Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to welcome back Mark Lawrence Schrad, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. Schrad last talked to Points about The Political Power of Bad Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2010). This time, he’s here to reflect on his 400-year history of alcohol and Russia, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State (Oxford University Press, 2014).
This should come in handy, since in a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a book talk at my favorite bar. So, here goes:
Walt—my bartender’s name is Walt—you’ve been slingin’ booze here for umpteen years. Have you ever wondered why all the Russians who come in here pass on the wine list and skip past your world-class beer selection just to choke down shot after shot of vodka until they pass out on the floor? There’s a reason—and it’s not that drinking vodka is hard-wired into Russian DNA. Russia’s societal alcoholism has its roots in political and economic decisions made by the autocrats in the Kremlin over the past 400 years.
Imagine that you were a bartender in imperial Russia a few hundred years ago, Walt. First of all, you’d be a state employee, since the alcohol trade was a state monopoly. Your training on day one began with taking an oath—kissing the Orthodox cross—dutifully swearing to maximize the revenue to your sovereign, the tsar. Also, you’d be a pretty ruthless pawnbroker—if some drunk ran out of money while drinking at your tavern, you could easily convince him to sell his shirt, pants or any other worldly possessions to you in exchange for another drink. You were kind of a dick, Walt—why would you do that?
Anyway, back in the seventeenth century, the imperial tavern had all sorts of drinks: fermented wines, beers, ales, porters, and meads, in addition to this new, distilled beverage that the locals called vodka—or “little water.” But since the cost of distilling and selling vodka were just pennies on the dollar—or kopecks on the ruble—it was far more profitable to sell distilled vodka to the local drunks than milder, fermented beverages. Over decades and generations, vodka elbowed-out all of the competition in the taverns, because it had the greatest profit margin for the state. Plus, Walt, your local drunks couldn’t really tell if you watered it down, so you could easily siphon off some of the vodka, sell it on the side, and pocket the dough. But you’d never do that, right?
So since vodka was so central to the state and its finances, any attempt to reduce consumption of vodka—from tsarist Russia straight through the 1980s in the Soviet Union—was seen as an unpatriotic political attack against the state itself, and ruthlessly suppressed. That’s why your Russian customers drink that industrial chemical, Walt, rather than anything more palatable.
Since alcohol plays such a major role in Russian culture, politics, and history, the book then gives you an overview of Russian history—from Ivan the Terrible through the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin—through the lens of vodka. Think of them as beer goggles for Russian history—but when viewed through this lens, even some of the most confusing historical developments actually come into sharper view.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Well, since it is a political history of vodka in Russia over the past 400 years, I’d hope that a bunch of alcohol and drug historians—like myself—would dig pretty much all of it. It’s got something for everyone: there are biographical chapters about the role of alcohol in the courts of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin and Boris Yeltsin. There are macroeconomic explanations for the role of alcohol in everything from promoting corruption to the arduous transition from communism. There are forays into the role played by vodka as an anti-autocratic symbol in the works of the golden age of Russian literature—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tugenev. There are contentious claims that the politics of alcohol furthered the destruction of not only the tsarist empire, but also its communist successor. There are archeological investigations into the origins of vodka itself. And it helps us even to understand the dynamics of contemporary politics in Putin’s Russia.
There’s something there for everyone.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
Can I say: all of it? Writing this book truly was a labor of love—one which has been my primary research focus for over fifteen years. So from humble beginnings as a 10-chapter series of vignettes about drunken Russians to a near-exhaustive, 24-chapter consideration of the role of alcohol and autocracy in Russia over hundreds of years, I’ve enjoyed every part of it.
If I had to choose the most interesting part of the book—it’d probably be the part that was the most frustrating: the chapter about the origins of vodka. In Russia especially, there have been many books written—most notably by the famed historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin—about the origins of vodka, and I had no reason to question his research, which was allegedly conducted to defend the old Soviet Union in a trade dispute in international courts against fraternal Poland over the rights to use the word “vodka.” But as I discovered, there actually was NO international legal dispute with Poland over the word “vodka,” and much of the work of this widely-respected Russian historian is so full of holes that virtually nothing can be believed.
Unfortunately, Vilyam Pokhlebkin was brutally murdered in 2000—stabbed 16 times with a long-handled screwdriver—so we can’t go back and ask him why he fabricated all of these stories. But if my book can help dispel some of the myths orchestrated by Pokhlebkin, it’d be time well spent.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Building on the previous question—I was disappointed that, in the end, I was unable to conclusively resolve the popular debate about who invented vodka: Russia or Poland? Unfortunately, after exhaustive research, there just isn’t enough evidence to decide conclusively (though I think that the spotty evidence that has survived does lend credence to the Poles’ claims—which may be why the Poles have been so eager to publish a Polish-language version of the book, which should be out in a year or two.)
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
Actually, Vodka Politics IS available on Amazon.com as an audiobook. It was narrated by Noah Michael Levine. I worked with him on some of his Russian pronunciation over the phone, and he seems like a great guy. He does do the Russian segments of the book with a heavy Russian accent, which as he explained to me, he got while being a bartender in the Russian immigrant community in Southern California. In Hollywood, he played some bit roles opposite John Travolta in Primary Colors and Chuck Norris in Top Dog. So, really, what more can you ask for?