Booze in the USSR


P. Letunov, Text reads: “Either, or,” with the bottle labeled “vodka,” 1983.

In the American imagination, the Russians are a vodka-loving people, every last one of them. They gargle with it. They water their plants with it. Their cars run on it. Is any of this true? Who cares? It feeds a treasured stereotype—the plump, stoical Russian, in some kind of furry ushanka, swilling that sweet, sweet fermented potato distillate until the first glimmer of dawn sweeps across the desolate, frozen Soviet horizon.

But get this: not all Russians drink. It’s true! Even Tolstoy himself, one of the few Russians that Americans pretend to know and care about, eschewed the bottle. After his wild, drunken youth, he founded a temperance society, the Union Against Drunkenness, and he hoped to affix a label to all vodka bottles marking them as poison—with a skull and crossbones, the whole works. In an 1890 essay called “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” he comes off as a total killjoy: 

Everyone knows and admits that the use of stupefying substances is a consequence of the pangs of conscience, and that in certain immoral ways of life stupefying substances are employed to stifle conscience … a drunken man is capable of deeds of which when sober he would not think for a moment. Everyone agrees to this, but strange to say when the use of stupefiers does not result in such deeds as thefts, murders, violations, and so forth when stupefiers are taken not after some terrible crimes, but by men following professions which we do not consider criminal, and when the substances are consumed not in large quantities at once but continually in moderate doses then (for some reason) it is assumed that stupefying substances have no tendency to stifle conscience. But one need only think of the matter seriously and impartially not trying to excuse oneself to understand, first, that if the use of stupefiers in large occasional doses stifles man’s conscience, their regular use must have a like effect (always first intensifying and then dulling the activity of the brain) whether they are taken in large or small doses.

A new book of posters, called simply Alcohol, finds the Soviet state in total agreement with Tolstoy. When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the role of General Secretary in 1985, he instituted measures “to Overcome Drinking, Alcoholism and to Eradicate Bootlegged Alcohol.” As Alexei Plutser-Sarno explains in an introductory essay, the plan was a complete failure, though its execution was thorough, to say the least:

The campaign began by forcing the production lines of most of the distilleries and breweries to manufacture non-alcoholic drinks. This was swiftly followed by the closure of retail outlets selling alcohol. Around 80% of outlets across the Soviet Union were shut down; of the 1,500 ‘wine shops’ in Moscow alone, only 150 were allowed to continue trading. In addition, the amount of wine an individual could buy at any one time was limited to two bottles. Weddings or funerals were the only exception, when up to ten bottles could be obtained – but only after the necessary paperwork had been presented to the salesperson. Non-alcoholic banquets and weddings were introduced, giving rise to the sarcastic slogan: ‘March forward from a non-alcoholic wedding to an immaculate conception!’

Booze sales slumped, drunks were tossed into shoddy rehab centers, bootlegging took off, and the desperate turned to dubious alcohol substitutes like cologne and varnish. Most of all, people were determined to get soused: as Pluster-Sarno writes, “The results of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign were the disintegration of the country’s economy and the mass drinking that followed. According to official statistics alone, consumption of spirits in Russia grew by 233% between 1988 and 1998. If the consumption of bootlegged and surrogate alcohol is taken into account, the figure is much higher.”

At least the Soviet anti-alcohol program leaves us with some lavishly illustrated, often very funny propaganda. Below are a few of the posters enlisted in the doomed effort to scale back the USSR’s consumption. Look them over with a chilled glass of Stolichnaya Elit and some fine caviar.

A. E. Bazilevich, Image of a snake with various labels from alcoholic drinks; Text: “Not among trees or grasses / The serpent has warmed up among us. / Don’t suck on him, mammals, / Or you’ll turn into a reptile yourself.” Ukrainian SSR, 1972.

Unknown artist. Text reads: “Little by little, and you end up with a hooligan. Tolerance of drinking is dangerous. There is but a step from drinking to crime,” 1986.

S. Smirnov. “UNDERPASS – to the ‘next world’,” 1988.

V.O. Pushenko, “This is a shameful union—a slacker + vodka!” Ukrainian SSR, 1980.

P. Sabinin, “Rowdy partying ends with a bitter hangover,” tattoo reads “I love order,” 1988.

E. Bor, “We will overcome!,” with “Alcoholism” on the snake, 1985.

V. Zharinov, “Drunkenness won’t be tolerated!,” with the bottle labeled “vodka,” 1977.

P. D. Yegorov, “His inner world,” Ukrainian SSR, 1987.

I. M. Maistrovsky, “Don’t drink your life away,” 1977.

All images courtesy of Fuel Design.

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