This is a blog for use in both of my HIS 241 and HIS 242 Russian history survey courses at Northern Virginia Community College.

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27 December 2013

Vodka Politics

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.