Vodka or Ruin

Did you know that Russia had a Prohibition Era for alcohol during some of the same years as the U.S. did?

In the U.S., Prohibition took effect in 1920. In Russia, it started a few years earlier, during World War I. But during the first half of the 1920s, the country desperately needed the money from alcohol sales, so they began allowing it again in stages:

  • August 1921: Sale of wine legalized
  • 1922: Sale of beer legalized
  • January 1923: Sale of drinks up to 20% legalized
  • December 1924: Sale of drinks up to 30% legalized
  • August 1925: Sale of vodka up to 40% legalized

As this 1922 New York Times Magazine article noted, the issue was less about sin and vice, and more about finances.

The question, in Russia at least, is not a moral but an economic one. The Russian Government needs the money, and the $500,000,000 of annual revenue that the old Imperial Government made out of the vodka monopoly looms large in the eyes of the present regime, in view of the shortage of gold to stabilize Russia’s exchange and so enable the country to resume world trade.

In the U.S., Prohibition was eventually repealed in 1933 because most people felt the experiment didn’t work. In Russia, though, many felt their experiment had worked. Repeal there came about much more reluctantly, out of a sense of financial necessity. Per the 1922 article again:

“No intelligent man in Russia wants to go back to vodka,” the Secretary of President Kalinin declared. “It was a terrible curse and worked incalculable harm to the Russian people — a shameful partnership between the Government and drunkenness in the old days. But the lack of the tools of economic reconstruction is also driving Russia backward along the road of civilization. One has to choose between two evils — economic ruin, or the return of vodka and with it an income that will make it possible for the Government to buy abroad what we must have to get the country on its feet again. The President favors the return to vodka, not because he wants it, but because he can see no other way.”

More recently, some Russian eastern territories have banned the sale of alcohol within 300 meters of military recruitment offices. Excessive drunkenness among soldiers has become too large a problem, particularly during the past eight months’ invasion of Ukraine.

Vodka or Ruin

Published: Sunday, October 22, 1922

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