Did enforced sobriety cause the death of the USSR?
In this short piece I wanted to see if that the Soviet-style Prohibition and the corresponding lack of alcohol had sown the seeds of destruction that actually pulled all of the Soviet republics from Moscow’s control. Below I analyse different consequences of enforced sobriety onto different republics of the USSR.
Well, in 1985 the Soviet government had declared the war on all alcoholic beverages, not just vodka.
The notion that the Russians are the world’s drinking champions is a myth. Just compare annual alcohol consumption in the USSR and France at the time of Gorbachev’s Communist “coronation” (1985):
An average French man then drank 6 litres of hard liquor, 90 litres of wine and 44 litres of beer per year (12.2 litres of pure alcohol). An average Russian fell firmly behind with 10.5 litres of pure alcohol, which translated into 11 litres of hard liquor, 19 litres of wine and 23 litres of beer.
Still the Soviet Union was the alcohol super-state.
Today’s Russia is №1 in production of vodka in the world with mere 1.37 billion litres, followed by the US, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. This number is well below 2.94 billion litres that satisfied the cravings of the Soviet drinkers. Also, the Soviets produced 11% of the world’s wine (3–4th place in the world).
With beer the Soviets fired rather poorly — the country did not even make it in the top 10 despite having the world’s third largest 290 million-strong population (slightly ahead of the 285 million living in the US).
The “Anti-Alcohol Campaign” was launched in 1985 within several months after Mikhail Gorbachev was installed as the Head of the Soviet Communist Party. The initial idea under the authorship of KGB Chief Andropov and Latvian Communist ideologist Arvid Pelshe was to persuade the Soviet citizens to drink less vodka and more beer and wine, and thus to start producing more low-alcohol drinks and open up more wine and beer pubs in the USSR.
But the “hard-liners” in the Gorbachev’s entourage insisted that the country should go for a more drastic reduction of drinking. And so, it went. The moderate directive from the Central Committee of the Communist Party was then taken to the extreme by the lower level administrations:
· Many of the liquor stores shut down permanently and the few remaining were able sell alcohol only from 2 pm until 7pm;
· The prices for vodka more than doubled;
· Production of vodka fell from 2.96 billion litres in 1985 to 0.93 in 1987
· Sugar became a scarce commodity in stores since most of it was bought wholesale or stolen to feed illegal “moon shine” producers;
· The restaurants became “alcohol free zones”;
· The scenes with alcohol (including drinking champagne at New Year’s) were mercilessly cut from movies.
In any case this anti-alcohol campaign destroyed the Soviet Union. But the destruction and the falling apart took different forms in different republics.
I. The Slavic republics — Russia, northern Ukraine and Belarus
The Slavic Republics were the hardest hit. Traditionally the hard-working donors of the Union, the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians used alcohol as a lubricant to ease inter-societal interactions. In the absence of legally available vodka the population increasingly turned to “moon shine”, cheap perfume, glass cleaners and other technical alcohol-containing liquids. Those years were the best years for glue and glass cleaning liquid manufacturers — they enjoyed growth rates of above 30% per year.
II. The Southern Republics — Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and southern Ukraine
The population of these republics suffered dramatical deterioration of life standards due to the mass destruction of their livelihoods — grape growing and wine-making. In Moldova alone 80,000 hectares (or 40% of the total) were mercilessly cut. 265,000 hectares were cut in Ukraine. Plunged into poverty, the southern republic no longer wanted to receive any more “idiotic” directions from Moscow that now seemed totally removed from reality.
III. The Baltic republics — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia
Despite the world’s most popular misconception that the Russians are the world leaders in alcohol consumption, the sober stats prove otherwise. (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/alcohol-consumption-by-country)
Indeed, the Russians do drink a lot — some 10.5 litre of pure alcohol per year. But among the Soviet states the Grand Prize went to Latvia — 12.85 litres, Lithuania — 12.78 litres and Estonia — 10.75 litres. Perhaps, it was the alcohol that kept the poor chaps’ lives tolerable under the Soviet rule. When alcohol was taken out by the short-sighted Mikhail Gorbachev, the Baltics sobered up and returned to their strive for independence and for the right to join their heavily drinking neighbours — the Finns and the Swedes.
IV. The Central Asia republics — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan
The alcohol consumption in the Central Asian republics was moderate but still sufficient to qualify as Haram (or forbidden by the Holy Quran). So, in a sense, alcohol was the only thing that kept the population relatively secular. With alcohol sales restricted, the suddenly “dry” youth tried to return to their Islamic roots. But the lack of knowledge of religion caused by the years on enforced atheism lead to quick radicalization. The result — a total loss of control by Moscow, followed by the decades of turmoil, civil and religious wars.
Thus, every single republic of the Soviet Union, including Russia, had a reason to despise Moscow (as a center of the USSR, not as a capital of Russia, though). And due to another of Gorbachev’s inventions — the “Glasnost” or “Publicity/Transparency” for the first time in decades the people were able to voice their frustration.
In the good times alcohol industry delivered at least 22 billion rubles ($41.4 billion according to the official exchange rate) into the state coffers.These incredible budgetary losses that coincided with the collapse of oil prices, sent the economy of the USSR into free fall. The country fell apart in 1991.