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Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

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3.95  ·  Rating details ·  271 ratings  ·  42 reviews
Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics.

In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians' genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system,
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Hardcover, 492 pages
Published February 1st 2014 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published December 19th 2013)
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Caroline
Apr 18, 2015 rated it liked it
On Stalin’s style of keeping his inner circle in a drunken stupor:

Either in the Kremlin or at Stalin’s dacha, political decisions were made over drinking games and toasts of Russian vodka, Crimean champagne, Armenian brandy, and Georgian wine, beginning with the late-evening dinner and ending only with the dawn…Milovan Djilas ruminated after his Kremlin visits: ”it was at these dinners that the destiny of the vast Russian land, of the newly acquired territories, and, to a considerable degree, of
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Margaret Sankey
Oct 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Americans associate taverns and alcohol with rebelliousness and freedom. In Russia, from the earliest distillation, alcohol was a tool of the Muscovite state to generate revenue and control the population--tavern keepers were informers, Orthodox clergy had to barter in vodka to get things done and rulers counted on inebriated troops to place them on the throne. By the 19th century, vodka brought in more than a third of imperial revenue, reason enough to overlook the social ills and vast corrupti ...more
John M.

I received a copy from the author as part of a Goodreads Giveaway.

After reading this book, one might be led to believe that for the last few centuries, Russia has been ruled by shamelessly inebriated and despotic rulers, lording over an equally inebriated populace hurled into poverty, starvation, and oppression. According to this book, that assumption would be correct.

Vodka has been an integral part of Russian identity for as long as it has existed, and has permeated culture, society, and polit
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Esil
Jul 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I was excited and surprised to win a copy of this book on Goodreads. I don't read much non fiction, but the history of Russia and the Soviet Union is a topic I am particularly interested in. And this book made for a very compelling read. Schrad puts forward a very credible argument for his thesis that vodka has played a central role in Russian and Soviet politics and economy as far back as the 16th century. In doing so, he does a very skilful and readable review of the history of Russia -- looki ...more
Mark Hiser
This summer I decided to register for Program 60 at The Ohio State University. For my first experience with the program, I had a list of about 40 classes that I wanted to take but eventually decided on Russian 2355.99: Russians and their Vodka. This course (and book, Vodka Politics) was about the role vodka plays in the politics and culture of Russia.

The author’s thesis is that vodka has long served as a tool of statecraft that allowed an autocratic government to remain in place. Russian leader
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Eric Bottorff
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Unsurprisingly, this occasionally overstates its case. But as a corrective to the general oversight or caricature of this topic in the literature and popular imagination, it is indispensable.
David
Jan 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-history
Available as an 18-plus hour audio download, and well worth your time on the treadmill or driving to work, now that we are as a nation preparing to cuddle up to the Russians.

Thesis (at audiobook chapter 8, time 10:15): "... I argue that the widespread problematic drinking habits of today are actually the product of political decisions made during the formation of the modern Russians state over four centuries ago."

And also (audiobook chapter 24, time 33:50): "... if there is one constant across t
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Kevin Moynihan
Was not too sure of this in the early chapters. Lots of anecdotes, starting way back, all involving vodka. (Peter the Great’s entourage left unpaid bar bills across Europe. Who knew?) But the initial premise that the tail wags the dog is never close to proven. I thought the book improved with each chapter and I found it interesting when the author didn’t reach for overarching conclusions and stuck to a narrative involving the common thread of vodka. The section on tax farms and bribery were very ...more
Luke Meehan
Apr 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Superb modern history from a public policy perspective. Firstly, Schrad delivers a readable and coherent history of medieval-to-modern Russia, albeit through the ubiquitous lens of vodka. Secondly, Schrad attempts to re-analyse the causal drift of modern Russian history as some function of policy-encouraged vodka. Both facets of the book are fascinating, well-sourced and persuasive.
Few histories have made me catch my breath as this did: to have done so with relatively raw data is triply impress
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Paul Michael
Jan 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Utterly fascinating!
Jessica
Jan 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Interesting view on a highly controversial country! Great book for any reader!
Adam Orford
Dec 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
As a recovering alcoholic, I know how tetchy people can get about pointing to alcohol as a causal or contributing factor to any given problem. It is likely to trigger a diverse range of defensive and justificatory responses from anybody within earshot. Now, imagine trying to do this not in the context of one individual, but of an entire culture. Imagine further doing so in straightforward fashion without hiding behind jargon, statistics, academic opacity, or moralism.

Professor Schrad has perform
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Neal Leslie
Aug 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I first of heard of this work (Vodka Politics) while listening to the Fake History podcast. The author was being interviewed about the strange case and murder of Pokhlebkin, a well known Russian vodka historian. The story piqued my interest as nothing was as it seems; much of Pokhlebkin's histories were fabrications all the way from Vodka's origins to a made-up story of Poland suing Russia for rights to the name. Pokhlebkin was found murdered in 2001 with multiple stab wounds and a bottle of vod ...more
Frances Johnson
Apr 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia, history
Vodka has permeated the history of Russian politics. Russia has a terrible alcohol problem, a problem so intense that their people have a life expectancy far lower than any country and the alcohol related deaths in Russia are the highest in the world. Russian men die fourteen years before the average Russian woman. Deaths due to alcohol poisoning in Russia are 200 times higher than in the United States. Russian women lack reliable contraception and as a result the rate of abortion is huge. Sovie ...more
Jacob Frank
Aug 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: world-history
While the data and narratives presented by this book are sad and disturbing, it is important to cast a critical eye in the mirror and consider to what extent the United States has had similar experiences. For example, there are numerous researchers who have suggested that the United States government has been implicated in, and derived revenues from, the global trade in heroin and cocaine, using these revenues to fund military and intelligence operations for which the government was unable to se ...more
Laura
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is how you write if you have a passion for one theme or idea. You collect lots of interesting facts and tell about them from one perspective even if this perspective would be considerate as marginal in a wholesome discourse when talking about specific themes. I wouldn't see a problem in this if the main idea (alcohol as a mean for authoritarian regime to control Russian society) would be weaker. Even though the Author in some pages says otherwise, the whole book suggests that without vodka ...more
Karla Winick-Ford
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Informative. I was flabbergasted at Russian history not taught when I was in school. From Ivan the terrible, Peter the great, Nicholas the drunk (and sober) to Yeltsin... and the Imperial Russian Army under an influence was just staggering. The infrastructure which supported these actions, while intolerable poverty occurred is just unfathomable. The bloodthirsty leaders who often were paranoid due to lack of clarity was often romanticized. I had to look deeper into samogon poisoning, as I had th ...more
Alexi
Oct 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazing

One of the best books I have read in a while. While long, it was always an interesting read, well researched, superbly narrated, offering a unique and interesting perspective on major events in Russian history. While stressed enough in the book that vodka is but one of the factors playing a role, I can’t help but feel converted that it had an important role that was generally omitted. Watching Russian historical movies I now see that vodka is an indispensable part of storytelling. Can’t r
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Jocelyn mel
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Really interesting material and well researched. It explains so much about Russian economy and history. Exemplary job of stitching together facts and figures. This book should be discussed a lot more. His thesis is unpopular in any country, let alone Russia. But it's a critical topic to surface in the light of day. With data.
Massimo  Gioffre
Russians drink a lot of vodka. During the Russian history there've been few attempts to mitigate this attitude. This might be true, well.. maybe it's true. Nevertheless to say that there's been a constant politic ment to transform the entire population of Russia in drunkards it seems sci-fi
VladimirPutain
Sep 23, 2017 rated it it was ok
too long and too scattered
Mikehendo
Jun 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow, having written an MA on Japanese history and politics that touched on the Russo-Japanese War, this book was eye-opening.
Rob
Sep 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Lots of interesting history but I found it a little too neat and tidy to blame government for alcohol abuse, and it did not ring true based on my alcohol experiences.
Meg Northrup
Sep 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Both highly informative and entertaining. My favorite sections were about Peter the Great and Stalin’s respective drunken spectacles. The more sobering chapter on demographic decline and the “Russian cross” were also highlights.

My only major complaint is that despite the wealth of great information and historic context, the argumentation in this book was borderline sloppy. I found myself irritated at the author’s tendency to shoehorn every vodka anecdote or statistic into an explanation for alm
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Ari
Nov 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
Vodka is an iconic Russian product; drunkenness a stereotypical Russian vice. This book explores the socio-economic context for Russian drinking, and particularly the vodka trade. The author is an academic historian, but does a very good job of curbing the bad habits of academic writing. There are summaries of previous works, but these are kept reasonably contained and there is no heavy-handed methodological apparatus.

The book is arranged partly thematically, partly chronologically. This works r
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Andrew Tollemache
Aug 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
An eye opening book that was thoroughly entertaining and informative. Mark Schrad seeks to show that ever since vodka came to Russia from Poland about 500 years ago it has had an astounding influence on Russian governance and society.
At its core is the discussion of how Russia, whether under the czars, the Soviets or beyond has faced a cruel dilemma. The state's reliance on excise taxes on vodka for anywhere between 10 and 40% of its revenues, is the driving force behind the astounding amounts
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Danielle Spalenka
Aug 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this concise review of Russian history and the unique perspective how vodka consumption has shaped this country's history. The intimate details of drinking in the inner circles of Soviet Russia were really fascinating. What was particularly intriguing was learning how vodka became the drink of Russia and how the government-owned taverns really dominated how the country was run. Seeing how vodka has shaped nearly every major event in Russian history as really insightful and was backed b ...more
Michelle
Dec 23, 2013 rated it liked it
May 10, 2014
I've given up and just skimmed through the rest of the book. It's well-written, and clearly thoroughly researched, and is a fantastic perspective on Russia, it's just not for sitting down and reading for fun. If I ever write a research paper on some aspect of Russian history though, this will be the first book I reach for.


Dec 23, 2013
I won this book through Gooodreads, and I'm making very slow progress. It's interesting, but it's SO LONG and I have lots of homework. My minor is hist
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Rawda Hejazy
Sep 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This was such a fascinating and an eye-opening read. This book presents an insightful, accessible overview of Russian political history, through the lens of alcohol. Vodka Politics by Schrad is one of those books you just have to read if you want to to understand Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Schrad relies in equal measure on anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate that the extent of vodka’s influence across the history of the empire has been utterly tragic. Russians and vodka are nearly insepara ...more
Jared
Mar 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Neat idea and an interesting book. The beginning was sort of poorly organized and it took a little while for it to slip into a chronology. The most annoying part was the author dropping the title into every chapter multiple times. "That's vodka politics..." "Another case of vodka politics..." "The Russians rule...by vodka politics..." And other cutesy ways of trying to drop it in became increasing grating as I read.
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Happily married with three kids, Mark Lawrence Schrad is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University near Philadelphia, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Russian politics and history, post-communist democratization, comparative politics, international law, international organizations, and globalization. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Uni ...more

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