In our perspective, the Russians are an alcohol- consuming, and -loving society. We cannot picture them without their beloved Vodka. Didn’t vodka make up for the cold winters in Soviet society? Well, the General Secretary of the Communist party in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, said “No more alcohol folks!” (-or, at least, from now on, only limited access to our favorite beverage in whole wide world.)
Wait, what? Yes, it is very true that after becoming the General Secretary in 1985, Gorbachev started a campaign against alcohol abuse, trying to reduce alcohol consumption and production. Vodka sales were limited, vineyards were destroyed (sad, I know), and alcohol was banned before 2pm in restaurants! Even official Soviet receptions and home, and abroad became alcohol-free! This was definitely something very unlike what we would call stereotypical USSR/Russia today.
The 180 degree drinking turn was pretty ironic since alcoholic beverages, especially Vodka were deeply rooted into Soviet/Russian society. Alcohol signified hospitality at special occasions and celebrations, and made bondage between people easier. In fact, alcohol contributed toward a large part of the economy. in 1979, the state made about 24.4 billion rubles in indirect taxes from the sale of alcohol, which was more than it was paid in income tax! So, why on earth would Gorbachev launch this campaign?
Gorbachev realized that alcoholism had become a major issue in Soviet society. It was linked to child abuse, suicide, divorce job accidents, and mortality rates (especially males). Gorbachev became known as the “mineral-water-drinking secretary.”
Here are some laws you can take a look at during Gorbachev’s campaign:
- The drinking of spirits during production (in the place of work, in buildings and on the premises of enterprises, institutions and organisations) or being drunk at work is liable to an administrative penalty, in the form of a fine to the sum of 30 to 50 roubles …
- The purchase and resale for the sake of gain of small amounts of vodka and other liquors, as well as mass consumption goods and agricultural products, till and sale receipts and bills, entertainment and other tickets, books, music notes, records, audio and video cassettes and other valuables, if the scale of profit does not exceed 30 roubles, is liable to an administrative penalty in the form of a fine of 50-100 roubles with the confiscation of the items being speculated
To be honest, alcohol consumption did go down during and after the campaign, but it also triggered a larger production in moonshine, and an increase of organized crime. Additionally, the rate of alcohol poisoning rose, and hard drinkers turned to more dangerous substances. Economically, state revenues declined, and eventually lead to bad inflation. The campaign had to be abandoned in 1987.
Yay! Back to old Russia? The end of Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol campaign actually was a contributor toward the Russian Mortality crisis. It’s natural that Russia’s economic and political transitions were main causes for the mortality crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but surprisingly, so was alcohol consumption!
It is in our human nature to always want what we cannot have. That is probably why the “unhealthy” consumption of alcohol rose in the Soviet Union during and after the campaign. I like to compare this to the drinking laws in the US. Young adults and teenagers under 21 come to college and binge drink because it’s just so much better when it’s forbidden, right? And they have nobody to consolidate about their drinking habits because underage drinking is illegal. Now, whether drinking laws in the US are reasonable, or the Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign was a good move, that is up to you.
“Anti-Alcohol Campaign,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/anti-alcohol-campaign/, Accessed 3 May 2019.
“Booze in the USSR,” The Paris Review, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/04/19/booze-in-the-ussr/, Accessed 3 May 2019.
Richard Sakwa, ed., The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 424. (The source of the laws I provided)
“The end of the Soviet Union’s anti-alcohol campaign may explain a substantial share of Russia’s ‘mortality crisis’ in the 1990s,” The London School of Economics and Political Science, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2013/10/10/the-end-of-the-soviet-unions-anti-alcohol-campaign-may-explain-a-substantial-share-of-russias-mortality-crisis-in-the-1990s/, Accessed 3 May 2019