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Vodka, Mead and Moonshine: Who Created the Myth of Drunk Russians

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Vodka, Mead and Moonshine: Who Created the Myth of Drunk Russians

19.10.2020

Photo credit: lenta.ru

Foreigners put blind trust in stories about Russian bears, nuclear threat and ubiquarian KGB agents. However, the list of the most convincing myths about Russia is topped by the one of Russian drinking. It turned out to be so strong and persistent that even the Russians have believed it. It is not a mere coincidence that our fellow citizens think Russian people have always drunk, and a holiday feast is considered to be a national tradition. Who made the whole world believe the banal stereotypes? Why do all historians claim the opposite and who benefits from the myth of Russian drinking?

If you look at the World Health Organization report on global alcohol consumption issued in September 2018, it is not Russia that tops the list of the most drinking countries. Russia is 16th after the Seychelles with 11.7 liters of alcohol per capita.

Meanwhile, the myth of the drinking country keeps on living. This image is deeply rooted in the national consciousness having been fueled by culture and art.

A number of Soviet films made their contribution in it as well by absolutizing Russian drinking. They made an alcoholic character be perceived as a positive and lyrical one, just like Venichka Erofeev from Moscow – Petushki, a well-known novel.

Tightening of technical regulations, restrictions on sale of alcohol-containing beverages, and a ban on alcohol advertising in the media have done their job.

According to a report by the World Health Organization, Russia's program to reduce excessive alcohol consumption has been recognized as successful one. From 2003 to 2016, the volume of consumed alcohol reduced by 43 percent. The mortality rate associated with alcohol consumption decreased, the frequency of alcoholic psychoses and liver diseases went significantly down, and the life expectancy of Russians increased substantially.

Well, this is what statistics claims.

But how our country is perceived from the outside is quite a different story. In 2017, the London market research company Ipsos MORIconducted a poll. Its results revealed that the world community considered Russia to be the most drinking nation. This opinion was given by 43% of the respondents. The United States took the second place with 31%, and Germany was third with 28%.


History of alcohol in Rus

It is interesting that Russia has never held the garland in terms of alcohol consumption.

The Tale of Bygone Years describes how Prince Vladimir was choosing the religion for Rus. Allegedly, he turned Islamic missionaries from the Volga Bulgaria down with the words “Happiness in Rus means drinking, otherwise we will not live”. This phrase is often regarded as confirmation of the idea that we have always been drinking, ever since the dawn of time.

It's just important to understand that making strong alcoholic drinks was extremely labour-consuming back then. Taking into account the needs and possibilities of common people of that time, they simply had neither time to drink, nor what to drink.

Wine was imported to the territory of Kievan Rus and later to the Muscovia from Byzantium and Asia Minor. It was very expensive. So available alcoholic beverages included weak beer, mashing and mead. The latter was the only drink that could be easily made at home.


It was the same year after year. When there was the time to celebrate, the whole community celebrated. When there was no need to celebrate, everyone worked. Nobody celebrated alone. It was so not only in Russia. This is how the whole world lived in the early Middle Ages.

Igor Kurukin (Historian, Professor at Russian State University for the Humanities)


Only nobles could afford living in idleness. Ordinary people were allowed to idle around only on holidays set by the rural community. Another thing was the prince's retainers who considered it their prerogative to feast at the expense of their prince. As noted in the Novgorod Chronicle, in 1016 Yaroslav Vladimirovich's warriors berated him: "There is not much Mead made, while there are a lot of prince's retainers."

As to hard liquors, they were not consumed either in Russia or in Europe until the late Middle Ages.

Alcohol was first mentioned in the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1386, when the Genoese envoy visited Moscow on their way to Lithuania. They brought aqua vitae, an alcohol made by the alchemist Arnold de Villanova through the grape wine distillation. It was declared undrinkable and used only as a medicine. This approach to alcohol was common in Europe until the 15th century: tinctures made with it were considered therapeutic, so it was mainly distilled by pharmacists.

Alcohol-distillation came to the Grand Duchy of Moscow later — at the end of the 15th century. After 1547, this process was mentioned in Domostroy* as a common method. But there was still nothing about hard liquors being consumed by a significant part of the population. In the 16th century foreign travellers still mentioned mead, beer and kvass** as the basic drinks in Muscovia, and only very rarely spoke of aqua vitae or bread wine. The latter was the name of hard liquors for general population.


The word vodka was used, but its meaning was different from the current one back then it refereed to therapeutic tinctures only. Russian people got acquainted with hard liquors much later than inhabitants of Western Europe.


Vasily II and Ivan III stipulated days when drinking of mead and mashing was restricted, and foreign travellers who visited Russia in the 15th-16th centuries emphasized that common people were strictly prohibited to have those drinks at any day except a holiday.

In the middle of the 16th century, Michalon Lituanus, the ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crimean Khanate, wrote The Essay on the Customs of the Tatars, Lithuanians and Muscovites, where he admired the Muscovites, who "abstain from drinking, their towns are renowned for artisans", while Lithuanians "come together in taverns, they drink there day and night entertaining themselves with dances of trained bears to the music of bagpipes, (...) they are not capable of any occupation and can only sleep."

"When there was the time to celebrate, the whole village was out. Nobody could lock himself up in the hut." /Igor Kurukin, historian, professor at Russian State University for the Humanities.

Photo credit: lenta.ru

But in the second half of the 16th century, a placed called the "sovereign's tavern" was opened where the state sold bread wine to general population.

Everything changed during the reign of Peter the Great. Valery Ryzhov writes in Merriment in Russia that back then "the last barriers that had hindered the spread of heavy drinking practices in Russia were removed." His Majesty the Emperor was famous for his love for the West. He preferred to stay sober as little as possible and to make guests dead-drunk. And it was under his rule that the vodka we all know came into use. Moreover, high-quality bread wine was not called vodka; vodka was a low-quality alcoholic drink, "a small glass of which was given daily to each builder of Petersburg, shipyard worker, soldier and sailor by order of this very Tsar."

Ryzhov writes that, in contrast to the "good bread wine", the new drink "was contemptuously called Peter's water" - or vodka. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that Peter promoted drinking in Russia - for example, one of his decrees ordered to chain misbehaving drinkers and banned selling wine in Moscow pharmacies.

Having read newspaper articles about the extraordinary development of heavy drinking in our country, I was surprised by the sobriety that I saw in our villages. Of course, they drink as an occasion offers at weddings, christenings, funerals, but no more than we drink on the same occasion, Alexander Engelhardt, a Russian publicist-populist of the 19th century and agrochemist, wrote in amusement.

This contributed to development of the model of living that is now commonly referred to (sometimes with a grin) as Russian spirituality. Unlike modern propaganda fiction, it did exist in Russian villages.

Back then those in power were the alarmists of "Russian heavy drinking" as they observed moral decadency in towns and often were directly involved in it. "Such drinkers like those we meet among factory workers, domestics, retired soldiers, clerks, officials, landowners who have lost themselves in drinking and reached the bottom are very rare among peasants, i.e. people who work and move in the open air," the publicist summed it up.

Even by the beginning of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of the population in the Russian Empire was the rural one, which means it applies to the vast majority of the country's inhabitants.


Photo credit: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

According to Mikhail Smirnov, an alcohol market expert, the widespread alcoholism of Russians is a myth that was started by foreigners and then picked up by the inhabitants of Russia. Smirnov believes that Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine was the first to mention this myth in his memoirs about a trip to Russia in 1839. It was the time when moonshine appeared in the villages. As Igor Kurukin emphasizes, it happened because the normal rural urban goods exchange had been upset. According to the historian, it was not profitable for peasants to sell grains, so they used grains for moonshine and exchanged it for essential goods that were scarce due to supply interruptions.

The time of upheavals pushed people to look for ways to relieve stress. So, on the threshold of the First World War, a quarter of Russia's budget was attributable to sale of alcohol. In fact, the country was "alcoholic addict," says Ivan Shevchenko, associate professor at the Department of National and General History of the Lipetsk State Pedagogical University.

According to experts, people in villages did not drink as long as they adhered to the traditional way of life. It was especially applicable to remote settlements. Those close to towns were more prone to drinking.

By the beginning of the 20th century consumption of hard liquors became a problem not only in the Russian Empire and the USSR, but also in almost all Western countries. It is useful to recall the Prohibition that was introduced in the United States in 1920. "There are many writings of that time that present America as a nation of heavy drinkers and alcoholics. This stereotype came to life for a reason - the Americans really consumed a huge amount of alcohol, especially strong," admits Anastasia Ushakova, a historian.

In the middle of 1920s the Bolsheviks have abolishedthe alcohol ban law. The 0.125 l. was called "the pioneer", 0.25 l."the komsomolets" and 0.5 l. "the party member".

Photocredit: lenta.ru

In those years temperance societies made up mostly of conservative women demanded to introduce the Prohibition to heal American society. The image of a drunk worker who made a distorted part and fell next to the machine tool, was used not only in Soviet social propaganda, but also in the United States before the Prohibition was introduced.

The Prohibition as a prohibitive measure turned out to be an absolute failure: it led to development of the alcohol black market and growth of organized crime.

In the USSR, the rural urban linkage brought not only labor successes, but also massive alcoholization of the rural population. One can argue for a long time why this happened, but in the mid-1920s, moonshine was actively brewed in villages, and with the beginning of collectivization, the rural population began to drink. It is quite possible that a collective farm peasant no longer believed that family well-being depended on him, and therefore drank.

So the age-long heavy drinking practices in Russia is just a myth, and the population alcoholization took place during the very years of Soviet power. The authorities constantly made attempts to fight it through ineffective anti-alcohol campaigns. The most rigorous of them started in1985 and ended with the collapse of the USSR.

Prohibitive measures and public condemnation of drinkers used to be the key element of campaigns for sobriety. At the same time, Soviet people drank for any reason but those gene deep. The Soviet state was simply unable toprovide them with quality leisure, and people reacted to prohibitions by starting the moonshine still.

Leonid Brezhnev used to say that "Russians drank, drink and will continue to drink", and Gorbachev explained introduction of the Dry Law by the fact that his wife had persuaded him to do something, as in her opinion, "the people were losing themselves in drinking".

Soviet statistics is a very tricky thing, Igor Kurukin points out. According to him, such decisions were taken quite suddenly. At certain moment, you think it is necessary. You report about it, submit some papers [to the Central Committee of the CPSU], but there is no reaction. And then inexplicably there it comes, he wonders.

Time and again the Soviet government tried to solve the problem, but all those attempts only made it worse. The problem was not even that the total prohibition and public condemnation did not bring long-term positive results, but that alcohol was a tangible item of state income, therefore, almost all such undertakings ended with the repeal.

The Gorbachev anti-alcohol campaign ended as a full-scale crash. Drastic prohibitive anti-alcohol measures spurred home brewing and also contributed to the spread of drug addiction.


Why do Russians drink very little nowadays?

Nowadays, the situation is changing - Russians have been increasingly distancing themselves from the Soviet past. In cities, moonshine is replaced with high-quality distillates and expensive hard liquors, beer in oversized plastic bottles (which have been also banned) is being kept out by relatively expensive and high-quality products by numerous craft breweries.

Andrei Zorin, a historian of Russian culture and professor at Oxford University and the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), said in his lecture that vodka had become the main myth about Russian drinking. And today it no longer attracts young Russians. They drink bear instead.

Such a trend is associated with gradually increasing standard of living. Moonshine is heavily drunk in rural areas only. However, from time to time sober villages come up in one area or another. People in such village communities understand that youths are leaving for the cities, and if they continue to drink supporting the myth of Russian drinking conveyed in Soviet comedies their village will not survive.

Perhaps it is the debunking of myths about age-old Russian drinking practices that should become the principal anti-alcohol policy in contemporary Russia along with the successful steps already taken, such as the advertising ban, the ban to sell alcohol at night, the ban of five-liter flasks with cheap beer, and checking passports at the store's checkout. Fortunately, even officials realize that it is impossible to fight drinking practices following the Soviet model.

Source: Mikhail Karpov (Lenta.ru)

* Domostroy is a 16th-century Russian set of household rules, instructions and advice pertaining to various religious, social, domestic, and family matters of the Russian society

** Kvas is a drink made from fermented rye bread, yeast or berries

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