Opinion: Why a $3 bottle of vodka won't cut it

CHICO, California — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is apparently under the impression that curing his country of its alcohol problem has a price — and that price is $3 a bottle.

On Jan. 1, a new law in Russia took effect that sets minimum prices for vodka. Now, the cheapest half-liter bottle costs 89 rubles ($3), nearly double what it cost previously. According to media reports at the time of its launch, the new law was meant to protect the health of Russians as well as curb the black market sale of imitation vodka that is often made with shoddy and harmful ingredients.

But in reality, the new law is a band-aid solution at best. Like many other such misguided efforts that have been tried in Russia, it doesn’t address the root of the problem: how hard-wired Russian society is for drinking.

Consuming on average 32 pints of pure alcohol per person per year, Russians are among the heaviest drinkers in the industrialized world. Their love of alcohol dates back more than a thousand years. In 986, Grand Prince Vladimir is said to have declared, “Drinking is the joy of Russia. We cannot do without it,” and adopted Christianity as the official religion of Russia supposedly because it was the only one that had no prohibition against drink.

Over the last several hundred years, alcohol has crept into the social, political and economic fabric of everyday life. As one 19th-century commentator put it: “When the Russian is born, when he marries or dies, when he goes to court or is reconciled, when he makes a new acquaintance or parts from an old friend, when he negotiates a purchase or sale, realizes a profit or suffers a loss — every activity is copiously baptized with vodka.”

However hyperbolic this assessment might be, it is true that alcohol lubricates nearly every social interaction among ordinary Russians, including and especially at work. In fact, a nation-wide study conducted in 1991 found that Russians drank more at work than at home or in bars.

The state benefits tremendously from the average Russian's attachment to drinking. Since the first appearance of taverns in Moscow in the 16th century, the Russian state has attempted to exercise political and fiscal control over the trade in spirits, ultimately establishing a monopoly over the production and sale of alcohol. By the end of the 19th century, alcohol revenues comprised about 40 percent of all state revenue.

And herein lies Medvedev’s dilemma: how to continue reaping the tremendous taxes gained from alcohol sales while also trying to reduce alcohol consumption (or appearing to try to do so). It is a dilemma every Russian leader has faced since the 19th century. And nearly every leader over the last hundred years has attempted to foster popular temperance to ill effect. (An exception is Boris Yeltsin, who notoriously got drunk and drove his car into the Moscow River, or wandered the streets of Washington, D.C. in his underwear.)

The first all-out effort by the state to combat drinking was in 1914, when Tsar Nicholas II implemented prohibition as part of Russia’s mobilization for World War I — six years before the 18th amendment made America “dry.” He figured the best way to get peasants to the front was to get them there sober.

The result was that moonshine (samogon), which had not been widely consumed, became epidemic. Bootlegging used up precious stores of grain needed to feed the troops. Some scholars even argue that by depriving the state of desperately-needed alcohol revenues at the outset of the war, prohibition exacerbated the state’s decline and precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Once the dust settled, following WWI, revolution and civil war, Joseph Stalin made a decision to re-introduce the state’s liquor monopoly, citing the need for revenue to rebuild the country and industrialize. He simultaneously launched an aggressive anti-alcohol campaign that included propaganda, price controls and a system of incentives and punishments. But even with all the state’s resources at their command, the Bolsheviks failed to create a sober work force. Workers rebelled, moonshine spread and ultimately the state abandoned the campaign and purged all its leaders.

In fact, after each anti-alcohol campaign that was tried after Stalin — by Nikita Khrushchev, then Leonid Brezhnev — the level of alcohol consumption in the country nearly doubled. In 1966, the state introduced a series of fines for public intoxication, and established a network of labor rehabilitation centers. Despite these repeated efforts, state alcohol output increased and per capita consumption steadily rose throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Mikhail Gorbachev made combating alcoholism a top priority when he became leader in 1982. He restricted alcohol sales, reduced production by 50 percent, created a nationwide temperance society and prohibited alcohol consumption in many public places. The results were disastrous: Sugar, used in the production of moonshine, disappeared from stores; vast numbers of people poisoned themselves with other intoxicants such as brake fluid and rubbing alcohol; and the government lost nearly 2 billion rubles in alcohol revenues.

The population became angered by the abrupt unavailability of alcohol and some people took to drugs. During these years, the number of people treated for alcoholism declined by 29 percent. At the same time, the number of drug addicts more than doubled.

Gorbachev's failed temperance campaign cost him a tremendous amount of popularity and support — and that cost isn’t something Medvedev is willing to pay. To address alcoholism in a responsible way, by investing in the long, hard slog of education and behavioral change, is a road most politicians shy away from. Medvedev's feeble attempts are largely political, because any serious attempt to deal with alcohol abuse in Russia would cost a lot of money and would take a serious bite out of state revenues.

When Medvedev began his war on alcoholism in August 2009, he launched a remarkably short-sighted campaign encouraging young people to drink beer over vodka. The level of beer drinking rose considerably, but vodka consumption remained the same. Now, the state is burdened with the task of undoing that campaign's messages on top of everything else.

If history is any indication, the new law raising vodka prices will also prove to be futile — alternative drinks and bootleg whiskey will flood the market. The problem isn’t cheap alcohol, or its availability. The problem lies much deeper than that, and solving it would cost far more than $3 a bottle.

Kate Transchel is a professor of Russian and Eastern European history at California State University in Chico, California. She is also the author of "Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1900-1932." Pittsburgh University Press, May 2006.