Vodka, elixir of the masses

JOSEPH TARTAKOVSKY is assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books. This piece is adapted from an article in the spring issue.

IN FALL 1977, the state vodka monopoly of the Polish People’s Republic filed suit in an international trade court claiming that vodka had first been distilled in Poland. For this reason, it argued, only Polish firms had the right to sell the clear alcohol in foreign markets under the name “vodka,” just as champagne produced outside France’s Champagne region usually must be labeled “sparkling wine.”

An incredulous Soviet Ministry of Trade initially ignored this as a joke. Who doubted that vodka was as Russian as St. Basil’s Cathedral? But it was a particularly pernicious joke, touching the tender parts of the Russian soul, not to mention Warsaw Pact solidarity.

The Soviet trade ministry grudgingly asked the Higher Scientific Research Institute of the Fermentation Products Division of the Central Department of Distilling of the Ministry of the Food Industry of the USSR to investigate. When state archives revealed little about vodka’s Russian provenance, the task fell to a historian named William Pokhlebkin. After years of painstaking research, he concluded that vodka was probably first distilled in a Moscow monastery between 1440 and 1478, decades before its alleged appearance in Poland.

Etymologically, vodka in Russian means “little water.” And because the average Russian guzzles a world-best 5.2 gallons per year, a little water has gone a long way in damaging the collective body politic. A few years ago, the Finnish physician directing the Russian office of the World Health Organization explained: “If you did this in Finland, half the population would be dead in a year. This is clearly not normal.”

The Russian people disagreed. “It’s our way of life. How can we stop drinking with a climate like ours?” said one. From another: “Our people are willing to live in poverty, but if the government tries to make them stop drinking, it might lead to social unrest. Nobody can make us stop drinking.”


Not that the powers didn’t try. In 1917, the Bolsheviks banned vodka and condemned drunkenness as a “social evil irreconcilable with the proletarian ideology,” perhaps because they believed, as Friedrich Engels had stated, that drinking was the bane of the working classes. It is probably closer to the truth to say that work was the bane of the drinking classes. No vocation without intoxication, cried the workers, and in 1924, the ban was reversed -- an early instance of Soviet utopianism succumbing to Russian reality. It was downhill from there.

Alcohol consumption rose through the decades, and not until the 1980s did the government try again to limit it. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika included a “war on drunkenness.” Alcohol consumption began to decline. At the same time, there emerged unusual shortages of cologne, mouthwash and other alcohol-containing substances, as well as sugar, which can be employed in home brewing. Ultimately, instead of defeating alcoholism, perestroika ended in history’s biggest hangover.

So, as Lenin asked: “What is to be done?” Pokhlebkin was not only a historian but a Soviet patriot, and when his research was published as a book (“A History of Vodka”), he added a chapter lamenting what he saw as Russia’s descent into alcoholism. Drunkenness, he argued, is incompatible with socialist principles; it undermines worker morale and productivity.

Some of his proposals were radical by Russian standards -- revoking the licenses of drunk drivers, encouraging people to attend clinics (Alcoholics Anonymous was banned under the Soviet Union) -- but he did make one point that National Rifle Assn. members will recognize and all votaries of free will can endorse: Vodka doesn’t intoxicate people, people do. It follows that to avoid drunkenness, the people must simply drink properly.

Today, working Russians have as much need as ever to know how Pokhlebkin’s principles might answer Lenin’s question. It might go something like this: A good proletarian doesn’t have a drinking problem, except when he can’t find a drink. Vodka, after all, is the oil that keeps Russia’s gears turning. Funerals, folk holidays and festivals all require it.

The informed worker knows that vodka’s therapeutic merits far surpass those of the Soviet-Russian mental health system. Nor would he tempt fate by trekking out into the snow -- best known for destroying invading armies -- without a fortifying swig or three. This winter, during Moscow’s cold spell (-30 C and below), one circus trainer served his elephant a bucket of vodka for warmth. The ungrateful pachyderm lost his sense of decorum and proceeded to destroy the circus’ only radiator.

Russia is a land that has stumbled fatefully from Third Rome to Third International to Third World, and vodka has always been there to help things along. In 1982, the tribunal appointed to decide the matter of vodka’s origin ruled in the Soviet Union’s favor, affirming that genuine vodka was Russian -- or Russian vodka was genuine, whichever it was. A happy conclusion, followed shortly by the fall of communism in Europe, to which we can always raise a glass and say, as they do in Russia, not without a touch of irony: Na zdarovye -- “To your health!”