When Russia Made Vodka Illegal

By Debra Kelly on Friday, May 29, 2015
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“Just because there’s vodka in my freezer doesn’t mean I have to drink it. Wait… yes it does.” —Emerson, “Pushing Daisies”

In A Nutshell

During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian soldiers had a problem—vodka. Not about to let the same problems continue through World War I, Tsar Nicholas II made an incredibly ill-advised decision: He banned vodka. Even though the government tried to spin it as though life was so grand without the drink that even the animals were more happy, there was actually rioting in the streets, along with an increased demand for varnish and furniture polish. It also meant the loss of about one-third of the government’s revenue, and that’s never a good thing, especially during wartime.

The Whole Bushel

If there’s anything that’s more Russian than vodka, we’re not sure what it is. While Russians might not actually drink as much as you’d expect, they do drink lots and lots of vodka, and they have for decades. But in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II banned vodka in a ruling that would force prohibition for the next 11 years.

The theory was at least somewhat sound, and incredibly similar to what the French were doing with absinthe. World War I was lingering just on the horizon, and the powers that be wanted their troops to be in their finest fighting shape. They couldn’t do that when they had unregulated access to vodka, and Russia had been through the problems before.

Only 10 years prior, they’d been at war with Japan. They’d found their soldiers to be less than capable, with their finest fighting men regularly inebriated and diagnosed with chronic, alcohol-related disorders. So the tsar decided it was about time to do something drastic about it, but as well-meaning as it might have been, it didn’t have a good effect.

The ban was made even more dramatic not just because of the impact it was going to have on the morale of the troops and of the civilians, but also because revenue from vodka accounted for a whopping one-third of the revenue of the country. The country’s 1915 budget had to be drastically cut to make up for the massive shortage.

Needless to say, the ban didn’t go over well. August 1914 saw rioting and the destruction of more than 200 drinking establishments, and the military was dispatched to put down the chaos that stormed the streets. Hundreds upon hundreds of people died, and those that had stashes of alcohol—like the wine cellars of the nobility—were forced to dump their booze to keep from becoming a target for thirsty soldiers.

And, because where there’s a will there’s a way, the vodka ban resulted in a massive upswing in another area of manufacturing: the large-scale production of varnishes and furniture polish. The Russian people couldn’t have their vodka, so they resorted to brewing and distilling whatever they could make at home out of anything that they could get their hands on.

Those that were turning to their own home brew were getting their fix elsewhere; cocaine and heroin replaced vodka, and even though those, too, were technically illegal, traffic from Greece meant that opium was pretty readily available.

That all didn’t keep the Russian government from trying to spin it so it sounded like banning vodka was the best thing that had happened to the country since sliced bread. According to the official reports and the verdict of what we’re going to say is some questionable statistical research, Russian life was amazing after vodka disappeared.

Not only were people happier, but so were all the domesticated animals in the country. Hospitals and asylums were virtually empty, doctors were left just sitting around twiddling their thumbs (we assume). Suddenly, everyone was saving all the money they had been spending on vodka before. The government admitted that there were, however, some problems.

Sadly, the suicide rate was so far down that medical schools were a little short on corpses for their lessons.

And things weren’t so rosy for the government, either. War is expensive, after all, and a world war isn’t the time to be cutting your available income by about 30 percent. The tsar was unable to keep the government afloat; more importantly, he wasn’t able to buy his supporters’ loyalties anymore, either.

And we all know what happened to the tsar.

Show Me The Proof

Russia Beyond the Headlines: Sobering effect: What happened when Russia banned booze
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith
The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka & Politics in Late Imperial Russia, by Patricia Herlihy