The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia.
The "green snake," cultural code for alcohol, has slithered its way throughout Russian history, dating back as far as the twelfth-century's Primary Chronicle notice of the Russians fondness for drink. Moreover, given the primacy of the state in the national economy in Russian history, alcohol has posed a unique political problem because the state has profited handsomely over the centuries from its people's weakness for spirits. In this book, part of the growing literature on the politics of alcohol in Russian/Soviet history, Patricia Herlihy explores various attempts launched by both civil and official groups, with greatest focus on temperance societies, to curb alcohol abuse at the end of the tsarist era. Not surprisingly, each group played up the political angles of what was a more emphatically social problem, just as each group found itself stymied by internal disagreements over how best to resolve the problem of too many Russians drinking too much vodka.
Herlihy begins with the tsarist government, its leadership critically aware of the paradox between its dependence on income from a product that undermined the efficiency of its economy: workers who drink excessively do not perform efficiently. Efforts to limit production and sales of "official" vodka resulted in a increased sales of moonshine, or samogon in Russian parlance. The tsarist government adopted a patriarchal stance and organized "guardianships" that supported moderate use, as opposed to total abstention, and offered subsidized cultural diversions, such as theatrical productions and reading rooms, in hopes that workers could be distracted by more entertaining ways in which to spend free time. That the state took in considerably more funds than it expended on the guardianships signaled its hypocrisy for the multifarious members of the temperance movement, who hailed from all social strata and political spectrums.
The medical profession weighed in with special force, eager to insert itself in politics through every forum possible. But no more than they can today, doctors could not reach consensus on either a definition or a cure. From doses of strychnine to hypnotism, doctors sought medical cures for social problems because they understood alcoholism better as a disease rather than a moral failing. Herlihy emphasizes the professionals' challenge to the prerogatives inherent in autocratic decision-making, but an equally important story here is the medicalization of the Russian body, including the political one. In the same vein, her chapter on women and alcohol leaves unexplored issues that could have increased our knowledge of gendered behavior in late imperial Russia. For example, she points to the role women played in production and sales of vodka, which was significantly greater than their role as consumers. Also, some temperance advocates blamed women's lack of domesticity for their men's drinking. Having stated the facts, though, Herlihy shies away from greater interpretation.
The most problematic chapter in this book examines the military's response to drunkenness among the fighting forces, both officer corps and peasant conscripts. Given the role of any country's military in the larger process of the socialization of young men especially, it can be anticipated that alcoholism plagued the troops as it did other social groups. Yet even though she tries to qualify her implications that alcohol played a leading role in the defeat by the Japanese in 1905, Herlihy relies heavily on sources that accentuate drunkenness. If the Russian soldiers really were out there en masse shooting the Japanese so that they could steal alcohol from their corpses, Russia would have fared better in battle.
Both the Orthodox Church and lay leaders also did what they could to both solve the problem by inserting themselves in what public sphere was evolving under the autocracy. Interestingly, alcohol contributed to a growing rift in the Church between the younger priests who pressed to be more activist in society, and their more conservative elders. The nature of reform, and the genuine social conservatism that charactered much of educated Russia, also produced splits in some of the temperance societies. That Jews sold much more alcohol than they drank made them vulnerable to frustrated forces seeking simple answers to complex questions. Although Herlihy concludes that the temperance movement functioned most effectively as a source of democratic protest against autocracy, a space where so many different peoples demanded participation in politics, she is left with the reality that the tsar's prohibition on alcohol in 1914 had little effect on the problem. Ordinary Russians could raise public objections because the government, too, recognized the evils of drink. In later years Mikhail Gorbachev would find much to empathize with Nicholas II on the thorny issue of official restrictions.
Ultimately, no group could settle the question of alcoholism because of the nature of the beast, or "snake," as it were: alcoholism in Russia is at once a social, cultural, political, economic, and personal problem. Responsible leaders from across the political spectrum have faced up to it, only to lose face by it. The Putin government might have more information and organizational skills than that of Grand Prince Vladimir I, but it is no better equipped than previous regimes to settle an issue in which the personal cannot be wholly separated from the political.
Undoubtedly, alcoholism poses a threat more to ethnic Russian males than to other segments of Russian society, as witness their declining longevity. Those of us who have spent time in Russia have seen it on the streets, witnessed it our own social relationships, as well as read the statistics. Yet the Russia Herlihy paints here is simply awash with alcohol, a country drowning in the stuff; she cites a Radio Free Europe statistic that Russian adults average drinking "a bottle of vodka of normal alcoholic content every other day" (161). Believability staggers under the weight of this presumption. Had Herlihy devoted more space to integrating alcohol with other issues that beset tsarist Russia, this would have been a more sobering book indeed.
University of Hawai'i
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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