The secret sauce of Russian autocracy: Vodka (and lots of it)

In Russia, vodka has long been a tool for authoritarian control — and Russians are paying for it dearly

Topics: Vladimir Putin, Russia, 2014 Olympics, vodka, Alcohol

The secret sauce of Russian autocracy: Vodka (and lots of it)Vladimir Putin (Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman)

“Drunken hooligans and thugs, every one”—the neighborhood thugs were always loitering in the courtyard where Vladimir Putin grew up. “Unwashed, unshaven guys with cigarettes and bottles of cheap wine. Constant drinking, swearing, fistfights—and there was Putin in the middle of it all.” Putin essentially grew up in Leningrad’s Fight Club, where the scrappy kid held his own against the biggest and the baddest. “If anyone ever insulted him in any way, Volodya would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump.”

Coming from the mean, drunken streets, Putin developed an affinity for judo and sambo at a young age and the human cockfight that is mixed martial arts (MMA) later in life. When, in 2007, Russian heavyweight sambo champion Fedor “the Last Emperor” Emelianenko finally fought in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, Putin sat ringside flanked by “the Muscles from Brussels”— Belgian kickboxing actor Jean Claude Van Damme—and Silvio “the Italian Rapscallion” Berlusconi. Putin, Van Damme, and Emelianenko later reconnected to kick off the Mixed Fight European Championship in Sochi in 2010, and when the Russian champ Emelianenko looked to end a three-fight slump against American Jeff “the Snowman” Monson at a packed Olympic Stadium in Moscow in late 2011, Putin again looked on approvingly from the front row.

Beamed live on the Rossiya-2 television channel, the no-holds-barred battle between these “two enormous sacks of rocks” (as David Remnick artfully described them), lasted the entire three rounds. An early-round kick broke Monson’s leg. Another ruptured a tendon, further limiting his mobility. A flurry of punches caused the fight to be stopped to tend to the blood pouring from the American contender’s mouth, which poured all over his anarchist and anti-capitalist tattoos. Still, online MMA aficionados panned the fight as “a bit of a snoozer.”

Each fighter’s corner was conspicuously emblazoned with the VTB logo of the fight’s primary corporate benefactor, Vneshtorgbank. At the end, both returned to their corners as trainers tended to their injuries—Monson’s being far more apparent than Emelianenko’s—before the latter won by unanimous decision. Only then did Prime Minister Putin climb through the ropes to congratulate “the genuine Russian hero,” Emelianenko. What happened next was a shock to the cocksure Putin, who just two months earlier declared his intention to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections. Unexpectedly, yet unmistakably, Russia’s most powerful man was booed. Taken aback, Putin puzzled momentarily before continuing his judo kudos. During the previous twelve years in power Putin had never been booed by his own people. Now it seemed that his return for at least one (and, more likely, two) newly extended six-year presidential terms did not sit well with some. Something had definitely changed.



Suddenly, the global media took an interest in MMA, trying to gauge what just happened. Were they booing a bad fight, as Putin’s spokesman claimed? Were they booing the pre-fight singer, as the organizers claimed? Or were they booing the long lines at the bathrooms, as the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi claimed? As far as I can tell, MMA blogger Michael David Smith has never been one to take sides in Kremlin politics—or any politics for that matter—but it was clear even to him that “No one floating those alternate explanations has explained why, if that’s what the fans were booing about, they began their booing at the exact moment Putin began talking. And if the fans weren’t booing Putin, it’s hard to understand why Russian state television broadcasts felt the need to edit out the booing.”

From the other side of the blogosphere, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny claimed that the booing heralded “the end of an epoch.” Navalny’s campaigns had brought him toe to toe with Putin’s regime: his re-branding of United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves” resonated with a wide swath of a new Russian middle class that had grown tired of duplicity, corruption, and the bizarre, neo-feudal system of Putinism. The erosion of support could not have come at a worse time for the Kremlin: the December 2011 Duma elections were already upon them. Despite ratcheting up both nationalist rhetoric and pressure on independent monitors and critics, United Russia received only forty-nine percent of the votes—the party’s first ever backward step. Despite the frigid Moscow winter, first thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, of protestors condemned the vote rigging, ballot-stuffing, and biased media coverage that marked the “dirtiest elections in post-Soviet history”—suggesting that even United Russia’s forty-nine percent was a greatly inflated figure. Even more telling, tens of thousands of Russians—part of an increasingly active civil society— trained to become election observers in polling stations throughout the country.

These “for fair elections” protests were the largest Russia had seen since the collapse of communism, leading many to wonder whether the autocratic regime would respond with repression and bloodshed. Thankfully, it did not. Despite a sizable security presence looming nearby, the largest protests between the December 2011 Duma elections and the March 2012 presidential elections all passed without confrontation. Other signs of accommodation followed: the protests were reluctantly covered on state-run TV, and once-blacklisted opposition figures were allowed to air their grievances. Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev met with opposition leaders and even proposed liberalizing reforms, such as reinstating the direct election of governors. The state even promised greater transparency in the presidential elections by installing webcams to monitor each of Russia’s nearly one hundred thousand polling stations.

Whether the webcams deterred the widespread voter fraud of previous elections or simply pushed it off camera is still unclear. What is clear is that Vladimir Putin easily won the 2012 election, due primarily to his enduring popularity beyond the capital and the lack of an opponent who could unite the diverse streams of anti-Putin discontent. Nationalist posturing and promises of increased social spending further bolstered his appeal.

But while the opposition did not sink Putin, they certainly fired a warning shot across his bow. Where Russia goes in Putin’s third term and beyond will largely be determined by whether the Kremlin heeds the shot or ignores it.

History’s Revenge

With Satan at its center, the deepest circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy is reserved for traitors. Just one step up in the eighth circle are the fraudsters: crooks, thieves, and corrupt politicians boiling in the sticky pitch of their own dark secrets. Alongside them are prognosticators and false prophets—their heads twisted backward, forever looking back on their failed predictions. So while we should perhaps tread lightly in making bold political prognostications, we can at least understand the constraints imposed on the Kremlin by Russia’s demographic past.

In 2010 the United Nations released its new long-term population projections. Despite such recent improvements as increased fertility and decreased mortality under Medvedev and Putin, Russia’s population will likely shrink from 143 million today to roughly 125 million by 2050 (figure 24.1). This would drop Russia from the seventh most populous nation to the eleventh—barely beating out Vietnam.

How do they come up with estimates so far into the future, and how can they possibly be reliable? Well, demographers consider fertility and mortality statistics for all age cohorts, figure in migration, and calculate a range of optimistic, pessimistic, and likely scenarios. As it turns out, these projections hit the mark ninety-four percent of the time. When they miss, it usually is due to big surprises: the unexpected baby boom after World War II made earlier American projections look foolishly low. The grim reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic made African population projections from the 1980s look far too rosy. And demographers from the 1980s could not foresee the demodernization that decimated Russia and its heavy-drinking post-Soviet neighbors.

Unlike the African AIDS epidemic, however, Russia’s demographic wounds were self-inflicted: the culmination of centuries of bad governance through vodka politics. The exhaustive 2009 study in The Lancet concluded that, were it not for vodka, Russia’s mortality figures would look more like those of Western Europe instead of resembling war-torn areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Were it not for vodka, Russia could have at least escaped the gut-wrenching post-communist transitions of the 1990s with a healthier population—more like the Hungarians with their wine or the Czechs with their beer—instead of being mired in demographic decay.

Consider Poland: a neighboring hard-drinking Slavic nation with its own storied vodka traditions. Poland also suffered the pain of post-communist transition. Yet while Yeltsin and Putin ignored the vodka epidemic in the 1990s and 2000s, Poland consistently increased excise taxes on the far more potent vodka as part of a concerted effort to migrate to safer, fermented wines and beers. Partly as a consequence, Poland has not suffered the same demographic calamity that has befallen Russia. When communism collapsed in Poland, sixty-one percent of alcohol consumed was in the form of distilled spirits. By 2002, it was down to twenty-six percent. Even despite the “stress” of transition, male life expectancy in Poland jumped four full years. In Estonia, the proportion of alcohol consumed in the form of vodka dropped from seventy-two to thirty-three percent over the same time frame. Male life expectancy increased 1.5 years. Meanwhile, in the absence of a real alcohol policy in Russia, vodka’s share of alcohol consumption increased from sixty-six to seventy-one percent and male life expectancy plummeted by five years. Today, Poles and Estonians still drink a lot, but far less of it is in distilled forms like vodka. As a consequence, male life expectancy for both Polish and Estonian men is north of seventy years or a full decade longer than their vodka-soaked neighbors in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems content to settle for band-aid solutions that treat symptoms of vodka politics rather than the disease. Even while the government undertakes yet another well-intentioned campaign against alcohol, it hypocritically promotes increased vodka production by well-connected insiders. Meanwhile, the finance ministry implores citizens to impale themselves on the bottle for the greater glory of the state.

At some point, this madness must end.

Even if we limit ourselves to just the last two decades since the collapse of communism, clearly the single greatest obstacle to a normal, healthy, and wealthy Russia is the legacy of the state’s own vodka politics. Despite improvements under Medvedev, Russia still loses some fifteen thousand people every year to alcohol poisoning—that’s more than the number of soldiers sacrificed during the Soviets’ entire ten-year debacle in Afghanistan (1979–89). Since the Soviet Union collapsed, some six hundred thousand people have died directly as a result of vodka: more than the total number of military deaths in imperial Russia’s nine eighteenth-century wars.

Alternatively we can look to the projections of what Russia would have been were it not for the vodka-laced demodernization of the 1990s. In 1988 Sergei Scherbov and Wolfgang Lutz projected that the population of the Russian Republic—then within the Soviet Union—would be some one hundred eighty million by the year 2050 (figure 24.1). If we subtract the reasonable, mid-range estimate of the United Nations of 125 million from what should have been around 180 million, it leaves a difference of 55 million people. That is more than three times the number of soldiers killed in every Russian war, ever. In other words, by 2050 the Russian population will only be two-thirds of what it should have been were it not for the alcoholization and demodernization of the past twenty years—all legacies of vodka politics.

This, then, is what Russia could have been—or what economists would call the “opportunity cost” of vodka. To this lost fifty-five million since the collapse of communism, one could add perhaps hundreds of millions more lost to the bottle over the five-hundred-plus years since the tsars first started pushing the more lucrative and more potent distilled alcohol over the lighter beers, ales, meads, and wines indigenous to Russia.

Just consider what Russia could have been—how great it could have been— had its rulers not consistently encouraged the people to drink such a potent concoction to benefit the state. Consider the combined economic contributions of another fifty-five million people—especially if one-third of them were not getting drunk at work. Consider the potential contributions to commerce, science, or the arts that another healthy fifty-five million people would bring. As Russia’s population would have expanded, so too would its wealth, its tax base, and its capacity to innovate and modernize. It would have no problem staffing its military and would not have to rely on immigrants to bolster its demographic prospects. But that is all gone—Russia’s potential and ambitions have been drowned at the bottom of the bottle, by its own unwitting government.

Instead, Russia’s once-and-future president Vladimir Putin confronts a bleak future on the vodka front—one that he did precious little to fix during his previous two terms. The government’s own statistics project that, even with generous immigration from the other former Soviet republics, by 2030 the number of Russians between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five will shrink from 102.2 million to 91.1 million. The dwindling working-age population will put a brake on economic growth, since there will be far fewer productive workers. We know that younger employees are especially important to technological innovation—but with fewer younger workers, the Russian economy will be even more hamstrung by the old, outmoded, and corrupted labor patterns of the past, putting it at a further competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. Under normal circumstances, the policy response would be to invest in modernization and growing the productive capital stock—but this option is stymied by Russia’s rampant, systemic corruption, which is itself a legacy of vodka politics. Encouraging research and development would be another option, but according to Russian scientists, fundamental science in the country is in a “catastrophic” condition—still largely isolated from international research trends. The picture is bleak: without profound change, the Russian economy will become less dynamic and less productive, reinforcing the country’s reliance on selling off its mineral, oil, and gas wealth, with well-placed oligarchs investing the profits from them in more attractive locations abroad. And—if this journey has taught us anything—if there is another crisis in these lucrative resource sectors, the Kremlin will increasingly revert to vodka revenues, making the situation even worse.

Russians did not always drink vodka: when Prince Vladimir of Kiev famously declared that “drinking is the joy of the Rus’, we cannot exist without it,” he wasn’t talking about vodka. The traditional drinks of Russia were naturally fermented beers, ales, meads, and kvas. The imposition of the more potent, artificial, distilled spirits came only with the imposition of the modern autocratic state, which used vodka to siphon off society’s wealth into the treasury, making vodka the central pillar of Russian autocratic statecraft. Vodka, autocracy, and corruption in Russia have been inseparably intertwined ever since.

Russia is a nation that has achieved greatness despite vodka, certainly not because of it. If Russia truly wants to regain its place among the great world powers, it will have to confront its greatest challenge ever: the deeply rooted traditions of vodka politics itself. How great could Russia be without this debilitating political curse?

One Final History Lesson

One of the great virtues of historical investigation is to use the past to inform the politics of the present with an eye to the future. Yet history is not simply populated by events and people, but also by ideas and innovations forgotten as we haughtily bask in the wisdom of the present. Especially when it comes to the struggle with alcohol, it may be time to dust off some lessons of the past. Consider, if you will, the following account from 1904, which traces the origins of public drunkenness to autocratic edicts . . .

which made the distilling and selling of spiritous liquors a State monopoly, and one of the principal sources of public revenue. The consumption of spirits was encouraged in every way in order to increase the receipts of the Treasury. Public servants knew they might count upon favour by inducing people to drink by every means in their power. Tea and coffee were prohibited to prevent undesirable competition; beer was unknown, wine rare; and the Government produce reigned supreme. As a writer of the time puts it: “A stream of cheap liquor was made to flow over the country, and was poured down the throats of the people, making every Swede a drunkard, and of drunkenness a national blemish.”

Wait…did he say Swede?

Yes! While today Sweden is one of the healthiest and least corrupt countries on earth—chock full of pragmatic, blonde, Volvo-driving, post-industrial progressives—just one hundred and fifty years ago it was written off as a backward country, full of drunken blonde peasants hopelessly mired in a swamp of statesponsored distilled brännvin. If the astronomical rates of vodka consumption in Russia today have any historical parallel, it would certainly be with the Swedes of old. With per capita consumption rates north of twelve liters of pure alcohol per year, Sweden had “the sad distinction of being the most drunken country in Europe.”

Beyond the social and economic losses caused by widespread drunkenness, Swedish modernization suffered under a corrupt royal autocracy. While there was widespread recognition of the alcohol problem, any grass-roots response was consistently undermined by both the state and the alcohol producers, who combined to safeguard their financial benefits from drunkenness. Sound familiar?

Yet by the early twentieth century the Swedish economy was growing steadily, along with an increasingly vibrant civil society. Swedish healthcare facilities were thriving, and the death rate was “probably the lowest in the world, or at all events in Europe.” Foreign commenters hailed the halving of Swedish alcohol consumption as nothing less than “one of the greatest victories of a nation over itself.”

What happened?

For one, there was widespread popular concern over mass drunkenness. From humble beginnings as a mutual support community like Alcoholics Anonymous, the Swedish Temperance Society (Svenska Nykterhetssällskapet) began lobbing for tighter government restrictions on alcohol, culminating in the Licensing Act of 1855.

Arguably, an even more important innovation arose that same year: Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, adopted a municipal liquor-dispensary system that quickly gained global fame as a supremely effective tool against societal drunkenness. The genius of this so-called Gothenburg System was that it did not take aim at drunks themselves or even the social harms they created. Instead, it focused on the ever-present allure of tremendous profits that encouraged the state, liquor producers, and the saloon keepers to keep harmful liquor flowing down the peoples’ throats.

Here’s how it worked: the village would charter a private company—normally headed by the town’s most respected citizens—with the charge of regulating the local liquor traffic in the interest of the community. For their investment, the company shareholders received a strictly limited return of five percent yearly, with the bulk of the profits turned over to local agricultural and philanthropic organizations that promoted community well-being. Not only did the system enable temperance-minded citizens to have a real, tangible impact on community sobriety, but the greater resources flowing into civic organizations led to a blossoming of local grass-roots activism.

The system was a resounding success. Thanks to the Licensing Act, alcohol was restricted in accordance with the wishes of the local population—with some rural governments even voting themselves dry by refusing to issue any liquor licenses at all. Prices were gradually raised and availability restricted in the interest of local sobriety, leading to a steady decrease in alcohol consumption and its antecedent ills. Alcohol revenues helped expand health, welfare, agricultural, and community services that benefited drinkers and nondrinkers alike while also encouraging greater civic engagement.

Hoping to emulate Gothenburg’s successes, cities and towns throughout Scandinavia adopted the system of “disinterested” municipal dispensary by the 1870s. News of reduced drunkenness, crime, and bootlegging, along with the prosperity and moral rejuvenation of Swedish communities, spread across Europe and North America, where more and more cities and states adopted the system. As early as 1859, even the Russian revolutionary democrat Nikolai Chernyshevsky advocated dumping the drunkenness-and corruption-inducing vodka tax farm for a system of local control like in Sweden. Across the Atlantic, various American states had experimented with outright prohibition since the “Maine Law” of 1851—most were plagued by illegal moonshining, corruption, and disrespect for the rule of law, often leading to repeal. Disillusioned by prohibition’s obvious failures, many American temperance advocates looked to the Gothenburg System as a practical blueprint for advancing sobriety. (Why the United States later doubled down on a well-known policy failure by adopting nationwide prohibition is one underlying puzzle of my previous book, “The Political Power of Bad Ideas.”)

You can probably see where I am going with this. Without question, the anti-alcohol initiatives begun under President Dmitry Medvedev have been well-intentioned (as have most previous, failed, anti-alcohol measures). We can only applaud the continuing efforts to raise alcohol prices, limit hours of sale, control advertising, and expand awareness through modern public relations campaigns. But even beyond the hurdles presented by the financial needs of the state and the vested interests of entrenched cronies, the effectiveness of such reforms will inherently be limited by the fact that they only address the symptom of widespread drunkenness rather than the disease of Russia’s autocratic vodka politics. Russia’s drinking problem is the product of a centralized state that historically debauches and disempowers its own people. If the Kremlin is truly serious about overcoming vodka politics—and its resulting depopulation and decline that bedevils Russia’s future ambitions—they first have to be aware of those dynamics. Then they have to do something meaningful about it.

Ever since Boris Yeltsin did away with the Soviet vodka monopoly in 1992, virtually every Russian alcohol-policy debate has revolved around resurrecting it in the interest of state finance—and always in the guise of defending public health. In 1997 Yeltsin pleaded that “if people spend money on vodka, that money should go to the treasury, not to crooks.” His ambitious Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov then quickly proposed a vodka monopoly. The Kremlin aspirations of Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov the following year also included renationalizing vodka. When Vladimir Putin instead ascended to the presidency in 2000, he built Rosspirtprom to establish monopoly control over the vodka market, though his attempts to consolidate its position backfired spectacularly . Still, the siren beckons: when alcohol poisonings spiked in 2006, United Russia leaders called for a monopoly. When Medvedev launched his anti-alcohol campaign, his top health official, Gennady Onishchenko, lobbied for the vodka monopoly, shortsightedly arguing that “the budget would benefit and counterfeit alcohol would cease to exist. When there is a state monopoly, this area can be regulated in a tougher and more effective way.” Even in the contentious 2012 elections, Putin’s conservative opposition—the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the communist Gennady Zyuganov—agreed about the necessity of a vodka monopoly in order to restore the former glory of the Russian state.

Populist rhetoric aide, time after time the traditional vodka monopoly has always put the financial interests of the state ahead of the welfare of its people. Always. When Ivan the Terrible instituted Russia’s first retail monopoly through his kabaks in the sixteenth century, it was in the interest of state revenue. When Sergei Witte rebuilt the imperial monopoly in 1894, it was done in the name of reducing out-of-control vodka consumption. Yet once the treasury was hooked up to a stronger dose of vodka revenues, it encouraged alcohol consumption to skyrocket from eight liters per capita to fourteen on the eve of the Great War. Following the disastrous prohibition of Nicholas II—continued by Aleksandr Kerensky and Vladimir Lenin—Joseph Stalin again resurrected the vodka monopoly in 1924, ostensibly to protect the peoples’ health from dangerous bootleg vodka. The result? An even more pervasive alcoholization of Soviet society, with consumption rising virtually unimpeded for some sixty years and with vodka again contributing one-quarter to one-third of all state revenues. Now, there are worrying signs that even Russia’s present anti-alcohol initiative may be falling victim to this same pattern.

So even paying lip service to the greater good, why would we expect that resurrecting the traditional vodka monopoly today would have any different outcome today than the iron-clad dynamics of vodka politics past? It wouldn’t. If there is an answer to the so-called alcohol question beyond incremental retail restrictions and other band-aid measures, it is to be found not in monopolization, but in municipalization akin to the Swedish experience—an idea that is beginning to gain greater traction within Russia’s public health community.

A Russian Gothenburg System of disinterested management would be a boon to communities throughout Russia by promoting local activism. Temperance-minded individuals would be empowered to oversee the local alcohol restrictions. Local governments would be empowered to adopt restrictions as deemed appropriate by the community instead of waiting for Kremlin dictates that never seem to come. What’s more, the windfall vodka revenues could help empower local civic organizations, such as those interested in promoting a clean environment, healthy lifestyles, agriculture, education, and beyond as well as care for the elderly, the disabled and orphans. Money could also be funneled into the chronically cash-strapped healthcare infrastructure, rehabilitation centers, and orphanage systems. Ironically, when former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin suggested that heavy drinkers do more to support the government’s provision of social services, his opponents lampooned his disingenuousness, since vodka revenues and social spending were in no way linked. In a system of disinterested management they actually would be linked, empowering local representatives to address their community’s greatest needs. Such local autonomy would help make the Russian Federation into an actual federation, where policy decisions are divided among the national, regional, and local authorities and the Kremlin is freed from its micro-managing tendencies.

Of course there will be objections. I can already hear them: this system may work for the Swedes or Canadians, but it would never work in Russia. Russia just isn’t ready: there isn’t enough grass-roots activism. The cultures are just too different. It is too impractical. And with Russia’s systemic corruption, it would be impossible to find honest administrators who could resist the temptation for personal enrichment.

As it turns out, the Russian government already poo-pooed the idea in exactly those terms. After extensive research into the Gothenburg System and prolonged debate within the quasi-official “Commission on the Question of Alcoholism” comprising bureaucrats, physicians, economists, and policy experts, the ministry of finance openly admitted that, while “the system is theoretically better than ours,” similar results could not be expected in Russia because of the “insufficiently cultured society” and the inability to find honest administrators. The author was Ivan Mintslov—the Russian finance ministry’s resident specialist on the vodka economy. The year was 1898. In the decades before the outbreak of the Great War and Tsar Nicholas’s disastrous prohibition decree in 1914, Russia’s alcohol experts were unified in acknowledging that the municipal system was “the best legislative weapon in the fight against alcoholism” but that the Russian people were unfit culturally, educationally, and administratively. Russian society simply could not be trusted to put its own welfare first. As the long history of vodka politics has demonstrated, Russia’s autocratic leaders were even less trustworthy with such a charge.

In the intervening hundred-plus years since the tsarist Commission on the Question of Alcoholism panned the disinterested municipal dispensary in favor of the traditional autocratic monopoly, that “question of alcoholism” has effectively been put to bed as an issue of high politics in every other industrialized country. Meanwhile in Russia, the imperial and Soviet autocratic monopolies not only did not solve Russia’s alco-woes; it made them far worse. But since monopolization remains the only alternative that Russia has ever known, both policy makers and critics naively look to it as the solution rather than the problem.

Monopolization relies on the autocratic assumption that the people don’t know what is in their own best interest. While that may have been true for the illiterate peasantry of the nineteenth century, Russia today boasts one of the most highly educated populations on earth. Moreover, the growth and stability of the Putin and Medvedev years produced a middle class that is increasingly affluent, increasingly connected, and—as the protests of 2011– 12 demonstrated—increasingly impatient with systemic corruption and their inability to influence governance. Anachronistic arguments about reverting to monopoly control are not only wrongheaded; they are an insult to the Russian people themselves.

Russians know alcohol is a problem, thank you very much. For years opinion polls have ranked alcohol abuse as Russia’s top political challenge, even ahead of terrorism, economic crisis, and human rights issues. And yet, the entrenched financial interests of the state and politically influential businessmen; the systemic corruption; an autocratic system that impedes grass-roots activism and local governance; and the national culture of inebriation that these factors all helped create conspire to prevent the Russian people from tackling their most enduring political challenge.

The Kremlin today has a unique window of opportunity to finally move beyond band-aid solutions and directly address Russia’s autocratic vodka politics and the subordination of public welfare to the financial interests of the state.

First, while vodka revenues are still significant, in percentage terms they aren’t nearly as vital today as they once were. One upside of the government’s increased reliance on oil, gas, and mineral exports—as well as a series of effective tax reforms under Putin—is that vodka’s relative contribution to the federal budget has diminished to some two to four percent of revenues rather than the twenty to forty percent under the tsars and Soviets. Swearing off vodka revenues today would be tough, but it would not be fatal as in the past. This alone suggests that the time is ripe for the Kremlin to go cold turkey and finally divorce itself from the toxic legacies of vodka politics.

Second, it is not as though foregone revenues would simply disappear— instead they would fund the cash-strapped social and medical organizations the state has chronically neglected. Instead of the occasional (and much-ballyhooed) infusions of a few billion rubles here and there, a system of disinterested management would provide localities with a steady and reliable revenue stream that would finally allow healthcare and other services to thrive. And if revenues diminished over time, it would be due primarily to reduced alcohol consumption, which would mean better health and less stress on the healthcare system itself.

Third, Russia is already waging another anti-alcohol campaign, nominally in the interest of the welfare of its people. What clearer signal could there be that the Kremlin is sincere about finally putting the people before both the government and its cronies than swearing off Russia’s autocratic vodka politics once and for all? Bringing Russia’s astronomical alcohol-related mortality in line with that in other European countries would help Russia avoid the worst-case demographic forecasts and build a healthier, stronger, and more prosperous country.

Finally, the Gothenburg option may promote genuine democratization in Russia by empowering local civic organization and activism. Beyond the widespread public concern over societal alcoholism, networks of grass-roots organizations and concerned individuals ready to act on the alcohol issue have been denied an opportunity to do so. “If society’s problems are to be solved, it is essential that social responsibilities be shared by the state and local governments,” declares Lilia Shevtsova. “The latter must be given the authority to provide the basic services needed by individuals and their families: schooling, medical care, public services, and cultural activities. For this to be possible the Kremlin will need to abandon its efforts to embed local government in the state structure; it must develop local self-government and allow local authorities to raise their own revenues.” In his first State of the Nation address upon returning to the presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin encouraged Russia’s regions to draw up and implement their own health and demographic policies to supplement federal initiatives. Here, too, the Gothenburg option is well suited to answer the president’s call.

Moreover, a Gothenburg System could also build on the pervasive anti-corruption sentiment that rose to the surface during the protests of 2011–12. What better place to begin a concerted grass-roots fight against systemic corruption than with vodka, which bred such widespread corruption in the first place?34

At the end of a recent conference of Russian and international health specialists, noted expert Andrei Demin concluded that “in the present conditions, the possibility of securing the interests of public health, overcoming the shadow market and other endemic problems can only develop through the systematic control over the alcohol market under the control of civil society.” In other words: Russia can put the vodka question to bed only in the same way it was laid to rest in almost every other industrialized country: a Gothenburg-type system of disinterested civic management. Would the Kremlin ever attempt such a bold move? Fundamentally, it should be a clear choice of promoting the interests of society over those of the state, health over misery, moderation over drunkenness, honesty over corruption, and empowerment over autocracy. The very future of Russia itself largely hangs in the balance.

* * *

At the height of American prohibition in the 1920s, Hollywood actor, vaudeville performer, humorist, and “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers went on a worldwide speaking tour as unofficial goodwill ambassador from the United States. Denied entry to Russia by the new Bolshevik regime, Rogers instead went to Paris, where he was welcomed by affluent Russian émigrés who had fled the revolution. It was in one of their well-to-do restaurants that America’s most famous celebrity first encountered this exotic drink known as vodka.

“It was the most innocent-looking thing I ever saw,” Rogers later explained (in his folksy style) to an American audience that had never heard of it. “They all said just drink it all down at one swig; nobody can sip Vodka. Well, I had no idea what the stuff was, and for a second I thought that somebody had loaded me up with molten lead, and I hollered for water.” Thinking that the clear liquid in the tabletop carafe must have been water, Rogers gulped it down quick, only to find that it too was vodka!

The cowboy from Oklahoma slowly regained his composure after a few panicked moments that surely amused his Russian hosts. “How they can concentrate so much insensibility into one prescription is almost a chemical wonder,” Rogers recounted. “One tiny sip of this Vodka poison and it will do the same amount of material damage to mind and body that an American strives for for hours.”

Since then, Americans have become well-acquainted with the concentrated insensibility of Russia’s foremost cultural export, which has become the world’s top-selling liquor. And while a small segment of discriminating connoisseurs claim to appreciate the subtle distinctions between this or that top-shelf brand, the vast majority of drinkers are more interested in vodka’s mind-blasting effects. Yet even as drinkers of the world raise a toast to vodka, we should all be reminded of its dark past: the generations of Russians who found not only consolation at the bottom of the bottle but also grief, illness, and death. We must remember that such incredible human costs were—and still are—attributable not just to the lowly drunkard, but to the autocratic political system that reaped unimaginable profits from the people’s misery, generation after generation.

With history in mind, the cowboy philosopher’s alcoholic musings sound even more fitting: “Now that is the whole story to Vodka,” Rogers surmised. “Nobody in the world knows what it is made out of, and the reason I tell you this is that the story of Vodka is the story of Russia. Nobody knows what Russia is made out of, or what it is liable to cause its inhabitants to do next.”

The story of vodka truly is the story of Russia: not just its culture and society, but its history and statecraft as well. Whether it can ever break free of the shackles of vodka politics—and the autocratic system that nurtures it and is nurtured by it—may well be the most fundamental political question facing the future of Russia.

Excerpted from “Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State” by Mark Lawrence Schrad. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Lawrence Schrad. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

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