaths directly related to alcohol, or those in which alcohol played a role. For example, I remember a Russian friend of mine telling me about the issue with gypsy cabs (unofficial “cabs”) where drivers would give passengers alcohol laced with some sort of drug, only to rob them (sometimes even of their coat!) and drop them off somewhere, which can lead to many people freezing to death.

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  11. I totally agree with your idea of Russian with the beer belly and half bottle of vodka which is what initially drew me to your blog. It was so interesting to read that they used posters to promote anti-alcholism, I wonder how effective they were. I wonder why laws weren’t passed during this time but I’m interested in learning more about the 80s “dry law” and why alcoholism is still such a huge problem in Russia. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great use of sources, especially the WHO! I loved how you jumped back and forth between the historical context and the present. It is also interesting to analyze the governmental reaction during this time, because alcohol clearly had a economic presence but was skewing their demographic transition. Really interesting post!

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  13. I had no idea that the Russian government was proactive against alcoholism, this some what resembles our prohibition but no where near as sever. This has lingering relations to how Russia today is trying to eliminate smoking because of the sever health effects it is having on its population. Great post, very interesting!

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  14. I think this is really such a fascinating topic in Soviet history because, until this class, I believed Russia and alcohol had always gone hand and hand considering they don’t even consider beer alcohol. It is interesting that even today, Russia is fighting to combat the negative effects on society that alcoholism causes. I also loved the pictures you used! Great post!

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