Lights and Shades of Russian Prohibition

By George Kennan

[The Outlook, February 17, 1915]

Since my article on "Prohibition in Russia" was written, about two months ago, there have been a few changes in the Russian temperance situation which, although they do not materially affect the general result, are deserving perhaps of notice. They relate chiefly to wine and beer.

For three months after the sale of vodka was forbidden restaurants of the first class and social clubs in Russian cities and towns were allowed to serve wine and beer with meals, and even in some cases to sell these beverages by the case. On the 26th of October, however, the Council of Ministers adopted and the Czar approved a resolution which authorized city and town councils (dumas) to forbid or permit the sale of beer and wine at their discretion. Then began everywhere a struggle in the councils between the extreme prohibitionists on one side and the half-hearted compromisers on the other. The latter argued that total abstinence in such a country as Russia is impracticable, that complete prohibition would result only in the illicit manufacture and secret sale of "moonshine" spirits, and that it would be better, even from the temperance point of view, to allow the moderate use of beer and light wines than to encourage the illicit distillation and secret sale of intoxicants that would be even worse than vodka in their effects.

The prohibitionists, on the other hand, contended that the sale of beer and wine would be merely a cover for the sale of stronger drinks; that much of the so-called "wine" already in use consisted of sixty per cent of alcohol with an admixture of coloring matter and burnt sugar; that scores of intoxicated persons were being arrested in the streets every day; and that it would be impossible to eradicate drunkenness without prohibiting intoxicants of every kind.

The first large city to take decisive and final action upon this question was Moscow. On the 22d of December the Moscow City Council adopted complete prohibition by an open vote of more than three to one amid the applause of a large audience of interested citizens. About a week later (December 30) the Petrograd City Council prohibited all intoxicants, including the lighter beverages, by an open vote of 56 to 39. The gradonachalniks (prefects) of both cities immediately issued orders to the police to stop the sale of beer and wine in all restaurants and clubs, and for the first time in a centuries the two great capitals of Russia—the old and the new—were absolutely "dry." No alcoholic liquor of any kind could be legally procured anywhere, and most of the restaurants either raised their prices for food or made preparations to go out of business.

In other parts of the Empire where city councils have taken action the result has generally been the same. Tambov, Viatka, Ekaterineburg, Ufa, Astrakhan, Samara, Minsk, Ekaterinoslav, and many other towns in both European Russia and Siberia have forbidden the sale of beer and wine, and the example set by Moscow and Petrograd will probably be followed throughout the Empire.

It must not be forgotten that in prohibiting the sale of the lighter beverages Russian towns lose almost as much revenue proportionately as the Central Government does in prohibiting the sale of vodka. Municipalities have hitherto derived a large part of their income from licenses to sell beer and wine, which have been issued to restaurants, traktirs, "wine-cellars," and hotels; and it will be more difficult for them to make good this loss than it is for the Central Government to make good the loss on vodka, because the taxing powers of cities and towns are comparatively limited. The City Council of Petrograd estimates that it will lose at least 500,000 rubles this year on beer and wine licenses alone, and the aggregate loss in all the cities and towns of the Empire will be very great. The determination to eradicate drunkenness, however, is so strong that it completely overrides all financial considerations. Russia seems bound to try the experiment of complete prohibition, and the temper of the people is such that it may possibly succeed.

Unfortunately, however, the Autocrat who enforced complete prohibition in the peasant villages did not think it necessary to abstain from wine himself when visiting his army. A recently published photograph of the Czar, the Grand Duke Nicholas, two grand duchesses, and a group of officers taking luncheon in the field, behind the lines, shows a table covered with bottles after the old fashion. If Nicholas II were the sincere prohibitionist that he seemed for a time to be, he would not have set an example of wine drinking in the army, where total abstinence is at least as desirable and important as it is in the peasant villages.

So far as one can judge from the Russian newspapers, drunkenness in the towns, although greatly reduced, has not been wholly prevented. Substitutes for vodka in the shape of wood alcohol, denatured alcohol, cologne spirits, and varnish have been used more or less extensively by confirmed inebriates; so-called "wines," made of berry juice, burnt sugar, and denatured alcohol, have been obtainable at twenty cents a bottle; and fermented or distilled liquors of various kinds have been illegally manufactured in small quantities and secretly sold. During the three fall months of 1914 the police arrested intoxicated persons on the streets of Petrograd every day, and the number of such arrests often exceeded one hundred. Between the 1st of August and the 14th of December the number of persons treated for acute alcoholic poisoning in a single Petrograd hospital (the Obukhovski) was 1,050, and the forgery of physician's prescriptions for alcoholic liquors or preparations became so common that druggists were finally forbidden to fill such prescriptions without first verifying them by telephone.

In the country, however—that is, in the peasant villages—the state of affairs seems to be quite different. There the drinking of intoxicants has almost wholly ceased, partly because it is more difficult to get denatured alcohol and sixty-per-cent "wine" in the country than it is in the towns, and partly because the peasants regard the war very seriously and have cleansed themselves of the sin of drunkenness, just as a muzhik who is about to die puts on a clean white shirt. Sobriety, in the stress of peril and under the shadow of death, has come to be regarded as a moral and religious duty. Even the peasant women talk more about prohibition than they do about the war, and peasant children ask their mothers, "Will papa always be as he is now?"

Since my previous article on this subject was written scores of district zemstvos (popular assemblies or local legislatures) have been in session, and have not only adopted resolutions favoring absolute prohibition forever, but have declared war on all "moonshiners" and all substitutes for vodka of every possible kind. The most energetic supporters of these prohibitory resolutions are the peasants, while in the ranks of the compromisers are to be found, for the most part, only the officials, the landed proprietors, and the representatives of the petty nobility.

Evidences of the beneficial effects of prohibition continue to accumulate. The efficiency of labor and the savings of labor have increased more than fifty per cent; the peasant population is better dressed and better fed than it has ever been before; and crime, disorder, fires, and "hooliganism" have everywhere decreased. In the communal skhods (a Russian variety of the New England town meeting). the sober and intelligent peasants have acquired for the first time complete supremacy, and are bringing about a great change for the better in village administration. Under the old regime the skhods were largely given up to vodka drinking and quarreling, and the better class of peasants would have nothing to do with them. Now the best men take part in them, village affairs are soberly and intelligently discussed, and appropriations of village money are made for co-operative societies, reading-rooms, and movies. At one of these skhods a village, peasant, speaking on the subject of prohibition, said: "Formerly we had the rule of 'fists,' shouters, bargain-wetters, and drunkards; but since the village became sober these people have lost their power. Now we elect to office men who can read and write, sober men, and thrifty men—most of them members of co-operative societies."

In order to give the readers of The Outlook a clear idea of this extraordinary social transformation, as it appears from the Russian point of view, I translate below an article by K. Voribiof, which was recently published in the Petrograd " Reitch:"'


Our country in general, and our villages in particular, are now living through a most extraordinary period. The spiritual uplift (dukhovnoe podyom) caused by the war and the change from drunkenness to sobriety which accompanied it are bringing about before our eyes a profound change in the psychology, the life, and the economic status of our people. Evidences of this change are everywhere manifest, but they are particularly noticeable in the peasant villages. The Russian village has become so completely transformed that it is unrecognizable. The zemstvo Statistical Bureau of the province of Zimbirsk recently sent out a questionnaire containing a series of inquiries with regard to the effect that the closing of the vodka shops has had on the life of the peasants. In the replies that it has received from its correspondents a vivid picture is drawn of social regeneration. A village priest writes, for example:

"It is difficult to describe in words the transformation that our peasants have undergone since the drinking of vodka was prohibited. They have become better dressed, they are more industrious, and they show more thoughtfulness and intelligence. Even confirmed drunkards have expressed to me their satisfaction with the changed conditions of life. One of these "weak brothers," who formerly was drunk most of the time and who spent in the vodka shops his last pood of flour and the last eggs from his hen-coop, is now making a new gate for his front fence. In the evening he sits at home and discusses further domestic improvements with "the old woman" (his wife), who, for the first time in years, is free from black-and-blue fist-marks. Such a sight is most encouraging. It is touching also to see how another drunkard now walks home—instead of being led home—from the bazaar, and how joyfully he is met by his well-shod and well-dressed children. All that the people think of now is how the reopening of the vodka shops may be prevented and how this happy, sober life may be indefinitely prolonged."

"The prohibition of the sale of vodka," says another correspondent, has affected the life of both peasants and artisans in the most beneficial way. All of their earnings are now spent for useful things or in domestic improvements. In the streets of the village one no longer hears indecent songs or sounds of revelry, and in the families there are now no drunken quarrels or fights. On holidays the village is quiet. The people sit at home in an orderly way and talk about their domestic affairs. You will not see in the streets a single intoxicated man, nor hear a single abusive word. The wives and children of drunkards are praying God to bless the Government which has forbidden the sale of vodka. In a word, since the vodka shops closed the people have been reborn. All now is peace and quiet."

A peasant farmer replies to the questionnaire: "It seems as if people had become different. You don't see men going barefoot in the streets, as formerly. Now everybody is respectably dressed and well shod. In a few days will begin the season of weddings. Heretofore at every wedding we have drunk at least one hundred rubles' worth of vodka. Now we buy a lamb for two rubles, and that ends it. In short, the village people that we used to know have disappeared. We seem to be living in another world. There are no disputes, no fights, no robberies, and no fires. It is as though the people in becoming sober had become cultivated. At the village meetings affairs are discussed with common sense, not with cries and abuse, as heretofore. For this reason decent people are now going to them. Formerly they were attended only by drinking men. The principal subject of discussion now is how to get rid of vodka forever."

From many parts of the province, and from many different groups and classes of people, come scores of similar statements. All welcome the reform, and all describe graphically the beneficent results that it has brought about. With hardly a single exception, the correspondents note a spiritual uplift and a moral regeneration. The effects of such regeneration are most clearly seen in the disappearance of hooliganism, the decrease in crime, and the changed conditions of village life. Here are a few extracts from replies to the Statistical Bureau's questionnaire:

"The whole population is now peaceful and quiet. We don't need policemen to maintain order. Every citizen is himself a preserver of order."

"If the vodka shops are closed forever, the prisons will have no occupants, the insane asylums will be empty, the judges will have nobody to try, and the doctors will have nobody to prescribe for."

"At the present time, our people are cheerful and hopeful. They are taking newspapers, and on holidays these papers are read aloud to crowds, in which, you will see not a few men who were formerly drunkards."

"Life is beginning to show evidences of rebirth, and now we need more schools. It would, be well to make high schools out of the distilleries."

"The poorer people are now saving tens of rubles, and the well-to-do hundreds. Our settlement alone has saved more than a thousand, and in the whole country the savings must amount to milliards."

"Since the abolition of vodka the labor of the peasants has increased in productiveness, and, besides that, the money formerly spent for drink now goes for improvement in economic conditions."

In the province of Simbirsk, the savings from total abstinence amount, approximately, to nine or ten million rubles. That, in years of good harvest, was the sum spent annually for drink. It represents an expenditure of from four to four and one-half rubles per capita, or twenty-five rubles per household. This agrees with the statement of other correspondents, that in the whole population (drinking and non-drinking together) the cost of vodka to the average family was two rubles a month. This shows how considerable are the savings that the closing of the vodka shops has enabled the peasants to make.

"If this measure had come in a year of good harvest," writes one peasant, "we should be able to gild ourselves " (that is, should be wealthy), "and even now, with a bad harvest, and with a war that has lessened the number of workers, there is no great need, because our kopeks are spent for useful things."

Such, in a limited space, is the picture which local observers draw of the change brought about in village life and conditions by the prohibition of the sale of vodka. The results of the reform may be briefly summed up in the following words of a peasant correspondent:

"Sobriety in our village has done a blessed work. It has carried peace and quiet into social life, it has brought gladness to families, it has increased prosperity; and, finally, it has made the peasant better, purer, and more moral, because nothing did so much to lower and ruin him as vodka. Long may sobriety reign in our villages!"

It is difficult, at present, to specify all of the beneficial results that have. followed the sobering of our people ; but there can be no question that they are immense and far-reaching. In them lies a guarantee of full development for our spiritual and economic forces, and an alluring promise of happiness for our native land.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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The Headlong Fury