Forthcoming from Oxford U Press, is a volume entitled Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State by Mark Lawrence Schrad. Just finished reading an advanced copy, and I must say that I enjoyed it. The essential premise of the book is that since the days of Ivan IV, the Russian government has been between a rock and a hard place with respect to alcohol production and consumption. On one hand, the vodka monopoly brought in such huge amounts of money to the Russian treasury (and there didn't seem to be any other alternatives). On the other hand, the drinking of alcohol by Russians had certain serious social, health and economic costs. That's the simple story.
The decision by Nicholas II to introduce prohibition for World War I clearly demonstrated this problem the government faced. On the one hand, it seemed like a good idea, but on the other hand stopping vodka slaes deprived the government of its most important tax revenue source in the middle of the war!
The book has some great anecdotes about Stalin's legendary drinking parties, which are also pretty thoroughly documented by Milovan Djilas and Khrushchev, and earlier drinking bouts by other Russian rulers. I found the portions of the book dealing with Gorbachev, Eltsin, Putin, Medvedev and then Putin again to be the most interesting as each of these men, as head of the Russian state, struggled to deal with the issue of alcohol production and alcoholism in Russia.
The health costs connected to high vodka consumption in Russia have been pretty staggering, including a falling life expectancy for men and a falling birth rate for women (the depopulation of Russia). The interesting idea of "demodernization" of Russia is broached. That is a concept that I hadn't heard of before (not surprising since I am a historian not a social scientist), and an idea that bears a bit more research.
There are problems with the book, but there are great footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Strength is really the part of the book dealing with the last 25 years.
01 July 2013
I should be posting more frequently here, but I have to admit that I am not exactly coming across a whole lot of great news in the field of Russian history. Yes, I've said that before. Just finished reading the most current issues of Russian History, Slavic Review and the American Historical Review. I browsed through all the scholarly articles (read none), and then browsed through and read a lot of the book reviews. There is nothing that I can pass on to you from all of that reading, and not sure why the stuff is even published. One thing that did strike me was that most of the book reviewers don't know the subject well enough to be critical of the book under review. They all mostly sum up the book and then say what a lovely contribution it is to the field. Look, if you are reviewing a book about the Eastern Front in 1916, and the author used no Russian sources (of any kind), I am not sure how it can contribute to anything.
22 January 2013
From St. Petersburg to Notre Dame (Digital Exhibit). See the article by A. P . Monta, Zinaida and the Golden Cache, that describes the acquisition of this historical archive by the University of Notre Dame. It would be nice if more of the archive appears online in digital form.