Prohibition in Russia

By George Kennan

[The Outlook; December 16, 1914]

Never before, perhaps, in the history of mankind has the prohibition of intoxicating liquor been so complete and effective as it has been in Russia since the outbreak of war, and never before, certainly, has the world had such an opportunity to see what results total abstinence may bring about, in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, prohibition has often been attempted; but it never had a fair trial, for the reason that it has never anywhere been effective. In our own country the sale of alcoholic liquor has often been forbidden in particular States or localities; but there were always illicit manufacture and sale; there was always importation into territory that was "dry" from territory that was "wet," and there was always more or less secret distribution and consumption. For these reasons prohibitionists have not been able to justify conclusively their attitude toward drink by pointing to the sociological results of total abstinence! Prohibition has never been successfully enforced; the sale and consumption of intoxicants have never been completely stopped; and total abstinence over a large area has never existed. Now in Russia for the first time we have an opportunity to see what nation-wide prohibition may accomplish, and what the sociological results of total abstinence may be.

Drunkenness in Russia has been more disastrous, perhaps, socially and economically, than in any other country of Europe. Eight or ten other nations consume more alcohol per capita than the Russians do; but in no other country is the consumption so injurious to the individual, to the community, and to the state. This is due to two causes, both closely related either to the manner of drinking or to the place of consumption:

1. It will be obvious, upon reflection, that the evil consequences of drink are largely dependent upon the way in which the liquor is consumed. A, for example, imbibes, say, five gallons of alcohol per annum, but divides it into about a thousand drinks, taken regularly every day at intervals of three or four hours. He never consumes enough at one time to intoxicate him, he never loses his judgment or self-control, and he seldom acts irrationally or commits crime under alcoholic influence. B, let us suppose, consumes exactly the same quantity of liquor, but divides it into only twenty portions, taken at time intervals of from two to three weeks. He drinks from a pint to a quart whenever he drinks at all, and consequently becomes drunk, loses control of his faculties, and sooner or later, in one of his periodical sprees, beats his wife, sells his property at half price, sets fire to an enemy's house, or commits some crime which brings ruin upon him and his family. Each of these two men consumes the same quantity of alcohol per annum, but the consequences in the two cases are wholly different. A escapes with physiological damage only, while B suffers not only the same bodily injury, but in addition thereto social and economic ruin, B's method of drinking is that of the Russian peasant; and this is one of the reasons why drunkenness in Russia is more common and disastrous than in many other countries where the per capita consumption of liquor is much greater.

2. The second reason for the demoralizing effect of vodka-drinking in Russia is related to the place of consumption. Since the Government established the vodka monopoly it has sold liquor on the dispensary plan only. The purchaser may not buy less than a bottle, and he is forbidden to drink it on the premises. He therefore, consumes it on the street, or, more commonly, takes it home and drinks it there. He thus carries it to his wife and children. Formerly there was very little intoxication among Russian women. The muzhik drank in the kabak, or village grog-shop, and that was a place where the women and children did not often go, unless they went there to bring home their intoxicated husbands and fathers. The dispensary system abolished the kabak and almost inevitably forced vodka-drinking into the peasant households. The drunken husband often compelled or persuaded his wife and children to drink ("it made them behave in such a funny way!"), and the evil gradually spread to the families, and then, to the public schools. Drunkenness among women became more and more common, and investigations made a year or two ago showed that in some public schools forty per cent of the pupils, both boys and girls, drank vodka more or less regularly, if not habitually. Russian life, or a large part of it, was thus poisoned at its source.

Russian society was fully conscious of these evils, and made every possible effort to limit them; but so long as the Government derived nearly a third of its revenue from the sale of intoxicants it gave no encouragement to temperance movements or temperance societies. On the contrary, it showed a disposition to regard every attempt to restrict the sale of vodka as a crime against the state. Hundreds, if not thousands, of town councils and peasant communes adopted prohibitory resolutions, but they were seldom confirmed either by the local officials or by the higher authorities in Petrograd. Few of them, therefore, became effective, The Government needed a larger revenue for military preparations and adventures, and instead of using the drink monopoly as a means of controlling and restricting intemperance, as was originally intended, it deliberately tempted the people to drink more, in order to swell its receipts.

Commenting last winter on the change in the purpose of the monopoly thus brought about, Count Witte said: "They call me the father of the drink monopoly, and I do not deny it. I am the father of the child that was born in 1903. But I wanted, to make the girl an honest woman, whereas she has been brought up by other persons in such a way that she is now walking the Nevski Prospekt. I intended her for an honest life, and not for one of vice. My heart aches on her account."

When the war broke out, the Government, in order to guard against the possibility of popular disorder during the period of mobilization, decided to suspend temporarily the sale of vodka. As it controlled absolutely both the sources of supply and the means of distribution, it was able to do this with unprecedented effectiveness, and in less than forty-eight hours the drinking of intoxicants practically ceased. Scores of peasants in the towns poisoned themselves to death with wood alcohol, denatured alcohol, or cologne; but vodka could not be had, because the Government controlled the whole supply, and there had been no time to organize illicit manufacture and sale. The closing of the Government dispensaries and the extraordinary results that followed gave not only the temperance workers but an overwhelming majority of the peasants an opportunity to show what they thought of the vodka traffic. Appeals and petitions, begging the Government not to reopen the dispensaries at the end of mobilization poured into the Ministry of Finance from zemstvos, town councils, communes, societies, and individuals in all parts of the Empire. Even habitual drinkers, who knew that vodka was ruining them, but who had not will power enough to let it alone if they could get it, joined in the almost universal cry, "Don't reopen the shops!"

The Czar and his Ministers listened to the voice of the nation. They had suspended the sale of vodka only until the 25th of August (O. S.), but when that day came they continued the suspension until the 1st of October. Then, as the beneficent results of total abstinence became increasingly apparent, and the appeals of the people grew more and more insistent, the Czar and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armies extended the prohibition to the end of the war, and finally made it include not only vodka, but strong wines, light wines, beer—everything. At the same time the Czar himself made public the announcement that the sale of vodka by the Government would never be resumed. Then millions of muzhiks and tens of millions of peasant women crossed themselves devoutly and cried, "Slava Bokhoo!" (Thank God!) .

Nearly four months have now passed since the drinking of intoxicants in Russia ceased, and the results of the reform are so extraordinary as to surpass the expectations even of the most sanguine prohibitionists and temperance workers. Mr. Ivan Zhilkiri, writing in the leading Russian review, "Vestnik Evropa," of Petrograd, says: "All Russia is filled with enthusiasm and gratitude. As if by the waving of a magic wand, drunkenness, debauchery, wild cries, disputing, and fighting have ceased in the streets of both villages and towns. Factories and workshops are filling their orders with promptness and accuracy. In households long accustomed to poverty, strife, drunken quarrels, and blows there are now peace and quiet. The peasant families are even making pecuniary savings, which, although small, are as welcome as they are unexpected: The very face of Russia, long-disfigured by alcoholic excess, seems to have been transformed and ennobled." ("Vestnik Evropa," Petrograd, September, 1914, page 339.)

I have room in this article for only a few illustrations of the social and economic changes that prohibition in Russia has brought about. They are mostly taken from the monthly reviews "Vestnik Evropa" and "Russkoe Slovo," and from the daily Petrograd newspaper the "Reitch," These periodicals, of course, are not prohibition organs, and they treat the results of prohibition just as they would treat any other phenomena of social life.

A correspondent of the "Russkoe Slovo," telegraphing from Viatka, says: "The closing of the Government dispensaries in this city has been followed by a marked decrease in the number of robberies. Hooliganism has almost disappeared, and the police lockups, always filled on bazaar days with drunken men, are now empty. According to a member of the provincial zemstvo, the peasant villages are completely transformed. Drunkenness, fighting, and disorder, so noticeable on holidays and fair days, have ceased."

A correspondent of the same review in Simbirsk says: "The suspension of the vodka traffic has diminished crime in this city by fifty per cent, and hooliganism by ninety per cent. The same results are reported from a whole series of peasant villages in this province."

From Orel the report is: "Prohibition has reduced crime here, as compared with previous months, by eighty per cent. The court-rooms and police stations are empty."

In Voronezh the police state that "in the first half of July, when the vodka dispensaries were open, there were in this city twenty-seven murders or other serious crimes. In the first half of August, when the vodka shops were closed, there were only eight." The detective police of Ekaterinoslav report that "crimes attributable to drunkenness have wholly ceased. Since the beginning of the mobilization there has not been a single case of murder, robbery, assault, or hooliganism; although prior to that time there were more than a hundred every month."

In Ekaterinodar, according to the police, "crime has decreased by ninety-per cent, hooliganism has disappeared, and the town is absolutely quiet."

In Saratof "the monthly average of crimes has fallen from one hundred and thirty to sixty. The asylum for alcoholics is empty. The river stevedores have put on new clothes and are sending money home. Attempts at suicide have ceased."

In Yaroslav "the registers of the justices of the peace show that between the 31st of July and the 28th of August there was brought before the magistrates only one case. In the same length of time before the suspension of the sale of vodka the number of cases often exceeded two hundred."

A correspondent in Kostroma writes: "The number of crimes and offenses in this city in the fortnight prior to the suspension of the vodka traffic was about three hundred. In the first half of August there were only eight."

Writing from Tambof, at a much later date (October 28), a correspondent of the "Reitch" says: "Three months have passed since the sale of vodka ceased, and it is now possible to estimate the extent of the beneficent results that have followed prohibition. The villages of this province, according to the reports of the peasants, have become so changed as to be unrecognizable. Fights, robberies, and fires, they say, have almost ceased. But, without placing too much reliance upon these statements, we may show the results of prohibition by objective facts. According to the records of the procurator's office of the Tambof district, the average number of criminal cases in the month of August for the years 1911-12-13 was 515. In August, 1914 [after the closing of the vodka shops], the number was only 324. This is the lowest criminal rate on record. Information collected and compiled by the Fire Insurance Board of the same district shows that the average number of accidental or incendiary fires in August and September for the five years immediately preceding 1914 was 960. The number in the same months of this year was only 630, which is also the lowest ever recorded. The chief of the Fire Insurance Board adds that this decrease in the number of fires represents a saving of 500,000 rubles in sixty days, or at the rate of 3,000,000 rubles a year. In the Moshansk and Tambof districts, where the number of fires has always been great, the results are still more surprising. During the months of the autumnal holidays last year the number of fires in the peasant villages of these districts was 148. In the same months this year it fell to 65. The police of the "bazaar precinct in Tambof report that the monthly average of arrests has fallen from 300 in previous years to 70 in 1914. The police inspector of another Tambof precinct says that his station-house contains so few prisoners, that he is thinking of offering it to the sanitary authorities for a hospital. The President of the Tambof Zemstvo Board, who has just returned from an extensive trip through the rural districts, says that strange as it may seem, the peasant villages in this time of war show unmistakable evidences of prosperity. The muzhiks are better dressed, their taxes are paid more promptly, and trade in the village fairs has become more active. (Petrograd "Reitch," October 30, 1914.)

It would not be difficult to fill many pages of The Outlook with reports like these, from zemstvos, town councils, peasant communes, charitable societies, and justices of the peace in all parts of the Empire; but, the above quotations are sufficient, perhaps, to show how complete is the economic and sociological transformation that Russia has undergone since the suspension of the liquor traffic.

This, however, is not the only surprise that Russia has given the world since the outbreak of war. Unofficial but apparently trustworthy reports from Petrograd state that vodka, wine, and all alcoholic drinks have been banished from the tables of the Grand Duke Nicholas, and the Russian officers at the front. No one. who as not been with the armies of the Czar in previous wars can fully appreciate the extraordinary importance and significance of this innovation. Many years ago, when the Russian artist Vereschagin was exhibiting in New York his paintings of the Russo-Turkish War, he went through the collection with me, telling me stories and anecdotes about the various pictures. Stopping in front of one that showed a group of officers and the headquarters of the Russian staff in the field, he said: "In that picture, as it was originally painted, the grass in the foreground was covered with empty bottles. When I exhibited it in St. Petersburg, certain high officials objected to the bottles and made me paint them out. But," he added emphatically, "they were there!"

Twenty years later, in Japan a war correspondent who had been with General Kuropatkin's army in Manchuria showed me a large flashlight photograph of a group of Russian officers, twelve or fifteen in number, drinking at a long table on the night before the great battle of Liaoyang. The table was covered with bottles—full and empty, erect and capsized—and the attitudes and expressions of the officers showed that many, if not most, of them were unmistakably drunk. On the back of the picture were the names of the revelers, together with their rank, and opposite more than half of them were the dagger-like crosses which the Russians append to the names of those who are dead. All these had perished in the battle of the following day. I would not speak stingingly or disrespectfully of the men who, whatever their faults, died bravely in action; but in what condition were those officers, after a night of drinking, to meet the cool, sober, clear-eyed and resourceful Japanese?

If the Russian armies in Germany and Austria are fighting more effectively now than in any previous campaign, may it not be because they are led by sober, clear-headed officers, and because the soldiers know it?

In reviewing the results of prohibition in Russia one should not lose sight of the distillers who make most of the vodka and bear most of the burden of the reform. What effect is total abstinence likely to have upon them, and what attitude are they taking toward the threatened destruction of their business? The vodka industry in Russia employs an immense amount of capital and a large number of men. According to a statement made by L. Y. Mozheiko, a prominent representative of the Spirit Manufacturers' Association, there are in the Empire 3,000 distilleries and 500 rectifying establishments which employ 60,000 men and have in the aggregate, an invested capital of 250,000,000 rubles. It could hardly be expected that men who represent an industry of such magnitude would regard the destruction of it with equanimity, even though they might admit the prospective benefit to the people and the state."

In justice to the Russian distillers, however, it is only fair to say that many of them, under the influence of the mental and emotional exaltation that now pervades the Empire, are showing a spirit of patriotic acquiescence and submission. Prince Obolenski, formerly Associate Minister of Finance, and now a large distiller, said recently to a reporter of the Petrograd "Reitch:" "Serious as the matter may be for us, if drunkenness can be eradicated, we distillers are in duty bound to welcome the reform and make every possible sacrifice for it." ("Reitch," September 12, 1914.)

At a convention of distillers held a few weeks ago in Minsk resolutions were adopted virtually recognizing the changed conditions as inevitable, but proposing to ameliorate them, as far as possible, by various business readjustments. It was proposed, for example, to ask the Government for an exclusive concession to manufacture alcohol for use in the arts, and, with the Government's assistance, to extend such use to the lighting of houses and the running of machinery and automobiles. It was also proposed that the Association be given the exclusive right to manufacture denatured alcohol for domestic use and to sell it freely to the people for lighting, cooking, and other purposes. The large surplus stock of potatoes now on hand (4,500,000 tons) might be utilized, it was thought, in the manufacture of starch and in the preparation of dried food for cattle. (Petrograd "Reitch," September 8, 1914.)

When vodka manufacturers show a disposition to accommodate themselves in this way to a radical change in their status, the presumption is that they will not be an insurmountable obstacle in the way of reform. If the Government treats them considerately, relieves them from burdensome excise taxes, helps them to extend the sale of alcohol for other than drinking purposes, and reimburses them, in part at least, for the loss that they must suffer, they will probably submit loyally, if not cheerfully, to the plainly expressed will of the people. But even if they do not, they will find it hard to resist the determination of the Czar.

Just when and how Nicholas II came to take an interest in the temperance question no one certainly knows. The story current in Russia is that, on his way back from the Crimea last year, the Czar insisted on visiting Personally, and without previous announcement, a number of peasant villages. The evidences that he saw there of poverty and demoralization due to intemperance are said to have made a deep impression upon him, and to have satisfied him that something must be done to limit the vodka traffic. This story is probably true; because, in his rescript to M. Bark, the incoming Minister of Finance, in February, last, the Czar referred to these visits, and said they had convinced him that "the success of the vodka monopoly was based on the ruin of the spiritual and economic forces of the people." He therefore directed the new Finance Minister to restrict the operations of the monopoly, and look for other sources of revenue, that should be based "on the inexhaustible wealth of the country and the productive labor of its inhabitants."

Although little or nothing was done in the direction indicated, the Czar's convictions seem to have deepened with further study of the problem, and when, after the outbreak of war, the beneficent results of total abstinence became apparent, and the people had shown, by countless petitions and appeals that they were ready for the reform, he publicly announced that the monopoly was at an end, and authorized the statement that "the sale of vodka by the Government would never be resumed."

Since that time Nicholas II seems to have become an extreme prohibitionist. He now has no tolerance for intoxicating liquor of any kind, and only a few weeks ago he and the Grand Duke Nicholas overruled the whole Council of Ministers on the question, whether the transition from drunkenness to sobriety should not be made gradual by the substitution of beer for vodka. The. Council agreed to reduce the alcoholic strength of the beer to three per cent and to increase the price to twenty kopeks a bottle, but the Czar and the Commander-in-Chief would not have it. Beer as well as vodka must go, at least during the continuance of the war. (Petrograd "Reitch," October 31, and New York "Evening Post," November 16, 1914.)

What the future of Russia will be as regards prohibition no one can possibly predict. It is safe to say that the state vodka monopoly will never be re-established, but there is a chance that the private sale of intoxicating liquor of some kind will be permitted again after the war. Such a result would be deplorable, because Russia now has a unique and absolutely unprecedented opportunity to abolish drunkenness forever. Before the war ends the peasants will be more or less accustomed to total abstinence, and they will have had such overwhelming evidence of its beneficial effects that they will be ready for its continuance. They are ready, in fact, now; and a plebiscite on the question to-day would show a unanimity that would astonish Europe. Russia in these days is often described as "barbarous," "semi-barbarous," or "mediaeval;" but will it not be necessary to modify this characterization if in temperance reform she becomes the leader of the world, and sets an example for all mankind?

A few weeks ago an ardent social worker in Petrograd, inspired by the results of prohibition and the spiritual uplift caused by the war, said, enthusiastically: "We ought to erect a monument to Wilhelm II as a recognition of the service that he has rendered to Russia." ("Vestnik Evropa," September, 1914.) It was a hyperbolic expression; and was not intended, of course, to be taken seriously; but it shows how completely, in the opinion of Russian reformers, the war has changed the conditions of Russian life. That change, it is true, may be only transient; but if the Czar, on the re-establishment of peace, would abolish the sale of alcoholic liquor forever, and at the same time curb his bureaucratic officials, give civil and political equality to all of his subjects, and make reasonable concessions to the spirit of democracy, he might fairly count on the erection of a monument to him in every town and village of the Empire. Such action, unfortunately, cannot be predicted with confidence. More than once Nicholas II has had such an opportunity, but has lost it through weakness, fear, irresolution, or failure to keep faith.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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