It’s May Day. That means this week’s History Wednesday is effectively obligated to focus on the old Soviet Union, which always made May Day a big deal. You know, parades, speeches, public appearances of Politburo members, and plenty of red flags to go around. It was a good old time.
Wasn’t it, Товарищ Эасто́я?
Ah, but plenty has been written about May Day already. As for Leonid Brezhnev, he’s about as exciting as a bowl of plastic fruit in a windowless, concrete room. That’s not what I’m going for here.
But what about Russians and vodka? Now there’s a target-rich environment. Let’s do it! Right, so here we go:
When Brezhnev died in 1982 the Soviet economy was basically dead in the water, committed to an arms race it increasingly couldn’t afford and a massive bureaucracy run by dour old men. Brezhnev’s successor as Communist Party general secretary (and therefore as the country’s de facto leader), was one of these old, dour men, Yuri Andropov. The highlight of Andropov’s rule was that he disappeared from public view for months until the Soviets announced his death in 1984.
Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even less interesting than that.
*insert static-filled elevator music here*
Chernenko kicked the bucket after only 13 months at the helm. He was followed by someone I bet you’ve heard of: Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev was willing to do something about the ever-growing clusterfuck that was the Soviet economy. He did so by attempting to address the shortcomings of his notoriously boozy culture and increase revenue at the same time. To wit, shortly after taking power he raised the price of vodka and other alcoholic drinks.
Image credit: ProhibitOnions
Now in statecraft there are several things you simply don’t do. You don’t barf on the Japanese prime minister. You don’t piss off the King of Spain. And you definitely don’t screw with a Russian’s vodka. The policy had a minimal effect on alcoholism statistics and at the same time cost the government billions of rubles in lost revenue.
It may be tempting to dismiss this as a rookie mistake on Gorbachev’s part, but he really should have known better. Lenin attempted to ban vodka altogether, but that proved to be a miserable failure. It took Uncle Joe Stalin, a guy not exactly known for his commitment to civil liberties, to reverse this policy. As for Gorbachev, he quietly lightened up on his policy a couple years later.
“Naturally, we will opt for vodka.”
In the grand scheme of things an abortive effort to regulate alcohol nearly 30 years ago may not seem like much, but it was. It’s been theorized that this policy started a chain reaction of unintended consequences which ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that context, it’s a big freakin’ deal.
It’s important to remember that toppling communism is not what Gorbachev had in mind. What’s more, despite continued international acclaim Gorbachev remains deeply unpopular in Russia. Despite that, attempts to raise vodka prices continue in Russia today.
If you’re so inclined, have a shot of Stoli this May Day. But keep in mind this silly little drink may very well have changed the world.