In Love Songs of the Revolution, I have a minor character, Adolfas the baker, who has given up drinking as a way of resisting the State. The idea of temperance as a revolutionary act may surprise you if you don't know the history of alcohol in Russia.
I've recently been reading Vodka Politics by Mark Lawrence Schrad. It's about the role of alcohol - especially vodka - in Russian politics.
Today's high levels of alcoholism and related health problems in Russia isn't because of something innate to the Russian soul or even the climate, as some have argued. Schrad lays out a history of how vodka and other forms of alcohol have been used by the Russian state for hundreds of years to earn tax revenues and keep a potentially restive population passive and compliant.
It's also been a great tool to keep pretenders to the throne under control. Schrad describes how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great to Stalin the Soviet would force night after night of drinking-until-dawn parties on courtiers, sycophants and diplomats to get them to spill their darkest secrets. It also ensured they were either too drunk or too hungover most of the time to organize a coup.
Back in the 16th century, the Russian government established village taverns - кабак - that functioned as "rent farms," turning cheap surplus grain into relatively expensive vodka and selling it to villagers. Over the years, the share of government revenue that came from vodka grew. As the State became increasingly dependent on vodka taxes, they established policies that encouraged villagers to drink ever more.
Round about the 19th century, the temperance movement made its way from England and the US to Eastern Europe, and became entangled with the anti-colonial struggle against Russia, which has tried to control smaller countries at its borders since time immemorial. The movement found particularly fertile ground in Lithuania, where a "Brotherhood of Sobriety" was established, though this movement only discouraged vodka. Beer, wine and mead were still okay to drink.
Within a year, membership in the Brotherhood topped one million people, some three-quarters of Lithuania's population. Liquor sales plummeted, as did taxes paid to Moscow. Then the movement began to grow within Russia. The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and well-known Christian anarcho-pacifist, earned the enmity of the State for his outspoken views against alcohol. The situation got so bad that the Russian government tried to make sobriety a crime, going so far as to put people in jail for refusing to drink.
Many Lithuanians took this position in the Soviet era as well. Refusing to drink kept their money out of Moscow's pockets, and kept them sober and ready for a revolution.
Leave a Reply.
Looking for your next book to read? I can recommend all these great indie press books.