The art of distilling vodka appeared sometime late in the 14th or early 15th century in territory occupied by Slavs. Lack of documentation concerning its origins has given rise to disputes among Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and others as to which people were the first to produce vodka. The distillation process was probably introduced from the West by way of Hanseatic merchants trading in Novgorod or by mercenaries from Europe. Another theory is that the Genoese, settled in the Crimea, introduced aqua vitae and thus unveiled to eastern Slavs the secret of distillation. Slavs had long mastered the fermentation process and could make beer (braga) and mead, but now they could use fermented grain—and later potatoes and sugar molasses—to distill the more powerful spirits.
Because vodka was originally called by various names, including wine (vino) before it was consistently referred to as vodka, it is difficult to trace vodka's first appearance in the written record. Some scholars argue that the Polish word wódka can be found earlier than the word vodka, both denoting “little water.” Whoever its inventor, vodka soon took hold in Slavic lands. Rulers soon understood it was a powerful tool for control and revenue raising. In 1474, Ivan III (1440–1505) established the first state vodka monopoly, relying heavily on vodka tax revenues to wage his wars of conquest, the success of which bestowed on him the title The Great. His successor, Ivan IV The Terrible (1530–84), battling the old nobility and creating a new class of supporters (oprichniki), gave them land and a monopoly over eight vodka taverns (kabaki) to ensure their loyalty.
Perhaps no tsar utilized vodka as a tool of control more than Peter I The Great (1672–1717). He rewarded foreigners and friends with copious draughts of vodka and punished offenders by forcing them to drink a half-liter goblet of vodka (the eagle), frequently causing them to slump senseless or drop dead. He found an outlet for his own voracious thirst by creating a Drunken Council of Fools and Jesters, a band of close friends with whom he paraded disguised as clerics before partaking of boisterous bouts of drinking.
Abstemious Catherine II The Great (1729–96) abolished the state monopoly and auctioned a limited number of licenses to merchants and gentry to produce and sell vodka at set low prices. To recoup their considerable outlay for the licenses and high transportation costs to carry vodka to taverns, the so-called tax farmers adulterated the vodka, watering down the 40 percent alcohol drink two or three times and adding salt, pepper, and even unhealthy additives. Now that nearly everyone, including serfs, had access to vodka, the market expanded greatly. By 1769, vodka sales amounted to more than 49 percent of the state's revenue from indirect taxes. As the population became dependent on vodka, so too did the treasury, leading to the constant tension between the state's fiscal interests and clerical concern for public morality and order at first and later that of physicians' for public health.
As early as 1551, the Orthodox Church railed against drunkenness in monasteries and taverns. Foreign travelers, even those from places with high consumption of alcohol, were astounded by the prevalence of public drunkenness in Russia. In conjunction with the reforms accompanying the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the tax farming system was abolished in 1863 in favor of simple excise taxes on vodka sales except for a brief period between 1819 and 1827 when a state monopoly was restored. In 1894, Minister of Finance Sergei Witte advanced the argument that public drunkenness and poor health caused in part by adulterated vodka necessitated the restoration of the state monopoly of vodka, which expanded to the entire empire by 1902 but which did not curb excess drinking, as noted by numerous temperance societies founded by clergy, doctors, teachers, and the military. Revenue from vodka sales increased so that by the 20th century it formed nearly one-third of total revenues.
Vodka became, as the peasants claimed, the Russians' second doctor—the first being the bath and the third being garlic. No birth, baptism, wedding, calling up of an army recruit, or funeral could be marked without serving vodka. Nor could any business deal be sealed without sharing the fiery spirits. Hospitality required serving guests vodka no matter how humble the home. Even though vodka enlivened the punctuation marks of the life cycle, the agricultural season dictated the rhythm of drinking. A predominantly agricultural economy well into Soviet years, Russia had a short growing season (about four months) that required intense work, affording neither the leisure nor the cash to indulge in drink. Not coincidentally, only in the fall and winter, after the crops were in, stored, or sold, and the cash obtained, did peasants celebrate most religious and national holidays. Frequently, the merrymaking lasted three days, leading to a pattern of binge drinking.
Late in the 19th century, as Russia began to industrialize and workers got pay packets regularly, the rate of drinking accelerated. Some semblance of drinking solely to celebrate an event or occasion remained, no matter how thin the pretext, and the familiar binge pattern led to the notorious Blue Monday when workers had a huge hangover only to be nursed by more nips at work.
Just as drinking vodka was not a random event, so, too, was it accompanied by a certain protocol. Vodka should be consumed only with food, no matter how poor the budget (bread or a pickle would suffice). Among the more affluent, smoked fish, pickled mushrooms, dainty cheese or meat pastries, and other delectable zakuski (snacks) graced a table set out with a wide variety of vodka—some infused with herbs, pepper, grasses, or berries. Drinking vodka continued throughout the meal; each charka or stoppa (small glass) always downed in one gulp called de rigueur for a toast. Because vodka was such an important item in the life of the wealthy, those who could afford it possessed beautiful charkas, some fashioned by Fabergé of cloisonné, silver, or enamel. Carafes and vodka glasses of crystal with silver ornamental lids also adorned the zakuski table, whereas peasants decorated their vodka cups as best they could.
The theme of vodka consumption—most often excessive imbibing—also inspired Russian art in the 19th century. By the second half of the century, a school of painters called Peredivizhniki (the Wanderers) rebelled against the classical school of painting and took their realistic depictions of everyday life on the road for exhibition. One of them, Vasily Perov (1833–82), painted several scenes critical of clerical drunkenness as well as drunkenness of the peasantry such as in The Easter Procession (1862) and A Meal at the Monastery (1865). During the Soviet period, graphic arts were enlisted to urge sobriety, including a colorful satirical poster The Reign of Nicholas the Last (ca. 1919) by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), accusing Nicholas II (1868–1918) of addicting the people to vodka through the state monopoly of vodka. The Soviet period produced a huge output of temperance posters when the regime made a feeble effort to stem the tide of alcoholism while at the same time making state-produced cheap vodka widely available to finance massive industrialization programs. Because consumer goods were in perennial short supply, Soviets had rubles to spare for drink.
Russian literature before the Russian Revolution is saturated with vodka references. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81) incorporated the consequences of excessive drink in many of his novels such as Crime and Punishment (1866), originally titled The Drunkards. Ivan Turgenev (1818–83), although less of a moralist than some of his contemporaries, nonetheless depicted vodka embedded in daily life in his realistic novels. Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) for a while practiced as a country doctor. As a sharp observer of people, he wove into his numerous short stories perceptive vignettes that allow the reader to understand the place vodka occupied in Russian lives.
In his old age, the great writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) became an ardent advocate of temperance, declaring that drink was the root of all evil, and founded his own temperance society. He advocated putting skull and crossbones on every bottle of vodka with the inscription “poison” on it. In his novel Resurrection (1899), he was highly critical of the jury system, the Orthodox Church, and rampant alcoholism, among other subjects. Alexander Kuprin (1870–1939) depicted the astounding amount of vodka consumed by bored junior officers in his famous novel The Duel (1905). Soviet Realism marked the works of socialist playwright and novelist Maxim Gorky (1868–1936) whose work spanned the period before and after the 1917 revolution. Certainly, The Lower Depths (1902) and Mother (1906) depict some of the seamier side of Russian life, including alcoholism.
Alcoholism during the Soviet period was a touchy subject because theoretically it was supposed to disappear with the end of bourgeois society so that writers could not focus their attention on evident public drunkenness. A manuscript smuggled and published abroad (samizdat) in the 1970s was Venedikt Erofeev's paean to inebriation titled Moscow to the End of the Line, which is now something of a classic. It could not be published in the Soviet Union until 1989 during perestroika (the period of restructuring or reforms) under the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–), who famously attempted to curtail vodka consumption between 1985 and 1988. Gorbachev followed, to a limited extent, the example of Nicholas II who decreed Prohibition in August 1914 on the eve of Russia's entry into World War I. Allegedly, one of the chief reasons Russia lost the war to tiny Japan in 1905 was that recruits reported to duty in an inebriated state, drunk sailors were caught off guard when the Japanese attacked Port Arthur, and the Russian troops were not sober during the Battle of Mukden. Nicholas did not want to repeat such scenes. Unfortunately, the timing for sobriety was not propitious. The treasury lost one-third of its revenue so that initially some Russian troops had to go to the battlefront without guns or even boots until the Allies helped supply them and domestic production increased.
Prohibition did not kill the demand for vodka, however, so peasants produced samogon (moonshine) for ready customers. Grain was converted into vodka not only because it sold well but also because the rolling stock was in short supply. The limited number of railroad cars for the most part was dedicated to carrying troops to the front and returning the wounded to Moscow. The far-off capital, St. Petersburg, whose marshy terrain did not admit easily to grain growing, began to suffer severe shortages of breadstuffs and flour—so much so that by February 1917, a war-weary population began to revolt, ending in the abdication of Nicholas II (ugly rumors were circulated concerning Nicholas II and his wife Alexandria and the mismanagement of the war effort). As commander in chief, the tsar was blamed for military loses and his wife Alexandra (1872–1918) for disastrous direction of the home front with unsavory ties with the dubious, self-proclaimed monk Rasputin and incompetent government ministers. Eight months after the tsar's abdication, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) took power as a Bolshevik leader. He retained Prohibition. Realizing that it was critical to keep the people fed to maintain peace, he ordered that moonshiners be shot. Soon after the death of Lenin, alcoholic beverages weaker than vodka were reintroduced on the market. By the time Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) came to power, he decided he needed to step up vodka production to finance his massive First Five Year Plan (1928–32) for industrialization.
The state monopoly of vodka continued to bring in much revenue until Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007), a heavy drinker, abolished it in 1991 in favor of a free market after the fall of the Soviet Union, whereupon the country was flooded with cheap vodka from abroad. Russian distilleries now are the largest producers of vodka in the world. Russians per capita are by far the highest consumers of vodka than anywhere in the world. A few Russians have become enormously wealthy producing it for domestic and foreign sales. Vodka outsells all other spirits worldwide and continues to grow at a robust pace.
Alcoholism, already high during the Soviet period, markedly increased after 1991, so much so that in 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev (1965–) proclaimed it Russia's “national disaster.” President Vladimir Putin (1952–), a moderate drinker, has attempted to address the relatively low life expectancy for Russian men by raising excise taxes on beer and vodka. Experience has shown during Prohibition and Gorbachev's sobriety campaign that if prices for vodka are too high, samogon will reappear on the market and (even more damaging to health) some alcoholics will resort to dangerous surrogates such as eau de cologne, shoe polish, window cleaning solvents, and de-icers, resulting in an even higher rate of alcohol poisoning and premature death.
Russian rulers for more than 600 years have known how to use the distribution of vodka as a tool for gaining power and revenue. The natural tendency for strong rulers has been to establish a state monopoly to ensure such power and wealth. Because of the northern displacement of Russia beyond vine-growing territory, powerful vodka became ingrained in Russian folkways, customs, and traditions and is essential for merrymaking and life's celebrations. Perhaps vodka aided to relieve the monotony of a hard agricultural life, or perhaps it was used in a vain attempt to generate heat. Over the centuries, its use has become woven into the fabric of Russia's culture, stubbornly resistant to eradication.
For many Russians, vodka consumption does not present a problem, but the young male cohort of the population appears to be peculiarly vulnerable, contributing to the ongoing “demographic crisis.” Cultural shifts are generally slow, but they do occur. Diminished consumption of tobacco in the United States over several generations is one example. When peer pressure demands moderate consumption of vodka in Russia, male longevity is bound to rise.
See Also: Aqua Vitae; Binge Drinking, History of; Europe, Central and Eastern; Poland; Russia; Temperance Movements; Toasting; Ukraine