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

If state leaders truly cared about combating Russia's drinking problem, they would try to change attitudes โ€” not price tags.

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.