Bryan Caplan  

Lenin the Prohibitionist

Never reason from a price chan... Krugman and Gruber are deeply ...
Mark Lawrence Schrad's new Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State is more than good; it's novel.  Despite my long-term interest in Russian history, much of what Schrad had to say was genuinely new to me.  I've read dozens of books about Lenin, but I somehow missed the fact that he was an ardent prohibitionist.
"Death is preferable to selling vodka!" Lenin declared prior to the revolution.  True to his prohibitionist principles, he held fast to that conviction after seizing power.  Even with vodka's counterrevolutionary threat subsiding, Lenin's ruling Sovnarkom, or Council of People's Commissars... nationalized all alcohol production facilities and existing alcohol stocks.  In 1919, Sovnarkom forbid distilling "by any means, in any quantity and at any strength" - punishable by confiscation of all property and a minimum of five years in Siberian labor camps.
Lenin the prohibitionist poet:
"Whatever the peasant wants in the way of material things we will give him, as long as they do not imperil the health or morals of the nation," Lenin famously declared late in life.  "But if he asks for ikons or booze - these things we will not make for him.  For that is definitely retreat; that is definitely degeneration that leads him backward.  Concession of this sort we will not make; we shall rather sacrifice any temporary advantage that might be gained from such concessions."
If, like me, you have zero sympathy for prohibition, Schrad's sordid tale of Russia's collective drunken stupor over the last century will give you second thoughts.  At the same time, though, Schrad's account will give pause to even the most ardent prohibitionist.  The unintended consequences of Russia's periodic crackdowns on alcohol were straight out of an econ textbook: bootlegging, adulteration, poisoning, corruption, and violence galour.  Russian alcoholism is terrifying and sickening - yet Russian prohibition is even worse.

P.S. If you see me at Students for Liberty this weekend, please say hi.  I'll probably be eating at the Bistro at the Grand Hyatt tonight around 7 PM if you'd like to join me.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

Also, in Russia, vodka is a huge part of the culture. I was there last year on a business trip and the stuff flowed like water:

On the train: vodka

In the hotel lounge: vodka

Beginning a meeting with clients: you bet there was vodka

Go out to eat: vodka

I know this sounds like a stereotype, but I swear it is true.

In many ways, Lenin's prohibition of alcohol (and ikons, for that matter) would be like prohibition of baseball and hot dogs in America.

Al writes:

The depictions also beg the question, "If negative consequences are readily visible, why do non-drinkers begin to drink?" If people are not stumbling down that path from a state of ignorance, then prohibition focuses on the expression of some deeper condition.

MingoV writes:

Lenin's ideals about alcohol were buried when dissatisfaction with the Soviet regime became widespread. The State began manufacturing and distributing at low cost massive amounts of vodka; the new opiate of the masses. The USSR had the lowest adult male longevity among industrialized nations, and alcohol-related conditions such as hepatic cirrhosis were among the top causes of death.

As an aside, Japanese businessmen today consume large amounts of alcohol, even more than Russian businessmen.

Faze writes:

Alcohol is in many ways the secret history of the world. How many major decisions in peace and especially war have been made by men in a state of inebriation? Could America's Civil War generals have presided over five years of mad slaughter while sober? How many atrocities have been made possible by consciences numbed by alcohol? I can recall a documentary I once saw about cruel medical experiments in a Nazi concentration camp. Some of the camp doctors and overseers (men and women) were still alive, and they confessed to near constant drunkeness among themselves and the camp guards.

gwern writes:
Russian alcoholism is terrifying and sickening - yet Russian prohibition is even worse.

If it's even worse, why did the end of Soviet anti-alcoholism programs seem to come with such spikes in mortality rates ?

Methinks writes:

One of my most vivid memories of a childhood spent in Moscow was the ever-present passed out drunks in the entrance of buildings (particularly residential buildings) and the accompanying overwhelming stench of aged urine. Arriving in the West, I was shocked by the absence of that stench.

gwern, I don't buy the explanation in the paper you linked to. Death rates began to rise two years after Gorbachev's failed curbs on vodka consumption. They began to rise right around the time Russia was falling apart. Accustomed to deficits, Russians found the store shelves empty, their lives completely destroyed and their futures even less certain. And when I say the shelves were empty, I mean a pregnant relative in Moscow was forced to survive on a diet of sugar mixed with water. Life became even more intolerable. The misery and desperation of the early 1990's, as the Soviet Union crumbled into atoms, is impossible for Westerners to understand. And calling this a period of "transition" is laughable. This was no transition, it was total collapse. I also wouldn't rely too heavily on "official" Soviet statistics as they are mostly lies.

Vladimir Treml, a now retired professor of economics at Duke University, did a lot of research on alcoholism in the Soviet Union, if you're interested. In fact, I believe his work is cited in Vodka Politics.

Jim Glass writes:

You fail to mention how it was the Tsar's banning of vodka at the start of World War I that was a key suicidal act that paved the way for Lenin to take over.

This was not mere prohibition - the Tsars had given themselves a monopoly over the national vodka supply that produced fully 30% of their government revenue. So when Nicholas banned vodka he both incited mass anger among the people and slashed his own revenue by a good third just as he began engaging in a major war.

Results: predictable by people with more sense than he had.

Culmination: he couldn't pay the troops and home guard, and when the masses start revolting in the streets unpaid troops don't put them down, they turn and join them. Data and details.

(Nicholas did it because (1) he didn't want a drunken military embarrassing him as it had in so incompetently losing the recent war with the Japanese, and (2) according to his finance minister, it was wrong to extort monopoly profits from the masses during wartime.)

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a multi-time visitor to EconTalk, relates the story in his very interesting recent book about how governments really work in practice as opposed to theory (sort of "public choice on steroids").

The unintended consequences of Russia's periodic crackdowns on alcohol were straight out of an econ textbook: bootlegging, adulteration, poisoning, corruption, and violence galour.

Plus in no small part the Revolution leading to Lenin's seizure of power in Russia, and thus the rise of world-wide Communism itself.

Cryptomys writes:

Did Vladimir Ilych also favor the prohibition of marijuana?

Tor Munkov writes:

You are only quibbling about the extent of prohibition. No one should be asked to live for anyone else.

Once you concede that people lying in doorways passed out from drinking are inferior to people soberly building trinkets in factories, the prohibitionist philosophy has claimed its victory.

A culture of heavy drinking or of teetotalism are each only social norms, and nothing else.

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