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Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics. In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians' genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system, Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics. In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians' genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system, which has long wielded vodka as a tool of statecraft. Through a series of historical investigations stretching from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, Vodka Politics presents the secret history of the Russian state itself-a history that is drenched in liquor. Scrutinizing (rather than dismissing) the role of alcohol in Russian politics yields a more nuanced understanding of Russian history itself: from palace intrigues under the tsars to the drunken antics of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership, vodka is there in abundance. Beyond vivid anecdotes, Schrad scours original documents and archival evidence to answer provocative historical questions. How have Russia's rulers used alcohol to solidify their autocratic rule? What role did alcohol play in tsarist coups? Was Nicholas II's ill-fated prohibition a catalyst for the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the Soviet Union have become a world power without liquor? How did vodka politics contribute to the collapse of both communism and public health in the 1990s? How can the Kremlin overcome vodka's hurdles to produce greater social well-being, prosperity, and democracy into the future? Viewing Russian history through the bottom of the vodka bottle helps us to understand why the "liquor question" remains important to Russian high politics even today-almost a century after the issue had been put to bed in most every other modern state. Indeed, recognizing and confronting vodka's devastating political legacies may be the greatest political challenge for this generation of Russia's leadership, as well as the next.


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Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics. In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians' genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system, Russia is famous for its vodka, and its culture of extreme intoxication. But just as vodka is central to the lives of many Russians, it is also central to understanding Russian history and politics. In Vodka Politics, Mark Lawrence Schrad argues that debilitating societal alcoholism is not hard-wired into Russians' genetic code, but rather their autocratic political system, which has long wielded vodka as a tool of statecraft. Through a series of historical investigations stretching from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin, Vodka Politics presents the secret history of the Russian state itself-a history that is drenched in liquor. Scrutinizing (rather than dismissing) the role of alcohol in Russian politics yields a more nuanced understanding of Russian history itself: from palace intrigues under the tsars to the drunken antics of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership, vodka is there in abundance. Beyond vivid anecdotes, Schrad scours original documents and archival evidence to answer provocative historical questions. How have Russia's rulers used alcohol to solidify their autocratic rule? What role did alcohol play in tsarist coups? Was Nicholas II's ill-fated prohibition a catalyst for the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the Soviet Union have become a world power without liquor? How did vodka politics contribute to the collapse of both communism and public health in the 1990s? How can the Kremlin overcome vodka's hurdles to produce greater social well-being, prosperity, and democracy into the future? Viewing Russian history through the bottom of the vodka bottle helps us to understand why the "liquor question" remains important to Russian high politics even today-almost a century after the issue had been put to bed in most every other modern state. Indeed, recognizing and confronting vodka's devastating political legacies may be the greatest political challenge for this generation of Russia's leadership, as well as the next.

30 review for Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State

  1. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    On Stalin’s style of keeping his inner circle in a drunken stupor: Either in the Kremlin or at Stalin’s dacha, political decisions were made over drinking games and toasts of Russian vodka, Crimean champagne, Armenian brandy, and Georgian wine, beginning with the late-evening dinner and ending only with the dawn…Milovan Djilas ruminated after his Kremlin visits: ”it was at these dinners that the destiny of the vast Russian land, of the newly acquired territories, and, to a considerable degree, of On Stalin’s style of keeping his inner circle in a drunken stupor: Either in the Kremlin or at Stalin’s dacha, political decisions were made over drinking games and toasts of Russian vodka, Crimean champagne, Armenian brandy, and Georgian wine, beginning with the late-evening dinner and ending only with the dawn…Milovan Djilas ruminated after his Kremlin visits: ”it was at these dinners that the destiny of the vast Russian land, of the newly acquired territories, and, to a considerable degree, of the human race was decided”….Krushchev’s gravelly voice [in his recorded memoirs] recounted how the inner circle loathed meeting with Stalin—due mostly to the drunken bacchanals…”there was always the danger that you …would end up dozing off at his table. Things went badly for people who dozed off at Stalin’s table.” On life under Yeltsin’s reforms: With their life savings gone, jobs evaporating, the uncertainty of economic calamity, and the lack of steady leadership is it any wonder that more and more Russians turned to vodka, practically the only product that was both cheaper and more available than under the Soviets?...With the ruble rendered practically worthless by hyperinflation, more and more transactions were conducted through the primitive commodity money of vodka rather than modern paper currency. Schrad discusses three aspects of vodka politics in this book: --vodka policy governed by hundreds of years of reliance on vodka taxes contributing up to one third of state revenue; --governance by inebriated politicians, from Ivan the Terrible to Yeltsin; and --the constraints on government vodka policy due to the related corruption of production and distribution that pervades Russia. The reason I ordered this from the library was the overwhelming role played by vodka in the recent books from Russia that I’ve been reading: Buddha’s Little Finger, The Zone, The Last Man in Russia,, and Pushkin Hills. One has to wonder how Russia functions at all. The statistics cited in Schrad (and The Last Man in Russia) are appalling. The average Russian man drinks at least a half a bottle of vodka a day, and has a life expectancy about 10 years less than his European counterparts (even more in recent decades, per Schrad’s citations). At least 15,000 Russians die from alcohol poisoning each year (many more died annually before some recent modest reforms. The birth rate is below the replacement rate, so the Russian population is declining (current projections are that it will drop by 20 million to 30 million by 2050). Schrad focuses almost all of his statistical data on health, so the estimates of the effect on the economy are thin, but since drinking starts with breakfast the loss of productivity must be huge. Why doesn’t somebody do something? A few people have, with disastrous results. Czar Nicholas II ordered prohibition during mobilization for WWI, with the result that Russians invaded Germany much sooner than expected (soldiers were sober, in contrast to their drunken state during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905). But the economy went into a tailspin as the government had no vodka tax revenues to pay for the war effort. So it printed money. Schrad argues that the subsequent hyperinflation and anger at the lack of (legal) alcohol contributed to the situation in which the Communists ended up ruling. Lenin was adamantly anti-alcohol, but Stalin turned on the national vodka taps and instituted a vodka-drenched style of leadership. Gorbachev imposed drastic vodka cutbacks, which also contributed to the loss of government revenues and contributed to his fall. Yeltsin tried to impose reforms, to his cost. Bootlegging and home-production surged, and in the post-Soviet economic disaster vodka became a de facto currency. Medvedev instituted reforms, and took a lesson from the past by making them incremental rather than trying to cure Russian vodka dependence cold turkey. But Schrad argues that although vodka constitutes only a small part of federal revenue now, the oligarchs control production and have doomed any meaningful changes. During austerity programs ‘third shift’ (unofficial after-hours production at distilleries) and black market imports surge. And raising vodka taxes and rolling back reforms are always tempting ‘fixes’ to short term finance challenges like drops in oil prices. Underlying this tale is the average Russian’s devotion to vodka, fostered by centuries of state encouragement. Under Ivan and his successors (the book starts with too many pages devoted to their own drunken excesses) vodka replaced beer, wine and kvas as sales were limited to local taverns or kabaks. The state imposed control by vodka tax farming. And because there was supposed to be essentially no profit for anyone in the supply to distribution chain, tax farming led to entrenched corruption, from watering drinks to buying off judges. Even the church had to foster drunkenness, as priests needed ‘volunteer’ help to farm and maintain churches, which had to be ‘bought’ by providing vodka. Vodka prices have been kept low to maximize sales and thus tax revenue. Production was limited to the upper classes; it’s very cheap to produce and hence very profitable. Home brew, or samogen has been illegal since the start of tax farming, but has always surged during reform periods and contributes to alcohol poisoning through production of impure vodka. Temperance movements have been actively shut down from their first importation from the United States. Alexander II was tackling alcoholism among other ills when he abolished serfdom and the tax farming system after the Crimean War debacle, but the already-entrenched corruption of state budget and local beneficiaries quickly found work-arounds. Schrad includes an interesting chapter on how writers attacked alcoholism. In it I learned about Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the first publication titled What Is to be Done, and its impact on Lenin. Tolstoy and Turgenev are covered as well. The chapter on dissenters cites writing on alcohol by Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Erofeyev. Schrad offers a final recommendation of decentralized control over vodka taxes, to be dedicated to local temperance and health program efforts. This suggestion draws on experience in Sweden in the 1900s. But he offers no explanation of how the oligarchs are to be kept out of the way; his prescription seems fanciful. I almost stopped at page 100 due to the poor writing and lack of copyediting, but it finally settled into a somewhat more orderly history and overrode the writing. (Repetition, uneven/slangy diction, very choppy history alternating with foreshadowing summaries in the early chapters, typos, uneven index, etc.) In the end, the information is worth the struggle.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Americans associate taverns and alcohol with rebelliousness and freedom. In Russia, from the earliest distillation, alcohol was a tool of the Muscovite state to generate revenue and control the population--tavern keepers were informers, Orthodox clergy had to barter in vodka to get things done and rulers counted on inebriated troops to place them on the throne. By the 19th century, vodka brought in more than a third of imperial revenue, reason enough to overlook the social ills and vast corrupti Americans associate taverns and alcohol with rebelliousness and freedom. In Russia, from the earliest distillation, alcohol was a tool of the Muscovite state to generate revenue and control the population--tavern keepers were informers, Orthodox clergy had to barter in vodka to get things done and rulers counted on inebriated troops to place them on the throne. By the 19th century, vodka brought in more than a third of imperial revenue, reason enough to overlook the social ills and vast corruption often criticized in reform literature through the characters of drunks. Schrad follows the attempted 1914 prohibition of alcohol swallowed up by WWI, anti-Bolsheviks who tried to derail the October Revolution with liquor stashes in St. Petersburg, Lenin and Trotsky's attempt at controlling the industry, Stalin's hard-core drinking diplomacy, Gorbachev's anti-vodka campaign, the statistics of American demographic civil servant Murray Feshbach, how those predictions played out in the demodernization of post-Soviet Russia, Yeltsin escape from the Clinton White House on a pantless pizza quest, Putin's wrangling with vodka oligarchs and his falling out with Medvedev over alcohol and health care. This is a genuinely revealing way to look at Russian history and a dim view of the population's future in the grip of a continued enormous problem (although Schrad offers a grass roots community alternative in the Swedish Gothenburg System, as unlikely as that is to take hold in Russia.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    John M.

    I received a copy from the author as part of a Goodreads Giveaway. After reading this book, one might be led to believe that for the last few centuries, Russia has been ruled by shamelessly inebriated and despotic rulers, lording over an equally inebriated populace hurled into poverty, starvation, and oppression. According to this book, that assumption would be correct. Vodka has been an integral part of Russian identity for as long as it has existed, and has permeated culture, society, and polit I received a copy from the author as part of a Goodreads Giveaway. After reading this book, one might be led to believe that for the last few centuries, Russia has been ruled by shamelessly inebriated and despotic rulers, lording over an equally inebriated populace hurled into poverty, starvation, and oppression. According to this book, that assumption would be correct. Vodka has been an integral part of Russian identity for as long as it has existed, and has permeated culture, society, and politics. Schrad’s book details how the early tsars used vodka as a political and economic tool, as well as a way to essentially sedate and control. His research turns up a few strange and entertaining stories such as Peter the Great’s vodka-fueled celebrations, Stalin’s late night dinners with the Presidium (basically drinking sessions) and also Yeltsin’s stumbling and bumbling in the 90s. Throughout the book, Schrad never loses sight of the heart of his argument that vodka was and always will be an influence on politics in Russia. The way I read it is that vodka is somewhat comparable to oil in the US in a few ways. The two industries have considerable influence on the government and domestic policy, and they are both huge industries with significant economic impact. Both the dependence on vodka and oil can be used to control officials and the population, but that may be where the comparison ends. Schrad also spends some time addressing vodka’s role in Russia’s declining health and population. If the statistics are accurate, it’s shocking how much vodka is consumed by Russians, and the number of deaths and decline in life expectancy is something seen only in times of large-scale conflicts like the 2nd World War. Aside from the obvious health issues, vodka actually creates a concern for the long-term survival of the Russian people. Although Schrad is an assistant professor of political science, Vodka Politics is written in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience. He's the kind of writer who does a lot of research and can also tell a good story. If you are a regular reader of publications like The Economist or The New Yorker, you should read this book. If you’re interested in Russian politics of history, you should find this book and start reading right now.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Esil

    I was excited and surprised to win a copy of this book on Goodreads. I don't read much non fiction, but the history of Russia and the Soviet Union is a topic I am particularly interested in. And this book made for a very compelling read. Schrad puts forward a very credible argument for his thesis that vodka has played a central role in Russian and Soviet politics and economy as far back as the 16th century. In doing so, he does a very skilful and readable review of the history of Russia -- looki I was excited and surprised to win a copy of this book on Goodreads. I don't read much non fiction, but the history of Russia and the Soviet Union is a topic I am particularly interested in. And this book made for a very compelling read. Schrad puts forward a very credible argument for his thesis that vodka has played a central role in Russian and Soviet politics and economy as far back as the 16th century. In doing so, he does a very skilful and readable review of the history of Russia -- looking at leaders including their policies, motivations and flaws, and at their impact on the lives of ordinary people. Ultimately what emerges is a bleak picture with only the faintest of hopes at the end. Schad's 100 pages of footnotes attest to all the research he has done, and I appreciated the many interesting historical details. Given the picture painted and the strength of Schad's thesis, I am curious to know how Vodka Politics has been received in Russia and by other historians of Russia and the Soviet Union.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mark Hiser

    This summer I decided to register for Program 60 at The Ohio State University. For my first experience with the program, I had a list of about 40 classes that I wanted to take but eventually decided on Russian 2355.99: Russians and their Vodka. This course (and book, Vodka Politics) was about the role vodka plays in the politics and culture of Russia. The author’s thesis is that vodka has long served as a tool of statecraft that allowed an autocratic government to remain in place. Russian leader This summer I decided to register for Program 60 at The Ohio State University. For my first experience with the program, I had a list of about 40 classes that I wanted to take but eventually decided on Russian 2355.99: Russians and their Vodka. This course (and book, Vodka Politics) was about the role vodka plays in the politics and culture of Russia. The author’s thesis is that vodka has long served as a tool of statecraft that allowed an autocratic government to remain in place. Russian leaders have used it as a form of social control and source of state income. Schrad explains that the government of Russia controls every part of alcohol trade in the country—production to consumption. This is such a lucrative monopoly that up to a third of the state’s revenues have come from alcohol, especially vodka which is inexpensive and simple to make. Schrad goes on to explain that “democracies and dictatorships alike extract resources from society and most have utilized alcohol in that capacity.” However, Russian leaders have used alcohol as a tool to keep the people under control. A “happy, drunk” citizenry is unable to rebel and able to drown their misery in alcohol. The result is a country where, by 1985, “Russians consumed on average of 14.9 liters of pure alcohol per person per year: according to the World Health Organization, anything over 8 liters is damaging to the overall health of the population.” Those 14.9 liters are the equivalent of 130 conventional half-liter bottles of vodka per person per year! By the end of the 70’s, the average life-span for a male in the Soviet Union was 62.5 years. Nixon even had to have Brezhnev carried to bed when he was in the US. Through historic events and even documents, Schrad demonstrates that the tsars and leaders like Stalin would often use vodka to keep those close by off balance and suspicious of one another and keep serfs “happy” and passive enough not to rebel. Schrad’s thesis that vodka serves as an autocratic statecraft tool in Russia is, overall, compelling. To keep control of the people and centralize that control among a few persons, Russian leaders have tried to keep people “happy,” distracted, and unengaged. As the author states in his afterward, vodka politics is about “the fundamental relationship between the Russian citizenry and their state, with the vodka bottle in between.” It is a relationship no healthier than the relationship between two people when one or both suffer from alcoholism Even though Schrad often suggests that several of the rulers themselves suffered from alcoholism (which, most certainly influenced what they did as leaders) what most convinced me that vodka politics plays a central role in the government of Russia is his evidence from the time of the first tsars to the present showing that vodka was often one of the greatest sources of income for the State. It was the money from vodka that allowed the government to act. Ironically, however, a “drunk country” is unable to be productive or thrive. What also was convincing about his thesis is his evidence showing that when various leaders such as Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin and even Gorbachev tried to limit--or even prohibit--alcohol because of the problems it created, the government often collapsed as funds dried up, people suffered from austerity, and even more dangerous homebrews (samogon) filtered into society. Though these vodka reforms/prohibitions may be correlated with, rather than a cause of, the collapse of government, Schrad presents so much evidence that I am largely convinced that vodka and the change of government (though always autocratic) are more than coincidence. Though at times I felt Schrad’s thesis might be a bit too simplified and generalized, overall, he supported it with enough evidence and critical thinking to leave me open to his idea.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eric Bottorff

    Unsurprisingly, this occasionally overstates its case. But as a corrective to the general oversight or caricature of this topic in the literature and popular imagination, it is indispensable.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David

    Available as an 18-plus hour audio download, and well worth your time on the treadmill or driving to work, now that we are as a nation preparing to cuddle up to the Russians. Thesis (at audiobook chapter 8, time 10:15): "... I argue that the widespread problematic drinking habits of today are actually the product of political decisions made during the formation of the modern Russians state over four centuries ago." And also (audiobook chapter 24, time 33:50): "... if there is one constant across t Available as an 18-plus hour audio download, and well worth your time on the treadmill or driving to work, now that we are as a nation preparing to cuddle up to the Russians. Thesis (at audiobook chapter 8, time 10:15): "... I argue that the widespread problematic drinking habits of today are actually the product of political decisions made during the formation of the modern Russians state over four centuries ago." And also (audiobook chapter 24, time 33:50): "... if there is one constant across the last five centuries, it is that public well-being is almost never the Kremlin's foremost concern, especially when the greater good clashes with the financial needs of the state or those well-connected to it." Sorehead carping: I think it's a bad idea of perform all quotations from Russians or Russian sources in a voice which is a cross of the cartoon villain character of Boris Badinov and Ensign Chekov from "Star Trek", complete with "w" for "v" substitution ("ewentually", "willages"). I know it helps the listener keep track of which part of the text is a quotation, but it still sounds silly.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Moynihan

    Was not too sure of this in the early chapters. Lots of anecdotes, starting way back, all involving vodka. (Peter the Great’s entourage left unpaid bar bills across Europe. Who knew?) But the initial premise that the tail wags the dog is never close to proven. I thought the book improved with each chapter and I found it interesting when the author didn’t reach for overarching conclusions and stuck to a narrative involving the common thread of vodka. The section on tax farms and bribery were very Was not too sure of this in the early chapters. Lots of anecdotes, starting way back, all involving vodka. (Peter the Great’s entourage left unpaid bar bills across Europe. Who knew?) But the initial premise that the tail wags the dog is never close to proven. I thought the book improved with each chapter and I found it interesting when the author didn’t reach for overarching conclusions and stuck to a narrative involving the common thread of vodka. The section on tax farms and bribery were very insightful and could almost be read as an economic study. Section on Chernyshevsky was insightful as well. Last chapter speaks of a ‘new Russian middle class’ but never explains how they came about. Lack of bibliography, as others have noted, is a valid complaint. Forgot to add - p.385 ‘today, Sweden is one of the healthiest and least corrupt countries on Earth — chock full of pragmatic, blond, Volvo-driving, post-industrial progressives...’. Clearly, the author did not investigate the ‘no-go zones, in Sweden. lol...

  9. 4 out of 5

    Luke Meehan

    Superb modern history from a public policy perspective. Firstly, Schrad delivers a readable and coherent history of medieval-to-modern Russia, albeit through the ubiquitous lens of vodka. Secondly, Schrad attempts to re-analyse the causal drift of modern Russian history as some function of policy-encouraged vodka. Both facets of the book are fascinating, well-sourced and persuasive. Few histories have made me catch my breath as this did: to have done so with relatively raw data is triply impress Superb modern history from a public policy perspective. Firstly, Schrad delivers a readable and coherent history of medieval-to-modern Russia, albeit through the ubiquitous lens of vodka. Secondly, Schrad attempts to re-analyse the causal drift of modern Russian history as some function of policy-encouraged vodka. Both facets of the book are fascinating, well-sourced and persuasive. Few histories have made me catch my breath as this did: to have done so with relatively raw data is triply impressive.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Paul Michael

    Utterly fascinating!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Interesting view on a highly controversial country! Great book for any reader!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Adam Orford

    As a recovering alcoholic, I know how tetchy people can get about pointing to alcohol as a causal or contributing factor to any given problem. It is likely to trigger a diverse range of defensive and justificatory responses from anybody within earshot. Now, imagine trying to do this not in the context of one individual, but of an entire culture. Imagine further doing so in straightforward fashion without hiding behind jargon, statistics, academic opacity, or moralism. Professor Schrad has perform As a recovering alcoholic, I know how tetchy people can get about pointing to alcohol as a causal or contributing factor to any given problem. It is likely to trigger a diverse range of defensive and justificatory responses from anybody within earshot. Now, imagine trying to do this not in the context of one individual, but of an entire culture. Imagine further doing so in straightforward fashion without hiding behind jargon, statistics, academic opacity, or moralism. Professor Schrad has performed something of a miracle, then, in managing to write an entire book about alcoholic culture in the Russian political system that is compassionate and dispassionate, reasoned and reasonable, moral and unselfrighteous. The thesis is that vodka has played a central role in many of the major political events in Russia from the (much debated) time of its invention in around 1400, in a way that is unique to the Russian state, and absolutely necessary to understand Russian political history. Some fascinating takeaways: Point 1: Russian autocrats have used vodka to control and fleece the peasantry for centuries. It was traditionally distributed by state monopoly and alcoholism encouraged because vodka taxes formed something like half of the state revenues. Tavern-keepers were soulless tax collectors. Point 2: Russian autocratic political culture also reeked of booze, often on direct order of the autocrat. The book details not only Peter the Great's notorious drinking, but his use of alcohol to control subordinates and ease (sort of) diplomacy - and the ways in which Stalin did the same thing. Point 3: Russia has faced an unprecedented "demodernization" following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and vodka has played a central role in the fraying of the nation's social fabric. All of this is captured nicely in the term "vodka politics," a term that seems to mean that in Russia, when faced with a conflict between the public good and the private gains that alcohol can provide, the private gain wins every time. Much like the way tobacco policy worked (and still works to some degree) in the U.S. Unfortunately the packaging and delivery of the book is indecisive and confused - it is marketed as more of an expose' than as a serious work of academic synthesis. This is particularly evident, I think, in the audio production I listened to. The producers chose an actor who spoke all the Russian quotes in a bad accent, while seemingly going out of his way to mispronounce the Russian in almost every single case. Some of them are perhaps forgivable (putting the stress on the wrong syllable in Bukharin, or pronouncing Tsarskoe Selo as "zar'sko se'lo"), but there are some really bad ones ("costar" instead of "co-tsar". twice??) and after awhile it became clear that the production was style over substance. That was unfortunate because it marred an otherwise very good reading of a very good book. Total listening time at 3x speed: 11.5 hrs

  13. 4 out of 5

    Neal Leslie

    I first of heard of this work (Vodka Politics) while listening to the Fake History podcast. The author was being interviewed about the strange case and murder of Pokhlebkin, a well known Russian vodka historian. The story piqued my interest as nothing was as it seems; much of Pokhlebkin's histories were fabrications all the way from Vodka's origins to a made-up story of Poland suing Russia for rights to the name. Pokhlebkin was found murdered in 2001 with multiple stab wounds and a bottle of vod I first of heard of this work (Vodka Politics) while listening to the Fake History podcast. The author was being interviewed about the strange case and murder of Pokhlebkin, a well known Russian vodka historian. The story piqued my interest as nothing was as it seems; much of Pokhlebkin's histories were fabrications all the way from Vodka's origins to a made-up story of Poland suing Russia for rights to the name. Pokhlebkin was found murdered in 2001 with multiple stab wounds and a bottle of vodka in his system (even though he wasn't a drinker). To this day the murder remains unsolved. Schrad traces the roots of Russia's love affair with drinking (in particular vodka) all the way back to Russia's first Tzars as a method to control their people. What started out in the Tsar's palace grew to the population at large in the form of vodka taxes which accounted for an increasingly larger percentage of Russia's budget. Russia's essential paradox (which still exists today) is that the country would benefit enormously from a sober population but the Government would lose massive amounts of funding. Schrad even argues that the Boshevik Revolution was partly the result of Tzar Nicholas' alcohol prohibition right before the outbreak of WWI which led to hyper-inflation and increasing unrest. Years later, Gorbachev repeated the same mistake on a smaller scale which hastened the end of the Soviet Union. Vodka Politics is a unique work, a blend of history, politics, and to be honest some really funny stories. Where else might you find stories about Peter the Great's monkey attacking the king of England? or the Austrian's leaving bottles of vodka in the trenches to entice the Russians to drink during WW1; the drunken parties thrown by generals during the Crimean and Japan war. The list goes on and on. There of course is a sad side to all of this. In 1994 there were 300 deaths in the US from alcohol poisoning. Compare that figure to the 50,000 deaths in Russia. I had no idea of the scope of the problem. Essentially Russia's population is shrinking from all the health problems associated with alcohol, vodka in particular. All in all a very enjoyable read. Schrad cautions against singling out any one particular as the cause of all Russia's problems. However, he advises you to put on your beer goggles and enjoy the ride!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Frances Johnson

    Vodka has permeated the history of Russian politics. Russia has a terrible alcohol problem, a problem so intense that their people have a life expectancy far lower than any country and the alcohol related deaths in Russia are the highest in the world. Russian men die fourteen years before the average Russian woman. Deaths due to alcohol poisoning in Russia are 200 times higher than in the United States. Russian women lack reliable contraception and as a result the rate of abortion is huge. Sovie Vodka has permeated the history of Russian politics. Russia has a terrible alcohol problem, a problem so intense that their people have a life expectancy far lower than any country and the alcohol related deaths in Russia are the highest in the world. Russian men die fourteen years before the average Russian woman. Deaths due to alcohol poisoning in Russia are 200 times higher than in the United States. Russian women lack reliable contraception and as a result the rate of abortion is huge. Soviet women have been forced to turn to abortion as a means of contraception. It is not unusual for women to have experienced as many as 20 abortions during their lifetime. Many other health issues are caused by alcohol addiction. Domestic violence reached astronomic figures, in the Yeltsin years, between 12 and 16 thousand women died each year, ten times higher than in the US. The rate of alcoholism was out of control during the time of the czars, during the dictators, and the occasional more liberal leaders. The economy of the nation was fueled by the taxes on alcohol consumption. Stalin and Lenin both forced their henchmen to drink until they passed out. The downfall of the last czar was due to his attempt to abolish drinking, according to the author. Later leadership experienced difficulty when they tried to limit their subjects drinking. The author makes the case for the need of cultural change and offers some suggestions.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Frank

    While the data and narratives presented by this book are sad and disturbing, it is important to cast a critical eye in the mirror and consider to what extent the United States has had similar experiences. For example, there are numerous researchers who have suggested that the United States government has been implicated in, and derived revenues from, the global trade in heroin and cocaine, using these revenues to fund military and intelligence operations for which the government was unable to se While the data and narratives presented by this book are sad and disturbing, it is important to cast a critical eye in the mirror and consider to what extent the United States has had similar experiences. For example, there are numerous researchers who have suggested that the United States government has been implicated in, and derived revenues from, the global trade in heroin and cocaine, using these revenues to fund military and intelligence operations for which the government was unable to secure funding through democratic means. There is also our current opioid epidemic, largely driven by prescription painkillers, whose prevalence is due in large part to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is America’s most powerful political lobby, financially speaking. As with Russia’s travails with vodka, the opioid epidemic is now having measurable demographic effects of our average lifespan. Lastly, considering alcohol itself, alcohol sales generated a quarter of a trillion dollars in the US last year (2018), or about 1.1% of GDP. That is clearly non-trivial. Furthermore, taking Florida as an example, between state and federal excise taxes, liquor is taxed at a rate of $20 per gallon of 50% alcohol. So to say that our own government is completely disentangled from “vodka politics,” would be inaccurate.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    This is how you write if you have a passion for one theme or idea. You collect lots of interesting facts and tell about them from one perspective even if this perspective would be considerate as marginal in a wholesome discourse when talking about specific themes. I wouldn't see a problem in this if the main idea (alcohol as a mean for authoritarian regime to control Russian society) would be weaker. Even though the Author in some pages says otherwise, the whole book suggests that without vodka This is how you write if you have a passion for one theme or idea. You collect lots of interesting facts and tell about them from one perspective even if this perspective would be considerate as marginal in a wholesome discourse when talking about specific themes. I wouldn't see a problem in this if the main idea (alcohol as a mean for authoritarian regime to control Russian society) would be weaker. Even though the Author in some pages says otherwise, the whole book suggests that without vodka (let's add also other means of intoxicating materials to nowadays world) authoritarian regime would fall. And here I see a person form old democracy speaking. I also see American/English rhetoric in some statements; e.g. in last chapter the author states that more people died of vodka after the collapse of Soviet Union (~600 000) than of nine wars in XVIII century Russia. What can I learn from this information? The same that I can learn from the fact that there were less citizens in Ancient Greece that in modern Greece. That's right, nothing. On the other hand, the facts collected were interesting and some interpretations really deserves overthinking afterwards. It is just the persistence that without vodka Russia would change drastically..

  17. 4 out of 5

    Karla Winick-Ford

    Informative. I was flabbergasted at Russian history not taught when I was in school. From Ivan the terrible, Peter the great, Nicholas the drunk (and sober) to Yeltsin... and the Imperial Russian Army under an influence was just staggering. The infrastructure which supported these actions, while intolerable poverty occurred is just unfathomable. The bloodthirsty leaders who often were paranoid due to lack of clarity was often romanticized. I had to look deeper into samogon poisoning, as I had th Informative. I was flabbergasted at Russian history not taught when I was in school. From Ivan the terrible, Peter the great, Nicholas the drunk (and sober) to Yeltsin... and the Imperial Russian Army under an influence was just staggering. The infrastructure which supported these actions, while intolerable poverty occurred is just unfathomable. The bloodthirsty leaders who often were paranoid due to lack of clarity was often romanticized. I had to look deeper into samogon poisoning, as I had thought the concept of moonshine and bootlegging were only in American history. (Again, as an adult, the history we learn is often very different). It was enlightening.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alexi

    Amazing One of the best books I have read in a while. While long, it was always an interesting read, well researched, superbly narrated, offering a unique and interesting perspective on major events in Russian history. While stressed enough in the book that vodka is but one of the factors playing a role, I can’t help but feel converted that it had an important role that was generally omitted. Watching Russian historical movies I now see that vodka is an indispensable part of storytelling. Can’t r Amazing One of the best books I have read in a while. While long, it was always an interesting read, well researched, superbly narrated, offering a unique and interesting perspective on major events in Russian history. While stressed enough in the book that vodka is but one of the factors playing a role, I can’t help but feel converted that it had an important role that was generally omitted. Watching Russian historical movies I now see that vodka is an indispensable part of storytelling. Can’t recommend highly enough this book.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jocelyn mel

    Really interesting material and well researched. It explains so much about Russian economy and history. Exemplary job of stitching together facts and figures. This book should be discussed a lot more. His thesis is unpopular in any country, let alone Russia. But it's a critical topic to surface in the light of day. With data.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Massimo Gioffre

    Russians drink a lot of vodka. During the Russian history there've been few attempts to mitigate this attitude. This might be true, well.. maybe it's true. Nevertheless to say that there's been a constant politic ment to transform the entire population of Russia in drunkards it seems sci-fi

  21. 5 out of 5

    VladimirPutain

    too long and too scattered

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mikehendo

    Wow, having written an MA on Japanese history and politics that touched on the Russo-Japanese War, this book was eye-opening.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    Lots of interesting history but I found it a little too neat and tidy to blame government for alcohol abuse, and it did not ring true based on my alcohol experiences.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Meg Northrup

    Both highly informative and entertaining. My favorite sections were about Peter the Great and Stalin’s respective drunken spectacles. The more sobering chapter on demographic decline and the “Russian cross” were also highlights. My only major complaint is that despite the wealth of great information and historic context, the argumentation in this book was borderline sloppy. I found myself irritated at the author’s tendency to shoehorn every vodka anecdote or statistic into an explanation for alm Both highly informative and entertaining. My favorite sections were about Peter the Great and Stalin’s respective drunken spectacles. The more sobering chapter on demographic decline and the “Russian cross” were also highlights. My only major complaint is that despite the wealth of great information and historic context, the argumentation in this book was borderline sloppy. I found myself irritated at the author’s tendency to shoehorn every vodka anecdote or statistic into an explanation for almost everything in Russian history. Even when something or someone didn’t fit the pattern (Catherine the Great discouraging hard drinking, for example), it would be forced to fit through a round-a-bout explanation (I.e. “some people were drunk during the coup that brought her to power, therefore her entire reign was tainted by vodka”). It felt clunky and certainly was unnecessary to convince readers that vodka has played an outsize role in Russian society and politics. 3.5/5

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ari

    Vodka is an iconic Russian product; drunkenness a stereotypical Russian vice. This book explores the socio-economic context for Russian drinking, and particularly the vodka trade. The author is an academic historian, but does a very good job of curbing the bad habits of academic writing. There are summaries of previous works, but these are kept reasonably contained and there is no heavy-handed methodological apparatus. The book is arranged partly thematically, partly chronologically. This works r Vodka is an iconic Russian product; drunkenness a stereotypical Russian vice. This book explores the socio-economic context for Russian drinking, and particularly the vodka trade. The author is an academic historian, but does a very good job of curbing the bad habits of academic writing. There are summaries of previous works, but these are kept reasonably contained and there is no heavy-handed methodological apparatus. The book is arranged partly thematically, partly chronologically. This works reasonably well -- we start with a history of vodka-in-the-palace, and then zoom out to examine cultural context, economics, and so forth. The author does a good job explaining the importance and unity of the topic. The vodka trade (first as tax farm, later as excise tax, finally as state monopoly) was a huge slice of government revenue, averaging something like a third of all state revenue. This meant that the Russian government had enormous economic incentives to get the population to drink and keep on drinking. There was also social pressure to drink, not only directed against the peasants, but within the elite. From Ivan the Terrible through Stalin, the government of Russia or the USSR has often been something of a frat party from hell. Tsars and general secretaries alike secured their rule with alcohol. State banquets was compulsory attendance for the elite, and these events had astounding levels of drinking. Family, nobles, and even ambassadors were forced to drink until sick -- with the supreme leader listening for any indiscretions that were let slip. Moreover, any crimes or misdeeds committed during the bacchanals would estrange the offender from his other social support system and tie him more closely to his fellow drinkers. Trying to abstain would be met with violent compulsion. Worse, there were the drinking games. Peter the Great apparently had a game in which he would line up 20 condemned prisoners, and take a shot for each one he beheaded. He tried to compel foreign visitors to play along. This might be the best work of history I have read written by a junior professor. I learned a great deal, and the book held my interest and nothing grated.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Tollemache

    An eye opening book that was thoroughly entertaining and informative. Mark Schrad seeks to show that ever since vodka came to Russia from Poland about 500 years ago it has had an astounding influence on Russian governance and society. At its core is the discussion of how Russia, whether under the czars, the Soviets or beyond has faced a cruel dilemma. The state's reliance on excise taxes on vodka for anywhere between 10 and 40% of its revenues, is the driving force behind the astounding amounts An eye opening book that was thoroughly entertaining and informative. Mark Schrad seeks to show that ever since vodka came to Russia from Poland about 500 years ago it has had an astounding influence on Russian governance and society. At its core is the discussion of how Russia, whether under the czars, the Soviets or beyond has faced a cruel dilemma. The state's reliance on excise taxes on vodka for anywhere between 10 and 40% of its revenues, is the driving force behind the astounding amounts distilled liquory drunk by Russians. The average amounts for Russians have historically equaled or exceeded what are considered lethal levels. The staggering social costs of such societal drunkeness have held Russian development and population growth for centuries. In the rare instances where the state has tried to reign in consumption the loss of revenue for the state has crippled the ruling power. Both the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet collapse in the 1980s can be attributed to the holes blown in the budget by the drop off in vodka taxes. Czar Nicholas II's efforts to impose a near prohibition on vodka on the eve of WWI mortally wounded the Romanovs finances and paved the way for Lenin. Ironically the collapse of the Soviet era can largely be pinned on Gorbachav's attempt to reign in vodka consumption as part of perestroika which combined with the collapse in oil prices in the mid 1980s broke the back of the Soviet govt's earnings right as Afghanistan, Chernobyl and the Armenian earthquake saddled the USSR with enormous monetary needs. I found myself in tears of laughter (I know) reading about the ill fated voyage of the Russian Baltic fleet on its way to annihilation by the Japanese Navy in 1905 in the Tshushima straits. The entire fleet was so shit faced that before it had gotten 3 days out of port in the Baltic Sea it had run aground several ships and almost started a naval war with England when it mistook 40 British fishing boats (and part of its own fleet) in the North Sea for the Imperial Japanese Navy and after firing hundreds and possibly thousands of shells it managed to sink one trawler, killing 3 Brits.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Danielle Spalenka

    I enjoyed this concise review of Russian history and the unique perspective how vodka consumption has shaped this country's history. The intimate details of drinking in the inner circles of Soviet Russia were really fascinating. What was particularly intriguing was learning how vodka became the drink of Russia and how the government-owned taverns really dominated how the country was run. Seeing how vodka has shaped nearly every major event in Russian history as really insightful and was backed b I enjoyed this concise review of Russian history and the unique perspective how vodka consumption has shaped this country's history. The intimate details of drinking in the inner circles of Soviet Russia were really fascinating. What was particularly intriguing was learning how vodka became the drink of Russia and how the government-owned taverns really dominated how the country was run. Seeing how vodka has shaped nearly every major event in Russian history as really insightful and was backed by some amazing research. I thought there were sections where the concept of "vodka politics" was belabored and overdone, though.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    May 10, 2014 I've given up and just skimmed through the rest of the book. It's well-written, and clearly thoroughly researched, and is a fantastic perspective on Russia, it's just not for sitting down and reading for fun. If I ever write a research paper on some aspect of Russian history though, this will be the first book I reach for. Dec 23, 2013 I won this book through Gooodreads, and I'm making very slow progress. It's interesting, but it's SO LONG and I have lots of homework. My minor is hist May 10, 2014 I've given up and just skimmed through the rest of the book. It's well-written, and clearly thoroughly researched, and is a fantastic perspective on Russia, it's just not for sitting down and reading for fun. If I ever write a research paper on some aspect of Russian history though, this will be the first book I reach for. Dec 23, 2013 I won this book through Gooodreads, and I'm making very slow progress. It's interesting, but it's SO LONG and I have lots of homework. My minor is history, so I'm really enjoying the bits I have time for.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rawda

    This was such a fascinating and an eye-opening read. This book presents an insightful, accessible overview of Russian political history, through the lens of alcohol. Vodka Politics by Schrad is one of those books you just have to read if you want to to understand Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Schrad relies in equal measure on anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate that the extent of vodka’s influence across the history of the empire has been utterly tragic. Russians and vodka are nearly insepara This was such a fascinating and an eye-opening read. This book presents an insightful, accessible overview of Russian political history, through the lens of alcohol. Vodka Politics by Schrad is one of those books you just have to read if you want to to understand Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Schrad relies in equal measure on anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate that the extent of vodka’s influence across the history of the empire has been utterly tragic. Russians and vodka are nearly inseparable in the global consciousness.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    Neat idea and an interesting book. The beginning was sort of poorly organized and it took a little while for it to slip into a chronology. The most annoying part was the author dropping the title into every chapter multiple times. "That's vodka politics..." "Another case of vodka politics..." "The Russians rule...by vodka politics..." And other cutesy ways of trying to drop it in became increasing grating as I read.

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