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

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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, which has long wielded vodka as a tool of statecraft. Through a series of historical investigations stretching from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, Vodka Politics presents the secret history of the Russian state itself-a history that is drenched in liquor. Scrutinizing (rather than dismissing) the role of alcohol in Russian politics yields a more nuanced understanding of Russian history itself: from palace intrigues under the tsars to the drunken antics of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership, vodka is there in abundance.

Beyond vivid anecdotes, Schrad scours original documents and archival evidence to answer provocative historical questions. How have Russia's rulers used alcohol to solidify their autocratic rule? What role did alcohol play in tsarist coups? Was Nicholas II's ill-fated prohibition a catalyst for the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the Soviet Union have become a world power without liquor? How did vodka politics contribute to the collapse of both communism and public health in the 1990s? How can the Kremlin overcome vodka's hurdles to produce greater social well-being, prosperity, and democracy into the future?

Viewing Russian history through the bottom of the vodka bottle helps us to understand why the liquor question remains important to Russian high politics even today-almost a century after the issue had been put to bed in most every other modern state. Indeed, recognizing and confronting vodka's devastating political legacies may be the greatest political challenge for this generation of Russia's leadership, as well as the next.

512 pages, Hardcover

First published December 19, 2013

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About the author

Mark Lawrence Schrad

5 books49 followers
Mark Lawrence Schrad is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University outside of 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 University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MA from Georgetown University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Northern Iowa, while also having attended Bryn Mawr College, Moscow State University and Moscow International University.

His first book, "The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave" was published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

His second book, "Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy and the Secret History of the Russian State" was released by Oxford University Press in 2014, and has been translated into a half dozen world languages.

His new book, "Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition" is available in July of 2021. Hailed as "one of the best nonfiction books of 2021," and recipient of a Kirkus star for exceptional merit, it uncovers the long hidden history of prohibitionism worldwide, resulting in a fundamental reappraisal of the role of temperance and prohibitionism in American history.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews
Profile Image for Caroline.
781 reviews232 followers
May 7, 2015
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 the human race was decided”….Krushchev’s gravelly voice [in his recorded memoirs] recounted how the inner circle loathed meeting with Stalin—due mostly to the drunken bacchanals…”there was always the danger that you …would end up dozing off at his table. Things went badly for people who dozed off at Stalin’s table.”

On life under Yeltsin’s reforms:

With their life savings gone, jobs evaporating, the uncertainty of economic calamity, and the lack of steady leadership is it any wonder that more and more Russians turned to vodka, practically the only product that was both cheaper and more available than under the Soviets?...With the ruble rendered practically worthless by hyperinflation, more and more transactions were conducted through the primitive commodity money of vodka rather than modern paper currency.

Schrad discusses three aspects of vodka politics in this book:
--vodka policy governed by hundreds of years of reliance on vodka taxes contributing up to one third of state revenue;
--governance by inebriated politicians, from Ivan the Terrible to Yeltsin; and
--the constraints on government vodka policy due to the related corruption of production and distribution that pervades Russia.

The reason I ordered this from the library was the overwhelming role played by vodka in the recent books from Russia that I’ve been reading: Buddha’s Little Finger, The Zone, The Last Man in Russia,, and Pushkin Hills. One has to wonder how Russia functions at all. The statistics cited in Schrad (and The Last Man in Russia) are appalling. The average Russian man drinks at least a half a bottle of vodka a day, and has a life expectancy about 10 years less than his European counterparts (even more in recent decades, per Schrad’s citations). At least 15,000 Russians die from alcohol poisoning each year (many more died annually before some recent modest reforms. The birth rate is below the replacement rate, so the Russian population is declining (current projections are that it will drop by 20 million to 30 million by 2050). Schrad focuses almost all of his statistical data on health, so the estimates of the effect on the economy are thin, but since drinking starts with breakfast the loss of productivity must be huge.

Why doesn’t somebody do something? A few people have, with disastrous results. Czar Nicholas II ordered prohibition during mobilization for WWI, with the result that Russians invaded Germany much sooner than expected (soldiers were sober, in contrast to their drunken state during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905). But the economy went into a tailspin as the government had no vodka tax revenues to pay for the war effort. So it printed money. Schrad argues that the subsequent hyperinflation and anger at the lack of (legal) alcohol contributed to the situation in which the Communists ended up ruling. Lenin was adamantly anti-alcohol, but Stalin turned on the national vodka taps and instituted a vodka-drenched style of leadership.

Gorbachev imposed drastic vodka cutbacks, which also contributed to the loss of government revenues and contributed to his fall. Yeltsin tried to impose reforms, to his cost. Bootlegging and home-production surged, and in the post-Soviet economic disaster vodka became a de facto currency. Medvedev instituted reforms, and took a lesson from the past by making them incremental rather than trying to cure Russian vodka dependence cold turkey.

But Schrad argues that although vodka constitutes only a small part of federal revenue now, the oligarchs control production and have doomed any meaningful changes. During austerity programs ‘third shift’ (unofficial after-hours production at distilleries) and black market imports surge. And raising vodka taxes and rolling back reforms are always tempting ‘fixes’ to short term finance challenges like drops in oil prices.

Underlying this tale is the average Russian’s devotion to vodka, fostered by centuries of state encouragement. Under Ivan and his successors (the book starts with too many pages devoted to their own drunken excesses) vodka replaced beer, wine and kvas as sales were limited to local taverns or kabaks. The state imposed control by vodka tax farming. And because there was supposed to be essentially no profit for anyone in the supply to distribution chain, tax farming led to entrenched corruption, from watering drinks to buying off judges. Even the church had to foster drunkenness, as priests needed ‘volunteer’ help to farm and maintain churches, which had to be ‘bought’ by providing vodka. Vodka prices have been kept low to maximize sales and thus tax revenue. Production was limited to the upper classes; it’s very cheap to produce and hence very profitable. Home brew, or samogen has been illegal since the start of tax farming, but has always surged during reform periods and contributes to alcohol poisoning through production of impure vodka. Temperance movements have been actively shut down from their first importation from the United States.

Alexander II was tackling alcoholism among other ills when he abolished serfdom and the tax farming system after the Crimean War debacle, but the already-entrenched corruption of state budget and local beneficiaries quickly found work-arounds.

Schrad includes an interesting chapter on how writers attacked alcoholism. In it I learned about Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the first publication titled What Is to be Done, and its impact on Lenin. Tolstoy and Turgenev are covered as well. The chapter on dissenters cites writing on alcohol by Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Erofeyev.

Schrad offers a final recommendation of decentralized control over vodka taxes, to be dedicated to local temperance and health program efforts. This suggestion draws on experience in Sweden in the 1900s. But he offers no explanation of how the oligarchs are to be kept out of the way; his prescription seems fanciful.

I almost stopped at page 100 due to the poor writing and lack of copyediting, but it finally settled into a somewhat more orderly history and overrode the writing. (Repetition, uneven/slangy diction, very choppy history alternating with foreshadowing summaries in the early chapters, typos, uneven index, etc.) In the end, the information is worth the struggle.
Profile Image for Петър Стойков.
Author 2 books282 followers
December 5, 2016
Всички знаем, че руснаците обичат да пият, но само човек който е живял в Русия може да осъзнае колко много. Средната продължите��ност на живот на мъжете в Русия е 65 години, което я нарежда на 110 място в света по този показател, в съседство с Габон, Сенегал и Пакистан и причината за това е основно в ширещия се алкохолизъм. Самият Путин нееднократно в речите си обръща внимание на този проблем, но той далеч не е от вчера.

Книгата обръща внимание на консумацията на алкохол, свързана с управлението на Русия през вековете - от алкохолната лудост на Иван Грозни, през функционалния алкохолик Петър I, до Сталин, който е карал висшите си ръководители да се посират от пиене всяка вечер на масата му, под страх от смъртно наказание, до Елцин и Путин.

Идеята на автора е, че пиянството на руския народ е по-скоро резултат от корупцията на властта и нейното постоянно заиграване с производството на водка. Като цяло не е особено убедителен, но поне е интересен.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books207 followers
October 31, 2013
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 corruption often criticized in reform literature through the characters of drunks. Schrad follows the attempted 1914 prohibition of alcohol swallowed up by WWI, anti-Bolsheviks who tried to derail the October Revolution with liquor stashes in St. Petersburg, Lenin and Trotsky's attempt at controlling the industry, Stalin's hard-core drinking diplomacy, Gorbachev's anti-vodka campaign, the statistics of American demographic civil servant Murray Feshbach, how those predictions played out in the demodernization of post-Soviet Russia, Yeltsin escape from the Clinton White House on a pantless pizza quest, Putin's wrangling with vodka oligarchs and his falling out with Medvedev over alcohol and health care. This is a genuinely revealing way to look at Russian history and a dim view of the population's future in the grip of a continued enormous problem (although Schrad offers a grass roots community alternative in the Swedish Gothenburg System, as unlikely as that is to take hold in Russia.)
Profile Image for Ugnė.
326 reviews36 followers
October 17, 2022
Problemos kai kur atrodo per daug pritempiamos prie alkoholio vartojimo. O šių metų akivaizdoje taip juokinga skaityti, kaip autorius dar vis galvoja apie šviesią rusijos ateitį. Taip, knyga ne šviežia, rašyta vakariečio, bet man vis tiek taip juokinga, kai aptariami alkoholiko medvedevo būdai kovoti su alkoholizmu. Aišku, ne savo, o šalies.

Nesakau, kad dėl to knyga bloga, joje plačiai išdėstomi faktai, kodėl toje šalyje klesti alkoholizmas ir amžinas nuosmukis. Pateikiama informacija nuo senų senų laikų, kai rusai gerdavo savo nacionalinius gėrimus, o ne degtinę. Taip, ruskių girtavimas neprasidėjo nuo vodkos!

Knyga didelė, ir pradėjus skaityti dažnai užmigdavau. Turbūt toks pasyvaus girtavimo poveikis bandant įveikti 500 puslapių apie vodką.
Profile Image for Mark Hiser.
533 reviews15 followers
July 20, 2018
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 leaders have used it as a form of social control and source of state income.

Schrad explains that the government of Russia controls every part of alcohol trade in the country—production to consumption. This is such a lucrative monopoly that up to a third of the state’s revenues have come from alcohol, especially vodka which is inexpensive and simple to make.

Schrad goes on to explain that “democracies and dictatorships alike extract resources from society and most have utilized alcohol in that capacity.” However, Russian leaders have used alcohol as a tool to keep the people under control. A “happy, drunk” citizenry is unable to rebel and able to drown their misery in alcohol.

The result is a country where, by 1985, “Russians consumed on average of 14.9 liters of pure alcohol per person per year: according to the World Health Organization, anything over 8 liters is damaging to the overall health of the population.” Those 14.9 liters are the equivalent of 130 conventional half-liter bottles of vodka per person per year!

By the end of the 70’s, the average life-span for a male in the Soviet Union was 62.5 years. Nixon even had to have Brezhnev carried to bed when he was in the US.

Through historic events and even documents, Schrad demonstrates that the tsars and leaders like Stalin would often use vodka to keep those close by off balance and suspicious of one another and keep serfs “happy” and passive enough not to rebel.

Schrad’s thesis that vodka serves as an autocratic statecraft tool in Russia is, overall, compelling. To keep control of the people and centralize that control among a few persons, Russian leaders have tried to keep people “happy,” distracted, and unengaged.

As the author states in his afterward, vodka politics is about “the fundamental relationship between the Russian citizenry and their state, with the vodka bottle in between.” It is a relationship no healthier than the relationship between two people when one or both suffer from alcoholism
Even though Schrad often suggests that several of the rulers themselves suffered from alcoholism (which, most certainly influenced what they did as leaders) what most convinced me that vodka politics plays a central role in the government of Russia is his evidence from the time of the first tsars to the present showing that vodka was often one of the greatest sources of income for the State. It was the money from vodka that allowed the government to act. Ironically, however, a “drunk country” is unable to be productive or thrive.

What also was convincing about his thesis is his evidence showing that when various leaders such as Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin and even Gorbachev tried to limit--or even prohibit--alcohol because of the problems it created, the government often collapsed as funds dried up, people suffered from austerity, and even more dangerous homebrews (samogon) filtered into society.

Though these vodka reforms/prohibitions may be correlated with, rather than a cause of, the collapse of government, Schrad presents so much evidence that I am largely convinced that vodka and the change of government (though always autocratic) are more than coincidence.
Though at times I felt Schrad’s thesis might be a bit too simplified and generalized, overall, he supported it with enough evidence and critical thinking to leave me open to his idea.
Profile Image for John M..
56 reviews16 followers
July 23, 2016

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 politics. Schrad’s book details how the early tsars used vodka as a political and economic tool, as well as a way to essentially sedate and control. His research turns up a few strange and entertaining stories such as Peter the Great’s vodka-fueled celebrations, Stalin’s late night dinners with the Presidium (basically drinking sessions) and also Yeltsin’s stumbling and bumbling in the 90s.

Throughout the book, Schrad never loses sight of the heart of his argument that vodka was and always will be an influence on politics in Russia. The way I read it is that vodka is somewhat comparable to oil in the US in a few ways. The two industries have considerable influence on the government and domestic policy, and they are both huge industries with significant economic impact. Both the dependence on vodka and oil can be used to control officials and the population, but that may be where the comparison ends.

Schrad also spends some time addressing vodka’s role in Russia’s declining health and population. If the statistics are accurate, it’s shocking how much vodka is consumed by Russians, and the number of deaths and decline in life expectancy is something seen only in times of large-scale conflicts like the 2nd World War. Aside from the obvious health issues, vodka actually creates a concern for the long-term survival of the Russian people.

Although Schrad is an assistant professor of political science, Vodka Politics is written in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience. He's the kind of writer who does a lot of research and can also tell a good story. If you are a regular reader of publications like The Economist or The New Yorker, you should read this book. If you’re interested in Russian politics of history, you should find this book and start reading right now.

Profile Image for Pritam Chattopadhyay.
1,855 reviews164 followers
March 27, 2022
Book: Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State
Author: Mark Lawrence Schrad
Publisher: ‎ OUP USA; Reprint edition (22 September 2016)
Language: ‎ English
Paperback: ‎ 528 pages
Item Weight: ‎ 714 g
Dimensions: ‎ 23.11 x 3.56 x 15.49 cm
Price: 2375/-

“If life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. And try to find somebody who's life gives them vodka, and have a party” -- Ron White

“This drink has a magical power. It strengthens the scrawny, and revives those who have fainted. Those tired after work and physical activity can return their life forces by this drink much sooner than by nourishment. ... It works as a diuretic, an appetizer, an antitoxin.” -- Carl Linnaeus

“With Satan at its center, the deepest circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy is reserved for traitors. Just one step up in the eighth circle are the fraudsters: crooks, thieves, and corrupt politicians boiling in the sticky pitch of their own dark secrets. Alongside them are prognosticators and false prophets—their heads twisted backward, forever looking back on their failed predictions. So while we should perhaps tread lightly in making bold political prognostications, we can at least understand the constraints imposed on the Kremlin by Russia’s demographic past…”

“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, which has long wielded vodka as a tool of statecraft…”

Vodka has a very elongated political history, and it is no happenstance that the hasty extension of the early Muscovite state occurred simultaneously with the harnessing of vodka’s unmatched revenue potential. From the feudal and bourgeois eras of Russia’s imperial past to its socialist and now post-socialist eras, vodka has been the keystone of state finance.

In the early years, with Russian authority spread thin over a vast, yet sparsely populated landmass, the authorities farmed out the vodka tax—selling to the highest bidder the right to a total monopoly on the local liquor trade.

In the interest of maximizing this vital and reliable income stream, the government increasingly looked the other way from the systemic corruption created by the system—the same corruption that bedevils Russia today.

In fighting the abuses of the tax farmer and looking to secure ever-greater revenue for the treasury, the state attempted all manner of taxation, licensing, and monopoly regimes—using vodka to squeeze every last kopeck out of the weary peasantry.

“The ways in which the state has obtained revenue from vodka have changed over the course of time,” noted Soviet dissident Mikhail Baitalsky in the 1970s, “but the essential character of the vodka trade has not changed.”

Centuries ago vodka originated somewhere in Eastern Europe, in the region now comprising Russia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Unable to grow grapes in their frigid climate, the locals sought to create a new libation from cheap and plentiful wheat, one that could match the intoxicating qualities of aqua vitae and wine.

The first distillers were almost certainly Russian and Polish monks, who dispensed their pungent concoctions primarily as medicine (sedative, anaesthesia, liniment and disinfectant).

By the 15th century distillers had introduced new variations distilled from other grains such as rye, oats, barley and buckwheat. And, as they improved their art, they managed to reduce the nasty smell of their vodka and mask any lingering unpleasantness by infusing their output with honey, fruit, spices, herbs and berries.

Although these developments did not necessarily enhance vodka’s reputed medicinal qualities, they did ensure that it became an increasingly palatable and popular drink.

Ever since vodka was established in Russia, and the industry began to grow, Russian regimes have repeatedly sought to control production and to tax consumption.

In 1474 Ivan III (1440–1505) established the first state vodka monopoly. Called ‘Great’ because of his successful expansion of Muscovite rule, he relied heavily on vodka-generated tax revenues to wage his wars of conquest (though he mistakenly believed that he could contain alcoholism simply by limiting the amount of vodka produced).

His successor, Ivan IV (The Terrible, 1530–1583), likewise understood that he could enhance his power by controlling the robust vodka industry.

In his struggle against nobles whom he deemed a threat to his authority, Ivan created a new privileged class called the oprichniki to replace the old aristocracy. In order to ensure their loyalty, he not only gave them land, but also exclusive access to the prized liquid.

In 1544 he established eight taverns (kabaki) selling strong spirits only to his newly created servitors. But if they failed to obey his orders, they were cut off.

No Russian ruler better understood the power of vodka than Peter the Great (1672–1725). He used the liquid to reward his loyal supporters, to subdue his adversaries and to punish his enemies.

He habitually plied his foreign guests with vodka to loosen their lips. Some, however, were so unaccustomed to such a potent libation that they soon slumped senseless on the table or simply dropped dead.

He would also force his enemies to drink vodka to excess.

He even used the liquid to test aspiring ambassadors.

Into 24 chapters has this book been divided:

1. Introduction
2. Vodka Politics
3. Cruel Liquor: Ivan the Terrible and Alcohol in the Muscovite Court
4. Peter the Great: Modernization and Intoxication
5. Russia’s Empresses: Power, Conspiracy, and Vodka
6. Murder, Intrigue, and the Mysterious Origins of Vodka
7. Why Vodka? Russian Statecraft and the Origins of Addiction
8. Vodka and the Origins of Corruption in Russia
9. Vodka Domination, Vodka Resistance … Vodka Emancipation?
10. The Pen, the Sword, and the Bottle
11. Drunk at the Front: Alcohol and the Imperial Russian Army
12. Nicholas the Drunk, Nicholas the Sober
13. Did Prohibition Cause the Russian Revolution?
14. Vodka Communism
15. Industrialization, Collectivization, Alcoholization
16. Vodka and Dissent in the Soviet Union
17. Gorbachev and the (Vodka) Politics of Reform
18. Did Alcohol Make the Soviets Collapse?
19. The Bottle and Boris Yeltsin
20. Alcohol and the Demodernization of Russia
21. The Russian Cross
22. The Rise and Fall of Putin’s Champion
23. Medvedev against History
24. An End to Vodka Politics?

What does this book speak of?

The following to be precise:

*Just as vodka is the touchstone of Russians’ social lives, vodka politics—encompassing both policy decisions to manipulate alcohol consumption and the influence of alcohol on political developments—is a central fulcrum of statecraft in Russia.

*Historically, vodka has been a main exchange point between Russian state and society, and just as vodka is simultaneously the solace of the downtrodden and the reason for their poverty, vodka is both one way the Russian state imposes itself on the individual and how society avoids the state.

*The might of the tsarist empire was largely built on vodka, and when the empire fell to the flames of revolution, vodka politics was partly to blame.

*Vodka helped keep the Russian people docile and passive, yet vodka has played a role in every Russian coup d’état and hastened every Russian revolution.

*Vodka has toasted international peace and helped bring Russia to the brink of war. Vodka has occasionally saved Russia from foreign invasion but, more often, hastened its military’s defeat. And just as vodka politics facilitated the demise of the imperial Russian empire, a century later it helped do-in its Soviet successor as well. Vodka is not only the source of immeasurable revenue; it also is used as currency.

*After the collapse of communism, vodka facilitated the wholesale demodernization of Russian economy and society while unleashing a demographic catastrophe unlike anything before seen in the peacetime history of the world.

In so many ways then, vodka politics is key to understanding Russia’s turbulent past, present, and future.

Read this book, to know more.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,362 followers
August 25, 2014
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 -- looking at leaders including their policies, motivations and flaws, and at their impact on the lives of ordinary people. Ultimately what emerges is a bleak picture with only the faintest of hopes at the end. Schad's 100 pages of footnotes attest to all the research he has done, and I appreciated the many interesting historical details. Given the picture painted and the strength of Schad's thesis, I am curious to know how Vodka Politics has been received in Russia and by other historians of Russia and the Soviet Union.
Profile Image for Luke Meehan.
183 reviews2 followers
May 18, 2014
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 impressive.
88 reviews
January 16, 2014
Interesting view on a highly controversial country! Great book for any reader!
179 reviews2 followers
December 6, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Adam Orford.
70 reviews3 followers
December 21, 2017
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 performed something of a miracle, then, in managing to write an entire book about alcoholic culture in the Russian political system that is compassionate and dispassionate, reasoned and reasonable, moral and unselfrighteous. The thesis is that vodka has played a central role in many of the major political events in Russia from the (much debated) time of its invention in around 1400, in a way that is unique to the Russian state, and absolutely necessary to understand Russian political history. Some fascinating takeaways:

Point 1: Russian autocrats have used vodka to control and fleece the peasantry for centuries. It was traditionally distributed by state monopoly and alcoholism encouraged because vodka taxes formed something like half of the state revenues. Tavern-keepers were soulless tax collectors.

Point 2: Russian autocratic political culture also reeked of booze, often on direct order of the autocrat. The book details not only Peter the Great's notorious drinking, but his use of alcohol to control subordinates and ease (sort of) diplomacy - and the ways in which Stalin did the same thing.

Point 3: Russia has faced an unprecedented "demodernization" following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and vodka has played a central role in the fraying of the nation's social fabric.

All of this is captured nicely in the term "vodka politics," a term that seems to mean that in Russia, when faced with a conflict between the public good and the private gains that alcohol can provide, the private gain wins every time. Much like the way tobacco policy worked (and still works to some degree) in the U.S.

Unfortunately the packaging and delivery of the book is indecisive and confused - it is marketed as more of an expose' than as a serious work of academic synthesis. This is particularly evident, I think, in the audio production I listened to. The producers chose an actor who spoke all the Russian quotes in a bad accent, while seemingly going out of his way to mispronounce the Russian in almost every single case. Some of them are perhaps forgivable (putting the stress on the wrong syllable in Bukharin, or pronouncing Tsarskoe Selo as "zar'sko se'lo"), but there are some really bad ones ("costar" instead of "co-tsar". twice??) and after awhile it became clear that the production was style over substance. That was unfortunate because it marred an otherwise very good reading of a very good book.

Total listening time at 3x speed: 11.5 hrs
Profile Image for Fran Johnson.
Author 1 book9 followers
April 26, 2020
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. Soviet women have been forced to turn to abortion as a means of contraception. It is not unusual for women to have experienced as many as 20 abortions during their lifetime. Many other health issues are caused by alcohol addiction. Domestic violence reached astronomic figures, in the Yeltsin years, between 12 and 16 thousand women died each year, ten times higher than in the US.

The rate of alcoholism was out of control during the time of the czars, during the dictators, and the occasional more liberal leaders. The economy of the nation was fueled by the taxes on alcohol consumption. Stalin and Lenin both forced their henchmen to drink until they passed out.

The downfall of the last czar was due to his attempt to abolish drinking, according to the author. Later leadership experienced difficulty when they tried to limit their subjects drinking. The author
makes the case for the need of cultural change and offers some suggestions.
Profile Image for Laura.
6 reviews1 follower
June 26, 2017
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 (let's add also other means of intoxicating materials to nowadays world) authoritarian regime would fall. And here I see a person form old democracy speaking. I also see American/English rhetoric in some statements; e.g. in last chapter the author states that more people died of vodka after the collapse of Soviet Union (~600 000) than of nine wars in XVIII century Russia. What can I learn from this information? The same that I can learn from the fact that there were less citizens in Ancient Greece that in modern Greece. That's right, nothing.

On the other hand, the facts collected were interesting and some interpretations really deserves overthinking afterwards. It is just the persistence that without vodka Russia would change drastically..
Profile Image for David.
666 reviews243 followers
January 15, 2017
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 the last five centuries, it is that public well-being is almost never the Kremlin's foremost concern, especially when the greater good clashes with the financial needs of the state or those well-connected to it."

Sorehead carping: I think it's a bad idea of perform all quotations from Russians or Russian sources in a voice which is a cross of the cartoon villain character of Boris Badinov and Ensign Chekov from "Star Trek", complete with "w" for "v" substitution ("ewentually", "willages"). I know it helps the listener keep track of which part of the text is a quotation, but it still sounds silly.
Profile Image for Meg Northrup.
101 reviews3 followers
October 7, 2019
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 almost everything in Russian history. Even when something or someone didn’t fit the pattern (Catherine the Great discouraging hard drinking, for example), it would be forced to fit through a round-a-bout explanation (I.e. “some people were drunk during the coup that brought her to power, therefore her entire reign was tainted by vodka”). It felt clunky and certainly was unnecessary to convince readers that vodka has played an outsize role in Russian society and politics.

Profile Image for Slávek Rydval.
312 reviews26 followers
November 24, 2018
Historie Ruska od Ivana Hrozného do současnosti pohledem množství vypité vodky a přínosem daní za alkohol do státní pokladny. Popis času, kdy tyto daně dělaly až třetinu příjmu státu, ale i třeba jen 2 až 3 procenta. Není to veselé čtení (na druhou stranu které je, když se popisuje autokratické zřízení státu). Autor si musel dát s knihou opravdu ohromnou práci, ostatně jen odkazy na prameny jsou na téměř 80 stranách. Bohužel místy se dopouští několika nepřesností či zbytečných zjednodušení (např. „bankrot“ Ruska v roce 1998), ale hlavně chybí širší kontext. Čtenář pak může zklouzávat k dojmu, že v Rusku se pořád jen chlastá, umírá na otravu alkoholem a stát různě mění daně za alkohol.
Profile Image for Jared.
33 reviews
May 18, 2015
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.
117 reviews
June 23, 2014
Interesting analysis of the role of vodka in Russia's political and, more critically, economic history. As with many recent histories, the book is overlong and feels like a padded doctoral dissertation. Bottom line: Russian rulers have hit upon the use of state monopolies of vodka production and distribution to maximize revenue and pacify a restive populace.
Profile Image for Delson Roche.
255 reviews6 followers
March 4, 2015
A very interesting book, and may have even deserved 4 stars. I gave it 3 because, I felt that there was a lack of flow in the stories. The book can be best enjoyed if one atleast has a passing knowledge of Russian and European history. Filled with interesting anecdotes and truly enjoyable if you are a history buff.
November 8, 2019
labai įdomus Rusijos istorijos pjūvis per degtinės politikos prizmę. kaip tam tikri politiniai sprendimai bei motyvai lėmė kultūros susiformavimą, tiesiogiai įtakojusią sociodemografinę raidą bei iš to kylančias problemas. įdomios įžvalgos bei nuoseklus dėstymas puikiai leidžia įsijausti į chronologinę istorinių įvykių seką. maži lūkesčiai šiai knygai itin maloniai nustebino.
Profile Image for Taylor.
11 reviews
May 31, 2014
An interesting read, with lots of did you know facts. The author makes a good argument on the importance alcohol, specifically vodka, had on Russian history, politics, and heritage, but overall it is a bit drawn out.

I would still recommend the book but be warned, it's a bit dry at times.
Profile Image for Massimo  Gioffre.
208 reviews7 followers
May 2, 2018
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
419 reviews2 followers
August 31, 2022
This book presents a history of Russia from its very beginning documenting the use of alcohol by those in power to control the working classes and thus, avoid any opposition and/or resistance to its rule. Unfortunately, putting the needs of the State ahead of its people was subsequently by each new head though a few attempted to address the needs of its people Dmitry Medvedev for one. He presented the most hope for meeting the needs of the Russian people and improving the plight of the Russian state

It was sad to learn the plight of the Russian people has not only not changed over time but worsened under the current administration taking pages from tzars of past Ivan the Terrible for one and Nicholas for another and little hope for change is given. Nonetheless, the author informs that l, it was not alone in its addiction to alcohol: "If the astronomical rates of vodka consumption in Russia today have any historical parallel, it would certainly be with the Swedes of old (circa 1904). With per capita consumption rates north of twelve liters of pure alcohol per year, Sweden had "the sad distinction of being the most drunken country in Europe." They have obviously changed their ways due to the pressure by the Swedish Temperance Society for government restrictions on alcohol in part but more so by the people of Gothenburg who chartered a private company to regulate local liquor traffic in the interest of the community. Shareholders received a five per cent return with balance of profit going to support local agriculture and organizations that supported well being.

This is a scholarly work well supported by intensive research-over eighty pages of Notes are included as well as a thorough Index of sixteen pages-making it easy to locate people and events named herein. It would have been very helpful if maps from the time could have been incorporated for better understanding of the geography and culture presented.
40 reviews
August 29, 2019
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 vodka in his system (even though he wasn't a drinker). To this day the murder remains unsolved.

Schrad traces the roots of Russia's love affair with drinking (in particular vodka) all the way back to Russia's first Tzars as a method to control their people. What started out in the Tsar's palace grew to the population at large in the form of vodka taxes which accounted for an increasingly larger percentage of Russia's budget. Russia's essential paradox (which still exists today) is that the country would benefit enormously from a sober population but the Government would lose massive amounts of funding. Schrad even argues that the Boshevik Revolution was partly the result of Tzar Nicholas' alcohol prohibition right before the outbreak of WWI which led to hyper-inflation and increasing unrest. Years later, Gorbachev repeated the same mistake on a smaller scale which hastened the end of the Soviet Union.

Vodka Politics is a unique work, a blend of history, politics, and to be honest some really funny stories. Where else might you find stories about Peter the Great's monkey attacking the king of England? or the Austrian's leaving bottles of vodka in the trenches to entice the Russians to drink during WW1; the drunken parties thrown by generals during the Crimean and Japan war. The list goes on and on. There of course is a sad side to all of this. In 1994 there were 300 deaths in the US from alcohol poisoning. Compare that figure to the 50,000 deaths in Russia. I had no idea of the scope of the problem. Essentially Russia's population is shrinking from all the health problems associated with alcohol, vodka in particular.

All in all a very enjoyable read. Schrad cautions against singling out any one particular as the cause of all Russia's problems. However, he advises you to put on your beer goggles and enjoy the ride!
Profile Image for Jacob Frank.
164 reviews
August 10, 2019
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 secure funding through democratic means. There is also our current opioid epidemic, largely driven by prescription painkillers, whose prevalence is due in large part to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is America’s most powerful political lobby, financially speaking. As with Russia’s travails with vodka, the opioid epidemic is now having measurable demographic effects of our average lifespan. Lastly, considering alcohol itself, alcohol sales generated a quarter of a trillion dollars in the US last year (2018), or about 1.1% of GDP. That is clearly non-trivial. Furthermore, taking Florida as an example, between state and federal excise taxes, liquor is taxed at a rate of $20 per gallon of 50% alcohol. So to say that our own government is completely disentangled from “vodka politics,” would be inaccurate.
3 reviews
October 1, 2019

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 recommend highly enough this book.
Profile Image for Katka Němcová.
27 reviews
November 7, 2022
Uff. Skvelý titul, plný hrozivých faktov a štatistík. Pre mňa to bola taká nálož, že som knihu čítala postupne... Po panovníkoch, či obdobiach. Autor niektoré veci viackrát krútil dokola, no verím, že pre publikum z inej časti sveta ako bývalých republík ZSSR je to potrebné pre lepšie vnímanie niektorých súvislostí. Určite je to kniha, ktorá stojí za prečítanie vrámci pochopenia nielen ruských vladárov, ale aj Rusov ako takých. Teším sa na ďalšie tituly z edície Civilizácia.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
4 reviews2 followers
June 12, 2023
The facts uncovered in this book are immensely fascinating and I definitely learnt a lot about Russian history and politics. However, the writer is frightfully repetitive — if I got a dollar for every mention of “and vodka played a huge role in Russian society”, I could buy three more copies of the book.

Good read, but required fortitude to get through. Thank goodness I had a bottle of vodka on hand.
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