1980s >> 1986 >> no-980-april-1986

Vodka, vodka everywhere

It is now common knowledge that Russia has a massive drink problem. Alcoholism has reached ghastly levels. Leningrad on a Saturday night makes Glasgow look like a vicarage tea party. The authorities are naturally worried, and Russian magazines run feverish discussions on how best to deal with the problem. As in other countries, alcoholism in Russia leads to horrifying crimes, especially brutal assaults, and even murders, some cases of which we quote later. The medical authorities and the police have organised a regular service of snatch squads to pick up dangerous drunks and transfer them to special clinics where they are dried out and sterilised before being released and presented with the bill, for alcoholics are not covered by Russian medicare. Foreign tourists on the “Metro” at night do not often realise that the five-man patrols on the stations are mainly for drunks, who can be a deadly menace. There is no control at the station entrances. The Leningrad Metro, usefully for dangerous drunks, is fitted with steel outer-doors on the station platforms, which open only when the train doors open. In Leningrad the problem is worsened by the hordes of weekend tourists from Finland, just over the border. “What have you come to Leningrad for?”, one young husky was asked in the Hotel Moscow. Strutting about in a resplendent Red Army officer’s cap (which he had swopped for a bottle of vodka), he replied: “For the booze and the birds. In Leningrad, they are the best”.

Russian vodka is probably the most pernicious potion on the face of this earth, making scotch whisky. Jamaican rum or Mexican tequila mild by comparison. Tasteless, odourless (unless you can call a smell like old petrol anything) and colourless, it also looks harmless (like the water it is named after) but a couple of swigs, and in minutes it sets the pulse racing and has the brain cells inflamed. Vodkas potency is compounded by the traditional Russian method of drinking. Woe betide the unfortunate guest at any Russian party or celebration who does not, upstanding, down the glassful in one spasmodic, desperate gulp. For the average non-Russian that gulp is often enough to bring intoxication, even oblivion.

Heavy boozing has a long tenuous history in Russia. When the Winter Palace was finally over-run in November 1917, the mob rapidly invaded the basement. (The sailors had already got in during the night by the unguarded back doors.) Down in the cellars they found thousands of bottles of the choicest vintages of the whole of Europe. Never having even seen such stuff before, it did not take the invading hordes long to test it. In a few minutes the greatest coup d’etat in history looked like becoming the greatest mass booze-up of all time. Companies of the Priobrahzensky elite guards were called in. They too, officers included, were soon staggering about. Eventually a special detachment of the fire brigade was called out to smash thousands of priceless bottles and pump the contents into the Neva river. Never has so much fabulous booze gone to such waste.

In the first euphoric revolutionary days the Bolshevik authorities banned the production and sale of vodka which, by the way, is not made from rotting vegetation, or crude oil but from best quality corn. They might as well have ordered the sun to stop shining. Just as in America, prohibition just would not work. Peasants promptly started up their little stills and produced a deadly brew called “Samagon’. or “Do It Yourself’, which was so powerful that a slug of cold water after 24 hours unconsciousness put one out again for another spell. With NEP, the Bolshevik government re-introduced the manufacture of vodka, immediately named Rykovha after the then-Prime Minister Alex Rykov (later shot by Stalin, of course).

Typical of the present situation are the reports of court cases in the Moscow Literary Gazette:

  • “Citizen K” in a drunken condition and hooligan manner, stabbed “Citizen H” who, not recovering consciousness, died of wounds.
  • “That day I drew my wages, on the way home to the hostel we (my friends and I) bought six bottles of vodka and six of beer. When the vodka ran out one of the lads suggested we buy some more from a taxi driver. In the street I stumbled against a young girl. I was very unsteady on my feet. Her boyfriend told me not to drink so much. This annoyed me, so I outed with my knife and stabbed him.”
  • “Yesterday evening my neighbour came round with a bottle of vodka. After we finished it I asked him where we could buy some more. From a bloke in the street’, he replied. After he left, my girlfriend, who was very drunk, started sobbing and said she was so miserable, she didn’t wish to live any more. I don’t understand why I picked up the table knife or why I stabbed her. I killed her out of pity”.

It will astound London cab drivers that night taxi drivers in Moscow. Leningrad and other cities are regular illicit vodka suppliers, among other things.

It is painfully obvious that the Russian government has a profound social problem. It was the confident claim of the old socialist writers that the new society (socialism) would make boozing quite unnecessary. Who would wish to drown their sorrows and ruin their health, when most of the sorrows were no longer there? Under harsh exploitation and state repression, the mood of the Russian workers is misery and frustration. expressed in an excess of swigging vodka. But this mood will not last. Russian workers will demand free speech, free elections. free organisations — in a word, democracy — and will go on to partake in the socialist revolution. We might (cautiously) drink to them.

Horatio