Dr. Mark Schrad’s latest book titled Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy and the Secret History of the Russian State is like “beer goggles” for Russian history, though through them, much becomes clear about Russia’s troubled past and present. Last Wednesday November 13th, Dr. Schrad, a Political Science professor here at Villanova University gave a lecture as part of the “Scholarship @Villanova University” series in Falvey Library. The series is designed to give recognition to scholarly publications, ongoing research, and other intellectual contributions from Villanova faculty.
In his lecture, Dr. Schrad first discussed the “drunken Russian stereotype.” Russians consume 15.7 L of alcohol per capita which amounts to two bottles of vodka plus thirteen beers ever week for the “average” drinker. Many people say that this is extreme consumption of alcohol is something inherently Russian, but Dr. Schrad argues that it is a culture which results from “political and economic decisions made at the heart of autocratic statecraft which encouraged this drunken excess.”
Vodka Politics begins with Stalin and his politburo. The bunch is also depicted on the cover of the book. Stalin was notorious (for many things but specifically relating to Vodka Politics) for forcing his coworkers to come to dinner parties and drink to excess well into the night. He did this partly for amusement, but, fearful of subversion, did so also to keep them weak and to draw-out their honest intentions. They would be barely able to function at work the next day.
“They look like they are all drunk in this picture,” Dr. Schrad remarked, “They have to hold Beria up and Khrushchev has his pants up to his nipples.”
At the time, the government had a monopoly on Vodka, and that it made up a third of the state’s revenue. He would encourage people to drink so that the state would not go bankrupt. He explained that this reliance on vodka kept the population drunken and divided, and therefore unable to pose a threat to his rule. This created an anemic civil society and became a form of enslavement worse than that by the nobles the communists worked so hard to overthrow.
But Dr. Schrad pointed out that this was not just a problem of the Stalinist era. The next chapters of his book take a journey through Russian history starting from Ivan the Terrible. He commented on the personal uses of vodka and alcohol by Russia’s rulers (according to Dr. Schrad, Peter the Great drank the most, by far) but also on the ways these rulers used alcohol to advance their own political agendas. For example, many of Russia’s empresses like Catherine the Great used alcohol to win over troops.
He also described of an incident where drunken Russian sailors almost caused a war with Britain. During the disastrous Russo-Japanese war, the Russian government had the brilliant idea to send a naval unit out and round the horn of Africa to meet the Japanese, before the Japanese could come to Russia. On the way, they encountered a group of ships they believed to be the Japanese coming to get them. They opened fire. The ships turned out to be British fishing vessels. Clearly alcohol played a role in this erroneous decision. In Vodka Politics, Dr. Schrad explains the role of vodka in Russia’s disastrous performance in its wars.
Finally, Dr. Schrad revealed the “Russian Cross” and the problems Russia faces after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of which stem from vodka and the corruption it fosters. The Russian cross is the phenomena unique to post-Soviet Russia, where the population’s birth rate fell below the death rate. Dr. Schrad calls this tragedy which Russia is experiencing as “demodernization.”
To understand this crisis, we need only remember these three numbers: 58.5, 13.5, and 16.5. According to data from the 1990s, 58.5 was the average male life expectancy. Russian men die 13.5 years earlier than Russian women, and 16.5 years earlier than European men.
“At first I thought, ‘How could the Russian government endorse something that has such a terrible impact on the people of the country?’” Nicki Schluter, a sophomore engineering student reflecting on this crisis, “but when I learned that the Russian government and economy depended so heavily on the vodka sales, that really put it into perspective for me. This isn’t just about Russians liking vodka, it’s about the entire country depending on vodka. So I can understand why they have developed such a problem with it today.”
As for forecasts into Russia’s future, Dr. Schrad remarked that the opportunity cost resulting from this crisis may mean that the damage is already done. Comparing Russia’s population growth as predicted before the fall of the Soviet Union to those conducted afterwards, Russia’s current population lacks 55 million people. This is truly a tragedy.
This lecture was only a very brief preview of all that Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy and the Secret History of the Russian State has to offer.
“After taking Dr. Schrad’s Russia PSC 4401 class last Spring, I found this lecture to be thoroughly engaging and stimulating,” said Divakar Lal, a senior Biology major, “He has a wonderful way of presenting this unique topic to captivate the casual audience member while also engaging those with a greater fascination for the intricacies of the Russian vodka culture. It was a great prelude to the book’s release, one which I think will be met with a great reception by the public.”
If you are interested in more analysis of the way vodka and alcohol has influenced Russia or in many more anecdotes about drunken Russian statesmen, you can preorder the book on amazon.com
By Elena Giannella ’15